Hello, everyone! I’ve been busy with a new job and unable to focus on putting all of my swirling thoughts into this blog. So until I can sit myself down and actually write, I’ve decided to post an essay about the ideology of Disney Channel Original Movies that I co-wrote with my friend for one of our college film classes. In the three years since we wrote this essay, Disney released their streaming service Disney+ and opened their library of original movies to a whole new generation of impressionable viewers. Although the current brand of Disney has tried to seem like a company that is deeply passionate about diversity and individuality, the reality of the content on Disney+ demonstrates that despite a few token offerings, Disney has stayed true to its tried and true conservative ideology. So, if you’ve ever wanted to read a semi-academic take on the insidious ideas behind Disney Channel Original Movies, bibliography included, by two people who take this way too seriously, you’re in luck.
The Disney Company has made a name for itself by selling an idealized version of adolescence since the 1990s, when Disney earned world-wide acclaim for The Little Mermaid and bought ABC Television (Alberti 214). As one of The Big Six, a group of global media companies that control 90 percent of American media, Disney could dominate the adult entertainment market, but it has focused its attention on children, tweens, and teenagers (244). With The Disney Channel, Disney has complete control over shaping the average American child’s formative years, starting with toddler-driven shows like Handy Manny and ending with tween programs like Lizzie McGuire (Padilla 29-31). However, it is the Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs as they’re called, that most effectively mold their adolescent audience through marketing and the advancement of traditional Western values. DCOM films such as The Lizzie McGuire Movie, High School Musical, and Radio Rebel use broad themes of inclusiveness and pseudo-individuality to promote an idealized narrative of adolescence that is full of gender stereotypes, capitalistic values, and Disney merchandise.
The Disney Channel has always been geared towards female viewers (Padilla 31-2). While affiliated channels like Disney XD provide action-packed cartoons and sports coverage for boys, The Disney Channel sticks to what works best: stories centered around young, mostly white female characters with an all-American beauty. The channel adopted this formula from Disney movies during the 1990s, where movies like “The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast continued to be commercially successful and a lucrative source of income for Disney” (Andersen 19). It’s no accident that both of these movies feature beautiful, young, white women as their leads, and it’s no surprise that The Disney Channel would feed this idealistic aesthetic to its younger audiences. In the three movies surveyed in this essay, two of the three female leads are white, and all of the leads would fit into the mold of Western beauty. Moreover, while these female protagonists share conventional attractiveness, they also share eerily similar personality traits, the most prominent being modesty and virtue.
The Disney Channel’s depiction of teenage sexuality stands apart from the norm in a time when “popular culture and media encourage girls to act on [their sexuality] more than ever before” (25). Forget the frank displays of sexuality in contemporary teen films like Freaky Friday or The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Lizzie McGuire, High School Musical, and Radio Rebel share a total of three kisses between them. The scarcity of teen sexuality can be traced back to the “no lingering rule,” which the channel instituted to ensure that parents would not be offended by overlong kisses, but it can also be attributed to The Disney Channel’s need for a wholesome, Christian image (Seventeen) .
Centering their films around tween girls allows The Disney Channel to capitalize on the stereotype of the female consumer. “Media products marketed to girls construct girls as consumers onscreen, which markets to them on a covert level,” convincing girls to emulate the styles and buying habits of the characters they see in television (Andersen 29). As secure members of the upper-middle class, female DCOM protagonists showcase their prosperity through their clothing. Fashion sense is often used as a mode of comparison between the female lead and the villain, who is almost always female. In High School Musical, the lead Gabriella angers the villain Sharpay by accidentally spilling food on her outfit, which is seen as a grave offense. In Lizzie McGuire, the villain Kate shames Lizzie at graduation for being an “outfit repeater.” Both villains use fashion as a way of emphasizing their own superiority, which furthers Disney’s agenda to convince girls that popularity and self-esteem can be bought as easily as a new pair of shoes.
The Disney Channel’s emphasis on wholesomeness and consumerism is best embodied in its female villain trope. For every Lizzie there is a Kate, for every Gabriella there is a Sharpay, and for every Tara, there is a Stacey. While the protagonists “are coded as nice to belong to an acceptable femininity,” (135) Disney takes a thesis-antithesis approach to their values by expertly constructing foils to their leads that represent a “secondary, deviant femininity.” (Andersen 27). While the Gabriellas are cute, modest, and unassuming, the Sharpays are “beautiful, wealthy, thin, and conniving” (27). When Troy remarks in High School Musical that “Sharpay is kinda cute,” his sidekick Chad warns him that “so is a mountain-lion, but you don’t pet it.” Unlike the male characters, who are painted sympathetically for their ambition, the ambitious, assertive female characters are portrayed as aggressive and dangerous. It is evident that Disney disapproves of these personality traits because of its system of punishment and rewards. Gabriella, Lizzie, and Tara get the boy; Sharpay, Kate and Stacey do not. What’s more, the villains’ punishment involves submitting to the protagonist’s systems of values. When Sharpay dances in the “We’re All In This Together” finale, she’s assimilated into the new inclusive society of East High, but she’s also lost the essence of her character. At least, until the next movie.
Hiding beneath the commercialism and gender stereotyping is a focus on capitalistic values, especially pertaining to stratified classes. DCOMs characterize high school as a microcosm of society in which the upper class is dominated by athletes and mean girls and the lower class encompasses everyone else. This “us vs. them” mentality is supported with name calling. For example, in Radio Rebel, Tara calls Stacey and her friends the “pops” and Stacey calls Tara a “civilian.” Rather than a hierarchy based on intelligence or work ethic, these movies base success only on social popularity. The protagonist’s goals always coincide with a desire for popularity. Even when Troy and Gabriella join the musical, Lizzie becomes a popstar, and Tara gets her own radio show, their ultimate reward is the acceptance of their peers. Disney pretends to stress individuality, but their main focus lies in promoting conformity.
One film that demonstrates these core Disney Channel characteristics is the DCOM classic The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Released in 2003 after the considerable success of the eponymous Disney Channel show, the film made $43 million at the box office and had a chart-topping soundtrack (Andersen 34). The exploitable nature of the tween girl demographic is evident in this film, with The Disney Channel using Hilary Duff’s name to sell “cosmetics, fashion dolls, bedding, footwear, underwear, calendars, posters and stickers” (36). The movie opens with a montage of commercialism at its finest, with Lizzie’s animated self writing the credits in lipsticks and mascaras and the live-action Lizzie twirling through her well-stocked closet and bathroom. Not only do the film’s first few minutes reinforce the notion that all girls should be consumers, they also support the stereotype that teenage girls should like makeup and fashion.
The film follows Lizzie on her eighth-grade trip to Rome, where she meets Paolo, an Italian pop-star who convinces her to masquerade as his ex-partner Isabella. Lizzie must sneak out each day against the wishes of the domineering chaperone Ms. Ungermeyer, and her best friend Gordo, who distrusts Paolo. In the end, Gordo discovers that Paolo is a fraud and saves Lizzie from his tricks. Lizzie realizes that she never needed the fake confidence that Paolo gave her, and discovers her innate strengths.
The story, like all DCOM films, is about growing up. In Lizzie’s case, she “undergoes a transformation that rockets her to stardom, and/or brings her into adulthood,” so that when the credits roll she is no longer a shy, awkward eighth-grader, but a confident, worldly ninth-grader (Andersen 132). This epiphany is undermined by Disney’s adherence to gender stereotypes. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Lizzie fits perfectly into the channel’s all-American white aesthetic. She also fits the bill personality wise, as she is modest, shy, and so adorably klutzy that her spill during graduation makes the national news cycle.
Kate is also blonde and blue eyed, but her values couldn’t be anymore different than Lizzie’s. Unlike Lizzie, Kate is confident, self-assured, and knows her worth. Disney pits the two girls against each other to contrast the female traits they approve of against those they don’t. Most importantly, Kate is popular, something that as the everyman character, Lizzie can never be. Lizzie is attracted to Paolo not only because of his strikingly good looks, but because of his celebrity status. He represents the ultimate goal for all DCOM characters. Lizzie does not hesitate nor question Paolo when he asks her to impersonate Isabella, enforcing Disney’s message that celebrities should be implicitly trusted. Paolo uses Lizzie as a pawn to achieve his goals, but she is too starstruck to realize this. At the end of the film, she only comes to the conclusion after Gordo and Isabella’s efforts to convince her. It still takes another celebrity, Isabella, to get her to see the truth. Because of her popularity and celebrity status, Isabella seems more trustworthy and credible than an ordinary person. Her kindness is solidified when she lets Lizzie have the spotlight at the International Music Video Awards, therefore reinforcing the idea that popularity is the main goal. Even Isabella, the gorgeous, popular celebrity still needs modesty to be an acceptable Disney Channel heroine.
The pinnacle of the modest DCOM heroine is Gabriella Montez, the female lead in High School Musical. The film takes the groundwork for the perfect female character laid n Lizzie McGuire and channels it through Gabriella, who is even more meek and humble than Lizzie. Even worse, she has has no brash animated self to counterbalance her outer persona. Gabriella is costumed more deliberately than Lizzie too, in overtly feminine dresses and Mary-Janes, the universal footwear of choice for good girls. Since High School Musical has a male and female lead, Gabriella plays a more complex role than Lizzie. In Troy, she finds an object of desire, but is also forced to be an object of desire herself. The DCOM stereotypes make this middle ground an impossible place to be, as Gabriella’s role as object of desire supersedes her role as an independent character. Halfway through the film she becomes a temptress, labelled by Troy’s father, Coach Bolton and best friend, Chad, as “that girl,” for leading Troy away from the socially accepted masculine role of athlete to the unmasculine realm of the theater.
Superficially, Gabriella has some of the traits of an independent female character, such as her high intelligence and introverted nature. However, when compared to the other characters in the movie, she has no real sense of agency. Her only independent choice, to audition for the musical, is shot down immediately by theater teacher Mrs. Darbus. Only after Troy intervenes and sings with her does she get the callback. Likewise, her choice to break off both her musical and personal relationships with Troy stem from the peer-pressure of her friends. Even Troy, the confident, assertive male character, denies his feelings for Gabriella when confronted by his friends on the basketball team. At the final callbacks, it may seem like Troy and Gabriella have transcended the status quo, but they only do so with the consent of their peers. The clapping and cheering audience shows that their decisions have been condoned by the student body.
Like Lizzie McGuire, High School Musical portrays high school life as extremely segregated. This division is exemplified in the song “Stick to the Status Quo,” where Disney attempts to send the message that individuality is an essential part of happiness. Less than an hour later, however, this message is contradicted by the song “We’re All In This Together,” in which all differences are forgotten in favor of complete homogeneity. Every character wears a shade of red or white, which promotes a sense of nationalistic conformity. Villains like Sharpay and Ryan are accepted back into the fold and the main stars fade into the background to complete the picture of an egalitarian society. The lyrics “we’re not the same, we’re different in a good way, together’s where we belong” demonstrate this hypocrisy. A person cannot be different in a way that opposes societal values.
This message continues into the new era of Disney Channel movies with films like Radio Rebel, which was released in 2012. In this film, shy angsty teen Tara has a secret identity as the hit radio star Radio Rebel. Everyone at her high school is obsessed with her to the point where even the principal wants to discover which student is behind the phenomenon. In the end, Tara embraces her Radio Rebel side and transforms into her true self. Like her precursors Lizzie and Gabriella, Tara is painfully awkward and so shy that she can’t speak publicly in front of others. Her villain Stacey is the complete opposite: confident, popular, and assertive. Her advances towards love interest Gavin are seen as grotesque, while Tara’s mumbles are considered cute. In Tara’s relationship with Gavin, he is always the initiator; he is the one that talks to her, approaches her, and pushes her to say what’s on her mind.
At the beginning of the film, Tara’s stepfather only focuses on his own success as an executive at the radio station. He forces Tara to work there as Radio Rebel to boost ratings. He never gives her a chance to refuse his offer. Instead, he continuously pressures her to succeed so that his business can grow.
Gavin and her stepfather, however, are secondary to Tara’s quest to eradicate the social castes in her high school. Like in High School Musical, Radio Rebel encourages other students to break free from the categorized cliques and embrace individuality. Tara changes from her initial role as the loser girl who shys away from any social contact to a confident, self-assured, popular girl. Gavin, leaves his band “The G’s” and finds his own voice as a musician. Stacey learns to see the rest of the high school students as equals. At the same time, the message of individuality is counteracted by the underlying theme of conformity. For example, Radio Rebel tells her listeners to wear red or to dance during class together to show their support for her beliefs. She uses her power and popularity to control others. Disney once again enforces their belief that stardom and popularity are the foremost symbols of success. Once achieved, you can do anything and be anyone.
With their combined themes of wholesomeness, conformity, and commercialism, Disney has the power to influence American children into their teenage years and beyond. Through films like Lizzie McGuire, High School Musical, and Radio Rebel, The Disney Channel convinces their primarily female audience to buy their merchandise and ascribe to an idealized version of adolescence. Their branding is successful, utilizing all platforms at their disposal: celebrity endorsement, gender stereotypes, and traditional societal values. Unfortunately, their characters are their main products. For the girls at home who look up to Lizzie, Gabriella, and Tara, the best they can expect to gain from Disney Channel movies is artificial self-confidence and a hankering for the hottest new styles.
Alberti, John. Screen Ages. Routledge, 2015.
Andersen, Kirsten. “This Is What Dreams Are Made of: The Effects of Adaptation of
Popular Tween/Teen Girl Novels, Films, and Screenplay Novelizations, on
Construction of Various Femininities: The Princess Diaries and the Lizzie
McGuire Movie.” Thesis, University of British Columbia, 2005.
Bickford, Tyler. “Tween Intimacy and the Problem of Public Life in Children’s Media:
“Having it All on the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana.” Women’s Studies
Quarterly 43 (2015): 66-82, Print.
“High School Musical.” Pluggedin.com. Plugged in. 2006. Web. 26 Feb. 2017,
Kehr, Dave. “First Rule for a Class Trip: Shuck the Chaperone.” The New York Times,
2 May, 2003. Web.
Padilla, Christina Susan. “Growing up the Disney Channel Way.” 2010.
University of Southern California, PhD Dissertation.
Stanley, T.L. “Disney Channel: A Fresh-Face Factory.” Advertising Age 77 (2006): 14,