My ten-year-old (blonde) daughter asked me this question yesterday, and I had to think about what she meant for a minute. When I was a kid, the blonde girl was always the heroine, the Girl You Wanted to Be — this covers everyone from Marcia Brady to the pre-multicultural Disney princesses — and the brown-haired one was, at best, the nice girl someone could ultimately settle for being (or dating). As her exemplar of the Modern Blonde Mean Girl, my daughter held up Sharpay Evans, uberdiva from Disney’s High School Musical franchise, played by Ashley Tisdale, above. I never really saw her as a purely mean girl and always felt Sharpay got a raw deal in those narratives. In twenty-first century kid movies and TV, one of the main themes is belonging, which has always been a major concern for most t(w)eens, though now the lines seem to be more clearly drawn than I remember them being in the battle of Us Versus Them. HSM and other t(w)een narratives featuring MBMGs are always, utlimately, about insiders versus outsiders, and despite what the master narrative tells us in HSM, Sharpay will always be an outsider despite her wealth and beauty and talent because she’s openly narcissistic (while the others hide it better) and consequently does not pay appropriate homage to the real insiders at East High School, the athletes, and by, extension, their girlfriends.
In a few weeks Glee will return for its second fall season, and Glee owes a small debt to HSM in its presentation of a high school plagued by social hierarchies that can be bridged — and maybe abandoned — through a near universal love of song and dance. (And that’s certainly not a bad fantasy, especially in an era when most high schools are lucky to have a music program at all). What fascinates me about both HSM and Glee is their canny reinforcement of standard high school stereotypes while appearing to dismantle them, the way in which they foreclose the possibility of true social integration while appearing to open it. Glee has its progressive moments, as I’ll discuss, in its presentation of some social issues (teen pregnancy, lack of job opportunities for adolescents, the oppression of dorks) when it breaks, often uneasily, from its fantasy format and delves into realistic drama. But for the most part, both Glee and HSM present their narratives in a manner that is deliberately not realistic. Few students, for example, burst into song and dance in the cafeteria (except maybe at that high school from Fame) and no guy announces to a father that he got the man’s daughter pregnant by singing “Having My Baby” at the dinner table. And it is precisely this fantasy that draws us in, the promise of a world in which there is joy and talent and showmanship, what the Glee Club’s advisor Mr. Schuester calls a “perfect storm of emotion”, lurking inside all of us, waiting to burst free — and in key. Perhaps the most cherished element of that fantasy, as I alluded to earlier, is the promise of unconditional acceptance.
From its inception as a Disney Channel tv movie, the HSM story appeared to represent exactly that utopian appeal of universal acceptance and a breaking down of the lines between Us and Them. One of its best scenes is set in the East High cafeteria where Wildcats basketball star Troy Bolton (played by Zac Efron) is warned (in song, of course) of the dangers of breaking the “status quo” by attempting to be a star on both the basketball court and in the musical theater. Soon other kids reveal their secret talents and passions — a chunky brainy girl wants to “pop and lock it”, Zeke the athlete likes to bake, a skater dude plays the cello — but they are all dissuaded as the queenly Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) watches in horror, recognizing the threat this represents to the social order. But she need not worry, really. While Troy and his athlete pals do manage to combine singing and dancing with athletic showboating, the remain the undisputed rulers of the school. and continue to do so until they graduate at the end of HSM3. In fact, their reign as the ultimate insiders, as the only students in the school worth knowing or thinking about, gets underscored in this final chapter when that year’s musical production is based on the lives of Troy, his girlfriend Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), and their athlete/scholar friends. So not only do they get to star in the year’s big show and dazzle everyone in audience, they get to do so while playing themselves. Thus the movies reaffirm this group’s natural superiority over others. While HSM appears to present a world in which all are valued — white, black, Hispanic, the bespectacled, and even the slightly overweight — ultimately, at East High it is still the pretty people who matter, to the movie viewing audience and to the characters they are watching.
While similarly steeped in fantasy, Glee presents a more complicated version of the Us versus Them theme because the conflict is never resolved. Those who sing and dance in the glee club do not (at least not in Season 1) become heroes, even when football stars and cheerleaders join their ranks. In fact, the football stars and cheerleaders find themselves on the receiving end of the “slushie facials” the once dispensed to glee clubbers and other losers, but they stick with glee club because they find real acceptance there. One of the more fantastic elements of the first season has BMG Cheerio Quinn Fabray (played by Diana Agron) go from hater to booster because the Glee Club sings “I’ll Stand By You” to her when her former friends, teachers, and family have ostracized her for her pregnancy (an especially ironic one as she is president of the Celibacy Club).
Other subplots demonstrate that acceptance is more hard-won and often fleeting. For example, when now openly gay Kurt joins the football team as a star kicker, the whole team grudgingly performs on the field a routine to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” at his insistence, and they finally win a game. But a few episodes later, the football players are back to throwing Glee Clubbers in dumpsters and performing other forms of nerd torture, from which those players who stick with Glee Club are not exempt. Within Glee Club, there are moments of real inclusion, of the gay, disabled, overweight, and ethnically “Other”, presenting at least the possibility of a space for acceptance of all types of people. Even so, Glee Club mentor Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) still persists in calling Michael Chang not by name but as “Other Asian.”
This contradiction may explain one of the appeals of the show — it presents a fantasy of inclusion as a slow process. There is no easy acceptance in this TV high school, as none exists in the real world. The hope for the future in Glee lies in the kids; it is the grownups in Lima who hold back geek-cool/Us-Them integration, most notably in the form of Cheerio coach, grownup MBG and semipsychotic Sue Sylvester (a role which just earned Jane Lynch an Emmy). Like most adults, she’s been taught to hide what is not a mark of excellence in her book, whether that’s experiencing a romantic disappointment or having a developmentally disabled (and institutionalized) sister. At the end of the first season, Sue vowed revenge against Schuester, but it was her former protegé Quinn Fabray who successfully foiled Sue’s plot to destroy the Glee Club and the dream of inclusiveness it represents. In the spring season she seemed to be coming around (even making her own music video, and then one with Olivia Newton John).
After we talked about the Mean Blonde Girl stereotype and real life bullying, my daughter asked me why people keep making these stories that, in her mind, teach girls to be mean, schools to be hierarchized, and to make many people miserable. Things will never change, she argued, if we keep seeing the same expectations over and over again, especially if they are rehearsed in movies and TV shows aimed at t(w)eens.
While Glee isn’t exactly tween-friendly, with its marital affairs and pregnant teens, it at least presents the possibility that stereotypes like the MBG be relegated to the past. But if you still crave the sight of a mean girl in a cheerleading outfit, Ashley “Sharpay” Tisdale is in a new show on the CW, Hellcats, which, according to its website, is about a college student who loses her scholarship due to budget cuts and (for some reason I could not discern) then joins the school’s competitive cheer squad. Tisdale plays an auburn haired mean girl. The show’s tag line? “Being here doesn’t mean you belong.” Not everything has to be about social change, I guess, and this show certainly doesn’t look like it will be.