Shattering the Patriarchy One Wildcat at a Time: How High School Musical’s Troy Bolton Slam Dunks Gender Norms

By: Margie Johnson

This could be the start of something new, and that something goes beyond the basketball court. Walt Disney’s High School Musical directed by Kenny Ortega, Chen Shi-Zheng, Michael Lembeck, and Eduardo Ripari, features the journey of basketball star, Troy Bolton played by Zac Efron, to fulfill his newfound desire to perform in the winter musical. Fueled by his blossoming romance with new student Gabriella Montez played by Vanessa Hudgens, Troy surpasses society’s limitations in order to make it to the big stage. These limitations, ranging from those implied by his predestined basketball career to those imposed by antagonist Sharpay are comically exaggerated in order to question the validity of social and gender confinements. Through his defiance of the over the top obstacles placed by his fellow classmates and family, Bolton is able to take down the patriarchy in one fell swoosh. 

Troy Bolton is the exemplary model of the American male teenager. From his Justin Bieber-esque swooped hair to his love for sports, he sits comfortably in the upper echelon of the prototypical East High’s society. I mean, would you take a look at this guy? Everything about him screams 2006 boy crush, and I would know from personal experience. I was the target audience for this musical as a suburban American preteen, and I loved it. I wasn’t old enough or savvy enough to see this movie as stereotyped and white washed, but I was certainly old enough to pick up on the struggle of the main characters as they chafed against the constraints placed on them by their group definitions. I got it. Troy isn’t just a jock. Gabriella is more than a brain. And boy, can everybody sing and dance.

Around his male friends and father, Troy speaks only about basketball and the big championship approaching, perpetuating his perfected athletic image. As a result of conforming to expectations, he is rewarded generously by attention from girls and by a successful basketball career. Within the first few moments of stepping foot on campus once returning back from winter break, he is swarmed by an entourage of basketball players and cheerleaders. As he walks towards the school, the song “We’re All In This Together” plays in the background, an upbeat track about comradery and cheer for the high school’s mascot of the Wildcat. When approached by his best friend and teammate Chad, he is passed a basketball and told that he is going to lead the team “to infinity and beyond.” Thus, when fitting into the expected typical heterosexual male mold, he is celebrated by his school and even granted authority over the other male players on his team. 

Everything changes as he falls in love with Gabriella, however, causing him to question his previous conceptions of masculinity. In the very first moments of the musical, Troy and Gabriella share their first encounter over a karaoke duet. Although the two are picked from the crowd and reluctant to sing together, once they begin to perform, the talent and passion shared between them is palpable. So much so that after the performance they exchange phone numbers and plan on meeting the day after, thus having the duet serve as the initial spark in their relationship. Though this is a momentous occasion between the two of them, once Gabriella arrives at school days later, Troy reveals that he never mentioned the duet to his friends. He even whispers the word “singing” to Gabriella in a crowded hall, afraid to stray away from his athletic image in front of his fellow classmates. Just after his whisper, the directors stage another male student to walk by and give Troy a handshake, reminding the audience of the overpowering presence of social confinements set by gender as he must return to his calm and cool demeanor as a basketball star. Still, after the incredible karaoke performance, Troy desires to inquire more about performing. Unable to speak to Ms. Darbus directly, he relies on a place of security to gather more information: the basketball court. Cue “Get’cha Head In The Game”:

As seen from his internal monologue out on the court, Troy becomes even more flustered by his newly discovered passion. Though he wishes to try out for the musical, he is reminded by his teammates to get back into the mindset that he has had his entire life: bound by East High’s expectations for a male student. The camera circles around the fast paced movement of boys passing the ball around, led by Troy, signifying his essential role in the team as captain. Still, when taking a turn with the ball, he is caught up in the song and sings an especially long note, revealing his desire to perform as much as he may try to avoid it. This note breaks up the movement of the play, highlighting the consequences he must face were he to abandon his team if he cannot keep his “head in the game” of social confinements. After more dribbling, the song builds up to the final moment where Tory belts, “My head’s in the game but my heart’s in the song. She makes this feel so right. Should I go for it?” As written by lyricists Ray and Greg Cham as well as Drew Seeley, though he tries to meet his teammates’ expectations by staying within the confinements of his gender role, his heart desires to sing, ultimately stirring up trouble. 

When Troy finally gathers the courage to audition for the musical with Gabriella, the entire student body comes together to dissuade the duo from performing, showcasing the power of ingrained social confinements. One powerful member of this movement is Sharpay Evans, an over the top and glamorous student with a drive for musical theater. From a bedazzled microphone to a brightly painted pink locker, she encapsulates femininity to an extreme.

Proof of pinkness:

When signing up for pair auditions, Sharpay grabs her pink pen and signs her name across the audition sheet, taking up any available space for outside members. While doing so, she remarks to Gabriella and Troy, “Oh, were you going to sign up, too? My brother and I have starred in all of the school’s productions, and we really welcome newcomers. There are a lot of supporting roles in the show.” As seen with Troy, in meeting expectations of her gender role, Sharpay is able to maintain power and dominance over her chosen realm: musical performance. With everything coated in glitter she is able to dominate the stage and will stop at nothing to maintain her authority. Thus, when hearing that Gabriella and Troy may audition and take over her potential role, she recognizes the threat to her current social status and power as the entire social construct she comfortably resides in is now questioned. In order to take that power back, Sharpay deems it necessary to remind Gabriella of her place in the East High society: a brainiac. With the help of her brother, Ryan, Sharpay floods the halls with paper copies of Gabriella’s academic achievements, showcasing and delimiting Gabriella’s place in society to the entire class. Sharpay’s strategy initially proves to be successful as upon reading the article, the head of the school’s decathlon team, Taylor McKessie, inducts Gabriella into the group and eagerly invites her to join the team in the upcoming competition. Just as Sharpay had planned, with Gabriella’s academic intellect revealed to the school, her fellow classmates have now become aware of her predetermined role in society. As a result, when Troy attempts to exceed the limitations of his basketball team role alongside Gabriella attempting to surpass her brainiac classmates, Sharpay’s initial uproar is now supported by the entire class body. 

East High’s tactics, however, become exaggerated to the point of absurdity, leading Troy as well as the audience to confront and ultimately surpass his gendered confinements. In one pivotal moment of the musical, the brainiacs and basketball stars team up together and attempt to sway Troy and Gabriella from their auditions. Troy’s teammates trap Troy in the gym’s locker rooms, showing him framed photos of Wildcat superstars that Troy would disappoint by leaving his team. Gabriella’s decathlon team tapes an enlarged photo of Troy’s head over a stock photo of a basketball player, ridiculing Troy and even calling him a “lunkhead basketball man.” Even more, when Sharpay’s frustrations lead to a tipping point, she initiates a musical number inside the cafeteria.


During this song, the camera pans to the student body sitting within smaller and hegemonic cafeteria tables, reminding the audience of the enforced social bounds. While looking down upon the cafeteria, Sharpay exclaims from above, “Something is really— /  Really wrong. / And we gotta get things back where they belong.” Sharpay desires to return back to the way things were, as back to “belong[ing]” is where she retains all of her power at the top of the musical theater hierarchy. While the majority of classmates agree with her to quiet the whispers of a revolution, a few members of each group decide to rebel. These rebellions, however, are not the form of a violent or hateful revolt. Instead, the rebellious few belt out their creative and lovable hobbies. For example, one star basketball player shares his love for creme brulee, and a brainiac shows off her love for hip hop dance. In juxtaposing their reinforced roles in society versus their true passions, the audience is able to question the validity of the rigid structure in which they are expected to belong. Why must a brainiac confine her curiosity to books and knowledge when the wonderful joy of dancing exists? Similarly, who doesn’t love creme brulee? Thus, try as Sharpay and the rest of the school body might to “Bop to The Top”, those who exceed beyond their limitations are rightfully victorious in their passions. Most importantly, by the end of the musical, Troy and Gabriella are ultimately rewarded for their dive into the musical theatre world by being cast as the lead singers for the winter musical. 

High School Musical utilizes the triumphant journey of Troy Bolton to musical stardom in order to illustrate the severity of gender confinements. Instead residing as the “lunkhead basketball player,” Troy surpasses his predetermined role in society, challenging the social construct of East High in the process. It is important to note that his power and authority is ultimately granted by his white male privilege, allowing for a smooth and victorious quest against the status quo’s of his high school community. One could wonder how successful this transformation would have been for Troy and Gabriella if it had not included a popular handsome white male. I mean really, Troy’s biggest obstacle was overcoming the temper tantrums of Sharpay. Still, while we all love a good Sharpay sabotage, it’s worth celebrating the success of Troy in exceeding the gender bound normalities of East High, especially as seen by a young impressionable audience. In the end, why must one stay complacent in their expected role in society when there are so many creme brûlée to be made?  

Jets Side Story

By Margie Johnson

Set in the 1950’s, West Side Story features the rivalry between two gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City. Although they face a common enemy, the police, the hostility between the two groups is palpable. Both groups consist of all male teenagers but differ in ethnicity. These groups, with the exception of a few minor characters, ultimately form the ensemble of the production. The Jets, led by their leader Riff, feature an all white gang who have grown up in the Upper West Side for their entire lives. In contrast, the Sharks, led by their leader Bernardo, are Puerto Rican and recent immigrants to the country. Throughout the story, the Jets attempt to dominate their neighborhood through the power granted by their whiteness and their status as the established ethnic group. The Sharks, however, utilize the strength of their community bounded by their culture and immigrant status to push back against this hostile environment, illustrating that when faced with the overpowering forces of assimilation, one must cling to their culture to survive.

The Jets utilize their white privilege to intimidate and assert their authority. In the very first scene, the camera pans to the Jets leaning together against a chain fence. The members are silent and snap in unison, creating a singular crack amidst the introductory music. Every step taken falls in a pattern amongst the other members, signifying the connection they feel to the ground they walk on. When striding across the court, the group collectively walks into an ongoing basketball game. The Jets stare silently in unison, creating a sense of hostility towards the harmless teenagers. As a result, the teenagers flee from the scene, leaving the ball to the Jets as they immediately begin a basketball game of their own. Now that the Jets have won the smaller battle and taken over the basketball court, they have nothing to  prove and can move more freely and individually. Thus, as the brilliant choreography and staging brings to life, every movement made by the gang is calculated and used as a performance to showcase their power and superiority, as shown in the lyrics sung by the ensemble in the high energy dance and song, “here come the Jets little world step aside.” By compiling the members into a singular unit, the Jets are able to concentrate the power into an overwhelming force.  This force follows every move made by their leader, Riff. When walking down the street away from the court, the group begins their usual pace of snapping and walking in unison. As the music quickens, however, Riff introduces new moves into the flow of movement. Immediately after doing so, a few members of the group copy his exact move, followed by the rest of the members following suit. They do so in front of audiences of smaller children along the sidewalk, again emphasizing that these movements signify a physical show of power. The movement made by the Jets’ leader ripple through the crew of gang members who will do anything to serve him as he attempts to rule his part of the city. The sea of movement with waves of one particular course through the ensemble prevents any outliers or outsiders from joining the group, particularly if they do not fit the white male mold. For example, teenager Susan Oakes desperately wishes to be a Jet. Although she is allowed to follow the group around the city, she is never able to participate and is repeatedly told to go home. When pleading to the gang to accept her after fighting alongside them in the first encounter with the Sharks, one member retorts to the group, “how else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?” Susan’s whiteness grants her the limited authority to follow the group along and listen to their meetings, but she is precluded by her gender from being fully accepted as a Jet. Thus, it is the strict homogeneity of race and gender of the Jets that allow them to carry a sense of superiority over the population of the Upper West Side and reinforce a dominant hegemony. 

In complete contrast, the Sharks, led by Bernando, express their dominance through the vibrance of their cultural traditions. One tradition, for example, is the fluidity of their dancing. During a dance event held for both the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs are ordered to dance with the opposite gender of the other gang. Male Sharks are expected to dance with female Jets just as male Jets are expected to dance with female Sharks. Although ordered to do so, once the music begins, the gangs immediately divide and the respective gang members pull away their original partner. When it is the Sharks’ time to dance, the female and male dancers flow in one unit, with each kick, jump, or twirl intertwining with their partner’s. Just as they stand together as a gang, they move together in dance; emphasizing their refusal to let go of their LatinX culture. In contrast, the Jets move with great exuberance and American self confidence, but with flailed arms and legs. Instead of moving as one unit as seen with the Sharks, the females and males each take turns showing off their moves. For example, after a long dance period of the Sharks, the Jets barge right through the middle, breaking apart the group of Sharks in the process. As they do so, the male Shark completes a flip while his female partner twirls beside him, suggesting that their dance is for the attention of the audience rather than their attraction. Further, when nobody is watching other than the audience of their own gang, the Sharks break out into another dance number with both the males and females. The females, specifically Anita, take over a large portion of the song, with female members chiming in with their own unique lines and dance moves. A dance scene similar to this one featuring the Jets, however, is never shown throughout the entire production. Instead, the majority of the dancing with the Jets is seen with just the male members of the gang for the benefit of their rival gang, further emphasizing the Jet’s need to prove their validity. Just as the Sharks have arrived together in America, they will stay together in America, surpassing the need for fear and intimidation to unify. Even their name implies lurking danger and threat while the Jets’ name implies surging of power.

Once settled into America, the female members of the Sharks desperately desire to adopt an American lifestyle. Despite their attempts, however, they will never be accepted by the Jets or by the surrounding community due to their lack of “American” style, clothing, language (without accent), and skin color. After the first scuffle with the Jets at the beginning of the film, a police officer tells Bernardo to “get [his] friends out of here.” In one swift sentence, a sense of hostility has been established between the officer and the Sharks. They, Bernardo’s “friends” who look and speak like him, are not welcomed “here”, in America.  During a song titled, “America,” Anita and the other female members describe the luxuries they now possess after moving to Manhattan. From skyscrapers to Cadillacs and washing machines, the women rave about their passion for their newfound home and do so in cheerful song and dance. They are reminded in a call and response type dance number, however, by the male members about the limitations to their luxuries as immigrants. After every response by the males, the group breaks into shouts and cheer. In one line, Bernando states, “life is all right in America if you’re all white in America.” Instead of being feared and respected by the community just as the Jets are, Anita notes that they are reduced to “foreigners.” She does so shaking her head and hands in disgust, erupting a response from the gang to shout, “Lice! Cockroaches!” While the ensemble carries out the tune in a joking and playful manner, all of the members acknowledge that they will never fully obtain the American dream that they crave. They must, then, rely on their tightly bound Latino community for survival in their new and unwelcoming environment. 

West Side Story highlights the animosity between the established group (Jets) and the newcomers (Sharks) in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements and clashes. Although full of vibrance and passion, the Sharks will never fully be accepted into the Upper West Side by the Jets or by the surrounding community. As a result, they must rely on their gang, bound together by their culture, in order to face the challenges associated with their immigrant status. In contrast, the Jets are able to strike fear and intimidation into their community due to the privilege and power granted by their whiteness, and do so through performative and unified dance. It is not until the grave instances of life or death as seen in the final moments of the production with Tony’s passing, that the gangs are able to see past their racist and nationalistic cultural differences. This calls into question, then, when can the strength of a community surpass the limitations of racist ideals? Can two cultures, rooted in hatred for cultural differences, truly be unified or even allowed to coexist?

The Queen and I

By Margie Johnson

Hoop skirts, white gloves, and jeweled necklaces are all  part of Anna Leonowens’ typical attire. Her style of dress has no practical use other than for show, symbolizing the wealth and beauty that is the standard of her position in Western culture. Throughout her journey into Siam, Anna stands tall with her head held high, separating herself from those who do not dress, look, or speak as she does. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna’s whiteness is amplified and reinforced by her Western attire and mannerisms which grant her the authority to challenge the expectations for women in Siam. Those who do not possess whiteness, such as Tuptim, are left defenseless, trapped by the confinements of gender and femininity as proscribed by her culture and society. 

Anna’s superior position is revealed in the very first moments of the musical. After taking a position as the school teacher for the royal children of the King of Siam, Anna and her son Louis embark on a journey from Singapore to Bangkok. While still aboard the ship, Louis excitedly exclaims that there is a “naked” man passing by, evoking an eruption of laughter from the audience. In immediately calling attention to traditional attire of Eastern culture in a mocking manner, a sense of “otherness” has been established in favor of Louis and Anna. The actors invite us to join them in their mockery. Further into the scene, Anna and Louis admit that they are afraid of what is to come, calling upon a singing response from Anna to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There are no tangible dangers present other than the new culture of Siam, however, suggesting that it is the leaving behind of the comforts of their Western culture that they truly fear. When they finally arrive at the shore, the characters must physically lower themselves onto the ground below them, symbolizing their descent from their high lifestyle towards the presumably inferior and foreign Eastern civilization. As soon as they step foot on the ground, they are immediately swarmed by the common people of Siam. While some pull at Anna’s silk skirt and others beg for money, all are dressed in uniformly ragged and filthy clothes, dehumanizing the Siamese people and creating a starkly visual division of class and wealth. As a result, Anna and Louis are firmly positioned  on a pedestal of properness, allowing the Western audience to more comfortably accept their likely preexisting conception of superiority relative to the  presumed inferiority of the Siamese culture. 

In an attempt to impress the British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey, the King of Siam decides to entertain him in a grand manner with European traditions. One of the traditions includes dressing the King’s wives in European gowns. When attempting to put on the gowns and the makeup, the women shriek that they have to turn themselves “upside down and inside out.” They awkwardly waddle around in the bare hoops of the skirt or in an overly white painted face, alluding to their feelings of ridiculousness as they are not accustomed to any of these traditions and simultaneously making clear the false trappings of social standing and propriety. In one moment, a wife points to a dress and calls it a “costume,” referring to the dress as West and her face as East. Although the women are clearly suffering with their bruised toes and choking collars, Lady Thiang states that they must wear these trappings because Anna told them to do so, reinforcing the influence that Anna holds over them. Thus, it is no longer just the dress or the “costume” of Western traditions that provide Anna with power, but also the authority granted by her whiteness.

In addition to directing the entire event for Sir Ramsey, Anna speaks freely against the King, an action unheard of for a wife or any woman in Siam. Throughout the production, when confronted by the King’s rude remarks, Anna is unafraid to retort, emphasizing the immense amount of comfort and authority that her whiteness has provided her to the extent that she feels equal to a man of great stature. For example, before Anna arrives in Siam, she is promised a house by the King. This house is never delivered, however, causing her great distress. Although she is warned by the prime minister figure The Kralahome not to mention this unfulfilled promise to the King as it would aggravate him, she does so regardless and continues to do so throughout the musical. When teaching a lesson about snow, Anna’s students refuse to believe that snow, more whiteness, exists as they have never seen it themselves. After hearing the commotion, the King storms in and erupts into a fit of rage. He begins his tantrum with the discussion of snow but quickly trails into speaking poorly about the unfamiliar English traditions and revists the argument concerning the promised house. He throws books and shouts at the children, turning into a ruthless monster. While all of the students and wives cower below him in a prayer stance, Anna stands tall, head held high, and refutes him. She reminds him, once again, that the house was a broken promise and denies that she is a servant to his commands. If she does not receive her house, she states, she will return to England. In threatening to leave Siam, she has established herself as someone of value to the King with equal and unwavering opinions. Further, an entire song titled “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  is devoted towards Anna sharing her grievances about the King to the audience. In the song, she calls those under his ruling “toads” and pokes fun at their blind obedience. She includes a sexual reference, noting that all of his wives must compliment his sexual behaviors and behave as docile wives. In doing so, Anna has separated herself from the other women trapped under the King’s rule as she has enough power to ridicule him. Her incredible dominance granted by her whiteness has allowed her to supersede the limitations placed on the women in Siam. In a stance that would be humiliating to the King, were she a man, somehow it is accepted because she is a woman and while willing to confront him, still under his rule. Because she exhibits this Western whiteness, shared by the Western audience, it is still the Siamese people that are seen as “other.”

Tuptim, a woman gifted to the King of Siam from the King of Burma, does not experience similar autonomy as she does not possess Anna’s whiteness. Tuptim can speak English very well, and courageously exhibits this skill to the King when defending herself against the accusations that she was sent over as a spy. Instead of appreciating her talent and treating her as scholarly as he does Anna, the King pulls her away off stage to have her become another wife. In a plot twist, as suspected by Lady Thiang, Tuptim has fallen in love with another man. When Anna hears of this news, she feels sympathy for Tuptim and explains to the wives in a song about the great joys of falling in love. During the song, Anna stands tall above the women who are sitting equally far apart, grouping them into an obedient mass of women without any uniqueness or individually. Similar to the other women, however, Lady Thiang feels no emotion for Tuptim. Lady Thiang reflects the engrained sexist limitations of women in Siam and argues that it is foolish to love another man when she has the King. Due to the freedom and power granted by her whiteness, Anna has had the autonomy to fall in love naturally in contrast to the wives who must display constant obedience to the King. Tuptim, as a result, is forced to meet her lover in secret. In “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Tuptim and lover Lun Tha express the depths of their love for one another. They chase one another between pillar to pillar, playfully alluding to their constant hide-and-seek to see one another. Although a romantic song, they sing solemnly to express their sorrow that they will never be able to safely experience their love to the fullest as Tuptim has become a wife to the King. During the middle of the song, Lady Thiang strides in the background under a cool dark blue shadow, reinforcing the constant fear between Tuptim and Lun Tha of being punished for pursuing their love. A panic ensues between Tuptim and Lun Tha, causing Lun Tha to run away and leave Tuptim alone to finish the remainder of the song. Unlike Anna who can sing her love songs to an entire audience, Tuptim can only sing of romance in private, reinforcing Tuptim’s limitations as a new wife who cannot choose to be with the one she truly loves.

In an act of rebellion, however, Tuptim bravely attempts to defy her confinements and run away with Lun Tha. She gathers strength from the performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas, a version of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tuptim performs as the narrator of the play, speaking directly to the King as she speaks from her own heart. She announces the characters by describing them as happy people with the exception of slave Eliza. When it is time to announce Eliza, Tuptim stands directly next to her and bows in the same manner, making a clear reference towards herself that she is the unhappy slave to the King. Tuptim understands that it would be forbidden to clearly reveal her misery in the palace as she is expected to be grateful as a wife to the King. She acknowledges that she achieved the highest honor for a woman in Siam even though completely imprisoned. In order to fight for herself, she cleverly calls attention to the similarity between her story and Eliza’s. Eliza is separated from her lover George, just as she has with Lun Tha. Eliza runs away from her slave owner Simon, just as she will shortly after the play. Additionally, Eliza can only escape hidden behind snow, a concept associated with Anna’s teachings and defiance as seen from moments earlier in the musical. Tuptim alludes to Anna’s freedom which she so desperately wishes to obtain through this connection. Anna’s freedom, however, is only granted by her whiteness. As a result, despite Tuptim’s efforts, she will never be freed from the expectations for a woman under the King’s rule. After the production, Tuptim’s escape is brought to the attention of the King, and she is given a physical punishment of whipping. Once finding out that her lover has been killed, she reveals that she will soon kill herself to be with him. Tuptim’s only chance of happiness has been stripped from her as she was not given the agency of whiteness to stand up for herself without severe punishment. She could not bear to behave in complete obedience as demanded of her for a woman in Siam, ultimately driving her to death as a final resort. The King and I utilizes the extreme contrast between Anna and Tuptim in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements. In evoking raw emotion in the form of sadness and rage from the troubled life of Tuptim, the audience is able to question the unjust privileges granted to Anna. At the same time, Tuptim’s passion comes across as more authentic and not circumscribed by social class and social mores. The actors are masterfully able to portray their characters in a manner which is playful and highly entertaining while calling the audience to question their own notions of race and gender, power and place in society. If one is not white and proper as defined by Western culture, are they obstructed in their ability to obtain freedom and happiness? And at that same time, are the King in his maleness and Anna in her whiteness truly free?