So guess what? Corbin Bleu, of High School Musical fame, is on Dancing with the Stars this season to strut his stuff, and he’s clearly not ashamed of his High School Musical past, as per the adorable homage he paid to it above. Lucas Grabeel was even there to cheer him on from the sidelines, which warmed my little Chad/Ryan shipper heart. But sadly, after I ended up rewatching the entire film series in a fit of Dancing with the Stars-induced nostalgia, I’ve come to realize that High School Musical is sort of like the steak TV dinner that you really like until you realize that real steak tastes about a thousand times better.
Spoilers, if you haven’t already heard everything there is to hear about this Disney film, after the jump.
High School Musical‘s erstwhile protagonist, Troy Bolton, meets Gabriella Montez at a New Year’s party and they manage to hit it off outside the confined social strata of high school. Come the new semester, Gabriella is unexpectedly the new transfer student at East High, Troy’s school. Troy is basketball team captain and Gabriella is recruited into the Scholastic Decathlon team, but they still like each other and they still like singing. They like it so much, in fact, that they audition for the school musical together. This scandalizes everyone, including Troy’s best buddy, Chad, and Gabriella’s new friend, Taylor, who hatch a plan to put an end to Troy and Gabriella’s involvement in the musical altogether. Fraternal twins Sharpay and Ryan, the co-presidents of the Drama Club, also plot to get Troy and Gabriella out of the way. But, to no one’s surprise, there’s a happy ending, and a lot of singing and dancing ensue.
This is basically a sanitized Everybody Lives AU of Romeo and Juliet for the tween crowd, but what can I say? I love it. The first time I saw it, I was watching it with an eight-year-old, and I can confidently say that of the two of us, I was the one who wanted all the merchandise by the end of it. I didn’t have a TV at the time, so I made a friend of mine record a rerun and then I invited myself over to her house to watch it again. I mean… I was pretty into it. And why not? The movie’s ultimately inspiring message is that we should be true to ourselves and to our friends, even if we might become total outcasts from society along the way.
I don’t only want to be the basketball guy. They can’t handle it. That’s not my problem—it’s theirs. This is about how I feel. I’m not letting the team down—they let me down. So I’m gonna sing. What about you?
—Troy Bolton, in his role as Voice of Morality
But that’s not to say that the movie doesn’t come with its fair share of problems.
The most obvious failure of High School Musical lies in its development of its female characters. Though it did pass the Bechdel Test, the movie didn’t engage meaningfully with female relationships in any way. Troy and Chad were believable best friends, but Gabriella and Taylor definitely were not. Hand-holding and giggling does not make for a best friendship when you’ve only known each other for two weeks.
It’s Troy’s story, but it shouldn’t be Troy’s story at the expense of all other characters—for one thing, we got to see East High winning their basketball championship, but we didn’t get to see Gabriella and Taylor winning the Scholastic Decathlon, which the movie could easily have done with just thirty extra seconds of frenzied nerdy celebration. For another thing, the girls’ motivations were rarely clear—why did Troy want to win the basketball championship? For his team and for his father. Why did Sharpay want the lead role in the school musical? Because… she’s a spoiled rich girl who always gets what she wants? Even that’s mostly speculation based on her appearance, and as High School Musical is supposed to be anti-stereotype, this gap in Sharpay’s characterization seems like a pretty egregious flaw.
The problem I’m having isn’t so much that the movie focused on Troy, which it should have done as he’s the protagonist, but that it focused on Troy by doing the equivalent of putting blinders on the audience. We know those other girls are there! We know they’re doing plot-worthy things! Why don’t we get to see them doing those things?! Troy and his father’s antagonistic relationship was evident, but Troy’s mother? She just disappeared after the first scene. As for Gabriella, she was the one who inspired Troy to sing because she was so good at it, and she was the first to volunteer at the tryouts for the musical, dragging Troy along in her wake. Taylor was the tech genius who made the entire Troy and Gabriella breakup happen (and she arranged everything so that Troy and Gabriella could make it to the climatic callbacks). Sharpay and the drama teacher, Mrs. Darbus, provided the conflict for the entire story! And yet, aside from one solo song from Gabriella, all of these girls’ motivations and opinions are nonexistent in the movie. Why do they do what they do? Who knows? One or two fewer scenes of Troy and his father arguing and one or two more scenes expanding on female relationships and motivations for their very integral roles in the storyline would have done wonders for the movie.
I’m also not sure why the girls had to be in fancy clothing for the last dance, but the guy jocks got to keep wearing their clothes. That especially didn’t make sense at the callbacks—while singing a song about breaking free from others’ preconceived notions of you, Troy got to keep his basketball uniform, but Gabriella abruptly took off her lab coat to reveal cute, feminine clothing underneath. So, even if keeping the lab coat would have made much more sense, symbolically, I suppose the visual narrative there was saying “jocks are always cool, but girls can’t be cool in lab coats”.
There was also no sizable attempt to engage with Gabriella’s and Taylor’s statuses as women of color in a predominantly male field (science). Yes, I know, it’s a feel-good kids’ story about high schoolers who spontaneously burst into song, but that doesn’t mean that race, an important facet of these girls’ identity, had to be erased completely. Sharpay was very clearly a rich white girl, and her privilege was easily alluded to in two sentences:
Kelsi: “What key?”
Ryan: “Oh, we had our rehearsal pianist do an arrangement.”
They’ve got a rehearsal pianist and someone to make all those glitzy costumes for them—they don’t need Kelsi, the actual playwright of the musical, to help them rehearse. Of course Sharpay and Ryan have money. Of course they’ve made every show they’ve ever auditioned for. Of course. I would have liked to see Gabriella and Taylor get that same sort of acknowledgement of their racial and socioeconomic status, both because it would have made them more well-rounded characters and because, if an obviously white, obviously privileged girl could have her background easily acknowledged, we should demand the same for our women of color.
Finally, this was a pretty minor point in the movie, so there’s not much to add about it here, but Gabriella has serious stage fright (referenced throughout the movie as a handy excuse for why she’s never sung in public before the musical)—there’s no way she gets over it just by looking into Troy’s eyes.
I still love High School Musical—it still makes me incredibly nostalgic for a high school experience that almost certainly never existed in real life, and I still think that its overall message is uplifting and far from harmful. But it’s like this. I love TV dinners. They taste great, but when you look more closely, you realize they aren’t good for you and they don’t particularly seem like real food. If you haven’t seen High School Musical yet or are planning on rewatching it in the future, I would approach this movie with the same amount of caution one might otherwise reserve for flash-dried, mass produced “dinner”.