“Breaking Free” from the “Status Quo”

I got into a debate with my Vanderbilt interviewer. After he mentioned that his favorite novel was Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” we got into a passionate conversation about some of its philosophical ideas. After about ten or so minutes of this esoteric analysis, he confirmed that I was intending to be an English major. When I said “Chemistry,” he nearly spit out his $7 oat milk latte. After clarifying to make sure I was not in fact joining, he stated “I just seemed like so much more of an English/History person than a Math/Science one.” After I said I consider myself to be a “Science/English person,” he was surprisingly resistant to this idea. I probably spent the next ten minutes justifying myself and challenging his schema regarding this idea of labeling people.

Rather than just forcing myself into the bounds that society places on people to fit into these clear divides, whether it be based on interests, race, or gender, I continuously have tried to stay true to myself in spite of the pressure to fit into oversimplified categories. Recently, my father even referred to my “inability” to fully immerse myself in one thing as “immature.” He believes my many different pursuits are a consequence of my not yet finding my “one thing.” While he absolutely despises that my classes do not have some sort of “theme,” I am totally content with my transcript classes ranging from Shakespearean tragedies, child psychology, chemical engineering, and Chinese society courses. I like to think about my desire to follow multiple passions as increased maturity in being able to overcome societal stereotypes to live in a state of liminality. 

Armed with this desire to fight back against the societal norms society imposes on people, it makes sense why I am absolutely obsessed with the 2006 Disney masterpiece “High School Musical”. This musical follows Troy Bolton, a talented basketball player, and Gabriella Montez, an intelligent academic, who both discover a passion for singing and subsequently, must combat stereotypes and uproot societal norms to pursue their passions. Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega, writer Peter Barsocchini, and an array of film stars wonderfully depict these characters escape the traditional roles and stereotypes in order to embrace their true selves. This message is particularly relevant today, as society often puts pressure on individuals to conform to certain norms and expectations. By showing that people can be multidimensional, “High School Musical” encourages viewers to fight back against society’s problematic tendency to categorize people and inspired people to be their true complex selves. 

Everything about the satirical number “Stick to the Status Quo” perfectly exemplifies the pressure to conform and the gratification that people receive when they can escape such norms and be their multidimensional selves. Ortega’s vision of this scene is flawless. The number starts as various students come out and confess their secret interests that do not adhere to the norms that people expect them to fall into. Specifically, the stereotypically nerdy character Martha shares her love of hip-hop dancing, basketball player Zeke describes his passion for baking, and skater boy Ripper admits he enjoys playing a musical instrument. As Kaycee Stroh, who depicts Martha shares her interest, a smile lights up her face as she demonstrates how she can “pop and lock.” Additionally, Stroh’s sharp movements are performed with immense confidence that contrasts her otherwise more small, awkward motions. Here, Stroh perfectly exemplifies how her character of Martha feels when she can be her true self. Yet, as soon as she expresses such feelings, her peers exhibit a disproportional look of disgust, with several of them leaning away from her as if Martha had just admitted she murders puppies for fun. When Zeke and Ripper share their hidden passions, they are met with similar levels looks of repulsion from their friends. The negative reactions of their peers cause these three students to immediately open their mouths and look down in sadness, demonstrating the way that people who you have previously considered friends can be so unsupportive of one’s activities if they conflict with their own choices. 

The musical’s production artists are highly effective in depicting the segregation that exists within the school. Mark Hofeling’s set design of having each clique around a separate table in the cafeteria visually establishes the physical separation between groups to emphasize the various classifications of the students. By using different round tables, each group of students faces the others, with their backs turned to other groups, underscoring the division based on social groups. Moreover, the costume designer Tom McKinley’s choice to put each group in a distinct style of dress that adheres to cultural stereotypes reinforces these separations. The costumes for athletic students include track jackets and sneakers, while the nerdy students wear more formal clothing such as blazers and bowties; the skater kids, don baggy shirts and beanies. The immense discrepancy in styles contributes to the social segregation within the school.

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Another way these stereotypes are depicted is through Ortega’s variety of choreography. In contrast, the nerdy people literally march around the table holding textbooks, in which such forced movements emphasize their more uptight nature, in what most people would imagine being the dance moves of most Vanderbilt students. Such rigid motions make Martha’s rhythmic fast paced hip hop dance more striking. Yet, the girl in the gargoyle sweater topped with a pink blazer still manages to read her “Modern Biology” textbook in the midst of walking, which is just true dedication. In contrast to most of the nerdy students’ more uncomfortable maneuvers, the skater students are the epitome of the word “chill.” Their flowy movements resemble the inflatable tube men at car dealerships that let the wind move them. Similarly, the elongated words in their speech sound as laid-back as their dancing. Such wave-like movements and vocals also exasperate Ripper’s differentiation from the group. By playing the cello, which requires intricate hand placements and immense precision, Ripper would be making clean-cut sounds. The next scene depicts Ripper looking in at his friends from outside the circle, conveying the social isolation that threatens those who choose not to abide by a label. 

To further depict the pressure students get from their peers, Barsocchini crafts the character of Sharpay Evans, the epitome of a typical high school mean girl. Likely feeling threatened by Troy and Gabriella’s singing talents and fear of losing her star role in the school musical, Sharpay does all she can to maintain stringent social norms. In this way, Sharpay serves as a foil to the main characters, who challenge societal expectations. Actor Ashley Tisdale’s portrayal of Sharpay’s narrow-mindedness includes very exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. When Sharpay watches those around her attempt to break away from social expectations, she raises her eyebrows and sneers in a way that conveys her disdain and contempt for them. Another specific acting choice Tisdale uses to highlight Sharpay’s beliefs is her use of a high-pitched and nasally voice. This voice helps to convey Sharpay’s self-importance and entitlement and makes her sound haughty and pompous. 

However, as people get more comfortable with the idea of breaking the constraints of their social roles, they are able to overcome even the meanest of looks from Sharpay, symbolizing how people can uproot even the strongest social normatives. To represent this, the dancing shifts dramatically. The students no longer dance just with their clique around their table, but instead begin to branch out and intertwine with others. The students break from singing the lines “stick to the status quo” in favor of instrumental music, showcasing the lack of conformity. Everyone begins to dance at the same time but all perform different movements in a fast-paced and energetic routine. This dance employs a variety of different styles, incorporating elements of jazz and hip-hop as students go from more graceful twirls to sharp stomping. The cafeteria feels like utter chaos, that I so wish I could partake in. Ortego’s decision to have everyone engage in unique choreography rather than dance in unison demonstrates how so many students have been inspired to break free from social expectations. 

However, just like in the real world, societal forces are incredibly hard to diffuse. Parents play a key role in shaping children’s identities. The dialogue that Barsocchini crafts to exemplify this idea really reminds me of some of the conversations I have had with my own parents. For example, Troy’s dad, Mr. Bolton, tells his son that he is “a playmaker, not a singer,” to which Troy responds “ever think maybe I could be both?” These quotes really spoke to my own relationship with my father constantly tries to curate and shape every aspect of my life. Just like Mr. Bolton was a basketball player himself and wants the same for Troy, my dad desperately wants me to follow in his footsteps to pursue scientific research. Yet, even though I spent summers in high school working in a UCLA research lab, I could never dedicate my entire focus to that, to my dad’s disappointment. Troy’s struggle to balance his own desires under the pressure of his parent resonates with me and so many other young adults trying to find themselves. 

While I know there will likely never be a world completely free of societal expectations to act a certain way, High School Musical demonstrates that people should not let these social constraints define and dominate them. At the beginning of the movie, Troy’s friend Chad stated  “the musical… isn’t hip hop or rock or anything essential to culture.” I hope if the fictional Chad were to read this essay, he would totally realize that his line could not be farther from the truth. 

“High School Musical’s” message remains particularly relevant today, as so many people will continue to navigate an abundance of societal influences that begin to feel suffocating. This movie musical has so much value in reminding viewers of the importance of not limiting yourself to societal norms and the importance of being one’s most authentic self.

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