For those of you that don’t know, Sandy is the leading lady of the hit Seventies musical, Grease. Set in a 1950s high school, Grease follows the trials and tribulations of a couple who fall in love but can’t be together because she’s a nerd and he wears a leather jacket. The musical was a smash hit, becoming one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, being made into a major film (which spawned one of the worst sequels ever) and, most recently, a live TV performance. Sandy herself has become an iconic character, and arguably has produced one of the most instantly recognisable Halloween costumes ever.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: I’ll be basing most of my analysis off the film version of Grease with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as unfortunately, I am too broke for theatre tickets.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
For most of the story, Sandy isn’t really in control of her own destiny. She joins a new school because her parents moved to a new area, not because she chose to. She’s humiliated by Danny and rejects him, and he spends some time trying to win her over again. She’s asked to the dance by him and then thrown over by him again at the dance contest – and she rejects him and he spends some time trying to win her over again. She eventually decides to re-invent herself with a more ‘bad girl’ image, but this is the result of trying to impress Danny and a substantial amount of peer pressure from her friends.
In short, Sandy’s not really in the driver’s seat here. She’s a very passive character and much of her storyline involves reacting to the actions of other people. She is invited to things, and asked to go to various events, and allows herself to be made over – but she very rarely actually sets out to do any of these things under her own steam. Added to that is the undercurrent of peer pressure Sandy has to put up with – all her friends spend the entire story remarking on how strange it is that she doesn’t enjoy the same things as they do, and she eventually caves into this. The result of all of this is that things just tend to kind of happen to Sandy, and she doesn’t always have a lot to do with it.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Sandy doesn’t really have a specific goal that drives her through the story – if she did, she’d probably be a much more active character. She does, however, have some pretty well-defined beliefs and hobbies. We know she enjoys cheerleading as she joins the team, and she seems to really buy into a lot of ‘school spirit’ sporting events. As far as her beliefs go, it’s made extremely clear that she’s a very conservative young woman who doesn’t drink, swear, or believe in premarital sex – and of course, it’s all done through song.
Given the era in which this is set, it’s not unreasonable to assume that these beliefs are a direct result of her upbringing, as all sorts of standards were imposed on young women in the 1950s. These don’t last all the way through the film (more on that later) but for now, I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For most of the story, Sandy is a largely consistent character. We don’t see a lot of her skills, but she’s innocent, conservative, naïve, a little too trusting, but she’s kind, sweet and generally tries to do right by everyone. However, this only lasts until the last portion of the movie, where she decides that she wants to be much more daring and sexually aggressive in order to get a boyfriend. Many productions use little touches to make it clear to the audience that she’s putting on an act – such as in the movie, where Frenchie shows her how to sexily stub out a cigarette – but this is still a pretty massive change which isn’t really explored. I’ll go into this in more detail later on, but for now I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
Actually, it’s impossible to describe Sandy without mentioning her love life. Much like Juliet, Sandy’s quest to get a boyfriend is utterly central to her story – there’s literally nothing else she wants. You could describe her personality, but you certainly couldn’t describe her role within the story. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
As I discussed earlier, Sandy doesn’t really make a lot of decisions – but those she does make are pretty much all about her love life. She decides to reject Danny and go after someone else to make him jealous, then decides to take him back when he’s nice to her again, then decides to push him away when he tries to take things too far, then decides to re-invent herself when she’s afraid they’re too different to be together. There’s nothing else that drives her – her love life is her entire focus. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Sandy does actually develop during Grease, but this isn’t really explored in a lot of detail. Towards the end she decides she wants to radically re-invent herself in every sense of the word – she takes up smoking and becomes much more sexually aggressive as well as teasing her hair and putting on her sex pants.
She does all this to secure her relationship with Danny, and because she says she feels unhappy with the way she is – but the thing is, we don’t get any clue of her unhappiness before her makeover. It’s not completely inconceivable that a young woman could feel stifled by the rigorous social standards of the 1950s, but for most of the musical Sandy doesn’t seem to have any sort of problem with them at all. She seems perfectly happy to join the cheerleading team, forswear drinking, cigarettes and sex and dress like Maria von Trapp. What’s more, when her boundaries are pushed and people do try and get her to act like the cool kids – like when she’s offered wine and cigarettes, or when Danny tries to get physical with her at the movies – she comes across as incredibly uncomfortable. In short, I wonder whether she really was unhappy before her makeover.
There are two ways to interpret Sandy’s development in Grease. You can either view her change as a young woman throwing off social conventions and coming to terms with her own sexuality, or you can view it as a young woman bowing to peer pressure and being coerced into doing something she doesn’t really want to do. This could have been very easily avoided with a few scenes that establish Sandy’s alleged unhappiness before her makeover, or her burgeoning desire for rebellion, or a blossoming interest in more ‘adult’ things. However, none of this is included, and what could have been an empowering story about a young woman choosing to live life on her own terms becomes a little bit skeevy instead. I’ll give her half a point, because she does change, but I don’t think it’s handled very well.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Does she have a weakness?
Sandy has plenty of weaknesses that hold her back during Grease, but none of them are things traditionally viewed as negative traits. She’s innocent, she’s naïve, she’s too trusting, she doesn’t know how the world works. These things do hold her back, but more often than not they’re seen as part of her charm rather than flaws that she has to overcome. I’ll give her half a point, but to be perfectly frank I’m not sure they’d count as weaknesses at all.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Sandy does influence the plot, but it’s not in a particularly active way. As I’ve already discussed, she reacts to stuff far more often than she acts of her own accord, but she also exerts a particularly passive kind of influence. She falls in love, she chooses her dates, she brushes people off and she makes herself more visually appealing – all actions that wouldn’t necessarily advance the plot in themselves, but rely on other people’s reactions to her decisions to move the plot along. She doesn’t directly influence the plot, she influences other people who influence the plot on her behalf. I’ll give her half a point for this.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Sandy is pretty much a walking gender stereotype. She starts the musical as a stereotypical ‘good girl’ – she’s innocent, kind, dresses and behaves conservatively and absolutely will not engage in premarital sex, drinking or cigarettes. By the end of the show she does a complete about-turn and becomes a stereotypical ‘bad girl’ – she smokes, she dresses in tight black clothes and wears red lipstick, and has sex appeal coming out of her ears. Neither of these stereotypes are explored in any detail, and so neither of them are raised beyond the level of the cliché in its most basic form.
But that’s not all. She makes this change to impress her boyfriend and to get him to stay with her – who, incidentally, has been the basis of all her decisions for the entire movie. This reinforces the belief that women should do anything to get (and keep) their man, because that is the most important thing in their lives. You’d rather not completely change your entire personality and outlook on life just for a chance at a snog? Go and buy yourself a house full of cats, you bitter old spinster!
However, this actually gets even more problematic when we look at Sandy’s change in more detail. Sandy doesn’t just decide to change her clothes – she decides to completely change her outlook on sex because she so desperately wants to stay with Danny. If we’d seen that Sandy was kind of curious about sex and wanted to take the next step in her relationship, this would be fine – but this isn’t what we see at all. Sandy is consistently shown to be really, really uncomfortable with sex, to the extent that when Danny makes a move on her, she screams at him, physically pushes him off and slams the door on…er…little Danny.
This scene establishes that Sandy really isn’t comfortable with the prospect of sex, and this makes her transformation all the more troubling. She changes herself to keep him interested, but crucially, this change involves going through with something that – the first time Danny tried to put the moves on her – made her angry, upset, and a little scared.
All this is brought into a sharper focus when we look at the way that Danny changes for Sandy. He feels the same kind of pressure that she does, and worries that two people from such different social backgrounds won’t stay together. While Sandy makes herself into a ‘bad girl’, Danny makes himself into a ‘good boy’, joining a sports team and earning one of those fancy letter jackets in an effort to impress Sandy. If you examine the sacrifices they make for each other in the context of 1950s America, it becomes pretty clear that Sandy’s getting a raw deal. Danny’s given himself some kind of sporting accomplishment just before he leaves school, which could actually lift up his school records and have some kind of permanent, long-term benefits. By contrast, Sandy is risking a hell of a lot – not only her own personal comfort, but social condemnation, damage to her reputation (which would’ve still been very important) as well as all the other risks that come alongside teenage sex. Danny doesn’t have to learn to respect Sandy’s boundaries and treat her with more care – Sandy just has to forget those boundaries ever existed.
All of this casts Danny as the one who sets the tone for their relationship. It’s a tone Sandy isn’t comfortable with for most of the show, but she ends up giving into what he wants anyway. When coupled with the fact that he’s definitely the one who pursues her, their relationship ends up settling into some pretty tired old gender roles. He’s the Man, and he is In Charge, and Sandy just has to put up with it. She actually ends up putting up with a hell of a lot from him – apart from at the very beginning of the show, he isn’t actually all that nice to her.
The long and short of all this is that all throughout the show, Sandy comes second to Danny. Ultimately, he ends up getting everything he wants, while Sandy ends up having to make a compromise, drastically change herself and make herself sexually available to a guy who spends most of the show pushing her boundaries. She does push back a little and demand that he change too, but it’s nowhere near on the same scale as hers. If her character were explored in a little more depth, and her feelings about her transformation made clearer, this might not be the case. As it is, I’m going to fail her this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Sandy actually has a bunch of relationships with other female characters. She becomes friends with the cheerleader, Patty, who she eventually throws over for the Pink Ladies. She’s friends with the Pink Ladies, too – she doesn’t really relate much to Marty and Jan, but spends time with them anyway, even though they make fun of her. She becomes very good friends with Frenchie almost immediately, and of all the Pink Ladies Frenchie is the most sympathetic to her – she looks after her when she throws up after her first cigarette, gives her her life-changing makeover and confides in her pretty often.
Her most interesting relationship is with Rizzo. The two start out as polar opposites – Rizzo is the ‘bad girl’, and Sandy is the ‘good girl’ – and don’t really get along. Sandy seems kind of intimidated by Rizzo, and Rizzo seems pretty disdainful of Sandy. Rizzo starts out as the ringleader of all the Pink Ladies’ teasing and occasionally goes a bit too far, but eventually the two become friends. When Rizzo thinks she might be pregnant, Sandy is kind to her and doesn’t judge her for it, and after that the two are pretty close. That’s a lot of development, and it’s not the only relationship Sandy has with other female characters, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10
Sandy has a range of female friendships, some pretty solid beliefs and hobbies, influences the plot and changes over the course of the story, but ultimately, her character rests too much on stereotypes for her to pass my test. She isn’t really fleshed out with all that much detail – she is simply ‘the good girl’ or ‘the bad girl’ as the plot demands. This is a real pity, as just a few short scenes that gave her a bit more depth would have really brought her character up the scale.
But does this mean I don’t enjoy Grease? Absolutely not. I recognise that when you get right down to it, the show endorses stereotypes so old they’re gathering dust, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I’ll still happily yell my way through “You’re the One that I Want” any day of the week, but just because you enjoy something that doesn’t mean you have to live by it. For me, Grease is a lot like that – frothy, mindless fun, but not something I’m ever going to take to heart.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Titanic. Rose, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.