By: Megan Walters
Alrighty friends, I feel the need to level with all of you. Until two days ago, I had never seen High School Musical. I’d seen the third one… I’m pretty sure? Growing up for me, Disney was not as present. My Mom hated, and I cannot emphasize this enough, HATED television. Anything involving mean characters, snarky comments, and witty quips? (Something, by her definition, that Disney Channel was filled with.) Absolutely not. We all stuck to Veggie tales instead (Has anyone seen my hairbrush?).
Now, I’m a bit older now and probably could have watched this ages ago, but just never really got around to it. In all seriousness, I didn’t really care to watch it either. When I was six and it was the only thing that the other girls in my class would talk about it sure mattered but it kind of faded out of the limelight for a few years, only coming up in scattered conversations. Looking back however, the whole musical created kind of a sore spot for me. I wasn’t allowed to watch it and so I could never really bond or connect with the other girls in my class. I didn’t know who Troy Bolton was and I couldn’t sing any of the songs. In turn, I would just say that I hated High School Musical. Which wasn’t true because I really didn’t even know what it was, but I was upset because I really didn’t belong. And also saying you hate something that everyone loves, especially when you’re six, does not go over well either.
So here we are, this became an option to view for the final essay. In my recent years when I see other people look back on it, I’d heard mostly positive things about the movie. Sure, it’s not an accurate portrayal of high school, but the awkwardness, Gabriella’s shyness of being in the spotlight for being just too smart, and Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a surprisingly healthy and accurate one. While I don’t have the luxury of comparing watching it when I was little, it’s overall kind of a charming, adorable musical. It’s like what little kids will think high school will be like and honestly? I think that was the intention. And as far as cultural relevancy goes, as someone from the outside I can blatantly say this defined a generation of kids growing up and eventually made way for Olivia Trevino’s musical career and fame when the spinoff series was created. (Spent the whole summer listening to SOUR pretty much.)
However, the movie isn’t really all that perfect. And that’s a fact, not just that I may or may not have a personal vendetta against this film. In hindsight I would say 2005 to 2012 was about the peak of the early 2000’s era. Say hello to low-rise, bootcut jeans, and a ridiculous amount of layers on top and 2006 is no exception to this era. The movie’s whole message is about sticking up for what you want to do with your life, doing what makes you happy, and not ‘sticking to the status quo.’ Which is a good message, fits the lightheartedness of the musical and is well, very Disney in the end. The idea of following your dreams is a good idea, but after a viewing and some afterthought, I think the movie missed its own message.
The musical never takes any risks with its characters. Which I could argue is the point, everyone is too scared to stand out and conformity is the ‘in’. But everyone is simply so stereotypical its like the creators were terrified of making a person. Kelsi, the composer of a musical at age fifteen, is a shy band kid and a doormat of a character. She wrote a musical–and if I followed the plot correctly, she not only wrote the music, but the script, plot, and stage directions as well. That’s really impressive for a fifteen-year-old why don’t I know more about her? Why is there a Sharpay spinoff and not one about Kelsi? Broadway would love another writer, not ANOTHER blonde diva to take center-stage?
Chad, the ‘best friend to male main character Troy Bolton and obligatory black person,’ is constantly belittled and disciplined by teachers because he is ‘slow’, ‘doesn’t know how to read’, or is known for being a ‘trouble-maker’. Why does Chad struggle so much? Clearly everyone in this school is from upper-middle class judging by the houses and state of the school as a whole (has a strong arts and sports program as well as STEM, school is clean and looks relatively new, etc.) And while again, this is 2006, the whitewashing seems just a little too pristine for two major characters to be black and have no backstory.
The only real people we really get to know and see in this entire film are the two main characters and the ‘Villains’: Sharpay and Ryan. Which even then is a subject of controversy. Let’s face it, Ryan is the closeted gay figure in this film. His mannerisms, clothing, gestures all point to the stereotypical effeminate mystique. And yes, this is 2006 and people weren’t exactly on board with people being out, but this is a very, very Disney thing to do. The constant closeting and pushing of queer characters under the rug isn’t new, and to see it in a high school setting when so many people I knew revealed themselves is overall almost hurtful.
The movie’s message is to not ‘stick to the status quo’ and yet? That message can only be true to our two main leads. Not only because we know the most about them and the boundaries they are making, but because they are also in the ‘in’ crowd. Troy is extremely successful; the star player. Gabriella is the best and brightest child in the school with a very successful businesswoman as a mother. Even from the beginning, they aren’t the status quo; they are above and beyond it. It’s almost not a surprise that they are successful on stage too. If Disney really wanted to show what not sticking to the status quo looked like, it would have been about Kelsi, writing and composing at such a young age and the obstacles she goes through. Or it would have been about Ryan and his struggles with being closeted and the relationship he has with his family because of it. It would have been about Chad or Taylor (Gabriella’s new best friend) and their struggles with excelling and falling continuously behind in school. But instead, they are side characters, not as important and boiled down to their most basic stereotypes. Instead of sticking to the stuff we know (basketball star and smart shy girl), would it hurt to know about the stuff we don’t know?
Now, it’s a simple Disney channel movie that took the world by storm. I don’t think the creators thought it was going to be as big as it turned out ever and as previously mentioned, 2006 wasn’t the most progressive year and neither was the early 2000’s in hindsight. I have other smaller issues with the musical. I went into this expecting to feel sorry for Sharpay. I was told she worked her whole life to be on the center stage and has been in musical after musical. So yes, it is a little unfair that two randos come in and steal the spotlight. However, as someone who has performed in multiple productions and concerts and having countless people like her, I strongly believe she deserves to be put in her place. She is rude, constantly takes advantage of people lacking confidence, cannot handle when things do not go her way, uses and constantly abuses her brother and is overall, unkind. A whole internal theme of the plot and even throughout the series is that we should feel slightly sorry for Sharpay because she is ‘sometimes’ kind. However, none of that kindness is to believed to be genuine and she is really truly not a good person at all. And while we learned a little bit about Sharpay’s backstory and how hard she works to take the stage, she really only buys into the stereotypical diva. She falls into the category ultimately of spoiled brat. If the movie really wanted to fight the status quo, maybe they shouldn’t have made her as rich or come from some sort of hardship, showing the audience that the stage is truly all she has and therefore create sympathy for her and make her more of a person.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of the musical. I got to heal my inner child a little bit by finally watching something that everyone seemed to grow up on and got to bond with my roommates over it as well. (We watched The Greatest Showman afterwards to see how Zac Efron grew up.) I enjoyed watching it being older now and acknowledging how different it would be if the show came out today and the issues that simply came with the era it was created in. Disney made a fun musical, because that’s what it was good at. It refused to take a risk with a musical where the whole point is to take a risk, but that goes along with the pattern that Disney holds over many, many of it musicals. While uncovering a piece of my childhood, I also got to be critical of the film and all of its endeavors.