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.