NO! NO! NO! Do we live in an East High Society?

When I sat down to watch High School Musical again as a 21-year-old woman, I expected to see the straightforward love story that I understood as a child. A heartthrob basketball player and a quirky science girl fall in love and fight against all odds to audition for the school musical. And admittedly… that’s exactly what I got. But! I also noticed a little more nuance than I did 15 years ago. This musical is one big commentary on self-discovery and inner conflict. More specifically, High School Musical uses music composition and choreography to challenge our views toward social norms and encourage individuality. 

The best song that shows this (and also my favorite) is “Stick to the Status Quo” which occurs during the end of Act I. The song happens just after the school learns that the star basketball player Troy Bolton, likes to sing and wants to audition for the school musical. For some reason, this is very controversial. But soon after, Troy’s exploration into unexpected hobbies inspires other students to do the same. This entire song shows the tension between the people who want to expand their identities and their peers who want them to assimilate. Altogether, the composition and choreography of this number help visualize this social tension and further the musical’s purpose to encourage self-discovery. 


Let’s start with the music. The song begins simply with a casual percussive beat and an electric guitar riff in the background. The vibe is upbeat yet suspenseful, mirroring the cafeteria energy and the tension in light of the recent news. We watch as a basketball player lightly paces and then steps forward. He clearly has something on his mind. Suddenly the music goes quiet and only the suspenseful percussion remains. The attention lies completely on the athlete as he confesses his desire to bake (*gasp* such a faux pas). 

Suddenly the music crashes in much louder and stronger than it was before. The percussion picks up speed, the electric guitar amps up energy, and a strong piano melody is introduced. Combined with the crowd simultaneously screaming, “NO NO NO!” with this crescendo, the audience very easily feels the emotion of the room. The crowd of students are upset and are very energetically rejecting the idea that a basketball player can be anything other than sporty. 

The rest of the song follows a similar pattern. The music softens when a character confesses their interests, and then immediately picks up energy as the crowd responds negatively to the news.

No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
If you wanna be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no

Clearly, David Lawrence doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. He is very deliberate through his lyrics and composition to show the conflict of straying from conformity. These characters want to be more than their high school stereotypes, but the fact that they are met with resistance in both the music and the lyrics helps show the challenges of straying from expectations. 


Okay, the choreography is arguably the best part of the song. I will die on this hill. There’s just something about fiftyish teenagers dramatically stomping on lunch tables that gets me every time. But besides being an unintentional comic relief for me, the choreography of this song is the perfect visual of groupthink. Just before a character reveals their secret, their peers are engaged. The music is soft and the crowd leans in. But the second the spotlighted character reveals something unexpected about their own identity, the crowd erupts into a frenzy. They clutch their heads and belt to the sky. They thrash and stomp, almost like a tantrum, as they beg the character to stop talking. Their movements are aggressive and punctuated. It feels very disciplinary as if they are trying to force the spotlighted character to assimilate through strength and power.

This blatant shift in style from soft to aggressive shows the audience that the revelation was deeply upsetting to their social environment. As long as the character acts according to their expected identities, there is no problem. Everything is peaceful. But the moment a character shows a bit of individuality, it’s chaos. 

The unified movement also contributes to the song’s portrayal of social norms. Throughout the song, the crowd of students move as one with energy and passion. Not only are they in sync with each other in terms of how they think, but also how they move – like some sort of hive mind. This effectively visualizes the idea of a social group and the people within them sharing the same thoughts and behaviors. It also emphasizes the power imbalance between the crowd and the individual and shows the pressure to act according to the group. 

Given that the song overall portrays the clash between individuality and the pressure to abide by social norms, the choreography is very effective in visualizing this dynamic. 

# Don't mess with the flow, no, no
source: YARN


Now, before you say no shit sherlock, I completely agree with you. This theme isn’t very difficult to pull from the production. But I wanted to reflect on how differently I resonated with High School Musical as a child versus as an adult. As a kid, I thought “Stick to the Status Quo” was just about dumb high school politics. To be considered “cool” or “popular” you can’t embarrass yourself by doing anything other than what your group does. Don’t get me wrong, the song is certainly about that. But as an adult, I digested the message a bit differently. The song isn’t just a commentary on high school politics, but is also a reflection of our society as a whole. We, like East High, have social guidelines that we must follow in order to be accepted by our communities. Behaving outside of those guidelines might result in backlash (although probably not as dramatic as a cafeteria flash mob). So yes, High School Musical might be a very simple coming of age story with uncomplicated storytelling. But perhaps teenagers dancing on tables will also inspire you to have an existential reflection on our society.

Moral of the Story: We Should All Quit Our Day Jobs and Become Strippers

Okay, maybe not. But still! The musical Gypsy definitely satisfies the male gaze. By that, I mean that Gypsy, the television directed by Emile Ardolino, encourages the objectification and sexualization of women. Viewers can see this in a few different ways, but I want to focus on the character Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb. More specifically, my analysis looks at the evolution of her character and how her relationship with her femininity affects her success and happiness. Let’s begin with “Let Me Entertain You,” a musical number performed twice within the musical but with significan difference in each rendition. Through analyzing the costuming, performance, and music of both performances, viewers can observe how Louise’s character evolves and what this evolution suggests about the film’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

Part 1: “May We Entertain You” – Baby June and Baby Louise

Let’s first dissect the costuming. Viewers first hear this song when June and Louise are young. They stand next to each other on stage, full of confidence and energy, ready to perform. Dressed in a bright colorful, frilly dress, June draws all of the attention. In comparison, the overalls her sister Louise wears swallows her small frame. This begins a pattern where June always dresses in high-quality feminine clothing whereas Louise dressees in scrappy boyish clothing. Viewers can literally see the distinction between the two characters. Everyone around June, who dresses according to female expectations, rewards her with attention and undying glory. By contrast, everyone who meets Louise, who dresses according to masculine expectations, casts her aside. Their clothing is a physical manifestation of their feminine difference and how others treat them as a result.

Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film.

The film further highlights their difference in their performance of the number. The choreography positions Louise as an accessory. She is a tool to help June shine. During the second line of the song, for example, Louise kneels on the ground and June literally dances circles around her sister. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that. June is the cherished child, while Louise is forgotten.

June both looks and acts the part of an idealistic young girl in a sexist society during this song, and the music further characterizes the division between the girls. June sings proudly: “I will do some kicks/ I will do some tricks” to which Louise responds with, “I’ll tell you a story/ I’ll dance when she is done.”

Louise explicitly waits for June to perform before she will, proclaiming her second place status. So this song defines the relationship between the two girls, but what about the relationship between the girls and their larger society?

“May we entertain you?/ May we see you smile?”

These lyrics position the two little girls on stage to ask permission to perform and impress an audience. Servitude is their purpose, even as children. The reprise of this song will further support this ideal of servitude and satisfaction (*ahem* particularly for male spectators).

Part 2: “Let me Entertain You” – Louise

Source: Image was screen grabbed from the film

I’ll set the scene. Before this moment, Louise was the insignificant sibling. At this point, she spent her entire life living under the shadow of her sister, ignored by virtually every other character in the musical. But the very second she steps onstage in a sensual satin gown, she feels different. And so does the audience. 

As a costume choice, her first dress highlights her female figure. The mermaid silhouette draws attention to her waist and radiates the energy of a poised and voluptuous woman. The silk fabric is delicate and smoothly bends with every curve of her body. This is a dramatic contrast to the oversized costuming she wore previously. The shift is so jarring that the other characters feel drawn to her, unable to hide their awe as she walks onstage to perform independently for the first time. She wears long white gloves that stretch all the way up to her bicep and a feathery boa across her chest. Altogether, the costume gives the illusion that she is tantalizing yet demure. She only hints at the beauty that lies just beneath her clothing. Similar costuming choices appear consistently throughout the number, beginning a montage of her performances. Her dresses are both skin-tight and flowing. The long silhouette highlights her height and curves. She is the personification of sexuality and prestige. This is the image of a woman embracing her femininity and finding power because of it.

Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film

Her performance only adds to this picture. She begins the number shyly and awkwardly. She has never worn a dress, let alone worn one in front of an entire audience – especially male. Mama Rose reserved the dresses for June, not for her! She has only ever known baggy pants and overalls (and a cow suit, apparently). Her body language is uptight and shy, but she is curious, drawn in by the attention that she has never received. But the tension unravels with the drop of her first glove. Viewers watch Louise blossom into her confidence and stardom with the loss of every article of clothing. By the second stanza of the song, she stands tall and confident. She rolls her shoulders back and holds her head high. She has the audience in the palm of her hand, and she knows exactly how to play with them. Just give them a little leg here… and a shoulder there… and her audience melts. Even the suggestion of her naked body is enough to give her complete power over the audience and her career as a whole. 

The lyrics even further support her sexuality as a means for success and power. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two numbers lies in who sings lead. June sings the lead in the first appearance of this song, but now, Louise is the sole singer and completely owns the stage. Furthermore, instead of questioning “May we entertain you?” Louise purrs the slightly more alluring lines of “Let me entertain you/ Let me make you smile.” The sexual undertone is heavy as she continues with “And if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good/ I’d want your spirit to climb.” Through her words, audiences hear the power dynamic between Louise and the audience. She will please them, but only if they behave for her. The audience is at the complete mercy of what Louise is willing to give, and they love it. In fact, they pay her for it. These routines give her massive stardom, and she rises to a level of opulence of which her mother and June could only dream. She has surpassed the success of her sister and transcended the desires of her mother. By embracing her sexuality and femininity, she is happy, confident, and successful.

Part 3: Putting it all together (by stripping it down)

So how does Louise’s character arc support the idea that women are tools for sexualization and objectification? Let’s review. Throughout the majority of the movie, characters regard Louise as insignificant. They ignore her and maker her feel as if she is not good enough to receive even an ounce of attention. How does the movie visually depict this? It virtually erases her femininity, clothing her in oversized masculine attire with little makeup and no stylized hair.

But the moment Louise wears something sensual, the very second that she acknowledges and highlights her femininity, she receives all of the attention and power that she was denied for years before. It’s almost as if the movie screams in your face, “Ladies, look at the old Louise. Do you want to be ignored and belittled? No? Then act like this shiny and sexy Louise instead! She has everything she wanted in her wildest dreams!” It’s like a campaign for women to invite men to ogle at their bodies because Louise did it and look how happy she is now! 

That being said, I completely support women embracing the reality of our misogynist society and using their sexuality to reclaim control over their bodies. But it is harmful that Louise wasn’t ever accepted before claiming her sexuality. The film constructs this narrative that it is not okay for women to ignore beauty standards. Because if they do, society will reject them, and they will fail. So maybe the moral of the story isn’t quite to quit our jobs and become strippers, but apparently, we should be comfortable with the idea.