Sexualized Saturdays: Heteronormativity and High School Musical

high school musicalFor a franchise about breaking free of socialized norms and clichés, High School Musical is absurdly heteronormative. Heteronormativity, for those of you who aren’t sure, is the idea or belief that heterosexual relationships are the norm and thus everyone and everything must be straight (and often includes the belief that men and women must follow certain gender roles). Now, it seems unlikely that Disney will ever have a queer character in any of its media, but it has a long history of promoting and extolling the virtues of heterosexual romance. Think of any Disney princess movie, where “true love’s first kiss” will transform a beast into a man or a woman into a princess, and heterosexual marriages can save whole kingdoms. High School Musical is no different with its heterosexual romances.

Spoilers for all the High School Musical movies below.

It’s almost too obvious to point out that all the relationships in High School Musical, from the parents on down to the kids, are heterosexual. But it’s not just that all the relationships are straight, it’s that they’re such stereotypes of straight relationships. Troy gives Gabriella a necklace with a “T” on it (requisite eyeroll here), Chad talks about making some money so that he can pay to take Taylor on a proper date, and Sharpay constantly dresses up so that she can get Troy to notice her. Chad and Taylor, at least, have a realistic view of their relationship—Chad tells Troy that they both know it’ll end after high school, but Troy is determined to hang on to what he has with Gabriella until the end of time, pushing a high school crush into unrealistic forever love.

troy and gabriellaThe music, while very catchy, is also completely heteronormative. Of the songs, the worst offender by far is “A Night to Remember”, when the gang is singing about prom. The boys begin by singing:

Now do we have to dress up for the prom?
Dude, I don’t think we have the choice

and the girls follow with:

Yeah it’s the night of all nights
Got to look just right
Dressing to impress the boys

Because of course when girls are picking out dresses, they’re all thinking about how impressed their boyfriends will be, right? And then there’s this:

Boys: It’s the night of our nightmares
Girls: It’s the night of our dreams
Boys: It’s too late to back out of this
Girls: Hey! Makeovers, massages
Boys: Don’t know what a corsage is
Girls: Been waiting all our lives for this

In a franchise about a boy learning to embrace his love of theatre, it’s hard to believe that he and his friends wouldn’t have at least learned the power of costume and performance, which is all a prom really is. And not all girls are interested in dancing and dresses, but the song ignores that, of course. As the song continues to narrate, the boys arrive at the girls’ houses and are “stared down” by the girls’ fathers, because patriarchy. Great. The girls in High School Musical are already only there for the boys’ character arcs; now they can go against the message of the first movie and be complete stereotypes, as well.

The usual argument against including any queer characters or even anything not-heteronormative is that if there were queer characters, the whole story would turn into an “issue” story. However, this is not true, and if we take a slight detour into race, we’ll see why. The franchise never addresses race directly (maybe that would be too difficult for Disney), but several characters of color exist. The principal of East High is Asian, Taylor is a Black girl going to Yale, Troy and Chad have been palling around for ages, and Troy even manages to date Gabriella without the whole thing turning into West Side Story. Because characters of color existed, the potential to read deeper messages into the narrative was there. For example, in High School Musical 2, Troy and Chad have the following conversation:

Troy: I didn’t go looking for the Redhawks, the Redhawks came to me. Okay? I didn’t sign up for this golf job, Fulton offered it, I said yes. My decision. But I show up to work, same as you. So chill, man.
Chad: You get a speck of dirt on your pants and someone dry cleans you!
Troy: And you wouldn’t do the same thing–
Chad: If I was as good as you?
Troy: I didn’t say that.
Chad: You didn’t have to!

Now, HSM2’s plot is all about Troy figuring out that he’s kind of turning into a tool—with his new job above his friends at Sharpay’s country club, the power is going to his head. But the conflict between Troy and Chad over Troy’s increasing tool-ness is given another level because of Chad’s race. Troy believes that he’s getting special treatment because he’s “just that good”. But he’s really not; he’s getting special treatment because Sharpay is trying to seduce him. If you’re a person of color and you’re watching this scene unfold, though, it’s easy to read this scene as Troy being completely unaware of his own white privilege. I don’t think the writers even meant to do this—there are no other scenes like it—but the narrative shoots down racism and privilege when Troy voluntarily returns to his waitstaff position with his friends of color rather than sit with the wealthy white donors Sharpay has lined up. In this way, High School Musical created some pretty legitimate representation without even intending to, but the movies are not “about race”. That’s a good day’s work, for Disney.

ryan evans

The fantastic Ryan Evans

So along the same lines, if High School Musical had had some queer characters, their very existence could have provided some important scenes for the LGBTQ+ people in the audience, and there’s no reason to believe the franchise would have turned into Sexual Orientation 101 or Gay Agenda: Secrets Revealed. Troy, in his role as Best Male Protagonist Ever, could have casually welcomed a teammate and his boyfriend, or asked after a girl’s girlfriend. Even better, one of the main cast could actually have been LGBTQ+. And if we’re looking for characters to queer, Ryan Evans is an easy choice.

Ryan’s coded as stereotypically gay from the start, because he’s fashionable and loves theatre and dancing, and in the aforementioned prom song, he’s chastised for “spending an hour” on his appearance. This would be the tiniest possible crumb of representation from Disney, but because Ryan never had a girlfriend in the first two movies, I dared to hope that Disney might break free of their own heteronormative mold and give us a queer character. Then of course, in the third movie, Ryan asks Kelsi to prom and they go off to Juilliard together. We couldn’t even have one very stereotypical gay character in the whole of High School Musical. If Disney refused to even make that happen, then queering a character with more impact on the plot is even less likely to happen. Troy and Chad, both of whom would be less stereotypical choices for queer characters, could never date; nor could Taylor and Gabriella.

chad ryan

Look, they even changed clothes after the game! Come on, just admit it!

High School Musical may not have addressed race or gender directly, but it did have many notable characters of color and many female characters. Together, that all helped the halls of East High feel a little bit more real, despite the general sanitized-high-school-experience tone of the movies. But in today’s day and age, heterosexual relationships are not something that need to be fought for. Troy is the most popular guy in school; let’s be honest and admit he could do anything he wanted to do and date any girl who wanted to date him. If High School Musical had had some queer characters and queer relationships, they would have added a deeper, and probably more relevant, conflict to the franchise. Instead, there are again no queer characters, and even the heterosexual romances are forced into a facsimile of real life, with none of the diversity or differences that real life offers. I guess we’re not really all in this together, Disney. Thanks.


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4 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Heteronormativity and High School Musical

  1. The only thing I liked better than Kelsi+Ryan was Possibly Gay!Ryan. Even as a straight person, and a young straight person when these movies came out, I was hoping for that kind of representation.

  2. Why does a gay male always have to be represented as theater-loving and effeminate? Why not make him a jock or a math whiz instead?

    • Thanks for commenting! That’s exactly the problem I have, and the point I was hoping to make with this post was that if Disney can’t even give us a very stereotypical gay male character, then there’s no hope for them ever writing a gay math whiz or a gay jock.

  3. Pingback: Chad & Ryan | a blog from beth

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