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.