I sat in my Consumer Cultures lecture, taking notes and checking my phone every so often — hey, nobody's perfect okay. As I had my head down and writing, something my lecturer said caught my attention. My head snapped up and I listened intently to what she was disclosing. She talked about research on social/income equality and how it showed that this equality had actually been going in reverse since the 1990s. Furthermore she stated that the most equal decade in Australia's history was actually the 1970s. You can read more about that here. Whilst this is mostly focused on the financial sector of things, it got me thinking about inequality in general.
Scrolling through my newsfeed this morning, I stumbled on a cute (and pretty funny) post about one of my favourite childhood shows, Kim Possible. Naturally this lead me to further procrastinate by nostalgically YouTubing old intros and title sequences of the Disney shows I used to watch. I watched this video that had all the old Disney shows and their intros compiled into one. As I watched them I noticed how much more and better* represented minorities were back in the 90s and 00s.
(*Better in Disney standards of course, some of these representations were problematic, but I'll get to that.)
Without even realising it as a child, I'd been subjected to quite a diverse representation of characters. If anything, it only further ingrained in me the importance of celebrating differences, and made me aware that *shock* white, heterosexual people weren't the only ones inhabiting the planet. But don't just take my word for it, let me show you.
Lilo & Stitch - 2003
"What do you mean tanned blondes aren't the only inhabitants of Hawaii?"
Nani, Lilo's older sister and legal guardian, is presented as just your average, everyday woman. Her look is very natural and relaxed and she has a strong yet curvy physique. She's also not over-sexualised, as many Indigenous characters tend to be in popular film and animation. The show is also very gender neutral and isn't marketed as a 'boy's show' or a 'girl's show' — as far as I know, it was popular and successful amongst most kids, regardless of gender.
Kim Possible - 2002
This show defied traditional gender roles and we didn't even blink! Good luck trying to find another show that has a strong heroine and a dopey male sidekick (but seriously, if you do find one, it would be much appreciated). Also, let's not forget that Disney subtly snuck in a very flamboyant, gay villain — not that he was ever explicitly labeled as gay, but we all know deep down.
American Dragon: Jake Long - 2005
Haven't seen such a badass Asian American in pop culture since MC Jin.
The Proud Family - 2001
People of Colour make up approximately 30% of the US population, so why wouldn't there be a show based entirely around a Black family?
That's So Raven - 2003
Who didn't like this show?! This show was the best. And Raven! She was a hilarious, curvy, beautiful, multi-dimensional character. Praise to That's So Raven, so much praise.
Lizzie McGuire - 2001
Not exactly the poster girl for the marginalised, but Lizzie McGuire as a show did promote a lot of good values and messages to its audience in a way that kids could easily comprehend. It tackled typical growing up/puberty issues, (getting your first bra, going through numerous phases, jealousy in friendships), the importance of being a good, supportive friend and even more serious issues such as eating disorders. All of this was done in a way that was very 'kid friendly' and age appropriate. Good job Disney.
Of course some of these shows do play on a lot of stereotypes, and their representations of minorities aren't exactly perfect. There's a fine line between promoting culture and promoting cultural stereotypes. However, it could be a good place to start. I would much rather see diverse representation (even if it were in some aspects problematic), than none at all. At least from this starting point improvements could be made based on audience and critic feedback.
Now let's now turn to just a few shows that are popular in today's version of the Disney Channel:
These shows have either all-white or predominantly white casts. Maybe if we're lucky there'll be a token minority cast in a small supporting role. Yay! Furthermore, the shows all appear to be heavily gendered female, and I'm guessing young boys probably wouldn't want to be caught watching this 'girly stuff'. There's no diversity, no fair and equal representation. The only progressive instance in any of these shows I can think of is when they featured lesbian parents in Good Luck Charlie. The only reason I know this is because it was plastered all over social media and in online newspapers. And even still, it was a white, femme couple. They represented the epitome of the Normal Gay, a trope that audiences could more easily digest.
Have we been going backwards instead of forwards? If the key to a more progressive society starts by educating the younger population, shouldn't we be providing them with richer content and a more diverse representation of groups and cultures? Maybe we should go back to when Lego came in only blue, yellow, red and green, and didn't need to have separate male and female collections. Maybe we should go back to when kids shows actual had a moral to their story, and weren't just kiddie copycat versions of young adult programs. Let's go back to when kids didn't even think about 'shipping' Sonny and Chad together, and worried instead about how Matt was going to find Lanny in Lizzie McGuire.
If anyone deserves better content and diverse representation surely it must be Generation Z, who've been called "the most progressive, conscientious and connected generation to date". Why spoil our newest hope for change in society?
// Margot Ana