Once upon a time, before the "Oh, I only watched it because I was babysitting my neighbor," and "my little brother was watching it, so I had to" excuses, there used to be a Disney Channel to which I was very proud to pledge my allegiance.
The early aughts were Disney Channel's Golden Age -- they were the better days, of "Lizzie McGuire," "That's So Raven," "Even Stevens," "Kim Possible," "The Proud Family," and "Lilo & Stitch," to name just a few.
In retrospect, the Disney Channel of the early '00s sent some very positive messages to its young female viewers long before we were old enough to understand how much we needed them. While newer kid's shows are not necessarily vapid, nor completely devoid of empowering feminist messages, the older shows seemed to more actively seek out opportunities to enlighten female audiences about what it means to be a strong, well-rounded, confident young woman.
Here are 6 lessons of female empowerment that I learned from Disney Channel shows of the early-mid 2000s:
1. Teenage girls can have very close friendships with straight males, and not be plotting how to get with them!
Shoutout to Raven and Eddie from "That's So Raven" who proved that a teenage girl can have a close, straight male friend, and not be interested in him romantically! It's something we don't see often enough in pop culture (Ariana Grande agrees); it's always about romance and hookups now. And those relationships always seem to pan out exactly as hoped on TV, leaving girls (or anyone, really) who aren't finding it so simple in real life a little disappointed. Plus, what is this message about girls being boy-crazy and unable to just carry out a normal friendship with no romantic connotations?!
2. You can be a badass fighting for justice, and also a hardworking student simultaneously!
Kim Possible told us this was definitely (wait for it)...possible. She paid an appropriate amount of attention to her schoolwork, and worked hard, but didn't slave over it to the extent that she didn't have any time left to save the world.
3. Young women aren't always moody and rude to their parents
"The Proud Family" got it right. Penny Proud did argue with her parents sometimes, and it wasn't always pretty, but the message that family is really important always prevailed. Penny wasn't just moody and bratty for the hell of it. She didn't send the message that hating your parents was cool. There's a popular image of adolescent females being rude and moody and difficult to parent, and while this can be the case sometimes during adolescence, I appreciated that the Proud Family championed a slightly different narrative. "The Proud Family" also provided a long-overdue opportunity for diverse audiences to see themselves represented on television.
4. Wear whatever the heck you want to!
Lizzie McGuire's BFF Miranda really walked the walk on this one. And this isn't an obsolete concept in newer shows, but it's usually suggested in a moderately patronizing/condescending way now, and rarely modeled effortlessly by a lead character who many viewers already identify with. Nowadays, it's always the sweet, silly, but kind of weird girl who's willing to wear what she wants. And while there's nothing wrong with that character, young girls are more likely to identify with one of the lead characters who's not cast as an outsider. Miranda wore whatever she wanted (eclectic hair styles included!) and it was awesome.
5. Girls can take care of themselves and each other, with or without a man.
Lilo's family in Lilo and Stitch didn't look like a conventional one, per se, but she and her sister, Nani, always made it work. When their parents passed away, Nani became Lilo's primary caretaker, and she was totally able to take care of herself and raise her little sis. She was no catty evil-step sister, but she was tough on Lilo sometimes. Nani had a lot of responsibilities, but she never complained about how hard it was; she just found a way to make do.
6. Beauty truly does come in a range of sizes.
There used to be a slightly wider range of body types present among the casts of Disney Channel shows, and I'm glad that's the image I grew up seeing on Disney. In 2011, Demi Lovato herself called out the network for sending the wrong messages about body image and eating disorders, after a character on a newer show, Shake It Up, made a joke about starving herself. Then she pointed out that the lead actresses on these shows are progressively thinner:
There was a time, in fact, when these were the messages that Disney was sending:
So thanks, Disney Channel, for keeping my childhood entertaining, and teaching me to be an empowered young woman!
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