I was a preteen when my family moved back to America in the fall of 2001. In the pre-Internet age, Israel had been in its own little bubble of eighties music and the occasional American blockbuster making its way to our theaters months after its stateside release. Suddenly, my sister and I had access to all of the movies that the actual Blockbuster could offer. We had access to music when it became available. Never before had I understood why some bands were on tour while others were not, but now I could see it was to promote a new album. We dipped our toes into the shining plastic world of American pop culture and then took a headlong dive into it.
More than anything, though, my sister and I immediately became obsessed with the Disney Channel – even though we were on the older end of its target demographic. We had caught glimpses of it during summer vacations to New York, but never had we been able to turn it on whenever we wanted. We were entranced. Our television watching habits became so bad in those first couple of months that our parents restricted us to three episodes a week. We were addicted to Disney Channel Original Series, devouring the likes of Even Stevens, That's So Raven, and, above all, the queen, Lizzie McGuire. We kept track of when Disney Channel Original Movies premiered so that we could watch Cadet Kelly and Get a Clue as soon as they came out. We must have watched Motocrossed twenty times. I wanted to be in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century so badly. (It's probably what convinced me that sci-fi can be as good as fantasy.) I left for college the year that Hannah Montana and High School Musical came out and I was secretly jealous that I wasn't "allowed" to like the Disney Channel anymore because I was supposed to have matured. (Didn't stop me anyway.)
For me, the attraction had to be that for the first time I was seeing programming aimed specifically at me. Before experiencing the Disney Channel, I watched Disney cartoons and movies that could have been targeted to anyone. Matilda and Aladdin are generation-spanning stories designed to be enjoyed by whoever is in the audience. The Disney Channel, on the other hand, was made for kids ages 6-14 – and no one else. The shows and movies were about preteens taking risks and getting into trouble, paving the way for their impending adolescence. Someone five years older than me couldn't have enjoyed the programs on the Disney Channel because they weren't created for her.
Of course, they didn't always get it right. It's not like the suits in California had a Skins-like writing staff to inform the old fogies of what's cool and on-trend with the kids these days. But the writers knew enough to give their viewers a prototype of what a model popular girl looks like, and therefore what we could strive to look and act like. Hilary Duff was supposed to be a super-awkward wannabe as Lizzie McGuire, but we all knew that you would have to be crazy to want to be Kate, the ostensible Popular Girl, instead of Lizzie. (That could be because intercut with Lizzie McGuire episodes were snippets of interviews with Hilary Duff, wearing the cutest clothes and generally being the cutest, in a way that was interchangeable with her character.)
Because Lizzie had the greatest friendships around with Miranda and Gordo. As did Raven, with Chelsea and Eddie. And if Even Stevens taught me anything, it was that you could hate your sibling and still be the closest people on the planet. The characters in these shows always got into trouble. They were always mischievous. They were always chasing after girls/boys and obsessing over their pre-sexuality. But the resolution of their bad decisions always ended up leading them to stronger bonds of friendship. In that sense, the writers understood that loyalty would speak to a preteen audience more than anything else.
Nowadays, as a Millennial, the world of entertainment is at my feet, clamoring for my attention and trying to please me and my generation with their programming. I can watch any channel on television and decide if I like what I see. I am the ultimate consumer, molding California studios to my taste.
Oh, you guys like Glee? Here, take Smash, Nashville and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Women in politics! You guys like women in politics! Here's The Good Wife, Madame Secretary and Scandal.
Gays? Bring on the gays! Here's Looking, The New Normal and How to Get Away with Murder.
While it's nice to have more options (and the reminder of how I'm getting older and therefore my mortality), I look back on my encyclopedic knowledge of early 00's Disney stars with fondness and appreciation. The Disney Channel made me feel special. It acknowledged my struggles and gave me a sense of community, that I could be like the kids I was watching – if I wanted to be. I think more than anything, though, the Disney Channel taught me that my opinion mattered before the world decided it did. For that I'm grateful.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.