I’m actually surprised I haven’t covered this week’s Feminist Flashback Friday femme already because she seems like one of the most obvious choices! From literally one of the best movies of all time, let’s catch up with Stockard Channing as Betty Rizzo from 1975’s Grease.
Who is she?
Rizzo is what I presume in the ‘50s was known as the “bad girl.” She drinks, smokes, cuts class, sleeps around and breaks hearts almost mercilessly. She’s got a reputation and it isn’t good, but that doesn’t seem to ever really faze her. What keeps Rizzo from being unlikable is actually best illustrated in her only solo song, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” in which she reveals that the gossip that happens behind her back and pretends to not care about actually stings her (because she is just human, after all).
Aside from that moment of supposed weakness, Rizzo is never seen as anything but badass. She’s the leader of the girl “gang” the Pink Ladies, and she’s bold and brassy enough to not only hold her own against foul-mouthed men, but even out-foul them sometimes! She is daring, unafraid and, most importantly, unconcerned with gender norms.
What makes her a badass?
Though Rizzo does have one strike against her, which is that she puts down other women to raise herself up, it could be argued that she does it more out of personal insecurity than genuine malice. After all, the girls she does end up putting down tend to be the ones who are celebrated for their virtue and purity, namely Sandy and Pam.
Still, despite her insecurities, Rizzo is unashamed of being “bad.” She enjoys herself and even when her recklessness results in an unwanted pregnancy, she handles it like a champ, despite being only 17 years old. She often comes off as unnecessarily rude, which turns out to be a defence mechanism for her and in a time when women were expected to grin and bear everything, Rizzo took the small step of refusing to do both. If she was going to grin, it was going to be at a sassy remark and if she was going to bear it, she wasn’t going to do it smiling.
Rizzo is seen as the polar opposite to the leading lady, Sandy. Where Sandy is seen as the good little virgin, Rizzo is the tragic tale of a girl gone wild. However, as I grew older, Rizzo was the one I saw myself relating to more and more. It’s Rizzo I want to be when I’m dealing with men and it’s Rizzo I want to be when it comes to decisions about my body. It’s Rizzo who seems to have a head on her shoulders and it’s Rizzo who generally gets what she wants—and she does it all in the puritanical fictional utopia of fictional 1950s America.
Why does she still matter today?
The reason I’ve been thinking of Rizzo more and more lately is thanks to the shit storm that is the American government right now. With a bunch of old men spouting idiotic nonsense about female biology and with rape culture and slut-shaming rampant worldwide, Rizzo comes to mind as a reminder that this is something women have been dealing with for decades. There have always been promiscuous women and they’ve always been shamed for their sexuality. There have always been teen pregnancies and it’s always been the mothers’ lives that have had to change. There have always been “good” girls and those who didn’t perfectly fit that mould were looked down upon. There have been “ways” that women have to be since the beginning of humanity and women have always seemed to have the short end of the stick.
Rizzo—like many of the other women featured on Feminist Flashback Friday—is a reminder that just as long as there’s been a “right” way for women to be, there have been women who have gone against the grain and not regretted it. There have always been Rizzos and in this day and age, when more and more people are beginning to get more used to the breakdown of the gender binary and abolishing the “right” and “wrong” ways to be any gender, it’s the Rizzos of the world—fictional and non—who we can look to for inspiration.