‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’: A New Kind of Queer Representation

Source: Disney+

“And here they are; our first openly gay character!” we hear once more, as Disney pats itself on the back for making the same declaration yet again. While the very first announcement may have had the LGBTQ+ community excited, these attempts at diversity quickly fell flat. Where queer heroes were expected, we instead got brief cameos, off-hand lines from minor characters, or a same-sex kiss happening so deep in the background, you question whether it even happened. 

And yet, while all of that has been happening with their theatrical slate, Disney+ gave the world Disney’s first-ever on-screen gay kiss this month, and it seems to have flown under the radar. 

A History-Making Kiss

The kiss in question happened on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a mockumentary that follows a group of teenagers at the school where High School Musical was filmed. It didn’t happen between two minor characters either, but between Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez) and Seb (Joe Serafini), two of the main cast and a couple whose journey we have followed since the first season. 

In a franchise that centres entirely around theatre kids, it’s a wonder that it’s taken until now for them to have openly LGBTQ+ kids in the line-up. It’s important to remember though that the trilogy concluded in 2008, and queer representation in teen media has massively evolved since then. People love to mock Glee, but it’s hard to deny the way in which it set a path for LGBTQ+ characters to openly and unapologetically be themselves. And while HSM: The Musical: The Series acknowledges the legacy of its forefathers, it is clear that Carlos and Seb offer a fresh kind of representation that has rarely been seen.

Coming Out As More Than Just LGBTQ+

For one, neither character came out on-screen. When we meet Carlos, we are introduced to his dreams of being a choreographer, his sass, and his love of drama. He also casually mentions his crush on Zac Efron. When we meet Seb, we meet him as he auditions to play Sharpay in their school production of HSM, and as Serafini has been boosted to series regular, we’ve learnt more about this farm boy.

Both of these characters are quite clearly gay, but this is treated as established knowledge rather than news. The show forgoes the need for some big announcement: normalising queer teenagers just being themselves, with their sexuality being a part, but not all, of their identity. Tim Federle, the creator of the show, made clear that this was intentional. He said,

“If we really want to move the conversation forward, we also need to show stories in which it’s presented as not only a given fact but something to be either proud of or not to make a huge deal out of.” 

Tim Federle

Queer Joy Instead of Trauma

As well as lacking coming-out storylines, homophobic bullying is wonderfully absent from the show, as are any perceived struggles that come specifically from being gay. Every time you think the narrative may veer into that territory, it gleefully swerves away. When Seb seems to have stood up Carlos at Homecoming, you wonder whether it’s because he’s scared of how they’ll be perceived, only to find out that he’s three hours late due to a cow dying on his farm. On opening night, when Seb expresses to Carlos his nerves about his family seeing him as Sharpay, you worry that his family is homophobic, only for the camera to pan round to his large, embarrassing family waving pride banners.

The show doesn’t ignore the fact that being different is hard: in a recent episode, Carlos yells in the heat of an argument, “Look around you, there’s not a ton of me in this school.” In another episode, there is a reference made to hateful comments he got on an Instagram video he posted of himself dancing aged 13. However, one important distinction is that HSM: TM: TS never chooses to focus on this. 

Carlos and Seb’s relationship brings a welcome breath of fresh air for openly gay character representation on screen
Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

A Budding Romance Like Any Other

The way in which their romantic relationship is treated also differs from past teen shows. They are allowed to be two teenagers falling in love and working it out, and it isn’t portrayed as a wholly different experience from their counterparts in heteronormative relationships. Even when they have relationship struggles, these have been based on their financial differences rather than anything else. Their co-star Sofia Wylie, who previously starred on Andi Mack (Disney Channel’s first show to have a gay main character), said, “High schoolers are just feeling their feelings, and Carlos and Seb are doing the same.” It is true that it’s taken them a lot longer to get their first kiss on-screen than the other couples, but when that finally happened, it was treated no differently. I’d say with no song and dance, but it literally happens after Seb serenades Carlos with Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’.

The Start of Something New

Disney is still very restrained when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation; it was only recently that they bumped Love, Victor to Hulu for being too ‘adult’ for the network. However HSM: The Musical: The Series is the start of something new. Part of it comes from the fact that there are queer hands in the creative seats: Tim Federle, the showrunner, is gay, and has talked of how writing these characters has been healing for him. As well as Federle, of the nine principal young cast, five identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Another reason for the development is that with a Gen Z cast and audience, the attitude towards sexuality has shifted massively. 

In our noble bid for inclusive media, representation has become a buzzword: an economic decision and a political statement. Characters like Carlos and Seb turn this on its head – they simply exist as themselves, characters who happen to be queer, and they live their lives as fully as the cis, straight, white characters alongside them. Representation should always be an opportunity to present the world more as we see it, and this nonchalant yet attentive portrayal of young queer men is helping to do just that: reflecting rather than making a point. 

It seems small, but as Serafini said of their history-making kiss: “Oh my gosh, we made it. We did it.”

Words by Rehana Nurmahi

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