Disney Plus’ release was followed by a wave of nostalgia and memories and led to a time of reflection on the impact of Disney on our childhoods. Because of its widespread impact and near-monopoly on culture and kid-friendly television, Disney ideology greatly influenced how millennials and members of Generation Z understand and perceive the world.
While Disney TV shows and movies do have some drawbacks, and definitely could be more inclusive of different lifestyles and cultures, we feel that, overall, their impact on our childhood wasn’t entirely negative. We grew up with Lizzie McGuire, Zack and Cody, Hannah Montana, Alex Russo, Raven Baxter, and the Duncan family, as well as the characters from the Disney Channel movies, who taught us lessons about working hard and being kind.
Some of the shows furthered the image of a “perfect” nuclear family — with a mom and dad and their children. However, Zack and Cody had a single mom, Miley Stewart had a widowed dad, and both the Baxters and the Duncans had two working parents. The variation in parental roles did shed some light on the reality that families aren’t picture-perfect and can look many different ways. However, the first LGBTQ+ couple didn’t appear on Disney Channel until 2014, when most of us had moved on to “bigger kid” shows.
Disney Channel shows also gave many of us unrealistic expectations of the future. Many Disney characters were accepted to Ivy League colleges (you’re really telling me Teddy Duncan got into Yale? And Gabriella Montez went to Stanford in the special honors program?), convincing some of us that we would one day also get accepted to an Ivy League school. The shows typically didn’t go into the application process in-depth, leading to most kids not realizing how difficult receiving such an acceptance letter is until they are much older.
The shows also led to idealistic expectations about our love lives. Many of us are honestly still sore about not having a Troy-Gabriella moment in high school. Every young couple on Disney Channel is heterosexual and, for the most part, didn’t address realistic concerns in teenage relationships. Most relationships had positive outcomes and many characters seemingly ended up with their high school sweetheart. This wasn’t necessarily harmful but did set us up for a smidgen of teenage disappointment.
Additionally, every issue was always resolved in Disney Channel shows. While this did make for happy endings and problem-solving adventures, it isn’t altogether realistic. At times when there could’ve been a teaching moment, a family issue was completely resolved, wrapped up nicely in a bow. It led to an implicit misunderstanding that everything would always work out how we wanted. While that’s a nice mantra, it isn’t how things often shake out.
In the early-to-mid aughts, Disney Channel also regularly perpetuated racist stereotypes in its characterizations of characters played by people of color. Disney shows are a portal into Western culture, shaping what an American teen “should” look like. From the way secondary characters, such as Esteban from Zack and Cody, were portrayed (as well as the jobs they worked), to which characters tended to be portrayed as well-behaved or disruptive, clueless or smart, the shows had racist undertones. Disney has been making efforts to improve these issues, though, and even addressed the racism in old Disney movies in a disclaimer on Disney Plus.
However, it is important to note that some episodes did feature valuable lessons that we still remember and hold onto — such as the episode of “That’s So Raven” that aired during Black History Month, in which Raven experienced racism while applying for a job, and Chelsea used her white privilege to help make things fair. Or, the episode of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” where London and Maddie briefly struggled with disordered eating . These were some of the first times we learned about worldly issues in complex ways — especially some of the topics not talked about at schools or in family life.
Ultimately, despite conservative undertones throughout the network and some negative repercussions, overall, Disney Channel had a generally positive and educational impact on our childhood, and we were able to learn more than we were harmed. The shows set us up for other shows that taught us (much) more about race, the LGBTQ+ community, and diversity in general. But if Disney fails to grow with society and adapt to cultural views, well, good luck, Charlie!