High School Musical has long been one of my favorite Disney franchises, mostly because I love a good high school AU, and High School Musical is the most high school you could possibly pack into a single set of movies. There’s just something about its over-the-top clichés that really speaks to me. Unfortunately, one of these clichés is its terrible development of its female characters.
Spoilers for all three movies after the jump.
So to kick off this post on girls in High School Musical, I’m going to start by talking about… Troy Bolton, the white male protagonist.
Well, actually, for a franchise that’s so set on glorifying Troy as Best Male Protagonist Ever, the whole thing is really framed around Gabriella Montez, his Latina girlfriend. Gabriella is introduced in the first movie as a shy girl who’s too afraid to sing with Troy at a holiday retreat. That all changes, of course—Gabi is the one who pushes Troy into trying out for East High’s winter musical, and in the second movie, set in the summer, she’s the one who talks him into performing in a skit for the employee talent show. In the third movie, again, she’s the reason that all the East High seniors work on the spring musical.
This general plotline is the basis of Troy’s character arc. Troy is too afraid to admit that he might like singing and dancing; because Gabriella is interested, he can say that he’s doing it for her. Because Gabi wants to do the talent show and the spring musical, Troy rounds up everyone and pushes them into it, as well. Troy doesn’t get to admitting that he too likes theatre until the last movie, when Juilliard comes calling; even then, he ends up picking a school with both basketball and theatre programs mainly because said school is closer to Stanford, where Gabriella will be. In short, Gabriella inspires him to be who he really wants to be. And if it had been done well, this could have been a pretty unique story, one which you might’ve expected from a franchise that supposedly encouraged kids to break free of social norms. There was even what I’m 300% sure was an unintentional break-free-of-racism moment in the second movie, when Troy turned against wealthy white sponsors offering him college scholarships to proclaim his loyalty to his Black best friend and his Latina girlfriend. There’s just one problem: none of this makes sense for Gabriella’s character.
In the first movie, Gabriella is a quiet girl who’s into math and science, and quickly joins soon-to-be-bestie Taylor McKessie on the scholastic decathlon team. She and Taylor lead their team to a win, and, on top of that, also set everything in motion so that she and Troy could make it to tryouts for the winter musical. One would think that a young lady of color as talented as Gabriella Montez could have found an internship or busywork in the science field for the summer, especially with her mother’s connections from what seems like a pretty high-profile job. Instead, in the second movie, she’s working as a lifeguard at the same country club that Troy is.
Okay, you say, maybe Gabi couldn’t find a cushy science gig for the summer; she’s a teenager, what’s the problem? Well, when the third movie rolls around, Troy and Chad are still basketball-tournament-winning champions, and Gabi’s science inclinations… are nowhere to be seen. Instead, she spends most of her time working as co-editor of the yearbook and worrying about going to Stanford early, which would cause her to miss the latter half of her senior year at high school. At graduation, we find out that Gabriella’s assumed future major is pre-law. Did the writers draw her interests out of a hat, or something? Apparently her original interest in science only existed to set up the nerd/jock dichotomy of the first movie!
The other girls in the movie, save for Kelsi, are no different. Gabriella’s best friend, Taylor, helps with member activities at the country club in the summer, and in senior year, Taylor’s now part of the journalism club, not a thing she’d ever shown any interest in before. When it’s time for her to graduate, she says she’s going into poli-sci. Sharpay, the villain of all three movies, never truly gets to develop past her one-dimensional beginnings. She spends the first two movies setting up convoluted plots to get Troy to dump Gabriella and go out with her, and in the third movie she plays on Troy’s guilt and indecision to make sure Gabriella does leave for Stanford early. Sharpay is like a hamster stuck in a wheel, running in place without the slightest character progress at all. As for Troy’s parents, his father causes some conflict in Troy’s life, but his mother is seen maybe once in each movie, and has about one line in each too. Even Kelsi, who has a consistent interest in music, only gets to keep that interest because the drama club always needs a songwriter and accompanist for all of Troy’s musical ambitions.
Gabriella says at the beginning of High School Musical 3 that this is the last chance for the gang to do something together. Because of her mother’s job, she’s moved around so often that she hasn’t often had the opportunity to make close friends. Yet she up and leaves for Stanford, leaving her friends behind, because Troy tells her that Stanford is the best thing for her. This same thing happens in all three movies: Troy does something dumb, Gabriella leaves him, Troy has an angsty dance number in a strange location, and then Gabriella comes back to him. Gabriella is the catalyst for Troy’s character development from sad basketball jock to happy thespian (and also basketball jock). The problem is that this is a very New Feminist way of telling the story: Gabriella only exists to inspire Troy to his fullest potential. She isn’t a character, and, instead of getting to see Troy going to her science competitions or trying to unhelpfully help with her homework, her interests change as Troy’s plot requires.
While it’s great that Troy wants the best for his girlfriend and follows her to college, something that we see the other way around in pretty much all other media, in the end it seems like yet another unrealistic part of an unrealistic movie franchise. If Gabriella had been allowed to have her own story, instead of simply existing to further Troy’s story, and Troy had still supported her through everything, then maybe Troy really would have been the Best Male Protagonist Ever. Unfortunately, Gabriella did not, and neither did most of the other girls in the High School Musical franchise.