I’m a fan of the Plain Jane / ugly duckling trope. This is when the hero or heroine goes through a stunning transformation. They suddenly appear more confident, intriguing and successful. Think Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Eggsy in Kingsman. And then there is the ultimate “glow up”: Sandy in Grease.
Her makeover at the end of the movie musical is dramatic and memorable. Grease first released in theaters in 1978 and the “bad girl” or “cool” version of Sandy is still one of the most popular Halloween costumes. It’s recognizable and it’s an ensemble easy to recreate.
While the look is iconic, the transformation is not universally praised. There are many complaints about Sandy getting a makeover to find her happily-ever-after. The concern is that she altered everything about herself for a boy.
I argue that the transformation is not just for Danny. It’s primarily for herself because she doesn’t like how she is viewed. In the “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” reprise that happens right after the car race, Sandy wonders if there is “something more” about her “than what they see”.
They. Not Danny, but they. The T-birds, the Pink Ladies, probably even the rival gang. She knows that everyone considers her as wholesome and pure but not much else. She doesn’t like how “scared and unsure” she is—or appears to be—and she needs to “start anew.”
A rebirth is the bravest move a character can make. It means letting go all that is familiar, which Sandy understands as she sings in the song “goodbye to Sandra Dee”. She can’t hold on to any of it if she’s going to create something new. The outcome is not guaranteed. That’s a powerful choice for someone who in the beginning of the film is afraid of making a mistake on the first day of school or taking a wrong step at the dance contest.
But Sandy does more than change her look. She’s abandoning her good girl reputation as well. And that is big stuff in Grease. Because here’s the thing: reputation is everything in this story.
Danny lies about his summer romance, acts like he doesn’t know Sandy, and worries how people are going to talk when he’s stranded at the drive-in because he has a reputation to maintain. Rizzo is defiant about her reputation of being trashy, and the only way to get a jab at Cha Cha is to say she has the worst reputation. The importance of a reputation isn’t reserved for the students. Principal McGee needs for everyone to be on their best behavior while the dance contest is televised. Whatever happens will reflect on her school.
So when Sandy slides on the black leather, she’s also shedding the good girl reputation that society rewards and she’s daring to be different. Rather than being shy like she was at the dance contest, she’s grabbing the spotlight. Instead of allowing another girl take her guy, Sandy’s going after the one that she wants.
Could her internal struggle have been shown in more than a reprise of a song? Definitely. I’d have liked the story to show more of Sandy’s yearning to break out of her shell. After all, they spent a lot of time on Danny when he tried to take up a sport to impress Sandy. Why couldn’t they have done the same for her?
Probably because Danny’s attempts were comical. He was never going to be a school jock, and that was fine because it wasn’t what he wanted to be. He wanted to be with Sandy. But Sandy’s transformation worked because it was more than her getting the boy. Her heart might have been set on Danny, but more importantly, she wanted to start a new life. To do that, she left the younger, more innocent version of herself in the past.
Enjoy stories about characters reinventing themselves? Learn more about the makeover romance trope.
Did Betty Rizzo get the love story she deserves at the end of Grease? Read this blog post and decide!