The Nihilistic Ideological Structure of Disney's High School Musical


Chris Bennion

The one problem with Disney's immensely popular High School Musical has nothing to do with the plasticity of its music, the predictability of its story, or the plainness of its production.

If you've only been in the world for five or six years, this kind of entertainment is perfectly acceptable. High School Musical is Romeo and Juliet without the tragedy. Troy Bolton is a jock; Gabriella Montez is a science nerd. Add a couple of dance numbers, comic clashes between students and teachers, and a little tension between a parent and a boy, and you have something that speaks directly to a mind that has a very long way to go on the road to adulthood.

The one problem with High School Musical is a piece of misinformation. It misinforms boys and girls about a man who changed the course of world history, a mind that gave the workers of the 19th century a voice and a very long book. This man is Karl Marx. The moment of misinformation is in the second act of the performance. A girl who is on the science-geek side of the high-school divide meets with a boy on the basketball-jock side of it. They meet to solve a problem. The unification of the best science girl, Gabriella, with the best basketball boy, Troy, is shaking the foundations of each clique's identity: One of the geeks becomes interested in dancing; one of the jocks takes up baking. The two conspirators hatch a plan to forever separate Troy and Gabriella and, they hope, to restore the social order.

When one of the conspirators, the jock, worries that the plan might hurt his good friend Troy, the science geek says: "Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few people for the good of the whole. Karl Marx said that."

There's a major problem here: Karl Marx never said that.

The science girl is confusing Marx with some other historical figure. She might be thinking of Stalin, Mao, or even Thomas Jefferson, but she is certainly wrong to think that Marx advocated such an amoral theory. Marx was not a dictator; he was simply a philosopher who believed that the motor of history, of progress, was class struggle.

Nowhere in his major works (Capital, The Communist Manifesto, et cetera) does Marx detail a plan for mass violent action; nowhere does he forward the hard-hearted doctrine of killing a few (or many) for the benefit of the whole, for the cause, for the future, for history. There is a little of this in Hegel's concept of the "cunning of history," but it's not in Marx's concept of labor or historical progress. Marx merely examined the conditions of his time and concluded that capitalism was going to reach its end and be replaced by a new economic system that would eliminate the institution of private property and establish a fair distribution of wealth.

The harshest idea Marx proposed was the possibility of having to forcibly seize the means of production from the rich. Near the end of the second chapter of the greatest poem of the 19th century, The Communist Manifesto, he writes: "The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class...."

Alain Badiou, a Maoist, has pointed out three obscurities in Marx. One, how the bourgeois state will transform into the proletariat state; two, the fact that this transformation is poorly considered and might be violent or meet violent resistance; and, three, that the state is by nature an oppressive system that concentrates the means of violence (and so a violent bourgeois state inevitably becomes a violent proletariat state). On these matters about violence, power, and force, Marx's theory is weak. It is weak because his work focused on the state of capitalism not the state after capitalism.

But Karl Marx did not call for violence and died with no blood on his hands; the same will not be true for George W. Bush.

So why is High School Musical circulating this harmful piece of misinformation? The answer becomes clear at the end of the performance: All of the kids who watched High School Musical on the rainy day that I attended with my daughter and her cousin left the theater thinking Marx was Stalin or Chairman Mao or some other 20th-century monster. Two hundred kids now equated Marxism with cruelty, conspiracy, and evil; they equated capitalism, commodity markets, and private property with freedom, democracy, and honesty. In short, High School Musical is not innocent. It has a mission, a goal, an economic reality for which it is the ideological reflection and confirmation.

The sovereign individual is High School Musical's god, and the democratic right to express oneself is its only creed. But those expressions are vapid; they have no substance and risk no dangers. Gabriella and Troy stay together, but the social order is not overturned. The jocks and the geeks simply learn that each individual can have multiple expressions: basketball and science, dancing and cakes. These expressions are treated like accessories, emptied of substance and historical significance. They challenge nothing and convert all cultural objects, some of which are the products of long and hard social struggles (black music, for example), into mere trends, things that can be purchased and discarded with no worry, consideration, or consequence.

The individual that High School Musical worships is the most nihilistic human being history has ever produced. Because this type of person has no content or history and because s/he absorbs everything s/he encounters into the nothingness of consumer comforts, this person is a perfect onion, a vegetable of pure layers. This thing that dances and sings and expresses its emptiness without thought or worry, this thing that is so stupid that it doesn't even know how to be bored—this thing is killing our planet. recommended


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