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Retelling Romeo and Juliet In Chick-Flick’s Valley Girl, Grease, Hairspray

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

In the glitz and glam of Hollywood romance, classic literature often finds a new life in contemporary narratives. 

Echoes of Shakespeare’s timeless love story of Romeo and Juliet can be seen across many chick-flicks and RomComs in the (almost) preppy-like world of Valley Girl, Grease, Hairspray and so many more.

There was a period of time, when cinematic portrayals of adolescence embraced two distinct sides of the same coin: one woven with tragic narratives, epitomised by films such as the previously discussed West Side Story, and the other adorned with satirical reflections on society, exemplified by the likes of Footloose.

The former, a trend among youth especially in America, delved into the generation born in the wake of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the latter category has blossomed into cult classics. And you see there is a reason why they become known as such.

If we look back at what films about teenagers or those classified as camp, all of them had something in common: they played into stereotypes people were used to.

1978 brought us Grease, based on a musical of the same name. Grease has a funny back story, intended to – and succeeding in – making fun of teenagers in the ‘50s. Even in its name, Grease is all about greasy hair, greasy skin… greasy everything. Or is it?

The movie has two big plots: the romance between the sweet, timid Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and the rebellious Danny (John Travolta), and the rivalries between two gangs. But, the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies did exist as gangs in the ‘50s; mostly formed of Latinos and Italian Americans.

We don’t know much about the real life T-Birds, however we do know about the Pink Ladies; a group formed with the means of tying together young girls that didn’t feel like they fit among their peers because of their ‘racial ambiguity’.

We have the opposites attract romance, two gangs fighting, racial and social issues, what else? 

Well, originally Travolta’s character was supposed to commit suicide at the end of the movie as an homage to Romeo and Juliet’s conclusion.

On that note, here comes another reference to what people put in their hair. Directed by John Waters, Hairspray (the original, not the 2007 remake) is set in the early ‘60s and follows a teenager named Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) as she pursues her dream of dancing on a local TV dance-based show. The film addresses issues of racial segregation and body image but, of course, in the form of a musical.

One would think that Tracy being a plus-sized girl and Link (Michael St. Gerard) being the embodiment a perfect, popular jock are opposite enough for them to make a good enough reinterpretation of the Shakespearean play. They are not. 

Hairspray is about a big girl dancing on television. It’s also about segregation in the ‘60s in America and people of colour (POC) not being allowed on “white folks’ TV”. Side characters, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) and Seaweed (Clayton Prince), are in fact most like Romeo and Juliet; a mixed couple in a racial war. And this, this works - meaning Tracy and Link become Benvolio and Mercutio. 

William Shakespeare’s work was not only timeless but made sense even if the characters weren’t the main focus of the narrative.

Hairspray, same as Grease, was not intentional in their similarities with the Bard’s play. But both did later inspire Valley Girl which was intentionally a remake of the classic literature story.

Now picture this: sun-kissed landscapes of the San Fernando Valley set the stage for a love story that transcends societal boundaries. 

Valley Girl, our neon-soaked ode to the ‘80s, invites viewers into the world of Julie (from Juliet), a quintessential Valley Girl falling head over heels for Randy (Romeo), a Hollywood wanna-be punk with a heart of gold.

Much like the Montagues and Capulets, Julie and Randy navigate the tumultuous waters of cultural clashes and teenage rebellion. With a nod to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Valley Girl infuses humour and ‘80s flair into the classic love story, proving that love can triumph over even the most tubular of obstacles.

Valley Girl is the epitome of a teen romantic comedy that directly references Romeo and Juliet”by featuring a plot where the main characters, Julie (played by Deborah Foreman) and Randy (played by Nicolas Cage), come from different social backgrounds.

While the story is not as socially involved as the other two, it still plays an important role. While Grease and Hairspray obviously acknowledge both racial issues and social justice, Valley Girl tells more than a love story but rather delves info class issues. Acknowledging the differences between rich and poor in the ‘80s in America, to be more exact.

Romeo and Juliet is, and forever will, be an intriguing phenomenon. While we are quite fond of the star-crossed lovers plot, it also becomes a ‘easy’ form in which to view our society.

Edited by Emily Duff

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