Reflecting on the Disney channel’s problematic past

How our childhood favourites furthered biases

The Disney channel's older shows reflect problematic trends.
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Like many others, I was quick to subscribe to the streaming service Disney+ when it was released this past November.

My first few shameless benders were dedicated to revisiting Disney Channel favourites from my childhood. After making my way through these shows, I started to notice some underlying themes I found problematic: tokenism, stereotyping, and toxic masculinity. When reflecting on these concerning patterns in the television shows, I couldn’t help but wonder how these childhood staples shaped our generation.

It’s not news that Disney’s older princess films can be broken down with one anti-patriarchal punch. However, even the shows we grew up watching reflect worrisome trends.

Tokenism and advancement of stereotypes are recurring themes in many of these shows, apparent in the casting of manyshows’ characters.

Routinely, these shows endorsed the body-shaming of token characters. This is extremely evident on The Suite Life on Deck, where Woody, played by Matthew Timmons, was regularly the punchline of weight jokes. In a similar fashion, Kirby the security guard was critiqued for his lack of exercise, over-eating, and body shape in general. What was a favourite show for many young kids may have had an impact on the way people see body weight now.

Tokenism is equally evident when you look at the Disney Channel’s casting of people of colour. Most main characters were white, while side characters who weren’t white were depicted through extreme stereotypes about racialized people.

Esteban of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody embodied Hispanic stereotypes with five middle names and a thick Spanish accent that was regularly ridiculed. Ravi’s character on Jessie was built on stereotypes about Indian people, acting as the nerd of the cast and even owning a giant Asian Water Monitor lizard as a pet.

Across the network, Disney placed the same stereotypes on the few people of colour they included. Black women and girls validated stereotypes like the “sassy Black girl” in shows such as That’s So Raven and Good Luck Charlie. With so few non-white characters on TV already, writing them based on stereotypes can create damaging public perceptions of race, especially for susceptible viewers like children.

Statements like “be a man” and “boys don’t cry” were constant themes throughout Disney shows. This rhetoric endorses problematic gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity, as well as casual homophobia. It doesn’t just end at jokes. The Suite Life series featured episodes where the male characters wore dresses, offering the subtext that this behaviour wasn’t acceptable. 

Good Luck Charlie, which came out in 2014, was one of the first Disney Channel shows to ever have a LGBTQ+ character, in an episode where one of the characters’ friends had two moms. Even though this was a progressive step, it was a small role and, until 2017 Disney show Andi Mack put more LGBTQ+ characters onscreen, a lack of genuine representation continued. This fails to account for kids who may be struggling with, or alternately exploring, their sexualities. The lack of visibility may have serious effects on how people understand sexuality. 

All of this is to say that I don’t hate Disney, but I do see value in questioning and reflecting on stereotypes that exist in all parts of our life, even TV shows.

Sometimes it takes conscious effort to question the information we receive. Ultimately, there isn’t anything wrong with enjoying some Disney Channel classics, as long as we continue to question these stereotypes and biases. 

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