Black at East High? Good luck.

By: Cheyenne Figaro

The 2000s will be remembered by for a lot of things: Brad and Angelina, the Online Streaming revolution, the rise of the Kardashians, and so many other pop culture phenomena. But if you were to ask the children of the 2000s about the most iconic parts of their childhoods, High School Musical, would make just about everyone’s list. The 2006 film, directed by Kenny Ortega and written by Peter Barsocchini, follows teens Troy and Gabriella as they’re outcasted by their school for enjoying theater and still having lives—I know scandalous! But the real scandals of the movie aren’t Troy’s pipes (later revealed to be Drew Seely because Zac Efron wasn’t a good enough singer) or Zeke’s crème brûlée, instead the real scandal is how racism is weaved throughout the entire script, highlighting Troy and Gabriella, at the expense of Chad, Taylor, and Zeke.

High School Musical is a production near and dear to my heart. I’ve rewatched the trilogy over and over again to the point where I can quote each one as if I’ve read the script. My sixth birthday party was to see HSM 3 (remember movie theaters what a throwback), and I wore my East High cheerleading outfit the first time I went to Disneyland the next year. My full circle moment came when I played the role of Taylor McKessie in my high school production of the show, an experience I’ll treasure in my heart forever. Yet, playing the role of Taylor was an eye-opening experience as it showed me how people view the characters of the musical. When I revealed to people that I was playing Taylor, most responded with “Who?” to my surprise, and then I’d say “Taylor… Gabriella’s best friend… the smart one… *sighs* the Black one” to which I’d receive an “Ohhhhhh her, yeah now I remember.” Not only was I offended as a HSM fan, since Taylor was literally a main character, but I was also offended as a Black girl myself. It shook me that people watched all three movies and only knew Taylor and Chad because of their race. Even worse, I started to realize if Chad, Taylor, and Zeke are merely racial symbols to most fans, then Disney had done a huge disservice to the Black community with their roles.

For a movie all about circumventing stereotypes, the portrayal of the Black characters in High School Musical raises a big question mark for several members of the Creative Team. Disney has a reputation that precedes itself when it comes to Black characters. “Positive” Black girls are usually brown to light skinned, with wavy to straight hair, while “negative” girls are darker skinned with braids or afros. Taylor is the former, her long, wavy hair fits Disney’s idea of what a bright Black girl looks like, pushing aside the fact that most Black people have Type 4 hair which is much kinkier and short. This idea is further reinforced by the casting of Corbin Bleu as Chad, whose hair is light brown and curly, and light skinned. In fact, the only Black character who is darker skinned with short hair is Zeke, and the movie portrays him as desperate and undesirable to a White female lead. Disney has done this time and time again, subliminally messaging that there is a right look and a wrong look for a Black person.

I’ll admit that when I was younger, I didn’t really notice featurism in movies like HSM. Yet, as I got older most of the girls around me started to get perms or texturizers, essentially damaging their hair to get the straight hair look that all the Black girls on TV had. Even worse, we’d unconsciously gained self-hate and turned that internalized racism on girls who had kinkier 4C hair or who were darker skinned. Watching Disney shows and movies as a teen always make me question: Why? What was the motive behind perpetuating racism and damaging the self-esteem of a generation of Black boys and girls? Chad and Taylor may not have been main characters, but they were just as important as Troy and Gabriella to me and every other Black child watching the show. So why couldn’t we have seen ourselves on the Big Screen looking the way we do in everyday life? Having any representation at all is great, but it wasn’t really me who was being represented, but a vision of me that White directors and writers wanted to uphold. In a perfect world, Taylor would have been a revolutionary character with braids or kinkier hair because she would affirm what every Black girl already knows in her heart—the Black girl with natural hair can be successful too. Zeke could’ve showed Black boys that they’re desirable too. But no, this isn’t a perfect world, and so the Black audience is just left to deal with the fact that this what we get, and it’s what we usually get: lackluster representation because of negligent decisions with casting.

Here’s a fun fact: Casting Directors and Writers should be best friends throughout a project. It’s astounding that Peter Barsocchini never realized that the delivery of his story was heavily based on the race of the actors playing each role. Let’s take Taylor for instance, a smart, ambitious brainiac who recruits Gabriella for the Science Decathlon. On the surface, Barsocchini did quite an amazing job in breaking stereotypes by highlighting a studious and ambitious Black student, as opposed to the typical script of the Black students who don’t care about school at all. Yet, the musical takes things a bit further by labeling Taylor’s assertion as bossiness, and her advice as demands. This attitude shift would have been fine if Taylor’s race wasn’t a factor, but unfortunately it is. Taylor, as well as Chad, is villainized for not fitting into the Black best friend trope. They have their own ideas and are equally as intelligent or athletic as their leads, and the writers compensate for this by making them use their power with bad intention. Taylor starts to play into the angry, Black woman stereotype (as much as she can in a TV-PG film), and her intelligence is eclipsed by her sneaky behavior and aggression. Obviously, there must be drama in the story, but the writing for Taylor conveys the message that Black girls who are too focused or too ambitious are in some way harmful.

 The Black men get the short end of the stick as well, in fact a shorter end. Chad, who is literally just trying to tell Troy that he doesn’t have time to for Basketball practice and musical rehearsals, is made out to be the bad guy to fit a narrative. First of all, I wish someone could’ve been on top of my time management in high school and told me to drop an extracurricular or two. Second, this movie gets Black male representation so wrong. Chad is the dumb jock, who couldn’t possibly see past a basketball for two seconds (seriously why does he always have that thing?) to envision a world with multifaceted people. Zeke’s entire role is to be comedic relief, a role that Black men often play as even in real life they’re taken more seriously as comedians. Not only that, but his chasing after Sharpay is subtly denouncing the idea of a successful interracial relationship, making even the suggestion of one seem funny to the audience. The characterizations of Taylor, Chad, and Zeke suggest that nobody behind the scenes even for a second considered that these characters were Black, or they considered it and didn’t care. What’s abundantly clear, above all else, is that there were barely, if any, Black creators behind the scenes of the production, a fact that jumped out the screen every time one of these characters was present.

There were a few moments throughout the movie where I scratched my head thinking, “Nobody saw an issue with this?” Moments where a Black creator was desperately needed in the Writers’ room or on the Production team because the scene made absolutely no sense. The worst of these is when Taylor refers to athletes as “Neanderthals” and “Aggressors” who “contribute little to society”, as if most of the NBA and NFL aren’t Black men. Excuse me, but Taylor the Black girl is the one calling Black men useless animals? Whoever wrote that entire monologue should have been fired on the spot because Taylor really equated one of the few roles where Black men successfully dominate to the Darwin evolution chart (Did they miss the lesson on Darwin being a racist?). Many Black athletes were the first in their families to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, have set up charities and foundations, and many of them provide for their families in ways that Black people were excluded from for centuries in the United States. Taylor’s rhetoric about Troy Bolton isn’t really about this fictional White character but instead attacks Black boys who were supposed to feel lesser for being good at sports. There’s nothing wrong with Black boys wanting to be athletes, and just like any other race of people they should be pushed to succeed in whatever they enjoy in life. This doesn’t have to be sports, because Black boys aren’t only athletes, but it very well could be and that should be acceptable. Aside from this very offensive moment, on a broader scale the whole musical is tone deaf towards Black people. It is simply unrealistic that two of the main proponents of stereotypes in East High are Black students. More than most other people, Black teens understand what it’s like to be labeled as one thing for your whole life when you have the potential to be so much more. Taylor and Chad should have been Troy and Gabriella’s main supporters, but instead were written in more of a colorblind manner to serve the narrative. Unfortunately for High School Musical, colorblindness doesn’t do much but give breathing room to microaggressions, and racism, and a complete mishandling of characters because they aren’t written with intention. Taylor, Chad, and Zeke could have and should have been much more, but they were shorthanded to make other characters shine even more.

Despite their negligence towards race, the High School Musical creators did create something magical. I’m still obsessed with the trilogy and I’ll forever attach my love for musicals to watching the films as a child. Truthfully, Disney has evolved in terms of social awareness both in front and behind the scenes. Many shows like Andi Mack, Raven’s Home, K.C. Undercover and more, work to help children unlearn the harmful stereotypes that Disney was too negligent to catch in its earlier days. They also ensure that children of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations see themselves in a multitude of storylines and roles so that they understand the possibilities are endless. I’m not saying Disney is perfect, of course there’s always room to grow, but I’m glad that children now aren’t only limited to movies like High School Musical and have tons of Disney Originals to choose from to see accurate representation and purposeful, wholesome representation, which is what all production companies should strive for.

Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist- and Broadway a Little Bit More

BY: Cheyenne Figaro

The Broadway stage is often heralded as a center of creativity, a celebration of culture; however, it is just the opposite. For decades, the very stages that had brought to life Upper West Side in West Side Story and Vietnam in Miss Saigon have also perpetuated racist stereotypes, sometimes as apparent as blackface or yellowface, and other times through the much more subliminal use of lyrics, choreography, and dialogue. The importance of racial distinctions is only built upon when other identities such as gender and class are also interpolated into musicals. For proof of this, look no further than Kim in Miss Saigon and Miss Anna in The King and I. While both women face obstacles because of misogyny, Kim’s race and class cost her much of her autonomy and opportunity while Anna’s whiteness and “civility” gives her the upper hand throughout the production despite often contesting with a monarch.

It would be remiss to venture into the racism and sexism of Miss Saigon, without first touching on the fact that those were fundamental principles of the production. The show is based on Madame Butterfly, a one-act play which follows the same storyline of a fallen Asian woman desperate to meet her white savior, and going to extreme lengths for him to take their child back to America. The show was widely popular, and turned into an opera that was just as successful, before receiving the modern updates that made it Miss Saigon. However, the production wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture as it should have been, instead choosing to go the more American route, making a mockery of an “exotic culture”, and presenting it in a way that made Americans feel like they had to save the China Doll from the woes of her broken down country. These ideals remain ingrained in the modern version, where Kim is presented as an innocent, lost girl needing a strong, patriotic, white army man to come sweep her up. Kim’s entire identity is formed around inferiority but also around her need to be controlled and guided. She is a seventeen year old virgin, and instead of paying for her and setting her free, Chris actually proceeds to have sex with her. Yet, this sordid act is made out to be one of romance, and one of the only times in which Kim is able to voice her opinions, she decides that she wants Chris to buy her, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall. This scene heavily conveys the idea that the white patriot is inherently positive for the lost Asian girl, who wants to go with him and be obedient and give him what he wants. Hence, despite prostituting herself, Kim is happy with the outcome of her tryst with Chris and quickly falls in love with him. They sing of staying together even if this is the “Last Night of the World”, because they see themselves as soulmates. Of course, this dream comes crashing down not even fifteen minutes later with Chris leaving Kim behind, but it was good while it lasted, right?

Further into the story, the race and power dynamics between Kim and Chris become more relevant and apparent in the story. Chris leaves Vietnam and one year later gets a new wife. Correction: he gets a new, white wife. In the biggest slap in the face to Kim, he decides that the only way to forget her is to get someone who is the opposite of her. The fact that white, blonde, and affluent just happens to check those boxes is a coincidence, right? No. Although Kim and Chris were married in a non-traditional way, they were still in fact married. His new marriage is a statement of what a real wife should look like: white, clean, and American. She can’t be a lowly prostitute and she isn’t just a fetish for white men as women of other cultures often are. Hence, Chris being bound to Kim through nightmares is supposed to evoke pity from the audience, as we are made to feel bad for this man who is now being “burdened” by his past. Of course, the audience feels bad for Kim’s minor inconveniences too– left with no job, no house, a three year old, and an obsessed army general searching for her– but still Chris. Kim’s being a burden is reiterated when Chris finds out he has a son and instead of beaming with joy is filled with sadness. His son is another burden, and as soon as Ellen realizes Kim is in love, they make a joint decision to leave Chris’s family, Kim and Tam, in Bangkok because that would be the most comfortable to their lifestyle. Thus, Kim has to beg on her knees, sing on her knees, and literally pull out all the stops until her suicide just to get a white man to listen to her, to consider her opinion. Kim, an Asian woman, only experienced freedom throughout her story when she was living in poverty with Tam, and even then she was singing “I Still Believe” and thinking of her white knight in shining armor, because the musical is an endless cycle of American praise. Her autonomy is limited in every way, and yet all of Kim’s decisions revolve around Chris- from having sex instead of running away, remaining in poverty instead of going with Thuy (even if he is her cousin), and lastly taking her own life so that Chris can acknowledge and help their son. Kim’s story is one of fallen glory, of giving your everything to your love (even if they try actively to forget about you for three years and only come back for their son). Yet, Kim is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances, but not as a victim to the racism and misogyny that placed her in those circumstances to begin with. 

Anna’s story juxtaposes Kim’s in so many ways you would think that Broadway is trying to say that white women are inherently better in the face of conflict. Oh wait, that’s precisely what they’re saying. When first introduced to Anna, the words WHITE-WHITE-WHITE flash before the eyes, because she could not stick out more as an embodiment of whiteness. “Whistle a Happy Tune” is all about keeping a poker face when one is afraid, a skill that Anna’s son needs because apparently he is afraid of anyone who dresses differently than him- in this case differently meaning in rags or you know- like they’re poor. Throughout the number, Anna’s class is amplified as she walks with her nose turned high above the common people, as they grovel and run around for the coins that she throws on the floor like they’re pigeons. Her costume, a blue, flowy skirt, white gloves, and a tilted hat, emphasizes her wealth in comparison to the people of Siam dressed in brown and red rags. This wardrobe decision is once again emphasized when Anna speaks to the prime minister. She is nicely dressed whereas he is “half-naked”, already tilting the conversation in her favor as she seems to be more put together (read: ideally Western) than him. If anyone else were to talk back to the Prime Minister they’d surely be punished, but Anna, a white woman, is accepted by the audience as being right in this situation. She’s allowed and expected to talk back, breaking the Siamese way of doing things, because she must invade the space with her whiteness in order to correct their barbaric way of doing things. Thus, the show automatically sets up the dynamic of a fine and proper white woman having to deal with “savage” and poor Asians.

Her relationship with the King is the most apparent example of how Anna’s whiteness makes her superior in positions where women like Kim would be at the bottom of the totem pole. When the King calls her a servant in front of the Royal Children and Wives, Anna responds no, she is not a servant, and she doesn’t have to be in Siam teaching. She is doing him the favor, and reminds him of that loudly, scolding him in front of a large audience and making a fool of him. Anna’s insistence that she is not a servant despite the fact that she is being paid for is a clear contrast from Kim’s role as a prostitute in Miss Saigon. Anna holds strong to the fact that her time and obedience can’t be bought, the opposite of Kim whose virginity is purchased and is sold by the Engineer for an entire day to Chris. Anna also has the autonomy to leave whenever she would like, something that she fully intends to do until the King’s wife has to beg her to stay because the King needed her help. The musical establishes Anna as the person in power in all of her scenes, giving her the same type of white savior storyline as Chris but adding in her femininity as a way of saying that white womanhood trumps even the highest status of foreigners, despite white women being the lowest of white Americans. This idea is reinforced time and time again throughout the musical, most notably when Anna is allowed to have her head at equal height with the King whilst everyone else must bow into tiny “toads” on the floor when he walks in a room. Anna’s equal height, and thus equal importance, to the King is a stark contrast to Kim who spends the majority of Miss Saigon on her knees and staring at the ground. This physical distinction conveys everything that needs to be known about their status and role in their worlds, but also the way that these characters, a white woman and an Asian woman are viewed by American society. Thus, it isn’t peculiar that the entire last scene of The King and I is centered around Siam becoming more westernized instead of the children losing their father, and the wives losing their husband. The King is dying, yet the headlights focus on the Prince reversing every “savage” rule the kingdom has, and the children bowing to Anna in a Western fashion. The lights and dialogue in this scene are meant to move the audience to praise Anna for essentially colonizing Siam without them even knowing. Because while Kim struggled the entire show to get someone to listen to her, Anna was given that privilege the moment she stepped off the dock as a white woman. She is the American that Siam has been waiting for. She teaches them out of their ignorance, she guides them out of their “barbaric” views on love, and she overall uplifts Siam into a more progressive (Western) position.

Both The King and I and Miss Saigon bring color to the Broadway stage as it had never seen before. Full ensembles of Asians and Asian-Americans were revolutionary, and the productions opened up roles for these underrepresented groups in vast amounts. Yet, all representation isn’t positive representation, and both productions painted the picture of Asians- usually poor and uncivilized- needing to be saved by their whiter, more Western counterparts. Though completely unrelated, juxtaposing the roles of Anna and Kim reveals the twisted stereotypes that are perpetuated by the shows, as Anna is given the upper hand throughout her entire show, whilst Kim continues to experience loss and disaster at any moment that she isn’t with Chris. Hence, both roles serve to establish white supremacy in the eyes of misogyny, for Anna’s being a woman never derailed her as much as Kim’s being Asian did throughout their stories.