Sometimes the world can see us in a way that’s different than who we are

Ok, so I’m trying to tidy up my draft posts, and this is a film review I wrote a few weeks ago.  It was going to be part of a longer post (basically saying how much I had enjoyed my first alcoholic Saturday night in years, even though it had involved watching a crappy pre-teen musical), but the second part didn’t flow, and I abandoned it.  Still, the review works on its own, I think:

Sometimes the world can see us in a way that’s different than who we are

Not my words, but a quotation from The Gospel According to Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, or High School Musical, as it’s otherwise known.  Although, it has to be said, one would hope that mangling the English language in this say – ‘sometimes the world can see us as different to who we really are’ would be a rather less tortured way of expressing the same sentiment (and ‘sometimes the world encourages us to behave in a way that’s incompatible with our true selves’ would have been even better) – isn’t taught in America’s high schools.  And, yes, I know these are song lyrics, but the thing is, a good lyricist can write words that fit the beat and also make sense – see Fred Ebb for further details.

So why the HSM quote?  Well, I watched it when it was shown on BBC3 last night.  The film is a very thinly-disguised version of Romeo & Juliet, only without all the poisonings and swordfights and other lethal activities that make watching that play fractionally less dull than watching paint dry.  By various contrived means, the leader of the school’s jocks (though he has to be the least jock-like jock ever seen on film) and the leading light of the scholastic decathlon team (no, I don’t know what a scholastic decathlon is either) fall in love with each other, and the fractures that divide the student body are healed by the magic of musical theatre.  The quotation above comes from a syrupy duet between the male and female leads, and carries the film’s message, which is all about the need not to pigeonhole people.  I suppose it’s not an entirely objectionable message to preach at kids, if you’re going to preach at them at all, but I can’t believe it will have changed the world.

So, anyway, my reactions to the film, in bullet-point form:

  • Zac Efron looks like a girl.  Seriously, I have rarely seen a man with more feminine features.  And for large parts of this film he’s shot like some goddess from the silver screen – Greta Garbo, say – which has the effect of making him seem curiously empty and inert, and as much unlike a successful athlete as it’s possible to imagine.  I guess the problem is that the producers were wanting to make the male lead attractive, but because this was a film aimed at pre-teen kids they couldn’t go down the route of making him overtly sexy, and so opted instead for beauty (allegedly, although I can’t see it myself).
  • This film lies to pre-teen girls.  It tells them that they can fall in love with the basketball captain, and that as well as being thrusting and athletic, he’ll also be shy and sensitive, and like nothing better than going to his special private place and staring wistfully at the sunset, while a gentle breeze flirts with his delightfully tousled hair.  In reality, sweetly innocent pre-teen girls, if the captain of the basketball team asks you out on a date he will drink beer, eat pizza, slobber his beer-and-cheese-spittle all over your face when he tries to kiss you, ask to see your tits, and then go and throw up in a bush.  If you do find a high-school boyfriend who is kind and sensitive and likes gazing wistfully at sunsets, you’ll find that all he wants to do is hold your hand and talk about how great High School Musical is, and that he ‘respects you too much’ to do anything more than kiss you primly on the cheek.  Then, one sad day, he’ll come back from summer camp, and will want to show you hundreds of photos of his ‘new best friend’, and ask if you think he’s really cute, even cuter than Zac Efron, and you’ll realise that you’ve wasted your adolescence.  Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.
  • For a musical, there aren’t many songs.
  • The songs are pretty unmemorable.
  • If you get a part in a pre-teen film, and most of your scenes involve your character bitching with his twin sister, and, unique amongst all the other boys in the film, you are both interested in and good at singing and dancing from the very beginning, and the wardrobe people keep giving you these really outrageous hats to wear, then – congratulations! – you are the film’s coded gay character.  Stereotypes may be stereotypes for a reason, but that doesn’t make them any less irritating.

So, as you may have gathered, I didn’t particularly rate the film, although I was pleased to finally have a chance to see what is a bona fide cultural phenomenon, especially amongst some younger gay men.  (And, bizarrely, Charlie Brooker.)  Anyway, it wasn’t entirely shit (though I might come to a different conclusion if I watched it sober), and it passed a drunken 90 minutes pleasantly enough.  I still felt an overwhelming urge to watch Marilyn Manson videos afterwards, though.  You know, just to get rid of that icky wholesome feeling…

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11 Responses to Sometimes the world can see us in a way that’s different than who we are

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    Nothing wrong with being wholesome, so long as, like the Narnia stories, you are also truthful.

    All of the best guys are gay. (Apart from my dad. And Jonathan and Chris.)

    And it should be ‘different FROM’. (Sans capitals, obviously.)

    HSM teaches us that you will succeed as long as you are beautiful. (Outside, not inside.)

  2. cellar_door says:

    Never seen it, can’t imagine anything worse than being made to watch it. I still remember a horrid night shift having ‘Step up’ 1 and 2 forced on me. If I’d had the keys to the drugs trolley I swear to god, I’d be dead now.

    I always thought Grease was a horrible movie, but at least it was vaguely truthful. Want the popular guy to fall for you? Dump the ‘nice’, buy some PVC and put out. It’s cool. As long as you don’t get pregnant, cause only sluts get pregnant.

    At least, that’s what I took from it…

    :o)

  3. Alex says:

    People keep asking me if I think Zac Efron is hot. It tends to be the third question girls at college ask me, right after ‘Is it true you’re gay? I always wanted to have a gay friend’ and ‘Are you the man or the woman?’. He is pretty like a girl, and I certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed (ha! I should be so lucky), but I have this horrible feeling he’d start to fade away to nothingness like that picture of Marty McFly’s family in Back To The Future if he didn’t have a key light on him at all times.
    Your second bullet point is both true and very, very funny.
    Is it different to, different from, or different than? Lucy, I’ll take your word for it, you know more about language than I do (or ever will, I suspect).
    Oh, and I still think that the best films to watch while pleasantly drunk are really pulpy horrors. ‘No! Don’t go into the basement!’.
    Incidentally, perhaps it says something about my generation of gay men that I’ve avoided the heavyweight political discussion about gay marriage in Maine, but when it comes to High School Musical, I’m all over it. Like a cheap suit.

  4. Kapitano says:

    HSM has a gay following? If it’s a movie about seducing that unreachable godlike straight-boy on the football team, or seducing that handsome but popular jerk who despises you in real life, then that might make sense.

    Zac Effron does seem to be typecast as the “wallflower” type – maybe he’s taken over from Ryan Philippe as the beautiful-but-tragically-fragile boy. But seeing as he’s playing the role of a passive fantasy for teen girls…it fits.

    I did once have to sit through “Grease”, at the insistence of a boyfriend who said it was an important cultural artifact of the 50s. I honestly remember nothing about it.

    As for “different from” and “different to”…go here for more discussion of silly prescriptivism in grammar books.

  5. Lucy McGough says:

    Alex, do people really say that they’ve always wanted a gay friend, and ask you whether you’re the man or the woman? Because if so, well, words fail me. I mean, good grief.

  6. J. Wibble says:

    I was forced to sit though HSM by my sister when she was a pre-teen girl, and both my girlfriend and my incredibly gay best mate love it to bits. Every time I hear “We’re All In This Together” I also hear my pancreas crying, and I collect Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

    All high school movies lie to pre-teen and teenage girls, and quite a bit to teenage boys as well. It rather glosses over the head-flushed-down-the-toilet aspects to being a sweet, caring, gentle and romantic (read: gay) teenage boy. I think Zac Efron is used as mental masturbatory material for pre-teen girls for much the same reasons as the Jonas Brothers – they’re perceived as non-threatening at a time when boys are mysterious and somewhat intimidating creatures (though far less so than girls are to boys), their non-threatening nature means parents are less likely to object to them (probably because they can see a mile off that they’re highly unlikely to be interested in girls anyway :p) and because in order to arouse the “we will shag him, as soon as we know how” atmosphere – so described by Eddie Izzard – they have to make them as gay as possible whilst still pretending they’re straight, because people tend to go for people they have things in common with, and there are very few similarities between pre-pubescent girls and pre-pubescent boys who aren’t as gay as a row of pink tents with gay men in them sniffing poppers.

    Alex – I once saw a comedian on a late-night Comedy Store episode whose response to the ‘man/woman’ question was “I don’t play the “man” or the “woman”, I play the dog.” I think it gets the point across. Alternatively tell them you play Hamlet.

  7. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry that the pre-approval of comments is rather hampering the free-flow of conversation – hopefully it won’t be for too much longer.

    Lucy McGough – I think it depends what we mean by ‘wholesome’. I was really using the word to mean that kind of prescriptive ‘everything must be just so’ niceness, which is fairly objectionable, i think. There’s no room in it for gay people, for example, or straight people who don’t want to get married, or – well, you get the picture, i’m sure. :o)

    There are quite a lot of straight guys who are good, too, i think. But they don’t tend to be captain of high school basketball teams… :o)

    Thanks for the grammar guidance, too. :o) I think this is one of the areas where the ‘rules’ are in flux at the moment. Personally, i find ‘different than’ still sounds a bit clunky, but i don’t really mind ‘different to’.

    Cellar_Door – i have to say that’s pretty similar to the ‘message’ i got from Grease: if a woman and a man are attracted to each other, but their lifestyles are incompatible, then it’s the woman who has to change; women ought to give in to men’s demands to be sexual, but if they get pregnant, then it’s their fault, and they’ll get the blame. I mean, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of some of the social attitudes floating around in the 50s, but i’m not sure that watching it played out in musical form is entertainment exactly… ;o)

    Based on your reaction, i’m glad to say i haven’t even heard of ‘Step Up’. :o)

    Alex – i second Lucy’s comments about the jaw-dropping insensitivity of college girls, although it doesn’t come as an absolute surprise to me. If it came right down to it, i probably wouldn’t kick Mr Efron out of bed either (think of the money i could make selling the story…), but i know exactly what you mean about fading away. I think it may be because, even when he’s not on film, he’s still playing a character, instead of being a real person.

    I don’t think it says anything about either your generation or you personally that you chose to comment on this post and not the gay marriage one. I think it’s more to do with the fact that you and i probably more or less agree on that issue, whereas there’s more scope for opinion-airing on this one. It’s certainly not something to beat yourself up over, anyway. :o)

    Kapitano – The film’s not really about anyone seducing anyone – that would make it more interesting – and in the prologue, Efron is shown to be at least as shy as the female lead. Instead it’s lots of fairly twee stuff about people exploring their feelings, and coming to terms with their inner selves (there’s a subplot about one of the associate ‘jocks’ who really enjoys baking, and another one about how you sometimes have to disappoint your parents in order to be the real ‘you’). I think the gay following comes from: 1) it’s a musical; 2) crushing on Zac Efron is (if you’re a certain kind of young gay man) a fairly good way of bonding with your straight female friends; 3) the disappointing-your-parents thing probably still has some resonance for some people; 4)it does, in a very mild way, suggest that gender stereotypes are limiting and bad; 5) it’s about ‘a journey of self-discovery’, and they’ve been popular with some kinds of gay men from The Wizard of Oz onwards.

    The passive fantasy thing absolutely fits – he’s a sort of mobile Cosmo Girl (do they still publish that magazine?) pin-up, even when he’s doing supposedly macho things like shooting baskets (assuming i’ve got my terminology right there).

    J Wibble – Yes, i think the ‘non-threatening boy’ aspect of Zac Efron is probably a big part, both of why pre-teen girls like him, and why their parents are prepared to indulge what is, however you dress it up, lust. (The Jonas brothers are even safer for parents, because they have – i think, although i’m not fully up to speed with teen gossip these days – signed abstinence pledges.) And you’re spot on, as well, about what actual jocks would do to a boy like Efron, which is no doubt why the ‘jocks’ in the film have to be so…er…effeminate. I’m sure, if the film had been aimed at boys of the same age, the portrayal of the male characters would have been rather different… ;o)

  8. liz says:

    Have you even tried watching HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3? It beats the first and second by a mile. GIVE IT A CHANCE, AND QUIT JUDGING IT WHEN YOU’VE ONLY SEEN 1/3 OF THE SERIES.

  9. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi liz,

    Thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen HSM 3 (or 2, for that matter). I certainly wouldn’t be qualified to speak about either of those films, which is why you’ll notice i limited myself to writing about only the first film.

    Sorry if i upset you. :o)

  10. liz says:

    Hi.
    Thanks for your response. HSM3 is definetely top quality, it won’t win many converts, but it is bright, energetic, and well-crafted. HSM2 would be the only one of the series that I think is just average. The songs are great, but the plot is irritating. The first film definitely lacks songs, but has a special place in my heart, with its quirky charm. Thanks for reading my comment, and I do hope you’ll consider renting HSM3. : ) HSM3 is a major improvement on HSM 1 & 2. For me, 3rd is the best, then HSM1, then HSM2.

    -An older HSM Fan.

  11. *laughs*

    I taught fractals to calc students this May at the school where the movie was shot. It’s a pleasant < 1/2 hr walk from my house to that high school… which itself is kinda mind-bogglingly NICE. The kids are rich. : /

    I think the location–affluent high school in white, Christian Utah but relatively liberal Salt Lake City–probably reflects the contents of the movie, although I'm prepared to bet plenty of effeminate guys get tortured there.

    On a somewhat related note, the Mormon Church recently supported a proposed Salt Lake City law against housing and employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation, so of course the laws got passed. Wondering why they didn't support the same initiatives earlier this year when we were actually pushing for them, but… dunno, just an odd victory that has us all paranoidly looking over our shoulders for the other foot to fall.

    From your review, I take it I should continue to not watch the movie. Probably wouldn't be to my tastes.

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