Sapphic Streaming

Is “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” the Most Proudly Sapphic Show on TV?

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Queer teens deserve to see themselves on TV without risk of witnessing casual homophobia and abrupt series cancellation. Thankfully “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is the welcoming space queer viewers deserve, and a balm especially for sapphic audiences who have repeatedly been (and continue to be) scorned by streaming networks. 

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” (HSMTMTS) is a perfect show. Unapologetically optimistic, inclusive, entertaining, and diverse, it’s indisputably excellent television that serves as an inviting safe space for queer kids. The wildly talented cast flawlessly executes impossibly-meta narratives with a heart of gold, performing musical covers and original songs that are a pleasure to get stuck in your head. On top of all that, last season the “HSMTMTS” Wildcats went to summer camp, and we got three different sapphic romance stories. The only disappointing part of this show is that the marketing and publicity for Season 3 let its sapphic elements happen under the radar. 

Related: Why Does Netflix Keep Canceling WLW Shows? 

When shows like “Genera+ion”, “Paper Girls”, “The Wilds”, and “First Kill” were canceled, it hurt queer viewers who finally saw themselves in a show they adore, and it hurt the sapphic fans who often feel like they’re carrying the marketing for these shows on their own. It’s especially painful knowing how deeply young queer girls connected with these shows. Fresh concepts and queer creatives involved in production allowed for them to be uniquely representative of the community. There’s so much that’s wrong with the current streaming business model, but the way it callously dismisses the value of queer creatives’ art is especially dark. How many people in your day-to-day life have heard of half the shows on the list below? How many of those people know how tremendously queer they are? Why do corporations insist on making it difficult for queer kids to find accepting, enduring, safe queer spaces in media?

Marketing for “HSMTMTS” could be cheering on and welcoming viewers who are desperate to fall in love with a sapphic storyline that is positive and won’t be unceremoniously canceled by a network (“HSMTMTS” is already filming their fourth season.) Instead, media outlets were prompted to focus on newly-out queer actor and musician Joshua Bassett’s character, Ricky Bowen, potentially getting a male love interest this season. This was strange for a few reasons: Primarily because dedicated fans had just witnessed the cast’s enthusiastic press tour setting up Ricky’s highly satisfying slow-burn endgame with a girl named Gina (the majestic Sofia Wiley.)

When the season began streaming and evidence of a significant sapphic ‘girls supporting girls (by showing them they’re gay)’ arc gradually revealed itself in each episode, this media positioning felt even more perplexing and disappointing. From a purely capitalist angle, queer girls are desperate for women-love-women romance to invest their time and fancam-creating abilities in. Why would Disney+ not address this massive market directly? What does it mean that they felt it more lucrative to tease a non-existent queer arc for Ricky Bowen?

Related: “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is Officially Sapphic

Let’s look at some of the extraordinary queer magic that happened by the end of this glorious season:

When Ashlyn (out queer actor Julia Lester), newly sapphic babe whose coming out we celebrated recently, tells the “HSMTMTS” camera (the show is filmed mockumentary-style, like “Modern Family” or “The Office”, but with so many more levels to it) that she learned something new about herself, there’s an infectious smile on her face. Her eyes sparkle with pure joy as she shares that her “dating pool got a little bigger.” She continues, radiant with pride: “And so did my heart…and so did my world.”

Fellow theatre kid Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) welcomes Ashlyn to the community with a rainbow pin, complimenting the way she’s glowing, to which she responds with delight: “I’m still me. Just, more.” A few minutes later, Carlos’ boyfriend, Seb (played by Rodriguez’s irl boyfriend Joe Serafini), surprises him by attending the camp prom. The boys smile into a kiss while romantic music plays. All is right with the world!

Then JoJo Siwa arrives (!!!) as Madison, wearing a rainbow sequin pantsuit for the camp prom to surprise her ex-girlfriend Maddox (Saylor Bell). In an interview with EW, Siwa shared that if there was a confidently queer character like Madison on screen when she was younger, it may have helped her to accept her own queerness sooner. Personally, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that we live in a world where queer teens can guest star as characters that represent their very queer (accepted and adored) selves. Siwa conveys such tender, sentimental affection with her eyes alone that the scene should be in some kind of lesbian teen hall of fame. The girls discuss the history of their relationship with openhearted honesty and patience; Maddox specifically tells her ex that the reason she got so clingy last year at camp is that her parents had seen their texts; She worried that as soon as she got home, they would ground her, and she’d never see Maddie again. Defying the subtext of fear behind being outed to your parents, Maddox clarifies that her parents were upset, but: “turns out they just didn’t like me texting anyone after midnight.” Later, the girls get a cinematic slow-motion sparkling ‘I saw you across the room’ moment and dance together at prom. 

Marketing for “HSMTMTS” could be cheering on and welcoming viewers who are desperate to fall in love with a sapphic storyline that is positive and won’t be unceremoniously canceled by a network.

When Big Red (out-bisexual actor Larry Saperstein), Ashlyn’s boyfriend, who did not join his classmates at summer camp, shows up to surprise his best friend, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) on his birthday, there’s a brief awkwardness because Ashlyn did not expect his visit. But any tension in the audience comes from years of bisexuality being used as part of a cheating plot, feeding into stereotypes that “HSMTMTS” simply refuses to entertain. As much as I hope Saylor Bell’s Maddox and Ashlyn get to explore a sapphic romance next season, I love that Ashlyn and Big Red ended this season on a positive note, together. In terms of where the couple goes from here, all “HSMTMTS” creator Tim Federle would tell TVGuide is: “I think Big Red identifies as bi, Ashlyn identifies as queer, and I identify as somebody who is excited to see this story play out in Season 4.” 

Yes, you read that correctly. Big Red is bi. No, we did not know this before. When he visited at camp, Big Red mentioned to Ashlyn that he’s had lots of time alone to think, and that he’s sure Ashlyn is “it” for him. Sometime between then and the “HSMTMTS” season 3 finale, he filmed a clip for the “Real Housewives”-inspired documentary about the musical the Wildcats performed at summer camp. In the most casual, adorable manner, he introduced himself like this: “Hi, I’m Big Red, I’m Ashlyn’s boyfriend, and I’m bi!”. And it aired on Disney+ right ahead of Bisexual Awareness Week. Now that deserved to be on billboards.

The hilarious, sudden declaration elicited shocked, endearing reactions from his fellow Wildcats, notably an adoring smile from Ashlyn and a “good for him” from Ricky. More importantly, it holds meaning in the limited canon of characters in modern history who have ever said the word “bi” on TV —let alone in such a cheerful, carefree way. How precious to see a young man show up with no hesitation or fear of negative repercussions, knowing that homophobia is not a necessary concern in this show’s universe. Tim Federle is a gift to us all; I just wish that Disney+ would harness everything he’s doing for the community and praise it publicly. Or at the very least, post it on their social media and contact queer-inclusive outlets with related press releases, cast interview availability, and clips from these monumental scenes —ensuring a wide, direct reach to the audiences who crave it. 

Seriously, what is the point of creating such life-saving content if it’s left all but buried? Why not proclaim loudly and proudly? The show is by no means lacking viewership; it’s highly successful —and rightfully so— but I can’t help but wonder: If a bi teenager saw the content that Disney+ put out about “HSMTMTS”, would they know that there is an Ashlyn, a Madison and Maddox, a bisexual Big Red out there to welcome them with open arms? 

What is the point of creating such life-saving content if it’s left all but buried?

I must end by reminding you that this show has phenomenal chemistry —of the romantic, friendship, and mentorship variety. It’s built on humour, heart, and theatre-kid drama. We’ve got wlw and mlm solidarity, and wonderfully supportive, encouraging allies at every corner of the show (with absolutely no homophobia!), and the fourth season is on its way. Look at this tweet which covers so much of the sapphic TV landscape right now, and know that “HSMTMTS” would never do this to you: 

I also really love the way these people think. This kind of visionary, hopeful perspective flourishes in the fandom because the spirit of “HSMTMTS” feels boundlessly inclusive: 

“HSMTMTS” is not necessarily a Queer Show™, but it is a show that genuinely cares for the queer people in its cast and storyline. It honours and treasures its queer characters the way we all deserve —and that should be shouted from the rooftops. Here’s to a widely promoted, passionately queer season four.♦

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