Jentasmic!: Ryan, Race and the Red Kilt

13 Jan

One might not expect a simple shopping expedition for High School Musical merchandise to require discourse on race and childrearing. But nonetheless, it does. I explore all this and more in last week’s Jentasmic! column at StudiosCentral.com. Here is how our journey begins:

I’ve learned a bit about our world in December, while shopping for High School Musical merchandise.

The first thing I’ve learned is that America might not be ready for a boy doll in a skirt. At least, that’s the only plausible explanation for the fact that no matter how many brick-and-mortar stores I check, I can’t find the HSM3 Ryan Graduation doll, in which our young hero is inexplicably dressed in a kilt and schoolgirl-style knee socks. (I would think this was some sort of strange interweb hoax, were it not for the  pictures of that same doll featured on the back of the other HSM3 Graduation dolls, which I did in fact find everywhere.)  And no, Ryan doesn’t wear that outfit at any point in the film; I watched carefully, both times.

[update 12/17/09: Since the original column is no longer online at StudiosCentral, I’m reproducing the whole column below:]

Ryan, Race, and the Red Kilt

I’ve learned a bit about our world in December, while shopping for High School Musical merchandise.

The first thing I’ve learned is that America might not be ready for a boy doll in a skirt. At least, that’s the only plausible explanation for the fact that no matter how many brick-and-mortar stores I check, I can’t find the HSM3 Ryan Graduation doll, in which our young hero is inexplicably dressed in a kilt and schoolgirl-style knee socks. (I would think this was some sort of strange interweb hoax, were it not for the  pictures of that same doll featured on the back of the other HSM3 Graduation dolls, which I did in fact find everywhere.)  And no, Ryan doesn’t wear that outfit at any point in the film; I watched carefully, both times.

I scoured stores at Walt Disney World for days, looking for Ryan in a kilt, until a friend suggested that perhaps the stores weren’t stocking these dolls because they just couldn’t explain why he was wearing a skirt, since he never wears that outfit in the movie (and, she added, if he were going to wear a kilt it would be a far more fashionably-cut piece, perhaps by Gauthier or D&G rather than the JC Penney look he’s sporting). It had never occurred to me that stores might not be stocking it because they couldn’t explain it….but it is much likelier than imagining that they’ve simply sold out. And somehow I can’t bear the notion that they might have pulled the dolls from the shelves, so let’s not even go there.

I learned, too, that the sales staff even at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is not likely to know HSM3 as well as the aforementioned friend and I. A charming and helpful Cast Member looked for a Ryan doll, and it quickly became clear that not only was he unfamiliar with Ryan, he could not differentiate between Chad and Zeke, even when said dolls were packaged along with their prom dates (Taylor and Sharpay, respectively). After we showed him a picture of Ryan in the kilt, he speculated that perhaps the boy’s “just really in touch with his culture.” I don’t think he meant that Ryan was Scottish, so I agreed.

But those Zeke and Sharpay dolls bring me to the second thing I’ve learned: While racism in America is far from over, there may be hope for us yet, and I’m not just talking about our next President. You see, Sharpay is white, and her prom date Zeke is African-American, and shoppers don’t seem to be batting an eye. I’m only 42 years old, but I do believe that in my entire life I have never seen an interracial couple packaged for mass consumption in this way. It was always assumed that white Barbie would go to prom with white Ken, and that their African-American counterparts would not only date amongst themselves, but also lack name recognition. After a lifetime of this mono-racial imagery, seeing Sharpay and Zeke together on the shelf is a very small thing, but it gives me hope. (I also find it interesting that my spellchecker has no problem with biracial, but none of the references I checked could find me an antonym, so I had to cobble one together myself.)

The toys we as a society choose to produce, and in turn the toys we as individuals choose to put in our children’s hands, tell our children what they should expect the world to be. A mother recently wrote into the Boston Globe to say how grateful she is that her 5-year-old son will grow up taking it for granted that an African-American man can be President of the United States. I hope my kid takes it for granted that he can date whomever his heart chooses, and select his wardrobe with similar freedoms. And if he wants to wear a kilt, I just pray it’s not from JC Penney.

One Response to “Jentasmic!: Ryan, Race and the Red Kilt”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ryan in the Kilt Arrives from Virginia! « Broke Hoedown - April 7, 2009

    […] for. That same doll that I could not believe existed when I first found it online, for which I hunted in every WDW gift shop and my neighborhood big box retail establishments. And yes, I could have bought it online (using my […]

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