I was raised on Disney movies that premiered on the Disney channel growing up. My mom was never into going to the theater, so I stuck with the small screen. I was at the perfect age for High School Musical, Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana. I was head over heels obsessed with all of them until 2010, when I started to get too old for them. But when Disney announced its Memorial Day weekend DCOM Marathon this year, I had to watch it. I caught up with new Disney Channel movies and old ones from the late 90s and early 00s, and came out with this obvious common thread.
Most movies from the DCOM universe from the late 90s and some even from 2015, center on young girls who are around 15 years old. They usually break a female stereotype while also being a “loser” in school. In addition, they’re usually old friends of those who are popular in high school now or just hated by them for no reason. In the end, the lesson that is taught is that you can be whoever you want to be, follow your dreams, and stick up for yourself. Though these are all good morals, they almost always center on a school dance or a competition between the popular people in the third act. The “loser” must either win against the popular group, or just outshine them somehow even if they don’t get the trophy or crown. Thus, showing the whole school they’re just as good as, if not better than, the popular people.
As a person who was bullied on a lot in school, these messages resonate with me, but there are some problems. I wish they didn’t focus on popularity and the bullies as much. Yes, they’re a huge part of school, and standing up to them must feel good. However, rather than just competing with the popular group, why not have the down in the dumps protagonist shine at their own way, without needing to “beat” the popular clique? Why not focus on something the main character can achieve outside of school, where no mean girl needs to be defeated? This would show kids a more realistic view of high school because most victims don’t feel comfortable standing up to their bullies. It’s a nice fantasy, but a rare reality. With movies that show a character that’s different, but can achieve agency outside of school, or in school but away from the bullies, it can teach children that that life gets better. It teaches the audience that they can do extracurricular activities and think about the future. Though it may not grant immediate satisfaction for the viewer or the character, it is more realistic. Being popular or outshining and proving yourself to the popular people isn’t all that matters, nor is it feasible for everyone.
Secondly, I was wondering what the popular people in real school thought when watching these movies? Could they relate to the main protagonist or did they see themselves as the popular characters? Everyone has their own insecurities, so maybe they could channel some of their emotions to be devoted to the main character.
Lastly, these movies are targeted to people who clearly aren’t in high school. They’re marketed to people in middle school to help them deal with the future. But when they get to high school, they learn that it is nothing like it is in the movies. It’s either romanticized to be perfect or exaggerated as being horrible, there’s no in-between. I think filmmakers and production companies paint these images of high school to get younger viewers to buy into the High School Musical fantasy, but I think it has more to do with cashing in on the nostalgia factor of high school. The, “Isn’t it funny we thought high school would be like that?” feeling. This Memorial Day DCOM marathon was only possible due to old fans’ nostalgia. Even writing this article is playing right into their hand. We watch these movies again and again to laugh at how high school wasn’t like we expected at all. We reminisce on how it was either better or worse than the films predicted. DCOM high school movies are used to hook us when we’re young and then disillusion us as adults. But the further we are away from high school, the more we like to romanticize it. This is how Disney movies are able to get away with not showing us the truth of life. It would have been better to make realistic high school movies that might actually help us as middle school students, and then help us again to not romanticize the past years later. I wish Disney would focus on deeper struggles rather than just focusing on popular people. I just find it horribly ironic that the message is not to care about what people think, but at the same time passively beating the popular person out anyway to live out a nerd fantasy.
23 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.