“Why Rizzo from Grease is still my icon”

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Emily Reynolds
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Rizzo from Grease is bold, brave and bolshy – and she’s the perfect role model. 

I’m of the mind that your childhood heroes can, in hindsight, reveal a lot about who you are as an adult. A few of mine, to start: Pippi Longstocking (unconventional ginger troublemaker), Anne of Green Gables (bookish ginger troublemaker), Madeline (mischievous ginger troublemaker). As archetypes go, it seemed pretty clear what kind of person I was going to grow up to be.

But the crowning jewel in my collection of unruly girls? Rizzo from Grease.

I first became obsessed with Grease long before I’d seen the film, or even knew that it existed. My sister, 12 years older than me, had seen a stage version and brought home a cassette tape of the soundtrack at the end of the night: eventually, the tape became mine.

I was instantly transfixed. At the time I was painfully shy, so you’d have thought that quiet, mousy Sandy would have been the character I related to the most. It wasn’t: it was Rizzo. 

Unconventional was not the word; neither was troublemaker. She was more than that: gleefully anachronistic, swigging from big bottles of booze, smoking, not caring about her “reputation”. When I first got into Grease I was a child, so most of her sardonic asides and saucy references flew right over my head: I didn’t know what a hickey was. I didn’t know what it meant to get ‘knocked up’: I could not have told you what a condom was, or why you definitely needed to use one. 

But her rebelliousness shone through to me nonetheless. 

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When you see Rizzo for the first time, it’s clear that she’s a Bad Girl. Hopping out of her broken-down bright pink car, she minces across the screen dressed in all black, sunglasses hiding her face: “let’s get ‘em, girls”. 

I, emphatically, was not a bad girl. I was a good girl: deferent, shy, unable to express myself, different in some way. I was always weird, and it later transpired that I was both mentally ill and bisexual, two traits that tend not to inspire great sympathy, loyalty or appreciation in teenagers. 

Underneath, though, was someone who was sparky and rude in equal measure, who also revelled in breaking rules and pushing people’s boundaries. Characters like Rizzo (and Anne Shirley before her) spoke to that part of me, made me feel like I was able to be stronger, tougher, and louder. 

She was also, importantly, vulnerable. Her exterior was genuinely tough, yes. But she was jealous; she was frightened to cry in front of people; she didn’t want her on-off boyfriend Kenickie to look after her. 

She was, in other words, insecure.  The combination of resilience and tenderness was deeply moving to me, and deeply relatable: it is possible to be both, after all. 

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Forty years on from Grease’s cinematic release, and Rizzo still seems as gloriously rebellious to me as ever. I’m no longer the shy, deferent person I used to be, and I’m certainly more Rizzo now than I am Sandy, Frenchie or any of the other girls. 

Watching Rizzo do her own thing – and being strong and vulnerable in equal measure – was important for me, and not just because she taught me that all black everything is a genuinely valid summer outfit choice. Learning to throw caution to the wind and saying something I probably shouldn’t – standing up for myself, in other words – was an important lesson. Rizzo helped with that. 

Drinking, smoking and pre-marital sex are no longer as rebellious as they were in 1950s Rydell High: there’s nothing scandalous about a woman doing any of those things now. But, in the film, there was. And in that rebellion was an important lesson: to take the deepest pleasure not just in the joy of transgressive acts, but also in the mere act of transgression itself. 

Images: Getty