Do Disney’s Recent Kids Shows Pull Punches on Important Issues?


When Disney+ was introduced last year, it kicked the nostalgia of my adolescence into overdrive. With shows such as Boy Meets World, Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven and many others from my youth now at my fingertips (not to mention lots of spare time to view these shows due to the COVID-19 quarantine), I’ve been revisiting some of these series. What I’ve found is that the lighthearted, family-friendly shows that I remember so fondly from my youth weren’t always as light as I remembered, either. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s what I mean: Back in the day, Disney shows aimed at teens and preteens dealt with much heavier subject matter—such as eating disorders, drug use, racism and death—compared to many of the Mouse House’s similar series nowadays. Truth be told, these episodes were certainly rarer, but they helped raise awareness about these controversial issues and taught younger audiences some healthy ways to handle those situations. Disney wasn’t afraid to wade into to some tough subjects and offer healthy, down-to-earth guidance.

Take for example That’s So Raven. The show aired for four seasons, making it one of the longest-running series on Disney Channel. Now, most episodes focused on the whacky situations that Raven found herself in due to misinterpreting her psychic visions of the future, and each episode also ended with a valuable lesson. However, every once in a while, the show would delve into more serious topics, such as racism and negative body image. In Season 3, for example, Raven misses out on a job at a clothing store (one the young fashionista was very qualified for) because she is African American. It’s a tragic moment, definitely. But for parents looking for teaching opportunities, this one serves as a springboard to talk with your kids about how racial discrimination comes in many forms.

In Season 2, Raven is essentially body-shamed for not being Size 2. After winning a fashion competition, her image is heavily photoshopped to give her “the look” that a magazine is going for, resulting in Raven embracing an extreme exercise routine to slim down. Luckily, the episode ends with Raven realizing that she doesn’t have to look like a model, and that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

That’s So Raven wasn’t the only show to touch on body dysmorphia and eating disorders. In an episode of Lizzie McGuire, Lizzie’s best friend, Miranda, goes on an eating strike after someone says she eats too much. And The Suite Life of Zack and Cody also featured an episode where one young woman was told she was too thin while her friend was told she was too large.

But what really made me notice these episodes (apart from their generally positive content) is the fact that Disney doesn’t seem to go there as often these days. In fact, whenever these tougher topics are brought up, more recent shows have a tendency to make light of these issues—such as Shake It Up and So Random!, which both featured jokes about skipping meals. Granted, these are difficult subjects to discuss in a 22-minute episode that’s supposed to be a comedy geared towards kids. However, it almost seems as if Disney has forgotten how to tackle them in a tactful way.

In some pretty obvious ways, it’s nice that Disney generally steers away from grown-up themes. In fact, one could argue that’s kind of what makes Disney Disney.

But on the other hand, Disney’s recent avoidance of a lot of big issues also deprives parents of a readymade opportunity to talk about these hard topics in a healthy way. It passively suggests that creating diversity in its casts and characters is enough to make a point. (And often, Disney may very well take stances on some social issues that we may disagree with.)

But it’s a real shame because racism, anorexia and alcoholism are all subjects that have been brought up on Disney before (and in age-appropriate, healthy ways). Now they’ve been reduced to a punchline, and I just can’t help but be disappointed in Disney’s new direction.

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Anonymous 7 months ago
I only agree to an extent.  I think that Disney has shifted their focus to a pro-LGBT+ agenda rather than focusing on the values that they seemingly used to support.  They have taken an active role in aiming pro-LGBT+ messages at children of all ages and instead of trying to help people with opposing viewpoints learn to interact peacefully and productively, if you aren't with them you're against them (from what I've seen).  This has become a dominate narrative in our society, and I would bet that these older episodes mentioned painted the person with ignorant beliefs as an evil character rather than looking at ways for each of the characters to learn from each other to overcome prejudices.  In real life, we often have to "suck it up buttercup" to work with people with whom we disagree.  If these shows wanted to reflect real-life, then they would be written and acted out with that goal in mind, not some kind of narrative making one person the bad guy and the victim a hero because they have chosen (in some cases) something that makes them unusual.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Considering Sydney to the max had an episode where Sydney got her period I'd say it's definitely growing up.
Anonymous 7 months ago

After reading “Do Disney’s Recent Kids Shows Pull Punches on Important Issues?” by Emily Clark, I agree with the message she is trying to convey. The older, “nostalgic”, Disney shows discussed more serious topics than the newer ones do today. Some of the topics that were heavily discussed in these shows included, drug use, racism, bullying, eating disorders, and death. The fact that these shows introduced these topics and issues to kids at a young age, I think that this is a great example of good media. The dignity of the human person was one of the main values in these older, family-friendly shows. When kids watched these shows they were unknowingly learning life lessons, like how to treat people the way we are called to, how to love yourself and have self-confidence, and the value of family. These shows made learning these important lessons comprehendible for children of a young age. Children are learning truth from shows that they enjoyed watching and were inspired to live out their lives as their favorite characters that they are watching on TV.

Veronica George 7 months ago
Great post ! And I agree.
seraph_unsung 7 months ago
This is an excellent post that I'm bookmarking. Thank you.
Zach Frost 7 months ago
This is spot on! My goodness, this is so, so true! Disney has morally fallen beyond fathom. Rather than focusing on the real issues we face in life, Disney now tries to cater to a tiny fraction of the population and brainwash children into falling in line with their disgusting agenda and ideologies. This pandemic is surely a tragedy, but I do feel that God is very angry with Hollywood (very much so including Disney), and I feel that He is using this time to punish Disney in the only way they would be affected; losing money. No movie ticket sales, no parks revenue, it's all stopped for now. While my heart breaks for the people who are suffering through all of this, I rejoice to see evil companies reaping what they have sown. Disney is not the company from our childhoods, and I encourage parents and families to avoid them. There are other, better sources of entertainment.
Adelene Martinez 7 months ago
WoW, this is so true. 
I remember watching these shows back in the day. 
I agree with your point of view especially in this age in time we are leaving in.