Actor Lucas Grabeel plays HSM's "Ryan"
Photo credit: Steve Granitz/WireImage
Once upon a time in Hollywood, there was the Hays Code, a set of rules that major motion picture studios were forced to follow. The code forbade, among other things, nudity, crude language, mockery of religion and “lustful kissing.” Also not allowed were references to “sex perversion,” including homosexuality.
Did that mean there were no gay characters in movies? Heck, no. They were just “coded.” The persnickety and purse-lipped Franklin Pangborn, constantly exasperated by the foibles of W.C. Fields, or the fey Edward Everett Horton, forever complicating romantic matters between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, were never identified as gay men. But they didn’t have to be — the audience saw their demeanor, their behavior, the way they spoke, acted, and dressed, and their queerness was forthrightly implied if never directly named.
Franklin Pangborn (left) and Edward Everett Horton
If there’s anyone in contemporary show business that has to follow rules even stricter than the Hays Code, it’s the makers of children’s television. So when the Disney Channel struck gold with the High School Musical franchise, it’s no surprise that they never explicitly told the audience that the character of Ryan Evans was gay. But again, they didn’t need to.
Portrayed by Lucas Grabeel in all the HSM films — including the new, theatrically-released High School Musical 3: Senior Year — Ryan loves dance, choreography, yoga and musical theater. (We also learn in HSM 2 that he’s a helluva baseball player.) His sartorial choices lean toward Boy Carrie Bradshaw ensembles; during the screening of HSM 3, I jotted down notes about Ryan’s outfits, including “cardigan,” “kneeboots,” “tight pink pants with matching headband,” “sweater vest with asymmetrical argyle pattern,” and “A Chorus Line top hat and tails.”
Some of Ryan's many wardrobe changes in HSM3
But in the great tradition of characters played by Pangborn, Horton and Tony Randall before him, Ryan is something of a eunuch. The HSM movies wind up with most of the major characters paired off into couples, but Ryan never has a significant other of either gender to call his own. He seems chummy with songwriter Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), but their relationship plays more fruit-and-fly than as a love connection.
HSM 3 has Ryan choreographing the spring show — one character refers to his warm-up exercises as "some kind of crazy Fosse yoga thing" — and competing for a scholarship to Julliard. When a teacher informs him he's a finalist, Ryan (seemingly involuntarily) blurts out, "Dance!"
Ryan's main purpose in the series is to act as sidekick and foil to his twin sister Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), an over-the-top diva bitch who lives in a swirl of pink and expects everyone to fall down at her pedicured feet. (Sharpay's big song "Fabulous" is destined to become a drag anthem for the ages.) In HSM 3, the Evans twins get an elaborate musical number called "I Want It All," and sharp-eyed viewers will catch Ryan ogling a shirtless male dancer for about a second and a half. But can't Ryan aid and abet Sharpay in her shenanigans, throw jazz hands, and be an out gay teen at the same time?
He can — on stage, anyway. In the touring show High School Musical on Tour!, gay playwright David Simpatico makes Ryan’s queerness a touch more overt, putting pictures of pin-up men in his locker (his male classmates all have pictures of women) and even allowing Ryan to swoon a bit when BMOC Troy brushes past him in the hall.
And it’s not like the young audience to whom the HSM franchise is aimed doesn’t read between the lines. After AfterElton.com ran an interview with Simpatico and officially “outed” Ryan, one teen blogger linked to the story under the headline, “BREAKING NEWS! Ryan Evans is Gay! Also the Sun is Hot and the Sky is Blue!”
Which brings us back to the Disney Channel, a company that has to simultaneously entice young eyeballs to the set without doing anything to upset parents. An out gay teenager in a tweener movie? Not looking likely. After all, teen network The N recently became a completely separate network from its former partner, the kiddie-centric Noggin, at least partially because “family values” advocates were complaining that a cable network aimed at kids featured queer characters on Degrassi: The Next Generation and South of Nowhere.
At this summer's Television Critics Association Summer Tour, a reporter from AfterEllen.com spoke with Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channel Worldwide, who defended the network, noting, “There have been characters on Disney Channel who I think people have thought were gay. That’s for the audience to interpret.”
Pressed by a writer from AfterElton.com on whether it was fair for gay viewers to have to “interpret” those characters, Marsh responded, “Well, just to speak sort of in the 30,000-foot level first, we don’t deal with sexuality on the Disney Channel in general. That’s just sort of not where our audience’s head’s at. They’re really a pre-sexual audience, for the most part, and so sexuality is not how we look to tell any kind of stories.”
Disney Channel Worldwide President Gary Marsh
Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Regarding the fact that there are boyfriend-girlfriend relationships in the HSM movies, Marsh interjected, “Yeah, but that’s not about sex,” as though having two boyfriends equals full-tilt boogie. And as to why there can be boyfriend and girlfriends but not two boyfriends, he could only note, “It’s just not something that we’ve ever had the opportunity to portray. It hasn’t been a place we’ve gone.”
That last sentence is certainly true, although the one before it, not so much. Ryan Evans is a flamboyant, larger-than-life character, and the earth wouldn’t fall into the sun if we saw him hold hands with a boy. (Bear in mind, lead characters Troy and Gabriella weren’t even allowed to kiss until the end of the second movie.)
The fact that the HSM movies handle Ryan’s nascent sexuality with tongs is all the more frustrating given the themes of the films themselves. High School Musical champions a shattering of high school stereotypes, whether it’s the jock boy and the brain girl loving to sing and dance or the big girl busting hip-hop moves (in HSM 3, she’s become head cheerleader) or the sk8r boi who secretly loves to play the cello. These movies encourage young people to think of themselves and their peers not, as The Breakfast Club once put it, “in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions” but as multi-faceted human beings who don’t have to follow the script that life or their class clique has written for them.
There’s hope for Ryan Evans, though. The audience gets that he’s gay, and they’re apparently OK with it. And as for Ryan himself, HSM ends with him graduating from high school. And what drama club boy’s life didn’t immediately get better once those four years were over?