Shattering the Patriarchy One Wildcat at a Time: How High School Musical’s Troy Bolton Slam Dunks Gender Norms

By: Margie Johnson

This could be the start of something new, and that something goes beyond the basketball court. Walt Disney’s High School Musical directed by Kenny Ortega, Chen Shi-Zheng, Michael Lembeck, and Eduardo Ripari, features the journey of basketball star, Troy Bolton played by Zac Efron, to fulfill his newfound desire to perform in the winter musical. Fueled by his blossoming romance with new student Gabriella Montez played by Vanessa Hudgens, Troy surpasses society’s limitations in order to make it to the big stage. These limitations, ranging from those implied by his predestined basketball career to those imposed by antagonist Sharpay are comically exaggerated in order to question the validity of social and gender confinements. Through his defiance of the over the top obstacles placed by his fellow classmates and family, Bolton is able to take down the patriarchy in one fell swoosh. 

Troy Bolton is the exemplary model of the American male teenager. From his Justin Bieber-esque swooped hair to his love for sports, he sits comfortably in the upper echelon of the prototypical East High’s society. I mean, would you take a look at this guy? Everything about him screams 2006 boy crush, and I would know from personal experience. I was the target audience for this musical as a suburban American preteen, and I loved it. I wasn’t old enough or savvy enough to see this movie as stereotyped and white washed, but I was certainly old enough to pick up on the struggle of the main characters as they chafed against the constraints placed on them by their group definitions. I got it. Troy isn’t just a jock. Gabriella is more than a brain. And boy, can everybody sing and dance.

Around his male friends and father, Troy speaks only about basketball and the big championship approaching, perpetuating his perfected athletic image. As a result of conforming to expectations, he is rewarded generously by attention from girls and by a successful basketball career. Within the first few moments of stepping foot on campus once returning back from winter break, he is swarmed by an entourage of basketball players and cheerleaders. As he walks towards the school, the song “We’re All In This Together” plays in the background, an upbeat track about comradery and cheer for the high school’s mascot of the Wildcat. When approached by his best friend and teammate Chad, he is passed a basketball and told that he is going to lead the team “to infinity and beyond.” Thus, when fitting into the expected typical heterosexual male mold, he is celebrated by his school and even granted authority over the other male players on his team. 

Everything changes as he falls in love with Gabriella, however, causing him to question his previous conceptions of masculinity. In the very first moments of the musical, Troy and Gabriella share their first encounter over a karaoke duet. Although the two are picked from the crowd and reluctant to sing together, once they begin to perform, the talent and passion shared between them is palpable. So much so that after the performance they exchange phone numbers and plan on meeting the day after, thus having the duet serve as the initial spark in their relationship. Though this is a momentous occasion between the two of them, once Gabriella arrives at school days later, Troy reveals that he never mentioned the duet to his friends. He even whispers the word “singing” to Gabriella in a crowded hall, afraid to stray away from his athletic image in front of his fellow classmates. Just after his whisper, the directors stage another male student to walk by and give Troy a handshake, reminding the audience of the overpowering presence of social confinements set by gender as he must return to his calm and cool demeanor as a basketball star. Still, after the incredible karaoke performance, Troy desires to inquire more about performing. Unable to speak to Ms. Darbus directly, he relies on a place of security to gather more information: the basketball court. Cue “Get’cha Head In The Game”:

As seen from his internal monologue out on the court, Troy becomes even more flustered by his newly discovered passion. Though he wishes to try out for the musical, he is reminded by his teammates to get back into the mindset that he has had his entire life: bound by East High’s expectations for a male student. The camera circles around the fast paced movement of boys passing the ball around, led by Troy, signifying his essential role in the team as captain. Still, when taking a turn with the ball, he is caught up in the song and sings an especially long note, revealing his desire to perform as much as he may try to avoid it. This note breaks up the movement of the play, highlighting the consequences he must face were he to abandon his team if he cannot keep his “head in the game” of social confinements. After more dribbling, the song builds up to the final moment where Tory belts, “My head’s in the game but my heart’s in the song. She makes this feel so right. Should I go for it?” As written by lyricists Ray and Greg Cham as well as Drew Seeley, though he tries to meet his teammates’ expectations by staying within the confinements of his gender role, his heart desires to sing, ultimately stirring up trouble. 

When Troy finally gathers the courage to audition for the musical with Gabriella, the entire student body comes together to dissuade the duo from performing, showcasing the power of ingrained social confinements. One powerful member of this movement is Sharpay Evans, an over the top and glamorous student with a drive for musical theater. From a bedazzled microphone to a brightly painted pink locker, she encapsulates femininity to an extreme.

Proof of pinkness:

When signing up for pair auditions, Sharpay grabs her pink pen and signs her name across the audition sheet, taking up any available space for outside members. While doing so, she remarks to Gabriella and Troy, “Oh, were you going to sign up, too? My brother and I have starred in all of the school’s productions, and we really welcome newcomers. There are a lot of supporting roles in the show.” As seen with Troy, in meeting expectations of her gender role, Sharpay is able to maintain power and dominance over her chosen realm: musical performance. With everything coated in glitter she is able to dominate the stage and will stop at nothing to maintain her authority. Thus, when hearing that Gabriella and Troy may audition and take over her potential role, she recognizes the threat to her current social status and power as the entire social construct she comfortably resides in is now questioned. In order to take that power back, Sharpay deems it necessary to remind Gabriella of her place in the East High society: a brainiac. With the help of her brother, Ryan, Sharpay floods the halls with paper copies of Gabriella’s academic achievements, showcasing and delimiting Gabriella’s place in society to the entire class. Sharpay’s strategy initially proves to be successful as upon reading the article, the head of the school’s decathlon team, Taylor McKessie, inducts Gabriella into the group and eagerly invites her to join the team in the upcoming competition. Just as Sharpay had planned, with Gabriella’s academic intellect revealed to the school, her fellow classmates have now become aware of her predetermined role in society. As a result, when Troy attempts to exceed the limitations of his basketball team role alongside Gabriella attempting to surpass her brainiac classmates, Sharpay’s initial uproar is now supported by the entire class body. 

East High’s tactics, however, become exaggerated to the point of absurdity, leading Troy as well as the audience to confront and ultimately surpass his gendered confinements. In one pivotal moment of the musical, the brainiacs and basketball stars team up together and attempt to sway Troy and Gabriella from their auditions. Troy’s teammates trap Troy in the gym’s locker rooms, showing him framed photos of Wildcat superstars that Troy would disappoint by leaving his team. Gabriella’s decathlon team tapes an enlarged photo of Troy’s head over a stock photo of a basketball player, ridiculing Troy and even calling him a “lunkhead basketball man.” Even more, when Sharpay’s frustrations lead to a tipping point, she initiates a musical number inside the cafeteria.

 

During this song, the camera pans to the student body sitting within smaller and hegemonic cafeteria tables, reminding the audience of the enforced social bounds. While looking down upon the cafeteria, Sharpay exclaims from above, “Something is really— /  Really wrong. / And we gotta get things back where they belong.” Sharpay desires to return back to the way things were, as back to “belong[ing]” is where she retains all of her power at the top of the musical theater hierarchy. While the majority of classmates agree with her to quiet the whispers of a revolution, a few members of each group decide to rebel. These rebellions, however, are not the form of a violent or hateful revolt. Instead, the rebellious few belt out their creative and lovable hobbies. For example, one star basketball player shares his love for creme brulee, and a brainiac shows off her love for hip hop dance. In juxtaposing their reinforced roles in society versus their true passions, the audience is able to question the validity of the rigid structure in which they are expected to belong. Why must a brainiac confine her curiosity to books and knowledge when the wonderful joy of dancing exists? Similarly, who doesn’t love creme brulee? Thus, try as Sharpay and the rest of the school body might to “Bop to The Top”, those who exceed beyond their limitations are rightfully victorious in their passions. Most importantly, by the end of the musical, Troy and Gabriella are ultimately rewarded for their dive into the musical theatre world by being cast as the lead singers for the winter musical. 

High School Musical utilizes the triumphant journey of Troy Bolton to musical stardom in order to illustrate the severity of gender confinements. Instead residing as the “lunkhead basketball player,” Troy surpasses his predetermined role in society, challenging the social construct of East High in the process. It is important to note that his power and authority is ultimately granted by his white male privilege, allowing for a smooth and victorious quest against the status quo’s of his high school community. One could wonder how successful this transformation would have been for Troy and Gabriella if it had not included a popular handsome white male. I mean really, Troy’s biggest obstacle was overcoming the temper tantrums of Sharpay. Still, while we all love a good Sharpay sabotage, it’s worth celebrating the success of Troy in exceeding the gender bound normalities of East High, especially as seen by a young impressionable audience. In the end, why must one stay complacent in their expected role in society when there are so many creme brûlée to be made?  

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