Mixed Messages in ‘Beauty School Dropout’

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I was a huge fan of the musical “Grease” when I was little, and I know I was not alone. No, seriously, I know that because my 4th grade talent show rendition of “Summer Lovin'” with my best friend Kaitlyn was is at once my most cherished and most cringe-worthy memory (I was Danny Zuko, so. You don’t even have to worry about it, there that is). So many of us youths pressed our noses against a flickering screen that advertised what we already held in our hearts to be true: that men were dogs, women were flawed but often correct, and at the end of the day, the only way to build a bridge between the sexes was a skintight leather catsuit and/or a pregnancy scare.

The movie is so jam packed with toxic heteronormative imagery that its easy to look back on it now, as a fully fledged Socially Conscious alt-femme lesbian and see that what I thought of as cracks in an otherwise harmless morality tale where actually staggering chasms, plastered over by our impressionable minds with  pedal pushers and a rockin’ beat. However, there were some finer points to be had – not the least of which is Rizzo’s ballad, ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’. In this solo number, Rizzo delivers a complex message to the audience.

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  • It’s worse to be a tease than it is to be a slut (awright)
  • Getting down with boys she isn’t genuinely in love with isn’t as bad as “throwing her life away on a dream that won’t come true” (fair, tru)
  • Finally, the worst thing someone could do is reject another woman for putting her wants, desires and needs first before that of some ~dudes (yes queen, shine)

‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ is a layered confession, rife with the jaded realism of a 35 year old high school senior (Stockard Channing was 35 at the time, rather late in life to be getting ‘hickies from Kenickie’ but get that groove). Overall, the message is empowering to her female character, and begs you not judge this character and her unplanned pregnancy too harshly.

Then there’s ‘Beauty School Dropout’.

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As I’m sure you’re already aware, ‘Beauty School Dropout’ is the thematically incongruous musical number performed at the climax of Frenchy’s character arc. Frenchy is one of the softer-hearted members of the Pink Ladies, the female bad girls of Rydell High. In the beginning of the movie we learn of Frenchy’s plans to drop out of school, but it’s not mentioned again until she shows up at the malt shop wearing a scarf wrapped around her head, meant to conceal the fact that she’s accidentally dyed her hair a bright cupcake pink.

This is a look that would cost me upwards of $150 dollars today and is very much on trend, but I suppose bubblegum tresses were a little wild for 1978. What should be of concern to us at the beginning of this scene is that Vi, the beleaguered malt shop waitress, agrees to let Frenchy stay in the closed, dark, presumably locked malt shop, by herself at night. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Vi’s relaxed style or devil-may-care attitude, but it’s possible a little more anxiety for Frenchy’s safety would not have been misplaced. It’s at this juncture, upon the reveal that Frenchy flunked out of beauty school, that the viewer is confronted with orange beams of light shining out of the heavens from which emerges Frenchy’s “guardian angel”.

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Played by teen hearthrob of the era, Frankie Avalon, the role of guardian angel is referred to as “Teen Angel” in the script. We must assume this is a reference to this angel’s client base, and not to his own age. Popular as Avalon may have been in the years before SPF really took off, he still looks like a piece of fruit leather at a white party to me. Still, Frenchy is in ecstasy at his very presence, which honestly is understandable given that he appeared from thin air and transformed the malt shop into a modular 70’s stairway ballad set.

It’s not my aim to review a line reading of this number, because I don’t think that level of scrutiny is necessary. The essential point Teen Angel is trying to get across is that Frenchy dropped out of beauty school, and instead of just giving up on all her schooling, she should go back to high school and get her diploma. Fair enough advice. However, Teen Angel communicates this via a system of negging, gaslighting and general put-downs aimed at not only Frenchy’s ability to be a beautician, but her overall capability as a worker of any kind.

Through the lyrics of the song, Teen Angel narrates Frenchy’s shortcomings.

  • She has flunked out of beauty school.
  • She is dirty (Well at least you could have taken time/To wash and clean your clothes up).
  • She received rhinoplasty at some point during her time at said beauty school (they don’t perform nose jobs at beauty school? Or in any salon, anywhere?).
  • She is arrogant and vain (multiple times).

Finally, he insults her again by taking a slanderous and untrue shot at sex workers (no customer would go to you/unless she was a hooker) and spends a whole stanza talking about how he’s done this work here, and he’s gotta bounce. Truly though, the number one confusing bit of advice that Teen Angel gives during the beauty school dropout number, is the following.

Baby get movin,
(Better get movin)
Why keep your feeble hopes alive?
What are you provin?
(What are you provin)
You’ve got the dream but not the drive.

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Are we led to believe that Frenchydropped out of high school to pursue beautician training because it was a lofty and unattainable dream? The refrain “Beauty school dropout,/(Beauty school dropout)/Hanging around the corner store” leads me to believe that (at least in the context of this fiction) dropping out of beauty school is something only losers do, that the natural progression from not graduating is to become a straight up loiterer with no usable skills? So which is it? Is beauty school good or bad?

I would also argue that all Frenchy did was fail at, at most, a year of beauty school, possibly even three semesters since she’s seen at the beginning of the movie still attending Rydell. My advice to Frenchy is, girl, you can still turn this around. If, indeed, being a beautician is your greatest hope and dream then don’t let three measly semesters of poor grades shrivel your most cherished aspiration. Barring “just try harder at beauty school”, Teen Angel’s advice (go back to high school) IS the best decision for Frenchy, so we can’t fault him for his core message. However, telling her she’s not good or capable enough to reach her dreams of graduating beauty school seem a bit harsh to me. Teen Angel doesn’t have very high hopes for Frenchy even if she does get her diploma – he lists “joining a steno pool” as her loftiest career potential, even going so far as to say she’s simply not cut out to hold any sort of job at all.

Baby don’t sweat it.
(Don’t sweat it)
You’re not cut out to hold a job.
Better forget it,
(Forget it)
Who wants their hair done by a slob?

I think SLOB might be a bit of an overstatement, seeing as, again, all Frenchy did was fall asleep during tinting class and have the bad luck to be ~40 years ahead of the trend. A SLOB, Teen Angel? Who promoted you to guardian angel?

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There you have it. Not all of our childhood delights maintain their same meaningful status as we age; once the sentimentality is stripped away, we’re often horrified at what we find, staring back at us in its nudity. The truth is, I always fast-forwarded through this weird out-of-body-experience scene anyway, so while I’m surprised to find this kind of gaslighting in the annals of my own personal media education? It’s no skin off my Teen Angel. I leave you with perhaps the most sense T.A. makes throughout his entire number – words to live and die by as we navigate performative femininity in our own way, on our own time. Be kind to your sisters, brothers, and all femme people out there. We’re all just trying to keep our feeble beauty school hopes alive in whatever way we can.

Now your bangs are curled,
Your lashes twirled,
But still the world is cruel,
Wipe off that angel face and go back to high school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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