Rachel Berry and Sharpay Evans Were Both Mean Teen Drama Queens, So Why Did Only One Get a Retroactive Redemption Arc?
Lea Michele's Rachel Berry and Ashley Tisdale's Sharpay Evans are without a doubt the biggest drama club prima donnas to grace the silver screen in recent memory. The two talented high school drama queens blessed us with their presence on Fox's Glee and in Disney Channel's High School Musical franchise, respectively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have a lot in common.
The first time we meet the girls, both are scrawling their names across audition sheets. Sharpay's bold penmanship is like an autograph: so gigantic it dominates the page and renders anyone else interested in trying out for East High School's winter musical irrelevant in her shadow. Rachel, meanwhile, caps her name off with a gold star. Why? It's a "metaphor" — she's the greatest star, get it? (Barbra Streisand, be wary; Rachel Berry is coming for your throne.)
The similarities extend beyond their divalicious origin stories. Both are undeniably desperate for attention. "I'm like Tinkerbell," Rachel — who fights off her friends and peers to become the featured voice of William McKinley High School's New Directions glee club — declares. "I need applause to live."
Sharpay is every bit as ambitious. No one, not even her brother Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), is safe from being stabbed in the back on her quest to secure the lead in any play or the trophy at any talent show. Basically, get in Sharpay's way on her bop to the top, and reap the consequences.
The one thing fans of both series were robbed off was a chance to see these divas face off against each other. It would have been epic and underhanded and dirty. Why? Because the high school starlets are classic antiheroes. Their incessant need for the coveted spot at center stage pits them against other characters from the jump.
What is Rachel if not the girl who constantly undermines her friends so she can remain on top? At one point, she even sends a transfer student to an — inactive, if that makes it any better — crack den because she is threatened by the new girl's talent.
And who is Sharpay other than the conniving teen who moves an audition time so her competition can't make it? Or the queen bee who tries to get her friends fired from their summer jobs so she can get the man and the trophy (again) at the annual talent show?
They're basically the worst. But somehow we're supposed to love them, flaws and all.
We shake our heads in pity when their ambitious, self-serving plans often lead to their downfall. (After all, who hasn't gloriously self-sabotaged at some point in their life?) Although we're vindicated when karma puts them in their place, there's no denying the triumph of their hard-fought victories.
As awful as these two are capable of being, they are talented to the max and dream big. Rachel's voice could easily earn her any role on Broadway. Kurt (Chris Culfer) sums it up best: "She may be difficult, but boy can she sing." And Sharpay's killer style and unmatched productions put her in a class of her own, too.
For all their negative characteristics, neither Rachel or Sharpay are all bad, either. They'll fight tooth and nail for the spotlight but they also know how to bow out relatively gracefully.
For her part, Rachel gladly hands over solos to Mercedes (Amber Riley) whenever her friend bests her at a diva-off. She sings a duet with Kurt when she recognizes a fellow kindred spirit. It leads to some of her most fulfilling relationships. She knows "being part of something special makes you special," and that even if it means sacrificing her time in the spotlight, it'll pay off in the long run. The same can be said for Sharpay, who wishes Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) well after she nabs the lead in the musical.
There's also no denying that they're self-aware enough to recognize their own flaws. Rachel particularly knows that she is capable of deranged antics; she hopes her friends will love her despite the dangers of being in her orbit.
Underneath all of their talent and hard work, the two girls clearly battle low self-esteem. They lift themselves up by telling everyone else that they're the best, even when they don't believe it themselves. That undercurrent of doubt helps to humanize two otherwise repellent characters.
Although they are undoubtedly bullies, Rachel and Sharpay don't have much in common with the other “mean girls” of the era. Take the Y2K archetype Regina George in Mean Girls, for instance. Regina is Queen Supreme at North Shore High School. When she punched a girl in the face, the bullied was grateful for Regina's attention.
Rachel in comparison is the target of crueler students on social media and has slushies thrown in her face on the regular. Sharpay avoids the worst of bullying but is far from popular or universally liked. (That honor is bestowed upon the jocks at East High School, not the drama students.)
There is no clear path to high school popularity for either, but they're willing to trade that for the adoration that will come with their eventual fame. They walk a fine line and do so exceptionally. It's part of what makes their franchises must-see entertainment.
Although Sharpay and Rachel share so much, there's a distinct difference in how the characters have been portrayed in the media since the curtain closed on their respective series.
In recent years, Sharpay has enjoyed something of a redemption arc. Fans recognize that she isn't as villainous as the series implies; one in particular made their case across 70 tweets, according to Seventeen.
BuzzFeed agreed: Sharpay just wants everyone to stay in their lane — so that she can shine the brightest, sure, but is it really wrong for her to protect her beloved drama club from outsiders who haven't even officially joined the club and are constantly giving their "final" performances?
It takes Troy (Zac Efron) three movies to even admit that he wants to pursue theater after high school. In comparison, Sharpay's been grooming herself for superstardom since birth. How does fighting to stay on top make her anything other than an ambitious go-getter? She's been putting the work in, after all.
It's almost the exact opposite with Rachel. In 2018, Screen Rant listed 20 of her greatest character flaws and ultimately ranked her a diva. (And not in the complimentary, campy way we talk about the likes of Beyonce.)
Odyssey declared Rachel "literally the worst character on Glee," and even BuzzFeed found that she just "wasn't a good person." Those are fighting words considering some of the characters on that show, but they came prepared with receipts. It's a tough time to be the star of the New Directions.
Interestingly, you can draw parallels between Michele and Tisdale, the actresses who brought these iconic cult characters to life. Neither achieved the meteoric level of success that the characters they portrayed did. (It's a shame because they're certainly both deserving based on talent.)
That said, Tisdale has arguably had an easier go of it than Michele. There's no denying that a good portion of that is Michele's fault — plenty of castmates have weighed in on her allegedly horrible manners both on and off set.
The evidence Michele's peers have provided has been damning, and has led to a general public backlash against the actress — so much so that social media is lush with whispers Michele didn't even have to act when she took on the role of Rachel; according to some theories, they're the same extremely talented women who will always be held back by their selfish ambition.
But it's not a particularly fair evaluation of either Michele or Rachel. Just like Rachel isn't only her worst traits, neither is Michele. And there's been little consideration of her situation at the time — being relatively young in the public eye, her possible unpreparedness for the breakaway success of Glee, unimaginable personal tragedy — that could have resulted in her undeniably bad behavior.
Interestingly, Tisdale (who collaborated with Michele in 2017) has been candid about how she was able to embody Sharpay because they were at similar points in their lives, so much so that she and her castmates didn't always get along either. "I think at that moment in time, I was very unaware of myself and my surroundings, and I feel like that's a big part of Sharpay," she told ET. "She is just not really aware, and so as I grew up and became more aware, I think that it's just something that it wouldn't be the same."
Did Michele ever get the chance to grow out of her own diva ways? There's no excusing what happened in the past, but there is some evidence that she learned something from the experience.
Over the summer, naysayers applauded the actress's presumed loss when Beanie Feldstein was cast as Fanny Brice in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl. It was a role popularized by Barbra Streisand, and one Michele (and Rachel) have long coveted. Despite lack of confirmation that Michele — who was previously attached to an unrealized revival — was even in the running, social media celebrated her perceived loss with... well, with glee.
The situation depicts the fine line between holding someone accountable for their past misdeeds and downright celebrating someone's losses. However, Michele was seemingly not deterred by the cloud of negativity. Much like Rachel when she recognizes that she has lost a fair fight, Broadway World reported that Michele graciously applauded Feldstein's success.
Is it possible Michele isn't the same person she used to be? No one can truly say except for Michele herself. But it certainly says something that viewers have seemingly continued to project their feelings toward Michele onto the legacy of her character, Rachel, and vice versa, while Tisdale's Sharpay has been extended much more grace as the years have passed.
While Sharpay has become a sort of fan-favorite anti-hero as nostalgic viewers continue to look back at High School Musical, Rachel has been reduced to her worst moments on Glee, much like Michele in real life. Maybe it's time we wiped the lens clean and took a second, more empathetic look at Rachel. After all, she'll tell you herself she "isn't exactly low maintenance," but what's so wrong with that?