OK… I admit it… I'm 42 years old, and I liked the movie High School Musical. Well… I mean I liked both of them. I admit it somewhat sheepishly, because I'm now officially in the same fan-base as three-quarters of the tweens and teens in America (and if the hype is believed, the world).
Disney's High School Musical and the sequel are fun movies about young love in high school set to a musical score that is both entertaining and sweetly innocent. The cast all seem to be nice young people with talent to boot. After avoiding the over-hyped first installment for months, I finally succumbed to my daughter's request and ordered it from Netflix. I watched the film with family and immediately fell in love.
What I liked most about the movie was how the relationship between the romantic leads, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) was portrayed. There was chemistry between the actors (who would, by the way, have beautiful children), but the romance bloomed, not from that chemistry, but from a friendship. Furthermore, it was a romance that remained chaste. This is an important point in today's over-sexualized world.
The very idea of men and women becoming friends before becoming romantically involved seems impossible in modern society, but there it is nonetheless. Gabriella and Troy meet and bond when they discover a hidden talent for singing and are suddenly forced to sing karaoke together at a party on vacation. Their shared embarrassment over standing before strangers to sing is broken by the shared exuberance of singing beautifully together. In harmony with each other, both are better together than they are alone. Back at school, their friendship grows when they convince each other to try out for their high school musical production, and ever so gently their friendship blooms into romance (at least the high school variety). The entire 2 1/2 hour Disney smile-fest ends without the young couple even kissing; they hold hands and smile at each other as friends do when everything comes together at the end (as we expect). Troy and Gabriella invest in their friendship first, sharing their love for singing and supporting each other as they pursue their new hobby.
In our "hook-up" society, it's the friendship that gets short shrift. Fueled by hormones and MTV images, teens too often decide that sharing kisses should come before sharing minds and hearts. Our hyper-sexualized society truncates authentic love by encouraging young people to speed toward mere sterile sex. Once the passion of the moment dies away, one or both of the young lovers often (rightly) senses something is missing and goes on to the next "hook-up" to fill the void. A legitimate need to be loved and accepted is subsumed by the illegitimate way they seek to satisfy that need. Such a search will never be fruitful because anytime a need is filled illegitimately, a person is attempting to love with one part of his soul tied behind his back.
As Pope Benedict pointed out in Deus Caritas Est, "Yet eros and agape — ascending love and descending love — can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized." Authentic love between men and women, even young ones, is the product of respect and self-giving. Love is never about taking something from another to serve a selfish purpose.
Now, no one would try to overlay complex theology on a made-for-TV movie about young love, but how the lead characters' relationship develops does give us opportunity to examine what love should look like. Troy and Gabriella must support each other through the painful process of breaking down "cultural" barriers erected in high school society: He is a star basketball player; she is the "smart girl." Through their friendship, they find the gift of music within their own hearts, and discover that their friendship has grown into romance. Neither one of them can make the audition alone — it's a duet — and so they must work together to seek the best for one another. Nowhere in the entire deal does the idea of taking something from the other enter into their minds. When Troy's friends trick him into saying things he doesn't mean, Gabriella pulls back into herself and away from the audition. By crossing the space between them and offering himself as a shield and support for Gabriella, Troy demonstrates his respect for her. He takes nothing but puts his reputation and all he's worked for (the championship) on the line for his "other." Their audition song, "Breaking Free" is a celebration of the freedom they find in giving their hearts to each other and of the strength to be themselves.
On a much deeper and grander scale, this self-giving is precisely the act of love that Jesus made for us. He crossed death and offered to place Himself between the judgment we deserve and the salvation He earned for us. Our Lord doesn't take anything from us; on the contrary, by giving of Himself completely (Phil 2:7-8) our Divine Lover gives us the freedom to be ourselves and live forever.
It is the love of Jesus that men and women must emulate in their relationships with each other, rather than the sterile imitation the world offers. If we truly love, then we must want the best for our beloved. We must want him or her to be the best person possible, unencumbered by the lies of the world or even our own demands.
Just as Troy and Gabriella loved each other enough to offer mutual support in becoming the best persons they could become, so must we in our relationships. Life is not a competition to see how many people we can "beat to the finish line." Men and women were created to compliment each other, not to compete with each other. It is a great lie of modern feminism that the male-female relationship is a zero-sum game; that one must loose for one to gain. On the contrary, when both give, the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.
It would be well for the teens of today to keep that in mind. After all, "We're All In This Together."