I recently watched the first installment of High School Musical for my media franchising class. I was somewhat familiar with the series. I evaluated a colleague’s term paper on it for a class I took on dance and film. I figured South Park nailed their musical parody, which I now believe they did. I also watched two supremely awesome little girls grow up next door to me for three years. A friend once used Ashley Tisdale’s name as her blogger handle. And I have some chores for a shirtless Zac “Lt. Dangle” Efron to do around my house.
Despite compelling arguments in favor of HSM‘s merits as a franchise or media text, as well as a firm belief that Daft Punk could do a sweet remix of “Bet On It“, I wouldn’t consider myself a fan. Overall, the cloying wholesomeness gets on my nerves. For me, the stakes are so low. Will Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, who I recently saw in the so-problematic-it-must-be-blogged-about Sucker Punch) end up with Troy (Efron)? Of course they will–at least on screen. I think I would be a fan of a variety show hosted by Evans and his sister Sharpay (Tisdale). Glee very much tries to provide the archetypes it mines from High School Musical with depth and grit (Kurt Hummel is basically an out Ryan Evans).
I also don’t know what to do with colorblindness, conflict-free inclusivity, and the politics of positive representation, particularly with the girls of color on the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that Gabriella is a smart girl who excels in math and science and attends Stanford after graduation. On the other hand, I’m very troubled by how little the series seems invested in her academic pursuits or her ethnic identity. She and her friend Taylor (Monique Coleman) are both beautiful, brainy girls of color, but their presence often veers toward tokenism to me. I don’t want them to be defined by their racial or ethnic identity any more than they’d want to be thought of as nerds. But such attention toward respectability doesn’t give their characters much conflict. However, the white characters are also less-than-compelling for these reasons as well. Although I wish Glee wouldn’t relegate Mercedes to the role of the sassy black girl, at least there are instances within the show where she resists or defies such categorization.
Taylor is joined by another female character I wish was better incorporated into HSM‘s story world. Kelsi Nielsen (Olesya Rulin) is the shy, nerdy white girl at East High who provides piano accompaniment for the school’s musical productions. She also serves as the productions’ chief composer. Something tells me that if Nielsen wrote a musical that centralized Gabriella and Sharpay and brought in Taylor, it would be far more compelling. Maybe she could get all Max Fischer with it and cast them in a musical remake of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. She could follow it up with Věra Chytilová’s Daisies starring Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Or she could come up with something original. I’m sure if she were really given the spotlight, she could share it with the other girls and create something better than a rehash of Romeo and Juliet without any actual romantic conflict.