After an extended look at the character arc of Luke Skywalker, we cap off our New Year’s series on rebirth by examining a female character introduced at the same time: Sandy from Grease, played by Olivia Newton-John.
No, I’m not kidding in juxtaposing the hero’s mythology of Star Wars with the pastiche that is Grease, which was made in 1978 and set in 1958. I saw both films as a kid, and they’re bound together in my personal reality forever, since here I am years later writing about them.
Before we get to “lousy with virginity” Sandy and her transformation into spandex and leather, let’s look at another character who dances her way from light to dark: Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the 2010 psycholgical thriller set in the world of ballet.
Nina is a perfectionist ballerina who is cast, with reservations, as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in which she must portray the dual role of the Swan Queen and its dark twin. The Mephistopheles-like artistic director—who seeks to unleash Nina’s seductive shadow—tells her, “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.”
Nina does, but losing her carefully guarded ego results in destruction rather than deification, as she is unable to withstand the encounter with her shadow. The needed “ego death” of her immature personality in order to grow into wholeness is literalized, resulting in a tragic plunge into the hell-pit of perfectionism.
Sandy, in contrast, is also a shy girl on the brink of womanhood who believes she doesn’t have a shadow. But her romance with Danny brings out in her an added and unexpected depth as she absorbs his influence, just as he absorbs hers. And just look at the difference between the fates of the two women: the Swan Queen dives to her death, while Sandy sails up to heaven in a candy-apple hot rod. For Nina, the ego’s confrontation with its shadow brings dissolution by falling; for Sandy, it brings a happily-ever-after ending by rising.
This distinction is crucial in the spiritual journey: the ego must transcend itself by rising to a higher state in clarity and equilibrium, not by descending into a hallucinogenic underworld ruled by the demonic forces—such as greed, ambition or self-harming perfectionism—that fester there. Life, after all, is not a game of perfect.
Let us not mince words: there is a war for every soul between these two orientations—upward transcendence and down—waged every day in life. We must each set our course, and tread valiantly.