Cinémawonque Analysis: Rizzo as Heroine

So I was self-editing the first book I’m writing for Penguin, and this passage got me thinking:

He’d probably make a good father, if he went down that road. Kids today could use more Kelly Robaks in their parental dugouts. He might not let his daughters date until they were twenty, but they sure as shit wouldn’t come home after curfew, tattooed, carrying the baby of some burner they’d let finger them behind the gym in exchange for a cigarette.

“You think you ever want kids?” I asked casually.

“Hell if I know. Not unless I got married, and I don’t think I’m cut out for that.”

“I bet you are. With the right woman. One who’d put up with your bossy ass and go in for all your old-school man-of-the-house patriarchy bull.”

Kelly laughed. “That ain’t you, I take it.”

I felt my cheeks warming. “No, that ain’t me.” What did it make me, then? Some good-time girl, an equally antiquated notion. Still, I’d rather be Rizzo than Sandy, no question. Rizzo found love without changing a thing about herself. Sandy had to dress like a skank and get that horrible perm and take up smoking.

It occurred to me this is actually the second time I’ve referenced Grease in a book, and moreover, the second time I’ve referenced Betty Rizzo, specifically. What is it about that character that’s so got her so indelibly tagged across my subconscious? She’s not even the story’s heroine…but could she be?

The movie version of Grease was set in the ’50s, released in 1978. Back then, no, a sarcastic high school girl who sleeps around, smokes, drinks, and occasionally smacks her friends would probably not fly as heroine material. As a cautionary tale pity-case? Likely. But not as a heroine.

But we’re living in a post-Bridesmaids world, now. A lead female character doesn’t have to be pure and unfailingly kind and demure to win our hearts. In fact, I daresay a lot of modern viewers and readers would roll their eyes at all that woodland-creatures-frolicking-at-her-feet shit. In 2012, a heroine can be a hot mess, and we’ll still believe she deserves love, as long as she’s compelling.

Sandy is not compelling.

Sandy is a bore. So pure and penetration-proof, she doesn’t even have pierced ears. In turns chirpy and shrill, she’s a blonde, pastel-clad, urge-less canvas on which to project a magnetic, rakish hero, making him seem all the more dynamic in relation to her blandness.

And what exactly did Danny have to do to win Sandy’s heart? I’ll tell you—he apologized once, before immediately trying to grope her at the drive-in. Oh and he lettered in track. Is that seriously character arc enough to deserve all that hopelessly devoted nonsense? Sandy did all the changing, and that changing was superficial. The changing, in fact, seemed to have gone against her morals. If that’s a romance, romance kinda sucks.

Rizzo, on the other hand.

While Sandy spends the entire movie running away, incessantly scandalized, Rizzo strides toward scandal. In heels.

Rizzo is a straight-up alpha bitch, literally the leader of her own pack. She goes by her surname, a hero-level symbol of autonomy. She’s impulsive to Sandy’s bunny-like caution; skeptical to Sandy’s naivety; sexually proactive to Sandy’s willful, joyless innocence; red-and-black snugness to Sandy’s swishing white lace, with angles and rough edges all framed in a healthy smear of eyeliner. She’s funny and fearless, and not afraid to speak her mind—though she may be afraid to apologize, even when busted. Sure, she’s kind of conniving and evasive now and again, but the girl’s got a spine and a half. She doesn’t fear the enemy—she hops in his car and consorts with him. She lies to the father of her presumptive baby, preferring he believe it’s another guy’s rather than feel reliant on him. Dude, Rizzo is such a kick-ass supporting character, she’s already boned the motherfucking HERO, before the movie even starts. She’s not mooning over Danny, swishing a love letter around a kiddie pool—she’s already over that weenie, busy taking her own hero’s virginity.

Yet we do get to see her vulnerable side, too, in musical soliloquy form, no less, and though she doesn’t have a huge revelation—she is a secondary lead, after all—she does soften by the end of the film, just in time to admit her feelings for Kenickie…in her own snarky, Rizzo way. She stays true to herself, unlike our skankified so-called heroine, and she doesn’t need to become the possession of an alpha male lead to be realized. Sandy basically has to turn into Rizzo, to complete her arc. But Rizzo’s already a fully formed character, and Kenickie’s the perfect beta to balance her out, not fill in her gaps. (He’s also cuter than Danny, in my opinion.) And their love story is ten times more passionate than the leads’. I mean, they spend the entire final two numbers making out, they’re so into each other.

In this day and age, I’d like to think Rizzo would be the heroine. A girl who suffers no rescuing, no corrupting, no coercing. A girl who can do the rescuing and corrupting and coercing herself, thank you very much. And that’s peachy keen, jellybean.

Oh and because I’d be remiss to leave you without an earworm…

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Cinémawonque Analysis: Rizzo as Heroine

  1. Ruthie says:

    Oh, love this. Love Rizzo. She has the best song, too, by far. The woman’s got PIPES.

  2. I always liked Rizzo best, too! Very compelling arguments here. And let’s face it, it’s hard to go wrong with Stockard Channing!

  3. Vivian Arend says:

    I <3 Rizzo. And yes yes yes on the fact Sandy changed like some bad girl wanna-be (to which Danny tosses his letter and reverts to asshole) while Rizzo stands up for what she wants.


  4. Suleikha Snyder says:

    I always loved Rizzo, and I always loved Kenickie. (I actually wrote Grease 3 fanfic about their kids…but I digress.) For exactly the reasons you stated. They had a natural, authentic chemistry and Rizzo just felt more real. She swore, she drank and she went after what she wanted, and Kenickie was clearly content to be the beta. A leather-clad, drag-racing beta hero…my God, i could’ve swooned like Sandy getting her ear pierced. They were a great lesson in being true to yourself, while the film’s main couple only found happiness in trying to change.

  5. Tara says:

    Fantastic essay. Yet there are still far too many Sandys and far too few Rizzos in romance fiction. :(

  6. Serena Bell says:

    Just reading this now, and loving so hard. Your writing in this post is totally brilliant — “She’s impulsive to Sandy’s bunny-like caution; skeptical to Sandy’s naivety; sexually proactive to Sandy’s willful, joyless innocence; red-and-black snugness to Sandy’s swishing white lace, with angles and rough edges all framed in a healthy smear of eyeliner.” Bring on the Rizzos!