If I were to ask most people what they think of when they see the color ‘pink,’ I believe the answer would most likely be femininity. Now, with changing times, I find that ‘femininity’ has a varied meaning from person to person. Although the term has generally been associated with qualities and behaviors traditionally expected to only be embodied by girls and women, people have started to widen their scope and have begun to define femininity in a more individualized manner and associate it with anyone who chooses to personify it (of course, society still has a long way to go before it fully widens its scope, but that’s a different discussion).
However, in the 1950s, this certainly was not the case, and “good” girls were expected to epitomize purity, softness, daintiness, and sensitivity (aka traditional femininity), while anyone of the female gender who did not conform to these traditionally feminine qualities was seen as a “bad” girl, “slut,” etc.
So, I believe it is incredibly ironic that Betty Rizzo, one of Grease’s central characters, is sarcastic, forward, tough-as-nails, and promiscuous, and yet is the leader of a gang of high school girls called the “Pink Ladies” (that dons coveted pink jackets to reflect its name). Rizzo is anything but what the color “pink” was expected to stand for during her time, which is why she is one of my absolute favorite musical theatre characters.
Every performer I’ve ever met has a list of dream roles they wish to tackle at some point in their career for different reasons, sentimental or otherwise. Some, like my friend Bryelle, wish to take on the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, which was originated on Broadway by Susan Egan in 1994. Others, like my friend Bryan, wish to take on the role of the Emcee in Cabaret, which was made famous both by its originator, Joel Grey, and notable revival portrayer, Alan Cumming. Rizzo is one of my dream roles, and her signature song, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” is one that I have performed at multiple cabarets, showcases and auditions. Like Rizzo, I aspire to be ahead of my time, be a catalyst of social change, and help to redefine what is means to be a woman in the eyes of society.
Rizzo is, at her core, unapologetically herself, and has unapologetically decided to be a woman on her own terms. She smokes, she drinks, she curses, and she sleeps around (even though she is socially branded as a woman with a “bad reputation” as a result). These four activities were typically seen as “masculine” at the time, and yet she has chosen to partake in them despite the fact that she is ridiculed for doing so. Rizzo is, additionally, very independent, straightforward and direct, voicing her opinions whenever she pleases; these too were considered to be generally “masculine” types of behavior.
Yet, Rizzo also exhibits some characteristics that were seen as traditionally “feminine.” She has a sensitive side, and during “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” demonstrates that even the strongest and toughest of individuals are not immune to vulnerability and insecurity. We learn that Rizzo is a typical high school student with feelings just like every other Grease character. When she discovers that people are talking badly about her behind her back, she feels hurt and isolated just as every other high school student, male, female, or neither, does at some point or another.
Is Rizzo perfect? No. But there is no such thing as a “perfect” character, or a perfect human being, for that matter. (For one thing, she has unsafe sex, which leads to a pregnancy scare, and in no way do I advocate such behavior.) I aspire to play the part of Rizzo and emulate her in real life, not because she is perfect, but rather because she strives to be honest about the person she is even though she struggles with the truth at times. Rizzo does not suppress her “masculine” qualities, even though the society she lives in expects her to and mocks her when she refuses to; she expresses them confidently and freely. Yes, she is sometimes afraid to embrace her supposedly “feminine” qualities due to the fact that she is scared to be seen as vulnerable.
However, by the end of Grease, she has learned that these qualities are a part of her as well, and has learned to let go of her resentment of her “feminine” side (and even apologizes to Sandy, whose embodiment of said qualities and resulting positive treatment by society caused Rizzo’s aversion in the first place).
Rizzo is the only character within Grease who, in my eyes, is not a cardboard cutout of a stereotype. She is complicated, truthful, and real, and exemplifies a balance, a dichotomy, of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. Maybe, with Rizzo’s help, these qualities will eventually stop being associated with specific genders. Maybe they will instead begin to be associated with being a human who is capable of possessing all of them and more, regardless of biological sex. Maybe, someday in the future, colors will begin to be associated with whatever the person wearing them wants to be perceived as rather than with “gender-specific” characteristics. Maybe, just maybe, being a “Pink Lady” will finally mean what it means to Rizzo.