How Nostalgia Plays a Leading Role in High School Musical

High school musical cast dancing
The cast making a very important point about stereotypes. Screenshot from High School Musical (Disney Channel), 2006

If there’s anything that encapsulates Y2K nostalgia more than Disney’s accidental classic High School Musical (2006), I haven’t found it. The film is an iconic Disney Channel Original: a project started in the late 1990s as a low-cost method of producing potentially lucrative films. By the early 2000s, they were an important part of the Disney brand. Today, Disney Channel Original Movies are a cultural phenomenon with a multi-generational following. 

The original High School Musical was one of the most successful productions from the DCOM world. The movie itself is an amalgamation of teen movie tropes and trends from the ’80s and ’90s. It banks on the popularity of plot devices (like cliques, mean girls and being true to yourself) and presents them in a bare, cliché-ridden fashion. A surprise hit, it inspired a second installment, High School Musical 2 (2007), which was the highest-rated basic cable release of its time. The following year, High School Musical 3 got a theatrical release. Today, the original High School Musical, which is itself a movie that repackages other media in the Disney brand, has been repackaged as a nostalgia object with the television series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

Fundamentally, the central point of a hit show like HSM is to serve the Disney brand and launch a steady stream of Disney stars. With the advent of Disney+, it now serves as advertising and an incentive to sign up for the streaming service. While in its initial years, Disney drew upon fairytales and well-known mythology for its cartoon movies, more recently the method is to draw upon old favorites within the company’s creative property to create successful media objects. Disney essentially eats its own tail for the sake of content production. The marketing strategy relies on channeling nostalgia, pushing us to multiple media and product lines, establishing global destinations, and using their branded content to apply to other, real-world events.

High School Musical poster

However, there is a more insidious problem with Disney’s nostalgia strategy, and that has to do with the problem of nostalgia itself: how it suggests a longing for an imaginary time (or place) when individuals are untouched by social issues. In High School Musical, this comes across as an erasure of the social context in which its racially and socioeconomically diverse set of characters live. In turn, High School Musical, as with many DCOM productions, implies that the issues of the world are limited to a set of cliques that limit an individual’s “true” self-expression. The film utilizes common plot tropes and costuming to present a vision of high school where the fundamental goal is to celebrate individual tastes and personalities, rather than disrupt the way cliques reflect larger social hierarchies like race or class. 

High School Musical and The Problem of Identity

The plot of the original High School Musical follows two main characters: Troy and Gabriella, as portrayed by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and their quest to audition for the unnamed spring musical. They initially feel they can’t audition because Troy is on the basketball team and has to keep his head in the game, while Gabriella is the brainy ingenue. 

Troy and Gabriella are pitted against Sharpay and Ryan (Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel), the stereotypical stars of musical theater. Sharpay is styled to look very much like a Paris Hilton, rich-brat type, with Ryan as her queer-coded lackey brother. Chad (Corbin Bleu) is Troy’s friend on the basketball team who is invested in keeping him there. He goes so far as to conspire with Taylor (Monique Coleman), who is Gabriella’s friend in the academic decathlon, to stop Troy and Gabriella from auditioning. 

Taylor (Monique Coleman) in one of her signature ties, and Chad (Corbin Bleu) in his platonic ideal basketball outfit. Screenshot, Disney Channel: 2006

The plot mines many of the general trends of teen movies and musicals: Troy and Gabriella meet on vacation, a classic reference to Grease. When Gabriella comes to East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she runs into Troy. However, they are from separate cliques, and there is a very strict clique system, just like Heathers and Mean Girls. They cross the boundary of cliques to sing to each other, just like West Side Story. This is when they audition for the first time and earn a callback, infuriating Sharpay and Ryan. Their enemies are going to target them and bring them down, like Bring It On

After their audition, the most iconic song from the musical starts up in the cafeteria. Sharpay and Chad complain separately that the cliques are falling apart, and in the song “Stick to the Status Quo,” people from cliques reveal they have different interests. It causes a cafeteria dancing disaster. It is during this number that the audience learns the key problem of the film: all people in cliques generally feel restricted.

Importantly, there is little discussion of how they came to those cliques or why it matters to them to stay within the “status quo.” Cliques can serve a function: teens who are marginalized at their school for race, sexuality, or economic status may choose to flock together. However, High School Musical presents cliques as individual personality traits: smart, skater, jock, musician. 

Following the lunchroom disaster, their friends break them up with a totally harebrained scheme of getting Gabriella to watch a live feed of Troy talking about how he cares about basketball more than singing. In a very quick twist, the friends feel guilty for breaking up the singing duo and devote all of their efforts to supporting Troy and Gabriella’s callback. Somehow, cliques are no longer an issue, as the different groups decide to band together to support Troy and Gabriella. The boundaries are proven to be more fluid than originally presented, since they are so easily overcome. 

With the support of the entire school, Troy and Gabriella perform their final callback and during the final number, it is implied that they got the parts. Sharpay even congratulates them. The confusing part of this ending is that the cliques are again not really called into question. Gabriella and Troy don’t have to fundamentally give up anything in order to sing. They can both pursue their main extracurricular activities, which suddenly are no longer in conflict at all with the musical. Fundamentally, this is not a tale of pushing boundaries and upsetting the status quo. Instead, this ending tells us that we can “have it all” and that while individuals can move across current social groupings, these groups are not disrupted in and of themselves.

The High School Musical Costume Time Capsule

This is a skater clique in the world of High School Musical. Screenshot, Disney Channel: 2006

The trilogy was an unintended smash hit for the Disney television network, although looking back, one can see its unique formula for success. Disney Channel Original Movies had reliable viewership in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so audiences were primed to sit down and watch these television events, especially in the summer. All three movies were directed by hit-machine Kenny Ortega, who before was best known for directing Paula Abdul music videos, Hocus Pocus, and Newsies

While the budgets were small, the themes and costuming were tailored to past and current trends in teen movies, making them relatable and fun. Costume designer Tom McKinley created looks reflecting typical fashions at the time, but amped up and Disney-fied. His work shaped, and was shaped by, the pattern clashing, layers, and tons of accessories associated with bad Disney Channel outfits of the ‘00s. 

Arguably, this was part of High School Musical’s aggressive imitation of the teen movie genre. It’s common for Hollywood to take streetwear and repurpose it for visual style, and it was even more common for Disney to look at what the kids were wearing and mimic it in their movies and television. Skaters and people in grunge culture rejected the need to dress appropriately as defined by polite society, but in High School Musical, they’re watered down to beanies and cargo pants. (They do, however, look like the skater/burnout clique from the movie Clueless, so they check the box of nostalgic teen movie referencing.) 

Like the love matches of She’s All That or 10 Things I Hate About You, Troy and Gabriella appear to be from very different worlds. Because of that, clique styles in HSM largely serve as visual shorthand for marking where these characters belong. Their associated entourages also need these clothing clues: Gabriella’s brainy friend wears sweater vests and ties, while Troy’s basketball friend carries a basketball everywhere. Ultimately, clothing differences in High School Musical mainly are mainly only meant to serve as a visual cue that the kids are in different cliques. In fact, no one ever changes their clique-specific dress, even at the end when they embrace the idea that cliques aren’t the determining factor of who you are. “We’re All In This Together,” the final number of the movie, has everyone in red and white, but with their clique looks still in place. 

Importantly, the way style is used in the film removes the resistant power of dress and subcultural clothing. Cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige has outlined the way that subcultures rely on presenting their unique style as a form of resistance to power. However, this political meaning is stripped in the case of HSM, as stylistic differences become interchangeable and a reflection of personal taste or “personality differences.” Cliques and their associated styles are not meant to resist anything. 

Further, as sociologist Julie Bettie argues, stylistic differences are often a reflection of social groupings around categories like race and class. But while High School Musical has an ethnically diverse cast for the 2000s, it seems deeply uninterested in discussing race. A major difference between Sharpay and Gabriella is their perceived class difference, but the characters’ racial differences are never acknowledged. Does Sharpay hate Gabriella because she sees her as fundamentally intruding upon things she believes she deserves as an upper class, white woman (i.e. Troy as a boyfriend and parts in theatrical productions)? Why does she believe herself to be so above Gabriella? The discomfiting racial implications are never dealt with because this is a Disney Channel Original Movie. 

A similar erasure happens with class differences in the film, in a way that reflects the kind of class conflicts common to ’80s-era teen movies. For instance, Sharpay and Ryan are clearly from a wealthy family in terms of having a country club membership. However, outside of the stereotypical “rich kids,” no one else has an explicit class status. Generally, none of the kids have financial issues affecting their day-to-day lives at school, implying that everyone is from a non-descript “middle class.” This is all part of the Disney brand of not touching difficult issues like race and class, and forcing everyone to be a general form of relatable. 

Like much of Hollywood, Disney continues to rely on costuming and makeup for quick visual associations. It relies on audience interpretation for understanding key social differences, rather than the film explicitly depicting historically marginalized social groups. More recently, the movie Cruella announced its gay character, but the only way to know that the is gay in the movie is that he runs a fashion store and dresses like David Bowie. Disney would never show this young man kissing his boyfriend, which allows them to retain plausible deniability and not offend the sensibilities of anti-gay Disney fans. Fashion is a quick way to get people to understand the association, but at the same time, it can imply that social groupings merely exist as matters of taste. Ultimately, Disney uses fashion trends as quick associations, stripping conditions that create these different aesthetics and looks. 


The 2000s had a lot of teen movies about cliques and dealing with the expectations of high school. High School Musical took all of those tropes and delivered a ready-made Disney intellectual property that was ready to be mined for sequels and nostalgia. High School Musical appears to question the nature of cliques and identity without making a clear statement about power, especially when you consider the plots of the sequels resetting to zero. Like most Disney properties, High School Musical has no investment in radically undoing stereotypes. In fact, stereotypes and cliques and their associated costumes make Disney’s job easier for when they want to present a certain kind of story. 

High School Musical will likely remain a popular movie in the Disney vault because its creative property has been extended with the series as well. It is a Disney take on the cynical teen movies of the time, stripping them of their more radical themes and presenting only the barest visuals for us to understand that group differences exist. In a Disney movie, you can question stepping outside the box, but they’ll always need to put you back in for easier storytelling.

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Julia Rittenberg is a Brooklyn-based writer with a love of interpreting media through the lens of cultural studies and collective effervescence. She is a contributor at Book Riot, a reviewer at Booklist, and a general collector of odd jobs. Her favorite way to ingest media is with her twin sister and her cat so they can all give a running commentary.