If you’re a millennial baby like me, the High School Musical trilogy was a big deal. “We’re all in this together” and “Fabulous” are the soundtracks to our childhoods, and in a burst of lockdown nostalgia, I took a trip down memory lane and rewatched the trilogy.
Watching it aged 20, what was stark to me was the stereotypical tendencies displayed in the differing presentations of handsome basketball star, Troy Bolton, and the flamboyant, theatrical, Ryan Evans. The masculine hunk vs the camp caricature.
Ahhhh, Troy Bolton. Disney heartthrob and a textbook example of Disney pulling on the key tropes of masculinity to create their alpha male and star of the film. Troy is the whole package: attractive, muscular, captain of the Wildcats basketball team, and you best bloody believe it he can sing too. Troy is a formulaic representation of who every young boy wants to be, and who every young girl wants to be with.
But wait…if you look closely it seems Disney was also peeping through the windows of progressiveness with Sharpay’s doting brother, Ryan Evans. Yet, Ryan is both a problematic and progressive character. In many ways he is the most stereotyped gay character to ever make the screen, however, he also shows that boys don’t have to be like Troy to be accepted.
Director Kenny Ortega has revealed that Ryan would have probably come out in college, but for the HSM films “It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colors come forward.” These true colours really shine through in the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” number (I dare you to say it out loud), where he “swims” around Sharpay, the glamourous Princess Tiki, dressed as none other than a shiny garish fish – a gay icon, no? His character is to be joked at, and his loyalty to his sister merely reinstates the western desire of possessing a gay best friend.
During this number, Troy sits watching, baffled – he would never wear something like that – it would damage his alpha male presentation. This is one of many examples where Ryan plays the jester, yet Troy’s masculinity and power are never questioned.
Even at what should be his lowest moment (Gabriella dumping him…again), Troy’s break up song, “Bet On It”, is motivational, full of self-belief and sees him sprinting and leaping across the golf course, as he promises “I’m not gonna stop ‘til I get my shot” – it’s pretty big d*ck energy. This continues in ‘Scream’, a rocky anthem expressing Troy’s fears for the future as he runs through the corridors, tearing down banners. Imagine Ryan expressing this powerful emotion, it’s an unlikely scene.
The films somewhat save themselves in the two sequels as Ryan develops as a separate entity to Sharpay’s slave and wins a scholarship to prestigious performing arts school, Julliard. Despite being the most stereotypical camp and flamboyant gay character, Ryan is accepted by society, exemplifying to young children that although he is poles apart from Troy Bolton, he can fulfil his dreams. In 2021, where gender expectations are being challenged more than ever, it seems HSM was providing a rather progressive narrative. Boys don’t have to play basketball.