Becoming Travolta (Queer Fat Femmes in a World Without Role Models)

Actors John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John embrace in a promotional still for the film, 'Grease,' directed by Randal Kleiser
Actors John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John embrace in a promotional still for the film, 'Grease,' directed by Randal Kleiser, 1978. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)

This essay, "Becoming Travolta" appears in the newly released anthology, Queering Fat Embodyment edited by Murray, Pause and Wykes on Ashgate Press.

Saturday Night Fever was the first R rated movie I ever saw. I sat uncomfortably next to my mother during the whole film knowing that, at some point, someone would have sex and she'd have her eye on me.

And there it was: John Travolta and the woman he will dump have sex in the back seat of a car. But I was even more uncomfortable when that young woman cried because Travolta hooked up with someone else. I could feel my mother's smugness. That trollop got her comeuppance. It was her own fault and my mother wanted me to take a lesson. That's what I imagined anyway. Later, at home, as she was ironing and I sat on her bed, my mother wanted to know if I had any questions about such an "adult film."

Good heavens no! Under no circumstances did I have any questions about that film. La-la-la. I tuned out whatever she said next. It was awful.The next time I saw an R rated film with my mother was probably 20 years later, and it was only slightly less uncomfortable.

When I'm a guy, in my mind's eye, I'm a young John Travolta character. I'm Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter, or I'm dancing in a white suit in Saturday Night Fever. Or better yet, I'm in all black with my hair slicked back, singing, "You're the One that I Want" in the final scene of Grease.

It's not that I'm interested in being a guy, or taking on a romantic role other than my own, but Travolta is part of my adolescent history. He's really the only male actor I've imitated with any regularity -- and I became Travolta across a range of characters.

My friends and I loved the music from Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees were dreamy and the Gibb brothers were the hotness of the day. Andy Gibb performed the first big stadium concert I ever saw. Though the film was important, not all of my friends were allowed to see it -- because it was rated R -- and the night club bar-scene it depicted was a little complicated and disturbing for some of us. We mostly listened to the music and ignored the film. The romantic dancing was too hard to imitate anyway. We stuck with hip shaking and that diagonal up and down pointing thing that Travolta did in his white suit.

When Grease came out a year later, however, we were in our element. It was 1978; my friends and I ranged in age from 10 to 13, and the plot line was easier to understand than Saturday Night Fever. There was no urban grit, just the silly suburban setting in which our plotlines were also played, despite the 1950s being long gone. Grease was a superbly satisfying love story for us -- and what did we love best? The transformation of Sandra Dee.

Wow! We all wanted to be her -- to have that kind of power over that kind of guy. Wow! We loved the greased lightening song, squirmed through "Hopelessly Devoted" waiting for it to end. But then, over and over, we'd dance and lip-sync and sometimes even sing "You'd better shape up! 'Cause I need a man, and my heart is set on you..."

The trouble with the burning need to put on this spectacle over and over again was that we were all girls. Boys had no interest in playing this game (and we'd have likely been embarrassed to ham it up around them anyway). And we ALL wanted to be Sandra Dee in her shiny spandex pants and stiletto heels.

But in my friend group of four, I was always cast as the leading bad-boy greaser. It was my destiny. I already knew the score, and had come to embrace my role in the group. Ask anyone who grew up as a fat girl if she ever got the female lead with thinner girly girls around. I'd put money on the answer being no. This is probably also true for girls who were considered unattractive, if their prettier friends wanted those roles. We didn't even discuss it -- that's just the way it was. Someone had to be Travolta and it was going to be me. I was the biggest of the group, therefore the most convincing guy. Or maybe I was the least convincing Sandra Dee. No discussion was needed. We took our roles from Hollywood and did our best to divvy them up and act them out in our child-bodies. You can't try out for just any old part. You won't get it and you'll only humiliate yourself trying.

Of course, it isn't actually true. Some girls learn to be pretty by reading the fashion magazines, using make-up in just the right way. If she's thin, a girl can learn to put on glamor, but that doesn't work as well for fat girls. Glamor was the reason Sandra Dee became a knockout, after all. She was just a pretty little girl before the final transformation. She was just -- nice. With her hair all curled up, wearing bright lipstick and stilettos, she became the trophy for which Travolta could openly yearn and compete.

So, I practiced that part where Travolta falls to his knees in front of Olivia Newton John over and over. I practiced the shoulder-leading hunch with which he follows her as she slinks away only to return and dominate him again and again. I sang, "You're the one that I want" and my other two friends (the Sandra Dee understudies) added in the falsetto "ooh, ooh, ooh." I practiced as my bouncy little blonde best friend -- herself insecure in her freckled beauty -- vamped over me in an silly, theatrical way, wearing her older sister's stiletto heels and ill-fitting spandex pants. The other two girls in our foursome were understudies for Olivia Newton John -- sometimes they were hand-on-hip Stockard Channing just for fun. But I was Travolta.

It's not like I hadn't been prepared to take the role that supports feminine stardom. I already knew the score from being excluded from things like gymnastics class and ballet. The teachers wouldn't know what to do with a body like mine and besides, it would just be cruel to put a girl like me in leotards and tights to be laughed at. So I became the spotter when my friends practiced their backbends and walk-over handstands. Literally a supporting role; I knew how to praise their effort, spot good precision and budding talent, though never within myself. (I only learned as an adult, in my own yoga practice, that I could've done those backbends and handstands too.)

I have to admit, I adored being Travolta, though I could never take the role public, in the same way my friend was actually practicing to act like sexy Sandra Dee at parties and dances. I was doomed to be a closet Travolta, never a public Olivia Newton John. So much potential, wasted as a wallflower.

At some point, I started to realize there were more like me: fat girls who could really dance and knew what it meant to be hot -- fat girls who knew how to be funny and smart. We were observers and supporters and yet, we were also Travolta -- the leading man in our own minds. Though we became with zeal, we didn't stop being Olivia Newton John inside. Though I became Travolta, I remained Olivia. I took on his assuredness, but not his arrogance. I took on his voice, but not his content. I learned how to facilitate others' successes and how to speak up to make a point, but I stopped short of exercising privilege because that vessel was empty. I became Travolta, in the way only a fat girly-girl can. Sure, some girls who grew up to identify with masculinity were probably pleased as punch to become Travolta -- never gave Olivia another thought. Those are the women I date --but I wasn't one of those.

I suspect that the masculinizing of fat girls, ugly girls, and gay girls can have a fabulous side effect. We learn about assertive femininity. We learn about wearing different gender roles. We learn about living in our bodies and being glamorous when we choose. And for some of us -- we do all of those things at once and we grow up to be assertive, fat, femme dykes. There are more than a few of us out there -- and I've always wondered how we got to be so fabulous without any role models. It takes some gumption to be other than average in the female category (fat and queer) and to reclaim -- and sometimes exaggerate -- the big prize that Sandra Dee held aloft in Grease: assertive sexy femininity.

Becoming Travolta, as I did, wasn't an entirely raw deal. He was the leading man, after all. My other two friends only understudied Olivia Newton John -- we ALL did that -- but for me, the role of male lead AND the female glamor were imprinted utterly. And I didn't just become Danny Zuko in Grease -- I became Travolta. He's had a long and varied career with lots of different roles. Our adolescent experiences stick with us -- and I could've done worse. I was lucky enough to become Travolta. Even after I was grown, some part of me still expected the leading man role -- after all, I've also two-stepped with Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy and twisted with Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. And I was Debra. I was Uma.

Romantically, this versatility served me too. When the time came, I knew how to be hot like the leading ladies -- but I also knew how to prompt my butch lover to be the best Travolta she could be. I knew it because I lived it. I didn't want to take that role, but I did it until I didn't have to anymore. And for the girls who only ever wanted to be Travolta, I am a beautiful homecoming. Some of my lovers have been grateful that I showed them, in my way, how to get comfortable as the male lead. And my butch lovers return the favor; they are women who know how to appreciate femininity, but they also know how to read and prompt my complexities.

Sure, it'd be a better world if we all had the freedom to be all the characters we liked best -- one by one and in innovative combinations. I hope that day is coming. And becoming Travolta wasn't so bad. It's amazing how the roles we didn't want, can make us richer sometimes.