Media and Society

I prefer the sequel: Watching Grease 2 in 1990s Spain

Grease 2 (1982), the much-maligned sequel to the film Grease, reverses the premise of the original: responsible, “good boy” Michael, who is Sandy’s English cousin (Maxwell Caulfield) falls for rebel, “bad girl” Stephanie, who is the Pink Ladies’ new leader (Michelle Pfeiffer in her debut). In order to win her over, he disguises himself as the mysterious biker “Cool Rider”, the incarnation of the fantasy Stephanie has described as her ideal guy. Grease 2 had a chaotic shooting and was a failure with critics and audiences. However, it was this sequel the one which left an imprint in my high school friends and me, in A Coruña (Galicia, Northern Spain), back in the 1990s.

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We were sixteen years old. We lived in a working-class neighbourhood, with an (undeserved) reputation for being rough. There was drug dealing and petty criminals, but it was fine if you knew where not to go and whom to avoid. Like in Grease, we attended a state high school (so we had no uniform), secular and mixed (even the PE class). Shockingly, we were allowed to smoke in the main corridor (I did not). The car chases from the first film were alien to us (in Spain, you cannot drive until you are eighteen), but many teenagers had a bike, like in the sequel. Vespa scooters were allowed at age fourteen, without a licence. We used to joke that all bad students had one, as it was the gift their parents promised if they passed.

Despite our high school’s reputation, I was a very boring straight-A student, who always obeyed her parents. However, my parents were Socialist, agnostic and feminist, which could have landed them in jail only a year before I was born. My schoolmates and I were born in 1975, the year democracy started in Spain, after forty years of conservative right-wing dictatorship. We passed from a society where everything was sinful to a society where anything was allowed. The notions of “good” and “bad” changed totally. Rebellion against conventions was not only tolerated, but openly encouraged by the elders. Cinema and TV censorship was abolished.

Grease (1978) had been a hit in my country, especially the soundtrack. I do not think that Grease 2 ever got a cinematic release in Spain, but we belonged to the VHS generation. We discovered this sequel languishing at our local video club. I first watched (and recorded) both films in 1991, when they were broadcasted on TV, dubbed into Spanish. While I did not care much for the first Grease (apart from the music), I watched and re-watched my Grease 2 recorded copy. I even made myself a tape of the soundtrack, using the trick of sticking the cassette recorder to the TV at highest volume (and pray nobody enters the room to make noise). The enthusiasm extended to my friends. One thought it was “more romantic than the original” (she was quite dreamy). Another one burst into a rendition of “Cool Rider” every time anyone mentioned the film. We felt that the characters were nearer to our reality than those in the first Grease.

The social and legal changes brought by democracy in Spain were especially relevant regarding women. Teenage girls’ expected destiny was no longer marriage and a bunch of children, but a job or a university education (fees had become relatively cheap and families did not give priority to boys any more). In my parents’ time, girls were supposed to reach marriage without knowing anything about sex (or pretend they did not know). Teenage boys were expected to marry virgin girls, but previously “satisfy their needs” with “bad women” (or at least brag about doing it, if they did not want to be branded “effeminate”). In contrast, I was taught about reproduction in school at age ten (minus the song). When I was sixteen, during the international AIDS crisis, there was a ground-breaking condoms campaign in Spain: “Póntelo. Pónselo” (“Put it on. Put it on him”). It targeted teenagers and it encouraged girls, not only boys, to take charge of their sexual health. In the TV commercial, a teacher angrily demanded to know whose was the condom he found in the PE class. All the students, boys and girls, stood and shouted, Spartacus style: “Mine!” The campaign was controversial with conservative sectors, but it promoted the idea that sex should be dealt with responsibility and openness, not with shame.

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Sandy and Rizzo were representations of the old-fashioned dichotomy virgin (who reforms the boy) – prostitute (who gets a pregnancy scare), which we did not buy anymore (I doubt even our mothers had). I hated Scott in Neighbours, when he threw a tantrum because he was not Charlene’s first. I was pleasantly surprised by Dirty Dancing, because the blame of Penny’s abortion (legalized in Spain in 1985) was not put on her, but on the man who abandoned her. Besides, Baby slept with Johnny without a tragedy happening. I was shy and innocent, but not as delicate as Sandy. I could not understand why she was attracted to a moron like Danny Zuko. The moment he made fun of her so that he would not lose face with his friends, he was dead to me. I had disliked Travolta’s “bad boys” since watching Saturday Night Fever, in which he basically treated his sexual partners like dirt in between disco numbers. I doubted that having unprotected sex was the best way to prove what a modern girl you were, but the actual reason I disliked Rizzo was her disdainful attitude to Sandy.

Grumpy tomboy Stephanie Zinone represented a third, more appealing alternative. She worked at her dad’s garage (I helped my father in a similar business) and had a fascination with bikers (I desperately wanted a Harley Davidson). Having suffered peer pressure because I refused to wear skirts, I related to Stephanie when she turned up to school in trousers in the opening scene (“the latest fashion”, according to the Spanish dubbing) and was challenged by the school’s busybody. She coyly put a skirt on top, but wore the trousers again the following day. I even made myself a customized version of her outfit, which I wore to class: three-quarter jeans, sweatshirt, pumps and sunglasses, despite the fact that A Coruña is a rainy city.

Action heroines have now become the norm in films and TV but, not so long ago, assertive, strong, trouser-clad girls were labelled “tomboys”. It was a label I wore with pride but, despite exceptions like the ever-reliable Maureen O’Hara, they were marginal figures in Hollywood narratives. Why was female cadet Seeger not the heroine in An Officer and a Gentleman? Girls who did not care about boys were depicted as ugly and abhorrent. In West Side Story, Anybody is mocked for wanting to join the boys’ gang (“go wear a skirt”, “go walk the streets with your sister”). Tomboys usually underwent a “beauty makeover”, becoming a more acceptable notion of femininity, but losing the outspoken personality that had made them so appealing in the first place. At least Sandy retained some dignity.

Stephanie Zinone’s personality or clothes were not the issue in Grease 2. Her virginity, or lack of it, was irrelevant to the narrative. She was a tomboy, but also attractive. Unlike Danny, her allegiance to the gang did not prevent her from defending Michael (whom she did not know yet) when he was bullied by the T-Birds. For a change, she was the one being chased by two boys, but she did not welcome their attentions. On the contrary, she angrily asked them to leave her alone. At the opening, she had just dumped immature T-birds leader Johnny because she had outgrown him and the teenagers’ self-imposed rules. “Miss Independent” (as she was nicknamed) proudly declared she was “nobody’s trophy” and would “kiss the next boy who enters the door”, “when I want and where I want”. At the same time, she refused to give a chance to “ordinary guy” Michael because she would rather “wait forever” to find her “cool rider” ideal. She was sincere and kept asserting her individuality.

The other Pink Ladies were also more assertive in the sequel: outspoken little Dolores; Sharon, who refused to be pressured into sex; Frenchy (the only one returning from the first film), from beauty school dropout to chemistry student “to mix her own cosmetics”, Elizabeth Arden style. Paulette was “hopelessly devoted” to Johnny, but only earned his adoration after she confronted him for trying to tell her how to dress. Johnny proved that “bad boys” could be quite conservative. Despite not caring for Stephanie anymore, he did not accept that a girl he considered his “property” dumped him (“I have a reputation to protect”).

Although Michael became the “cool rider” to attract Stephanie, it was not simply a reversal of Sandy’s makeover. He was unhappy about his “charade” and wished to be loved as “the real me”. He and Stephanie bonded while studying together in a burger bar, where she recognized that maybe the “cool rider” was a stupid fantasy and wondered about the person under the mask. In the final scene, they both agreed to be themselves from then onwards (“No more pretences”). My friends mocked me because of my predilection for good students like Michael. I did fancy a soft-spoken, intellectual, bespectacled boy, but he was also the most handsome in the class. As I was studious and dreamed of being a writer, I reasoned that I better get involved with a companion who supported my dream, not held me back. Sandy and Danny never spoke like equals in Grease. During their date at the drive-in, she innocently thought that he respected her because he gave her his ring… and then he jumped over her. In contrast, although Stephanie did not act coy during their bike escapade, “Cool Rider”/ Michael was never patronizing or aggressive to her: she seductively slid to the front, facing him while they rode, to which he responded raising the front wheel of the bike (miraculously they did not crash). Then, they stopped and kissed in the sunset. The scene resembled a video from my favourite singer Meat Loaf, the one who taught me that “good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere” (preferably with good boys).

All photos are credited to Grease 2, 1982, Paramount Pictures