By Victoria Aldaco and Malanie Gardea
The movie High School Musical follows Troy Bolton, East High School’s star basketball player, and his struggle with his identity when he is introduced to musical theatre. It has been argued that High School Musical enforces hegemonic masculinity through this character of Troy Bolton. We will argue that although this might be the case, High School Musical also shows that it is possible to break away from the norms of hegemonic masculinity by defying the pre-existing culture at East High concerning gender norms and expectations through Troy Bolton that arguably challenged his masculinity throughout the film. We will explore this idea by analyzing Troy’s character, examining how the “status quo” and expectations imposed on him by others lead him to question his decisions, and determine how he overall challenged gender norms in the face of hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity is a dominant form of gender that is represented in the media. “Films play an important role in cultivating hegemonic ideals on issues of race and gender by equipping popular audiences with dominant cultural logics, inviting them to identify with and inhabit idealized subject positions, and attesting to the common-sense of the images and narrative produced on screen” (Kelly, 2008). Individuals that are considered hegemonically masculine typically possess similar identities and traits. The identity that these men possess include being straight, white, cisgender, middle or upper class, and able-bodied. Common personal traits that they may embody include someone muscular, individualistic, anti-authoritarian, and overall someone physically dominate. Examples of men that are considered hegemonically masculine in the media are athletes, superheroes or action heroes. In terms of High School Musical, Troy Bolton exemplifies hegemonic masculinity first off by his identity. He is white, straight, cisgender, middle/upper class, and able-bodied. In terms of his personal traits, Troy Bolton is seen as the face of East High and most importantly, the East High School basketball team. His character dominates the school; he is very popular, handsome, and expected to carry the team into the championships, especially because his dad is the team coach and expects Troy to set the example for the team and the school. It is in these ways that High School Musical arguably enforces hegemonic masculinity and a “jock” stereotype through this character. By having the main character of this movie be a white, dominant male, it represents the idea that only men who fit into this description are popular and dominant in high school or life in general. This image showing Troy surrounded by his team praising him shows just how popular Troy is and how his teammates admire him by the way they are looking at him. Taking this into consideration, Troy Bolton simultaneously defies the expectations of his gender and hegemonic masculinity by going against the norm and auditioning for the school musical. This sends the message to audiences that it is possible and acceptable to pursue hobbies other than the ones you are expected to be interested in regardless of your gender or expectations.
“Never felt this way and right here tonight, this could be the start of something new” sang Troy Bolton in the scene above, the audience can see that Troy feels comfortable on stage and after that performance, it’s all he can think of, but why? He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way about singing because all he’s ever known is basketball, but is it a bad thing if he finds a new stage to shine upon?
Historically, athletics were viewed to be a masculine thing to do. Women were even encouraged not to participate in athletics because of the idea that athletics stripped away femininity. On the contrary, theatre has a reputation of typically attracting more women than men and the men who did participate in theatre were not considered very “masculine”. In other words, they were typically not viewed as fitting under this identity of hegemonic masculinity. For instance, in High School Musical, Ryan Evans is known for dominating the world of musical theatre along with his twin sister, Sharpay. Although Ryan is white, straight, cisgender, middle/upper class, and able-bodied, he also has characteristics that would not identify as falling under hegemonic masculinity. He is thin, submissive, wears colorful and sparkly clothing, and overall has characteristics that may lead others to question his masculinity. Troy being curious of a new organization brings a lot of self-doubt and judgement from others, which we will explore through the next few images.
This gif portrays Troy’s conflict with choosing between theatre and basketball. He is trying hard to keep his head in the game, but something is calling him to do theatre, which is the less acceptable option according to those around him. Because of the preconceived ideas revolving around athletics and theatre, Troy was hesitant to join musical theatre because of what his friends and his father might think of him. The differentiation between masculine and feminine hobbies or activities is tied to gender performativity. Gender performativity is a set of actions that one does that others interpret as being a gender. It can be argued that gender performativity sets expectations for how genders should act or talk. In this case, the preconceived idea that basketball is masculine and theatre is not, sets an expectation that it is more acceptable for men to participate in athletics and women in theatre. “Connell claims that ‘teenagers try out one strategy after another’ (82). This desire to “try out” gender performances reinforces gender as a social construct. Clearly, ‘in adolescence [there is] a conflict between loyalty to a same-gender ‘peer group’ of friends, and cross-gender attachment to a boyfriend or a girlfriend’ (Connell 82). This conflict arises because of the pre-existing societal norms that define what gender is and how a biological “boy” and a biological “girl” are to live and interact through the prescriptive demands of heteronormative society” (Bliznik, 2012). Therefore, the set expectations of gender performativity is the reason why Troy hides his interest in musical theatre from his father, closest friend, and other students who constantly remind him that basketball should be his top priority.
Troy’s father, Coach Bolton, is one person that was very clear about not wanting Troy to forget that his priority was basketball and continuously reminds him that Troy is above everyone else at the school, which is why he needs to be a role model for them. His father is a perfect example of the hegemonically masculine culture of East High. Coach Bolton seems to find a joke out of the school’s musical production and when the theatre teacher Ms. Darbus tells him that Troy has been participating in the musical, he scoffs in disbelief. This shows how Troy’s father doesn’t even see Troy’s participation in the musical as a possibility and introduces the idea that basketball is more important than “silly” theatre. The gif above is a scene from the movie when Troy has a conversation with his father in the gym after his father catches him messing around and playing basketball with Gabriella. His father tells Troy that his actions not only affect the team, but the entire school. The reading “Performance, utopia, and the ideology of gender: A feminist rhetorical analysis of “High school musical” and “Glee”’ by A. N. Edgar states that this gives off the idea that Troy is more important to the other students than Gabriella is. This emphasis on school athletics shapes it to be a masculine construct while elevating Troy’s importance. Doing this creates masculine energy and establishes him as the dominant male because his actions are more important than his relationship with “some girl” (Edgar, 2011). High School Musical presents this hegemonically masculine mentality through Troy’s father who is constantly trying to ingrain this mentality into Troy, however Troy ultimately rejects it. Troy’s rejection exemplifies the flaws in this mentality and highlights on the importance of breaking away from it.
Chad, Troy’s closest friend, represents the mindset of hegemonic masculinity in High School Musical. He continuously makes it clear to Troy that theatre is not something Troy should be interested in and even makes fun of it. This is another way that High School Musical has been argued to enforce hegemonic masculinity, however, Troy’s defiance to this idea that others have about theatre enforces the opposite. In the movie, Chad mentions that theatre is all just about costumes and makeup and shows his disgust for it. Expressing his disgust for wearing costumes and makeup represents the mindset of how theatre is viewed by other boys at East High. One can infer from this that costumes and makeup is seen as something that boys aren’t supposed to do; they’re supposed to be interested in more “masculine” activities like sports. The gif shows Chad telling Troy that because of him, everyone thinks they can do things that aren’t what they’re supposed to do, such as the brainiac wanting to dance hip-hop or a skater boy playing the cello. Chad even goes out of his way to get the basketball team to help him to convince Troy that he needs to stop messing around with the whole theatre thing and focus on basketball, represented by the image of Chad and the team in the locker room. Chad and the team bring up past players that attended East High and how they were great basketball players because they weren’t involved in anything other than the sport. This scene represents how this heternormative culture has been passed down through generations. “Then, not only are their prevailing trends acknowledged, they are learned, practiced, reinforced, and then passed down to new generations to maintain the dominant culture in US American life” (Bliznik, 2012). This idea of masculinity and prioritizing sports over everything else has been present throughout the previous years, which represents that this hegemonic mindset has been the foundation of the culture of the school since before Troy Bolton arrived. By Troy Bolton being the one to break this mindset shows audiences that they don’t have to follow the crowd just because that’s how it’s been done for a long time.
One musical number that demonstrates our argument is shown above. In “Stick to the Status Quo,” we can see how Troy is able to redefine the culture of East High by simply auditioning for the spring musical. “When the hidden selves of High School Musical characters are revealed, the society ruptures, threatening to destroy both performance and utopia” (Edgar, 2011). East High has been flipped upside down because of Troy and that’s the problem. The basketball captain breaking rules and doing something different, shows how much his decisions affect not only him, but the whole student body. “If Troy can say his secret so can I.” Being an all-star in both basketball and theatre allowed others to redefine their own identities.“Troy’s performance enhances the communal utopia with an additional element of intimate transparency, as he inspires other students to reveal their hidden selves. Troy’s musical audition prompts several students to confess to leading secret lives” (Edgar, 2011). Martha “the brainiac” dances, Zeke “the jock” bakes, and Troy sings in musicals now. Troy was able to break the norms and inspired others to do the same.
Finally “we’re breaking free” from the gender norms! Though Troy Bolton might have fallen into hegemonic masculinity trope, he was still able to redefine the ideas of masculinity by challenging the stereotypes and gender norms put on him. He was expected to be a champion on the court and only that, yet it is shown in one of the final scenes of the film that Troy was able to do the “impossible” at East High. “It is through Troy’s performance the student body is united, which resolves the social fragmentation with communal utopia of acceptance, evidenced by the students’ pride in their distinct hobbies as the film concludes” (Edgar, 2011). The geeks, the jocks, and the theatre kids were “all in this together” supporting Troy while also allowing East High to fight against its long placed gender norms and stereotypes. High School Musical was the start of Troy’s road to self discovery. The rest of the film series continues to strive to reject the idea of set gender norms and give the East High Wildcats the time to grow as their own individuals.
Bliznik, S. J. (2012). Constructing the youth in commercial musical theatre: An intersectional case study (Order No. 3546086). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1241616400). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1241616400?accountid=7118
Edgar, A. N. (2011). Performance, utopia, and the ideology of gender: A feminist rhetorical analysis of “High school musical” and “Glee” (Order No. 1493318). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (869517043). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/869517043?accountid=7118
Kelly, C. R. (2014). FEMININE PURITY AND MASCULINE REVENGE-SEEKING IN TAKEN (2008). Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 403. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1545055394?accountid=7118