One minute I’m reading The New York Times homepage, intrigued to see a photo from the movie Grease. I scroll down, only to see Olivia Newton-John has died.
I catch my breath, then share it on Facebook.
But then, delayed reaction, I begin to sob.
I mean, I get why I’m sad. I played I Honestly Love You and If Not for You over and over again on my little record player as a kid. And Grease, as recently as two days ago I caught the iconic ending while channel surfing and stopped to watch with nearly the same joy as the first time.
Then it dawns on me. It’s because of conversations I’ve been having with friends lately about our shifting attitudes and approaches to sexuality in America. Olivia Newton-John, via her role as Sandy, started it all with the 1978 release of Grease.
Imagine for a moment being in high school, sitting in a movie theater and seeing that story play out. I know it seems tame now, but up to that point, you primarily had the voices of your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — and in my case, a few nuns — giving you some version of the cow, the free milk, and all that jazz on the subject of sex.
On the big screen, Sandy, in her wholesome clothes and scrubbed complexion, has barely a chance with the oozing sex radiating off John Travolta’s leather jacket-clad Danny. She’s roundly mocked by “the girls” in a pajama sleepover for still being a virgin and not indulging in smoking and drinking. “Won’t go to bed ’til I’m legally wed, I can’t, I’m Sandra Dee …”
Meanwhile, here we girls sat agape in the theater. Hormones sitting on our skin waiting for a go sign. Consistently told (warned!) to be this pure version of Sandy. Good. Be good. Those sexually active girls are mean! And sluts! But hadn’t Billy Joel just made clear “you Catholic girls start much too late” in his music? Around and around we go. What in holy hell.
But then, Sandy. Those same girlfriends aid in her transformation, unveiled on graduation day. Head-to-toe black, except for the red Candies. Leather jacket. Painted on leggings. Poufed up hair. Cigarette as prop. She’s matching Danny and raising him one since he too has done some changing and he’s in a letterman’s sweater.