Updated: Aug 22, 2022
I’ve always been obsessed with the Disney Channel. Raised on Jessie, Mighty Med, and Good Luck Charlie, and rewatching Liv & Maddie, Best Friends Whenever, and Girl Meets World at least once a year, I consider myself a seasoned Disney Channel veteran. With this comes the knowledge of a few interesting trends in live-action 2011-2016 Disney Channel history: stereotypes such as overprotective moms, wonder-twins, goofy nerd boys who undoubtedly end up getting a glow-up in the last season, or hyper-mature little siblings who are clearly way too intelligent for their age.
These shows are beloved and universally adored, for all their repetitive formulas and terrible jokes. In this article, I’m going to analyze some of these repetitive formulas and terrible jokes in tribute to the majesty that is live-action Disney.
Why they're so strangely engaging
What’s interesting about the Disney Channel is its targeted audience of 7-12 year olds, and its average character age being about 14 to 16. It’s one of the only places in which little kids look up to not only their own age group and adults but teenagers-- and beyond that, some of the most unrealistic teenagers to grace the silver screen. All the teenage characters are either oversized children or undersized adults: either overly vigilant and mature, or immature and deeply irresponsible. For example, Liv of Liv & Maddie is way too respectable for her age. For being 15-16 in Season 1, she’s remarkably ambitious, career-oriented, and dignified. She’s got her whole life planned out before she even turns 17. On the other hand, her 14-year-old brother Joey is the constant butt of the joke. He’s clumsy, a little dumb, and childishly overeager. It’s a stark contrast to other characters of his own age, but it somehow works.
Another overused but beloved trope is the existence of “nerdy boy” characters (almost all of whom I had a crush on as a child). This includes Kaz (and Oliver) of Mighty Med, Barry of Best Friends Whenever, and Chase of Lab Rats. They all lean into the mad scientist trope, but with a youthful maturity that makes these characters feel like dads to the rest of the cast. It’s very strange how common this stereotype is within the Disney Channel, especially since I haven’t seen it in many other shows, let alone the real world.
Are the characters actually good role models?
The question now becomes whether or not these characters are actually good role models. This is a fairly controversial subject because what defines a good character is obviously subjective, but I would say that the answer is a hesitant yes. Of course, there are harmful tropes like hypersmart little girls who are portrayed as annoying instead of genius, awkward teen boys that isolate girls from the teen experience instead of bringing them into it, and “relatable” dads that aren’t great parents and continually get hailed as cool and chill instead. But among these, there are also kind parents, solid friendships, healthy relationships, and respectful characters. Like Girl Meets World, which portrays an incredibly close friendship that doesn’t feel forced. Or Mighty Med, which highlights, arguably, one of the most powerful bromances of our modern era. Or Liv & Maddie, which features Joey; a kind, gentle, respectful, and somewhat feminine man who doesn’t get played off as gay for laughs.
While some characters and dynamics are a little iffy, it’s easy to see that the majority of Disney channel characters are decent role models-- after all, I grew up modeling myself after Disney Channel men, and I like to believe I turned out fine.
COSTUMES COSTUMES COSTUMES
Before we close off, a quick shout out to Disney Channel costuming. The way they dress boys in particular-- jeans that actually fit, plaid button-downs, solid-color zip-up hoodies, the occasional word-less graphic T-shirt-- is incredible. It’s almost a fashion statement. It’s simple, basic without looking careless, and so incredibly widespread that it’s defined the style of teenage boys across the country (me). It’s also a strangely mature style that’s been hailed many times as “old man clothes.” This, if anything, proves the existence of the hyper-mature teen boy stereotype invented and defined by live-action Disney Channel men.
The central driving force of all these shows is heart. They provide a slightly cleaner, louder, funnier, and more performative version of our real world, and, even if it is completely fabricated, it’s easy to feel cared for by the Disney Channel. Everything feels a little softer, a little gentler than in other kids' television (notably, Victorious, a Nickelodeon show that feels like a fever dream and, for me at least, is very uncomfortable to watch). I owe my childhood to Girl Meets World, Jessie, and (embarrassingly) Bunk’d. If nothing else, it’s good entertainment, even for someone my age, and a quality nostalgia trip.