Defending Grease: Sandy and Danny Are Toxic but They’re Realistic

Grease gets a bad reputation for the toxic relationship between its leads, Sandy and Danny, but I’m here to argue why the hate is overblown.

Here’s a synopsis of Grease, for the two people here who have never seen the film before: Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko meet one summer and fall for each other quickly. Their whirlwind romance is brought to a close when Sandy returns to Australia. But fate would have it Sandy’s family would move to Danny’s town and they’d attend the same high school for their senior year. Sandy is confused to find Danny acts like a completely different person around his friends: he’s meaner, ruder, and generally unlike the guy she met. The pair have a back-and-forth relationship all year long. Yadda yadda yadda. Oh yeah– there’s catchy songs in there too.

*This is your spoiler warning for Grease though, once again, I assume most of you here have seen it already*

Grease is a classic rom-com about high school drama and teenage love. Yet it’s long been criticized for its ending. Sandy decides to forgo her “innocence” to become the kind of girl she feels Danny would like: someone who wears dark leather, tight clothes, high heels, and smokes. Meanwhile Danny joins the track team because he’s convinced Sandy would prefer to date an athlete. The ultimate moral (so it seems): change yourself to be liked by others– romantically or socially.

Now I’m not trying to argue that this lesson IS good (because it’s not). And I don’t condone the characters’ actions at the end of the film. What I am saying is that, whatever your opinion may be, the film’s ending is realistic to teenage behaviour, Grease is only meant to be good fun, the toxicity arguably improves the film, and critics miss the point.

One of two scenes in the movie where Sandy and Danny are happy together.

It’s Just a Movie (AKA– Chill)

Toxic relationships set a bad example (especially when they’re shown in a “redeeming” light). But Grease isn’t a moral play; it’s a musical rom-com. Grease‘s subject matter isn’t “innocent”, and some of it is dated, but it’s made for your entertainment– not your education. Most people who watch this movie aren’t learning anything from its story. The romance might be Grease‘s central plot but the real draws are its clever writing, iconic acting performances and songs, and maybe some nostalgia for America’s past.

Don’t dare to watch any other rom-com if Grease‘s central romance offends you. In fact I’d wager 99% of couples in this genre are as bad or worse than Sandy and Danny. So to harp on Grease‘s worst element is to tear down the foundation it was built on. And maybe we should! I’m not here to say. But I hope Grease haters don’t defend other movie couples when they do the same thing (and most of the characters will).

Also: you’re lying to yourself if you say bad relationships aren’t amusing. Do we have reality TV for ANY other reason than to judge people? Treat Grease like a reality show and use its flaws to make yourself feel better.

Most Teenagers Don’t Understand “Healthy” Love

Let’s be clear: Sandy and Danny are not compatible– at least not at this stage in their lives. Danny cares more about his “cool guy” reputation than putting in the work for a real relationship. I believe Sandy cares about her social image as well. It’s why she so obviously rejects Danny’s “gangster” friends and immaturity. She doesn’t want to be associated with a guy like him, despite her feelings. It’d be social suicide (to greater society).

Detractors of Grease focus on Sandy’s end-of-film shift in character morals. They say it sets a bad standard for women (and it might, but refer to the above section). ‘Cause women are traditionally the gender forced to conform to men’s ideal image. Yet those people shouldn’t ignore the fact that men can and do often conform to women’s ideals as well. Even Danny tries to become the person he THINKS Sandy will like. He just sheds his guise more quickly in the end.

You know why they do these things? Because that’s how teenage relationships are. They happen almost by chance, social politics, or by sheer proximity– compatibility be damned. Teenagers (and most adults, let’s be honest) are looking for acceptance. And when your high school lover doesn’t accept you it seems like the end of the world. The fact that real people change themselves for love doesn’t inherently make the story “better”. But Sandy and Danny’s relationship is true to life.

I’ve been a part of drama like theirs in the past. I’ve made those same mistakes. And I’d wager most of you readers have too (or known someone who has). So why should we hold Sandy and Danny to a higher standard than our own terrible teenage flings?

Critics Miss the Point

Grease is about that bittersweet time in life right between high school and true adulthood. I say bittersweet because oftentimes these years are “good old days” you don’t realize you’re living till they’re over. High school is when you can make bad decisions, create drama over non-issues, and happily live without adult responsibilities (or wisdom).

Sandy and Danny end the film riding to the sky, but who’s to say they don’t come crashing down soon after? That carnival sequence is the last hurrah of adolescence before real life begins, with all its deep complications. And this pair were never a couple built for an adult relationship. They’re high school sweethearts enjoying love before life makes them jaded.

So why does Grease make it seem like they Sandy and Danny are perfectly suited? Because the film is from the vantage high-schoolers. Most people I knew back in Grade 12 couldn’t begin to imagine how much life would change after graduation. The majority of couples broke up, friend groups split too, people moved away, etc. Grease makes this love seem ideal because it nearly is… for the time. Teenagers cling to their first real loves as if they’ll be the only ones, no matter how bad the relationships are.

The happy couple on a date.

Sandy and Danny’s Toxicity Makes Grease Better

Romance movies, like every other genre, have their formulas. Traditionally that formula goes: couple meets, realizes they have attraction, face a bunch of obstacles which make being together difficult, then they get together in the end (or not). Broad, I know.

Formulas like the above help us as critics and viewers to notice when films sidestep our expectations. To me Grease‘s romance is subversive because it’s barely a romance. Sandy and Danny have a brief attraction in the beginning, spend the entire film trying to justify it (even though they make each other miserable), and have one big hollow moment of happiness in a grand gesture.

Looking upon Grease with our modern values allows us to appreciate these elements of the film. Now it’s not a simple, harmless love story– it’s a lighthearted examination of how bad relationships help teenagers come of age. They learn lessons about how to treat others and how to treat themselves. And sometimes they’ll learn the wrong lessons. But that’s still a part of growing up.

Though I will add Sandy and Danny’s love for one another aids in their mutual character growths. To permanently change their personalities for each other would be bad. But in the temporary: their love pushed them out of their respective comfort zones. Danny discovered a joy of running, and became more comfortable with feeling socially vulnerable. And Sandy tested the waters of her more rigid beliefs to gain some self-confidence.

Grease isn’t a perfect movie. But I love it, flaws and all. It’s a fun film which doesn’t take itself too seriously. People love to tear things apart and harp on the “problems” they find. But I’ve attempted to argue how certain problems can be overblown. ‘Cause the internet needs a few more defenders and a lot less critics. Hopefully you’ve agreed with at least some of my points here. If not– at least I had fun writing this.

A Happy Valentine’s Day to you from Thought Plane Media!
(though you’re probably not reading this article ON the day because I posted it ridiculously late in the evening).

What other nagging film criticisms should I argue against? Do you think Sandy and Danny were perfect afterall, and that I’m completely wrong? Please share your thoughts in the comments. If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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