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Fans Have A Lot To Say About How Grease Has Aged

Broadway loves a topical tune. The only problem is that the court of public opinion is an ever-changing beast. Consider "Hamilton," written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which skyrocketed in the cultural zeitgeist for promoting POC talent (and for being full of absolute bops, that's still an acceptable term, right?). However, the consensus has changed to think that the whole production is insensitive to the historical subject matter it covers (via Deseret). Even more recently, "Dear Evan Hansen" rose and fell in equal measure, as noted by The Mary Sue, for glorifying the weaponization of mental health issues.

It's easy to pass this phenomenon off as modern audiences preferring to interface with their art exclusively through complaints. While there's an argument to be made about society's crumbling media literacy (via The Conversation), there's always been a contingent of viewers who have demanded creators hold their stories morally accountable. Perhaps the most controversial musical to be dissected in this way is "Grease," both the 1978 film and the stage musical on which it was based.

While the film is over 40 years old and the cast of "Grease" has long since moved on, the content therein is still heavily debated on how it handles personal identity and sexual abuse. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

First, the defenders

In a subreddit dedicated to cinema, u/Disaster_Master_X posted, "Grease has not aged well ... the music is catchy, and the story hits all those young teen romance notes, but the characters fall flat ... I know I'm not the target generation for this movie, but I'm genuinely curious who this movie appeals to."

Defenders of the film had plenty to say, including a Redditor named u/ceruleanmilie who argued, "Everyone I knew loved Grease. I really don't understand this mentality that everything needs to be tailor-made for you." User u/JamalBeAngry went on a tirade that claimed anyone who disliked the film was brainwashed by liberal ideology. It, uh, went on for quite a while. 

Other Reddit users such as u/markjwilkie said, "When I saw it in the seventies as a youngster, it was a fun bit of escapism with some great songs ... trying to determine the artistic merits of a film when obviously over-aged people play high schoolers, and the main characters fly away in [a] magical car at the end is perhaps taking it too seriously."

Such thoughts are similar to how the stars of "Grease" feel. Olivia Newton-John, who portrayed Sandy, spoke about the issue on the podcast "A Life Of Greatness" in 2021. "It's kind of silly because the movie was made in the '70s about the '50s. It was a stage play, it's a musical, it's fun."

Next, the opposition

Conversely, those who disliked the film outlined their complaints in great detail. The first criticism usually discussed is the ending, depicting Sandy changing herself to match Danny Zuko (John Travolta). Redditor u/adamsandleryabish summed up the issue best by saying, "the ending's 'message' is complicated ... Sandy turning into a 'bad girl' for Danny is obviously bad as she is changing her image but also it could be viewed as she has just grown up and developed her sexual confidence."

As for most of the other criticism, u/andromeda880 listed the constant sexual harassment from the teenage boys and the adults in the story. The most succinct attack came from u/happysadnihilist, who said, "philosophically, artistically, and culturally I find 'Grease' abominable in every way." 

In opposition to the idea that it isn't supposed to be taken seriously, u/nightvisioneyes said, "I watched it a few years back for the first time with a bunch of people (who were watching it for the first time too), and we knew it was a musical and was going to be cheesy and all, but we just felt confused and bored ... the characters weren't good ... [without the laughter] I would have a hard time knowing when they were joking or were serious." 

With this crucial detail in mind, here's the question — if "Grease" was supposed to be a parody of tropes from an earlier era, is it truly a successful movie if it doesn't come across when watching? That being said, the last Redditor didn't accuse the film of propagating ideas but instead failing to clarify its intent. 

Does it really matter which critics are right?

So, does any of this really matter? After all, this is a movie, not codified law or some ideological manifesto. The short answer is that, sure, it can matter, but it depends, and that's where the long answer comes in. Ultimately, the context that "Grease" is an older movie that's a parody of tropes from an even older time isn't widely disseminated knowledge in 2022 (via Social Moms). It's doubtful that all the people comfortable enjoying "Grease" are watching it with the mindset that what's depicted onscreen is supposed to be a social commentary on gender roles and community ills.

Would that change anything for viewers who dislike it? Honestly, probably not. No one has to enjoy a movie, regardless of the content. "Grease" is inarguably divisive, to the point that multiple voices refuse even to entertain the notion of debate. All this talk about "Grease" is, frankly, exhausting. What's more, if anyone's looking for an angsty teenage musical that's an obvious parody of the story it tells, "Cry Baby" is literally right there, people.