Monday, October 3, 2016

Currently Listening 10.3.16

You Got Game?: A Critical Analysis of the Queer Subtext in High School Musical 2’s “I Don’t Dance”

The Disney Channel Original Movie Franchise High School Musical presents a look at the effects of one basketball player’s venture into dramatic arts on a modern American high school and its students. The general message of the films is one of community and understanding, and emphasizes that we as people should be allowed to pursue our passion regardless of any status quo. The film provides viewers with several archetypal characters who engage in activities outside their general area of interest: a hip-hop dancing nerd, multiple jocks interested in the arts, and a brief cameo by a ‘skater kid’ (code: stoner) who plays the classical cello. The drama club characters, Sharpay, a typical diva, and her brother Ryan, a flamboyant dancer and choreographer, however, remain uncomplicated. In this piece, I will address the queer-coding of Ryan and another character, Chad, as seen in the second installment musical number “I Don’t Dance.”

Ryan Evans is introduced in the first movie as the sidekick of his sister Sharpay, the main antagonist of the series. He is stylishly dressed in vibrant colors and loud hats at all times, a lover of jazz squares, and acts mostly as an extension of Sharpay. He is largely played for laughs. His role expands in the sequels as he rebels against his sister’s antics and befriends the heroes. His flamboyant style of dress and interest in dance, however, remains questionable. Ryan is what we can refer to as a “queer-coded” character. Essentially, Ryan’s sexuality is never explicitly addressed, but he is written with several stereotypically “gay” traits which lead the audience to assume Ryan’s queerness.

Another character, Chad, is the exact opposite of Ryan. He is best friend to leading man Troy, and the loudest voice against Troy’s involvement in the school musical. He is the most hypermasculine character in the series; his entire identity is linked to his status as an athlete. In the second installment, a few characters (including Ryan) ask Chad to participate in the end of the summer talent show at the resort club they all work at. Chad responds with the phrase “I don’t dance,” which eventually leads to the musical number of the same name. Ryan attempts to convince Chad and the following exchange takes place:

Ryan: “You don’t think dancing takes some game?
Chad: “You got game?”
Ryan: “A little”

To prove his “game,” Ryan joins the baseball game that’s about to take place. Chad and Ryan then battle for the highest grip on a bat in order to determine which team bats first, and Ryan comes out on top. If we think of the bat as a phallus, this is an interesting image.

From here, the baseball themed musical number “I Don’t Dance” begins. Framed as a duet, Ryan and Chad have something of a vocal sparring match as Ryan attempts to convince Chad that he can, in fact, dance while Chad repeatedly refuses. Dancing, of course, is the more effeminate activity and clearly threatens Chad’s masculinity. Afraid to appear feminine (or gay?) Chad fends off Ryan’s assertions without giving any reason:

“I wanna play ball now, and that's all.
This is what I do.
It ain't no dance that you can show me.”

Ryan repeats the phrase “If I can do this, well, you can do that” many times, referring back to the series’s theme of exploring areas of interest outside of clique definitions. However, Chad only responds with “I don’t dance.” Chad’s unrelenting refusal are further evidence of his hypermasculine view of the world, but also becomes more and more ridiculous as the song goes on. Why isn’t Chad interested in learning to dance? Why is he so opposed?

This is only compounded by the fact that the song is a musical dance number and, as such, Chad is physically dancing even as he sings the phrase “I don’t dance.” In fact, Chad is apparently a very talented dancer. So what gives? Some studies (and colloquial wisdom) seem to find that homophobia and hypermasculinity are “external manifestation of repressed sexual desires.” Thus, if we read Ryan and dancing as queer, we can then read Chad’s repeated refusals of dance as refusals of his own latent sexual desires (perhaps for Ryan).

Sexual implications are abound in this number. Baseball and dance are both often used as euphemisms for intercourse: Americans often refer to the sexual “bases,” as if couples are making their way around a baseball diamond as their sexual relationship grows more intimate, with home base, or “scoring” generally indication genital intercourse; dance is often linked to courtship and seduction, and use of the term can be seen in several euphemisms for intercourse including ‘no pants dance,’ ‘devil’s dance,’ etc. This is especially important to consider, given that this is the only time baseball appears in the High School Musical franchise--basketball is the focus of the series, and golf is heavily featured in the second installment, but baseball appears just this once.

In an interesting exchange towards the end, Chad seems to be relenting just a little:

Chad: You make a good pitch but I don't believe.
Ryan: I say you can.
Chad: I know I can, but--
Ryan and Chad: I don't dance.

Chad, here, admits that he can dance, only to reassert that he does not dance. This gives us a peek into Chad’s psyche--he’s knows he is capable of dance but vehemently rejects dancing as part of his “jock” identity. If we are willing to accept the sexual metaphors established above, we can then ascertain that Chad is aware of his potential queerness but cannot condone it as part of his hypermasculine personality.

Shortly after, the song comes to an end, with Chad once again singing “I don’t dance, no.” Seemingly, no progress has been made. However, as Ryan is walking off the pitch, Chad calls him back, and says, “I’m not saying I’m going to dance in the show...but if I did...what would you have me do?” The answer to this happens off screen, but it is clear that Chad has warmed to the idea of dancing, and perhaps to his own latent desire (at least in part).

In the greater context of the musical, Chad does participate in the staff musical number, and audiences get a brief scene of Ryan and Chad bonding shortly after the game over a meal. They discuss Ryan’s past performance in a Little League World Series while, for some reason, wearing each other’s clothes. It is difficult to think of a non-sexual (or at least non-romantic) reason as to why the two characters have switched outfits.

In conclusion, the musical number “I Don’t Dance” from High School Musical’s second installment has obvious sexual subtext, and can be easily read as the queer-coded Ryan attempting to bring out Chad’s latent homosexual desire, despite the latter’s adherence to harsh hypermasculine performance.

Best wishes,

For more information on Queer-coding in cinema, check out the documentary The Celluloid Closet.

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