Grease 2 has taken a lot of guff over the years. And sure, some of it is earned (it does feature an entire musical sequence where a teenage boy fakes a nuclear attack as an excuse to lock his girlfriend in a bomb shelter and pressure her into sex). But overall, Grease 2 doesn’t get credit for the things it does right – tongue-in-cheek musical numbers, an overall healthier leading romantic relationship that is based in friendship and mutual respect, and an absolute dreamboat in Maxwell Caulfield.
But the real reason Grease 2 is superior to its bland predecessor? Michelle Pfeiffer.
Stephanie Zinone in Grease 2, is undoubtedly Michelle Pfeiffer’s breakout performance, having only had a few television roles before being cast as the lead in this film at 24. Grease 2 may be hokey, with some questionable song choices, and a little bit of indecision over how seriously it planned on taking itself from moment to moment. But her charisma and screen presence as Stephanie is undeniable, and goes a very long way towards saving the film from itself.
She is a thing of glory in this film, a strong-willed young woman who finds herself dissatisfied with the limits of her social sphere in school. Stephanie’s a Pink Lady, and she likes the group of friends that come along with that title. But does that mean she should conform to her clique’s expectations and date one of the T-Birds, even though she clearly finds him tiresome, just because that’s what she’s supposed to do? As she says herself, “Maybe I’m tired of being someone’s chick!” If nothing else, Stephanie knows what she’s about, and she knows that she deserves better.
Let’s contrast the characters of Sandy and Stephanie as our female leads in Grease and Grease 2. Sandy is a sweet, compliant girl, who is willing to change the fundamental aspects of her character in order to make a boy like her. Stephanie, on the other hand, doesn’t change for anybody, and resents the very idea that she should. Her iconic feminist anthem, “Cool Rider”, is a testament to a girl knowing what she wants and not being willing to settle for anything less.
She’s Michelle Pfeiffer, damn it – you can’t just stick her with the third runner-up in a John Travolta impersonation contest, and expect her to be happy about it. (Real talk: no one should be expected to settle for Johnny Nogerelli, or take him seriously for that matter.)
Stephanie defies expectations. She’s a member in mostly good standing of the Pink Ladies, but she isn’t exactly the most traditionally feminine character in the world. Our first glimpse of her, through English exchange student Michael’s eyes, is Stephanie hurriedly rolling her jeans up so they aren’t visible under the school acceptable skirt she has just thrown on. She works at a gas station, and not just behind the counter selling cigarettes and Cheetos, but pumping gas and cleaning windshields. And after she breaks up with Johnny, she shows no interest in getting involved with another guy, just because of peer pressure or so that she doesn’t have to be alone.
And let’s take a minute to examine the power differential between Stephanie and Michael. It’s Michael, not Stephanie, who has to step outside his comfort zone to attract the attention of his crush. (Notably, the changes we see in him cannot be fairly compared to Sandy in Grease – she changes by wearing leather pants so tight she literally had to be sewn into them, whereas Michael picks up a new hobby that is both potentially lucrative and also something that he seems to enjoy, but that’s an argument for another article). The men in this movie may talk a tough game, but it’s clear throughout that Stephanie is the one who holds all the cards. She gets to decide which people are worthy of her time, regardless of what her friends expect. It’s her world, and everyone else is just living in it.
In Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Stephanie, we see a vibrant, engaging young woman, who knows exactly who she is and what she wants. That shouldn’t be rare, but it kind of is. This amount of agency for a teenage girl is pretty unusual, especially considering the lack of female empowerment we saw in the original Grease. More than anything else, though, Stephanie Zinone proves that Michelle Pfeiffer is, and has always been, an icon, even in her first major film role.