“We’re All In This Together”…Unless You’re a POC- By Seli Buatsi & Esther Ayoade

Esther: You know I have never watched High School Musical, can you tell me about it?

Seli: How are you going to call a movie that you have never seen boring? smh😒. Anyway, the movie High School Musical was made in 2006, written by Peter Barsocchini and directed by Kenny Ortega. It highlights the life of two high school students, Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, as they attempt to break the status quo by trying out for their school’s musical.

Seli: It was magical wasn’t it?

Esther: Ok, not gonna lie, it was pretty good.

Seli: Seeeeeee! I told you!

Esther:🙄

Esther: BUT, I feel like the production was hypocritical.

Seli: What do you mean? 

Esther: Wellll, you mentioned that the moral of High School Musical was to show how different cliques can come together to break the status quo, right?

Seli: Yea…

Esther: So if that’s the case, then why did the producers cast the way they did? The producers of High School Musical worked against the movie’s message of overcoming the status quo by casting roles that perpetuate racial stereotypes and exclude minorities. For example, the female protagonist, Gabriella Montez, is Latina. However, her part is played by Venessa Hudgens who is ethnically Filipino and Irish. Although the writers of High School Musical attempted to create a Latina lead, the casting of a Non-Latina actress to play this part was a complete misrepresentation of the character. By allowing Vanessa Hudgens to pose as Latina, it tells the Latinx viewers that they should be limited on the Hollywood stages. In turn, by not allowing Vanessa Hudgens to portray her true identity as a Filipino, it tells the Filipino viewers that they as well, are not good enough to be the lead in a musical movie.

Seli: Actually, your right! In addition to the false representation of a Latina lead, there was a severe lack of racial representation within the entire cast. The movie took place 2006 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2010, this city had a population that was 46.7 percent Hispanic/Latino. However, in the movie, there was not a single lead actor of true Hispanic/Latino descent. Instead, producers selected a cast and ensemble mainly made up of white actors and actresses. The only people of color that had a significant role were the only three Black characters in the film: Taylor, Chad, and Zeke. 

Esther: Oh wow really! You bring up a good point pertaining to the makeup of the cast. I didn’t even catch that it took place in New Mexico. With the number of white people in the school, I would have assumed the setting was some rural area in Alabama.😂

Seli: Ikr! 😂 And you know what else? The two Black actors in High School Musical with the most prominent roles were Chad and Taylor. Both actors played a part that is known all too well by African-Americans in Hollywood: the “Black best friend.” In the movie, Corbin Bleu plays Troy’s best friend since childhood, Chad Danforth; Monique Coleman plays the part of Gabriella’s brainiac friend, Taylor McKessie. The writers give very little attention to the lives of Chad and Taylor apart from Troy and Gabriella. The purpose of the “Black best friend” is to uplift the lead characters in times of need. At first, Chad and Taylor attempt to break up Troy and Gabriella but by the end of the movie, the “Black best friends” resume their role and help their best friends make the callback. 

Esther: That is very true! The issue is not only that the Black characters were side-characters, but also that they were portrayed as athletes. Black men are usually associated with athletes, and athletes are stereotyped as unintelligent. So when Black men are placed in athletic roles, it raises a problem that the Black community has been facing for decades. Black men in America are seen as lazy people who add nothing to the advancement of society due to their lack of education. This idea was first portrayed in the movie when the basketball team was made the binary to the academic decathlon group, insinuating the lack of academic skills within the athletes. It is seen again when Taylor, from the academic decathlon, refers to the basketball players as “lunkhead basketball men.” She claims that “Troy Bolton represents one side of evolution, and our side [the academic decathlon team], the side of education and accomplishment, is the future of civilization.” This quote is detrimental to the image of athletes which is also detrimental to Black men. Because of America’s history of racial oppression, many Black men remain in poverty and society teaches them to rely on professions such as rap and sports, rather than a good education, “to make it out of the hood.”  The producers casted the Black men as basketball players instead of allowing them to play other parts, adding to the dangerous idea that Black men have brawn but not brains.

Seli: The roles of Chad and Taylor also play into the stereotypes that society holds for Black people. The writers wrote the attitude of these two characters very differently than they wrote Troy and Gabriella. The contrast in their attitudes works to bring out the best in the movie’s protagonists. When Chad confronts Troy about auditioning for the Spring Musical in the library, he raises his voice and slams a basketball into Troy’s chest. He then proceeds to ignore the librarian’s request for him to lower his voice. Chad’s loud and aggressive actions towards Troy define him as a hostile and an inconsiderate character, whereas Troy is painted as more reserved and polite. When the movie first introduces Taylor, the audience hears her make a snarky comment about how Chad couldn’t count to fifteen. Later, when Taylor is attempting to get Gabriella on the Academic Decathlon team and begins her speech about Troy, Gabriella tries to get up and go to her rehearsal, but Taylor shouts, making Gabrielle sit back down in fear. She then proceeds with her lengthy presentation where she slams her stick and insults Troy. These actions paint Taylor to be incredibly pretentious and rude, characteristics that work to bring out Gabriella’s purity and innocence. This aggressive, loud, and rude portrayal of Black characters in the film reinforces many of the preconceptions that people hold about African Americans. Because there is already a limited number of Black characters in High School Musical, the writers should have been more cautious of what these roles represented. 

Esther: In contrast to the improper representation of Black characters as “dumb athletes” and aggressive, the producers managed to exempt key aspects of the Black community. Knowing they have such a young audience (or even 18-year-olds😉), the producers should have incorporated these important aspects to teach the kids how to divert from the status quo. 

Let’s delve into the hairstyles of the main female characters.

Long.

Silky.

Curls.

Many white girls watching High School Musical, may see nothing wrong with long, silky, curls because to them it is normal. Now, imagine a young Black girl, with thick, nappy, 4c hair watching High School Musical. What message does this musical send her? It tells her that revealing a natural afro is unacceptable for society and not beautiful. When Black girls like Taylor have the opportunity to wear their natural kinks in the media, the producers cover it up with a wig that resembles the texture and curl pattern of white people instead. The producers even had the perfect opportunity to develop a relationship between Zeke and Sharpay, as a way to dismiss the taboo of interracial couples, yet they do not. Decisions such as these make me wonder: how were the producers trying to send a message to not “stick to the status quo,” yet turn around and cast according to racial stereotypes?

Seli: Wow you’re so right! Watching this musical again with a critical mind was incredibly eye-opening. As a kid, I thought the movie only taught the importance of breaking the status quo, but I did not realize the deep-rooted internalized racism that it taught minorities like myself. The movie places characters of different races in the film only to misrepresent them or make them secondary to the white characters. I will still forever love High School Musical; the music, the dancing, and the message that the writers tried to convey. However, the way that the producers chose to cast the movie was problematic. A great indication of improvement by Disney though, is the creation of the show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The show centers around a high school and their attempt to produce and perform the Musical, High School Musical. Ironically the female lead in High School Musical: The Musical: The series, Olivia Rodrigo, is ethnically half Filipino and half white, similar to Vanessa Hudgens. However, in the High School Musical: The Musical: The series, Olivia Rodrigo portrays her true identity as a Filipino. There is an apparent effort to include more diversity in the cast of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series not only racially, but also by including two members of the LGBTQ society and greater body diversity.
Esther: I am so glad you told me this. We tend to forget that High School Musical was made in 2006, and a lot of the things we do and say now, were not acceptable back then. It gives me hope that society is moving towards a path of inclusion and diversity, or what our generation likes to call it, “being woke.”

Seli’s Big Break

Puerto Ricans Are The Odd Ones Out

Let’s play a game. 

It’s called “which singer does not belong.” I’m going to give you four names and you have to tell me which one does not belong. And yes, you have to choose one. 

Ready? 

Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, and Brittney Spears.

5 seconds left…

Okay, time’s up. What’s your answer?

Did you choose Jennifer Lopez? 

If you did choose JLO, ask yourself why. Was it because she is the oldest one out of the group? Maybe because she hasn’t made any hit songs lately? Maybe you’re a World of Dance fan? Despite these justifications, the reason may be deeper than any of those: she is the only American singer on the list who isn’t white. Although you may think that you were not considering ethnicity when choosing your answer, the world that you live in inherently sees race before anything else, and in America especially, there are racist stereotypes that feed into our first perceptions of others. And while we can all try our hardest to suppress these implicit biases, they are impossible to escape.

The classic film musical West Side Story is an iconic example of these stereotypes. Either knowingly or unknowingly, we tend to exclude immigrant groups out of the American identity because the term “American” has now become synonymous with “white.” This white American identity is incredibly ironic because America is a country of immigrants that derives its uniqueness and its greatness from its diversity. 

West Side Story, one of America’s beloved musical performances, directed in 1961 by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and packed with exuberant jazz and Hispanic style dances, lively music and singing, and climatic moments. It highlights the rift between two gangs: the Jets, composed of white members, and the Sharks, composed of Puerto Ricans. These two groups constantly battle over who owns “the turf,” which is contested land in the West Side of New York. The musical is a modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, and it uses the tensions between white Americans and Latinx Americans as a method of showing how arbitrary racial identity can be. The play grievously ends in the death of the two Jet members and one Shark member, including the play’s Romeo. When the movie musical was first released, it was appreciated by many Latinx community members, as it brought representation onto the stage. It was one of the first times that a movie had incorporated the experiences of the Latinx community, along with their cultures such as costumes, music, and dance, onto the big screen. While these aspects were adored by many, we as an audience must realize that the writers purposefully created racial tension between the two ethnic groups, as a way to show the disparity between American identity and cultural identity of Puerto Ricans and immigrant groups in general. They portray the Puerto Ricans’ lack of belonging within the musical through the dialogue and dancing, and in the real world through the casting. 

The main characters are Tony, Bernando, Riff, Anita, and Maria. Tony and Riff are the white Jets in the musical, whereas Bernanado, Anita, and Maria are Puerto Rican Sharks. Anita, played by Rita Moreno, was the only Puerto Rican actress. Bernando and Maria, played by George Chakaris and Natalie Wood respectively, were white American actors performing in brown face. Although Anita is the only character portrayed by a Puerto Rican, the Juliet of the adaptation, Maria, was played by a white actress. Although Latinx audiences may originally have been excited to see representation, the casting choices by the producers clearly indicate that their interest in portraying the Puerto Rican-American identity was more of a way to make money than actually caring about substantive and accurate representation. This implies that Puerto Ricans do not belong on the American Hollywood sets. Without discussing the elements of the musical, this is a perfect example of how Puerto Ricans are being excluded from the American identity. In a movie about the Puerto Rican-American identity, there is still a refusal to acknowledge what that identity looks like because they refuse to hire actors with that background and life experience, even if it could enhance the role. 

Throughout the musical, the racial tension between the white and Puerto Rican gang members was used to highlight the fact that Puerto Ricans do not belong within their community. For instance, when the two groups met at the drugstore to discuss the terms of the rumble, both sides began arguing over who started the fight. Riff, the leader of the Jets, states “who jumped Baby John this afternoon?” to which Bernando, leader of the Sharks, responds with “who jumped me the first day I moved here.” Then another Jet says “who asked you to move here…go back to Puerto Rico” These are very important lines that not only explain the origin of the tensions between them, but also reveals the internalized racism within the white boys. In the Jets’ eyes, the streets are rightfully their turf because they have internalized that only they (aka white people) belong in America and therefore, the Puerto Ricans don’t. While this portrayal of white privilege is a dangerous concept, it is an accurate representation of what occurs in the real world not only to Puerto Ricans, but to every non-white immigrant group. This argument is not something that has been lost over the last 60 years; rather, in some ways, we’ve seen these anti-immigrant sentiments rise in support, seen in videos of “Karens” claiming that “Mexicans should go back to their country because they bring drugs, black people should go to Africa because they are thugs, and Asian people should go back to China because they bring Coronavirus, or in President Trump’s words, ‘Chinese Flu’.” While such radical statements are not exactly stated in the musical, it is insinuated through the comments made by the Jets. In both the real world and the movie, ethnic groups are constantly considered the outsiders of America, just like in my “who does not belong” game. All the singers I listed are American, but the reason Jennifer Lopez unconsciously stuck out of the group is that she is the only one that is not white, and although race is always something that we see, it’s identification as a lack of belonging connects to our country’s inclination to see non-white people as outsiders.

  The Jet’s opinions on the Sharks are not insular. The constant bombardment of immigrants and people of color with these messages becomes internalized; the Puerto Ricans themselves feel like they do not belong either. In the musical number “America,” the Shark boys and girls are divided on the greatness of America. The women praise America and claim that their identity is American, while the men denounce America and claim their identity will always be with their home country, Puerto Rico. Although Anita and the girls support America, their dresses and dancing say otherwise. They wear traditional Hispanic dresses that have numerous ruffles on the bottom so that while they are dancing, they can flail it around and expose their legs. They also rhythmically tap their feet, shake their hips, spin in place, and perform high kicks. This confident and exuberant way of dancing was portrayed to parallel their pride in having an American identity, while still exuding the cultural traits of their Puerto Rican heritage. The boys on the other hand, in one specific part of the number, dance more elegantly in partners, somewhat like a ballroom and ballet type of dance, by going in releve and spinning in place. Then all of sudden, they fake slap each other across the face and scream “America.” They go back to dancing elegantly, and suddenly kick each other in the butts and scream “America” again. This contrasting and peculiar way of dancing shows how the boys think they do not belong in America because in America everything seems elegant, classy, and like a dream, but in reality America “kicks you in the ass,” especially when you’re an immigrant or a person of color, or both. This is exemplified by their reasons for why they don’t like America; the girls say there is “credit here” (elegant ballroom), but the boys respond with “they will charge twice for people who are not white” (followed by a slap in the face or a kick in the butt). At the end of the number, the two groups come together, partner up with one boy and girl, and they happily and lively dance the same upbeat Hispanic dance by clapping their hands, jumping around wildly, and skipping in place, to show that although the two groups have opposing views on America, they are all happy to share the same ethnic identity of being Puerto Rican. These two separate perspectives that they have on America is partially related to the American Dream and the violence that men of color face in America, while women of color, although they also face violence, are often also commodified, shown by how the love interest in the movie is the Puerto Rican girl. 

The movie ends in the death of Tony, a white jet who falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria. Even though Maria screams at both groups for letting their hatred for each other result in multiple deaths, the creators of the musical do not end it with both sides coming together, apologizing, and coming up with a resolution for the future. Instead, each group walks away to their respective side. This silent scene speaks the loudest in that it shows how the white people still do not see the Puerto Ricans as one of them. It portrays the real-world actions of how immigrants groups never belong in America. Despite the logic, the facts, the historical context of America, and the power of diversity in creating the America we live in today, the Jets and the Sharks represent the ongoing tension between an American identity, and a white one. It shows how Puerto Ricans have not been and currently are not, a part of the American community. In our world today, JLO is in fact the odd one out.

Just Another Cinderella Story-Esther Ayoade

We all know the story of Cinderella: she is abused by her evil stepmother, she meets the prince at the ball, loses her glass slipper, yada yada yada, then she lives happily ever after with her charming prince. Miss Saigon takes a similar turn; Kim is orphaned as both her parents died, she meets Chris, they fall in love, yada yada yada, and they live happily ever after…. Wait no they don’t. Kim is an Asian woman. Miss Saigon, made in 1989 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, was written in a way that represents the intersectionality of being an Asian woman by portraying Kim as an inferior character with limited amount of choices, while portraying Chris, a White man, as a superior character who has full control of his own life with the many choices he had. When such musicals are written this way, it makes it seem okay for society to adopt the many harmful stereotypes and beliefs embedded within, such as Asian fetishes (also called yellow fever). In this preference still practiced today, White men are greatly attracted to Asian women due to the physical attributes and characteristics stereotypically attached to them: helplessness and submissiveness. This causes Asian women to feel worthless because they are not loved for who they truly are. This is portrayed in the musical when the writers make Kim kill herself not only as a sacrifice to her son, but also as a way to show that her life was never meaningful in the first; it was especially not meaningful when Chris, a man of power and privilege, disappeared from the picture.

In society East Asian women are often labeled as these “China dolls” because of the suggestion that East Asian women are dehumanized to the level of a doll that is supposed to sit, look pretty and allow the White men to play and control them however they want. The idea of Asian fetisization is highlighted within the musical when Chris instantly “falls in love” with Kim because of her virginity but later leaves her for his White American wife, Ellen. The issue is that Chris did not actually love Kim, but lusted for her instead. They only knew each other for a few days and the initial attraction was due to the fact that she was a virgin, but the later attraction was due to the fact that he felt the need to protect her, after she portrayed herself as helpless and vulnerable. Chris confirms this in a later duet with his wife Ellen claiming, “so I wanted to save her, protect her Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This further shows that the fetish he had for Kim was real because he felt like it was his job to protect and comfort her not only because he is an American (white savior), but also because it helps him feel better about himself, considering it enhances his masculinity and superiority.

This play begins with many Vietnamese ladies in a club wearing skimpy lingerie, performing sexual dances as GI soldiers touch them inappropriately. Then Kim, a virgin and orphan walks out wearing a white dress that covers her legs and shows nothing but her arms as a way to portray her purity, the stage lights then turn white and shine on her center stage. Eva Noblezada, the actress who plays Kim, was chosen for this role because at the time of release she was a 20 year old girl with a soprano voice. The producers purposefully chose a girl like Eva, with an angelic voice, rather than another girl with a raspy voice, to go along with Kim’s characteristics of being innocent, as innocence is a key part of her identity and it is what draws Chris’ eyes in the first place. After the performances are over and Miss Saigon is announced, the Engineer, an Asian man, viscously grabs her by the neck and arm so she can attract more men, then a random GI background character, a White man, attempts to rape her, and finally, Chris’ friend John, a Black man, inappropriately humps her. Here we see three races, Asian, White, and Black, take advantage of Kim all because they share a common power: being a man. In this musical, men are shown to be hypermasculine and able to get whatever girl they want, while Kim is a woman, portrayed as a weak girl that is not able to defend herself. That is why throughout the play Kim relies on Chris to improve her life, because she sees this White man as her only ticket out of helplessness and out of Vietnam. Examples of this are when she begs Chris to take her out of the club in the beginning or when she runs after him behind the gate of the embassy.

Kim’s femininity is not the only thing that paints her as inferior. A main factor and the reason why her story ends in a tragedy while Cinderella’s and Chris’ do not, is because she is Asian. The stereotype that East Asian women are helpless is what attracts the White American men is portrayed in the scene where Chris wants to leave Kim because he thinks she is like every other girl who just sleeps with soldiers to get a visa to America, but then Kim tells the sob story of when and how her parent were killed and how she is forced to work at a club to stay alive. She sings the phrase “I would rather die,” and this makes Chris feel empathy for her, so much so that his so-called “love” for her is enhanced and he asks her to live with him. Chris even kneels down and puts his head in her lap as a way to show his “deep love” for her. However, if we really think about it, it does not make sense for Chris to fall in love with someone in less than 24 hours. Instead, he lusts for Kim because she symbolizes innocence and purity and this will allow Chris to appear as a hero in her life who saved her from her terrible life in Vietnam. At this point in time the ball was in Chris’ court, he had all the power and all choices of how he could play or comfort his “doll.” The phrase “I would rather die,” was added by the producers to foreshadow her demise, but also to paint Vietnam in such a bad light that it alludes to the fact that America is superior to Vietnam, the same way Chris is superior to Kim. 

In the duet “Last Night of the World,” Chris sings the lyrics “there’s a place your life will have worth, I will take you” then Kim replies with “ I will go with you.” These lyrics were added by the producers of the play to imply Chris’ superiority over Kim. It reiterates the idea that Kim, because of her Eastern culture and identity, does not have a meaningful life, but when she goes to America, even though she is still East Asian, her life will magically have worth. The play is written in way that insinuates that America is such a great place for any race that lives there, when in reality being a person of color in America comes with facing discrimination and not being given the same privileges and opportunities as other White people. They purposefully write Chris to be blind to the negative situations other races experience in America because his whiteness allows him to live a good life. Unfortunately, Kim’s ignorance adds to the perpetuating false belief of America’s superiority over Vietnam. She does not know that America has its own problems that she would also have to face, especially because she is a woman of color. The authors made Kim oblivious because it parallels with how many immigrants who long for the American dream, have a false notion that America is the land of milk and honey, when in reality that is only the case for native born White Americans. We see Chris exemplify this “White male dominance” again on the day Saigon fell; Kim says that she wants to go with him but he makes the final decision that he thinks it is best if she stays and waits for him to come back. The fact that Kim never makes it to America and dies at the end of the story ingeminates the idea that Kim was worthless from the very beginning and was only awaiting her demise, solely because Asian women are, and will always be, inferior to White men.

Throughout the musical Kim has portrayed her inferiority through her Vietnamese identity, but in the musical number “This is the Hour,” it is the first time Kim shows her strength and power which lies in the love she has for her son. She makes it clear that her son is what brings her joy and she will do anything to protect him and give him a better life than the one she has. Kim’s power is illustrated in the music as well, because when she is duetting with Thuy, the baseline of the accompaniment along with her pitch, gets higher and higher and eventually overshadows Thuy’s voice. Again, in the lyrics she shows her dominance when Thuy proclaims she is not a killer but she responds back with the words, “what I must do I will,” and then five seconds later she actually kills him, knowing the consequences. Her words and actions reveals her heightened power over Thuy and the sacrifice she is willing to make for her son. The only reason why Kim was able to overpower Thuy by killing him and face no repercussions, is because Thuy is also Vienamese. If she had gone toe to toe with any other White male like Chris, she would have failed. This is because the authors of the musical wanted to portray Thuy as the villain and Chris as the hero. It goes back to the idea that having white skin and western cultures is a more dominant and appreciated feature than being East Asian. However we must keep in mind that just because Kim was able to dominate over Thuy in that specific moment, does not make the portrayal of East Asian women, generally in this play, dominant. The fact that she has to make certain sacrifices in the first place, like killing other people or even killing herself, shows that she never gets to control how her own life plays out and she must always depend on the power of others to protect herself. 

The musical’s portrayal of the two main characters Kim and Chris serves to normalize and validate the stereotypical characteristics of submissiveness and helplessness in East Asian women along with the power and privilege in White men. The main way Kim demonstrates this stereotype is by constantly relying on Chris to take her and her son Tam to America, when she waits three years for Chris and when she kills herself. Chris, on the other hand, exhibits his dominance by fetishizing for Kim’s purity and vulnerability, which in turn makes him feel like the savior and enhances his masculinity. In order to end the stigmatization that men are superior to women and White people are superior to people of color, musicals must be written in a way that diminishes those harmful stereotypes. They need to portray a certain character’s dominance, not through their skin color, but solely through their actions and thoughts. If and when this occurs, there would be an alternate ending to this tragic musical. Kim would be Cinderella. Kim would not have to sacrifice her life for her son to live in America. Kim would get to live with her prince charming, Chris, along with her son Tam, in Vietnam.