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Stuff Lesbians Love: Rizzo from Grease

Rizzo, from the 1978 musical film Grease, is a hot-headed, rebellious teenager who smokes, drinks, and does whatever she pleases. Stockard Channing played the character of Rizzo when she was thirty three-years-old, having been a teenager in the 1950s, when Grease was set.

There are many reasons why lesbians love Rizzo: she’s a misunderstood, intelligent character who puts up a tough front with an edge of active sexuality. She walks into a room like she owns it and battles social stigma in order to rightfully own her space. Her character’s tension with main character Sandy symbolizes the madonna-whore complex applied to women’s sexuality. Spoiler alert: the dichotomy continues after high school.

There’s also this outfit:

Source: YouTube

Rizzo brings up feminist issues. Many lesbians naturally think about feminism because their romantic lives are detached from men. We empathize with Rizzo because her choice to explore her sexual side, despite gendered expectations, is something we can relate to. While lesbianism isn’t a choice, it is a very brave choice to be open about it.

In the Grease song ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ Rizzo articulates her frustration towards women who act more superior than her for acting virginal. She’s being nasty to Sandy and that’s not cool, sure, but on a deeper analysis, she’s asserting a hard truth with “won’t go to bed ‘til I’m legally wed”: obsessively holding onto your virginity for men (including patriarchal religion) OR mindlessly sleeping with any man who asks are options both controlled by male desire, not yours.

When women intend on pursuing the “madonna” or “whore” route, it’s because we internalize the oversimplification of our desire. It doesn’t take much to brand a woman either side of the dichotomy. In reality, like all women, Sandy and Rizzo are neither “whore” nor “madonna,” but misogynistic judgments force them to fit in one of those two boxes, allocated by their peers and society.

Grease was released at the end of the sexual revolution but it was set just before it began. The sexual revolution was reactionary to feminism in many ways. Second wave feminism, which coincided with the sexual revolution, had a heavy focus on sexual politics. It exposed the way heterosexual sex (and its industries) forcefully suppressed women, including their desire, at a time when pornography and prostitution were being celebrated as acceptable forms of misogynistic oppression because of the sexual revolution’s “anything goes” attitude.

As expected, the sexual revolution framed critical feminist thought about “anything goes” as anti-sex, and this sentiment continues today. Feminists have historically been critical of sexual misogyny — it’s kind of our job. Patriarchal societies enforce hierarchical dynamics between men and women — where sex becomes synonymous with men overpowering women. Feminists who try to sever that connection are cast as frigid prudes. As suffragettes we were “bland” and in 2021 we’re “vanilla” for criticising the way female sexuality is controlled (yes, even under a “progressive” guise). How dare we take the fun out of using sex as another tool to divide and conquer women?!

Anonymous, Plain Things, date unknown. Library of Congress, 1998

How does this relate to Rizzo? Well she is actively sexual but she also respects her own boundaries. She does have a sexual power. She refuses to be the passive receiver of male desire and that’s something lesbians can relate to in 2021. It’s a risk to defy sexual expectations of a woman. Despite being boxed into the “whore” category, she’s just a girl who owns her sexuality as best she can.

I’m not claiming Grease is a feminist movie. It definitely isn’t. While Rizzo’s character exposes the madonna-whore complex and her multidimensional characterization is attractive to lesbians, the film encourages sexual revolution ideology in its ending: Sandy, whose boundaries are pushed by Danny throughout the film, relinquishes her comfortability in order to be with him. Typical of the sexual revolution, her subservience is interpreted as empowering.

Rizzo suffers for being seen as “no good” after having a pregnancy scare, which she sings about in ‘There are Worst Things I Could Do.’ She sings, “there are worst things I could do, I could go with a boy or two…I could flirt with all the guys, smile at them and bat my eyes, press against them when we dance, make them think they stand a chance, then refuse to see it through, that’s a thing I’d never do.” She is punished for giving men what they want while bringing up how there’s a pressure to do so. She’s not perfect; she perpetuates the idea that women who “keep it to themselves” are just as bad, if not worse, than those who “give it up,” rather than destroying the dichotomy completely. However, she offers a rare self-ownership that many female characters aren’t awarded.

Like Anne Donahue writes:

“She refuses to bend to norms that set a double standard for men and women. She won’t be complacent. She won’t wait around for a man if she wants him, she will have sex if she wants, and she also won’t talk shit about anyone who does the same. Also, she feels things. So go right to hell if you think strong, independent people can’t. All this contributes to Rizzo’s heroism. She is complex, and her story is heartbreakingly familiar. And still, for some reason — despite her relatability and the way she articulates the realities of institutionalized misogyny — we focus on Sandy, Danny, and Greased-effing-Lightning.”

Rizzo is loved by lesbians because she has desires independent of men, despite still being impacted by the pressure to succumb to theirs. She’s the equivalent of the “bad boy with a soft heart,” except her character isn’t intended to make women give disrespectful men a chance. She resists misogynistic traditions while being impacted by the contradictory repercussions of progressive misogyny, too. She is powerful, disobedient, and — I’m sure you’ll all agree — should have been a lesbian.

Source: YouTube

You can watch Grease on Amazon Prime.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on aj-kelly.tumblr.com

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