Lucy Fitzgerald laments the closure of Disney Channel, the childhood-defining culture hub that was consistently conducive to joy for many throughout the 2000s.
The revolution will not be televised. Well, at least not on The Disney Channel (TDC). In October 2020 it was announced the Burbank behemoth that is Disney had discontinued one of its most beloved products: The Disney Channel (UK). And in early October 2021 it was confirmed that the channel is no longer available in European territories and Southeast Asia as well. For any kid with a pulse for pop culture in the UK in the mid to late 2000s, if you had access to a Virgin or Sky box you were living your best life. 724 or 609, depending on your broadband persuasion, aired classic sitcoms with engaging protagonists, from a soliloquising 13 year old in Lizzie McGuire and hooligan twin boys terrorising a mock Hilton hotel in Suite Life of Zack and Cody, to a father-son duo lodging in the US executive branch in Cory in the House and an older sister ensuring the endurance of generational trauma in Good Luck Charlie. Another honourable mention includes the (presumably LSD-stimulated) high-octane animation that focused on two gaslighting brothers: Phineas and Ferb (Bo Burnham merely adapted the musical-comedy genre. Phineas and Ferb were born in it, moulded by it). And equally, The Disney Channel Original Movie was its own institution, where stars of successful series were committed to film and offbeat newbie stars got a big break, see: Camp Rock, Minute Men (which boasts Succession’s Cousin Greg as a main character), The Cheetah Girls trilogy, the Wattpad Y/N fantasy that is Starstruck, Jump In (every grazed knee from attempting double dutch in the playground was worth it) and of course, Teen Beach Movie.
It is difficult to articulate the true euphoria that filled weeknights and weekends during the period of 2006-2011. Perhaps I am romanticising it, what with the wider context being the low-stake demands of primary school, when life was all natural highs, not SSRIs, but I look back on it as a strikingly peaceful time, when my joie de vivre was actively fuelled by the shows I was tucking into. Invariably at my best friend’s house every Friday evening, we would watch the 6.30pm premiere of the latest movie or extended episode, clocking in for some delightful chaos, a vicarious romantic thrill or even, on occasion, a dip into the surreal (perhaps a gondola ride in the sky with Jesse McCartney!). Notably, before interconnecting Marvel movie plots, we had The Disney Channel’s crossover episodes; I am sorry but That’s What I Call The Suite Life Of Hannah Montana enlightened me more than the Papal visit. Such silly narratives were played out with such sincerity, chemistry and zest. I surmise that feedback from Disney’s market research must have been applied with seamless haste as I, a pretentious little brat, never once felt disappointed by the quality of output. Oh, and The Disney Channel Games? The Olympics for Baddies.
“That’s What I Call The Suite Life Of Hannah Montana enlightened me more than the Papal visit.”
While watching a Pixar piece as an adult can bring on The Big Sad and an existential crisis, a child consuming The Disney Channel could obtain lucid life lessons without getting overwhelmed. The aforementioned shows offered kids digestible, meaningful messages they could comprehend, take away, and actually implement into their, still malleable, lives. And though The Disney Channel was always more puritanical than its more idiosyncratic contemporary network Nickelodeon (whose tween stars cried “Oh my GOD” as opposed to “Gosh”, wore crop tops and yelled innuendos – the latter which I now sadly recognise as Dan Schneider’s perverted agenda), its child viewers got to do some serious real-world building as a result of the topics explored in a typical episode. The messages conveyed were never hyperbolic or preachy – fun was still a priority – and though it obviously wasn’t theory-informed manifestos being delivered, TDC didn’t candify the content in the name of patronising the young audience. That’s So Raven spoke on anti-Black racism and the power of rejecting unrealistic beauty standards. Class relations were contemplated between blue collar Maddy and uptown girl London in The Suite Life. In Hannah Montana’s young Rico we were given a cautionary tale about the consequences that come for those who flaunt capital: you will be perceived as an absolute arsehole. Moreover, emotional insight was given precedence: the value of friendship was centred, the ramifications of testing the boundaries of trust were warned and self-esteem was championed.
Certainly, there was significance in girls being positioned front and centre. The premises of the respective shows of Selena, Demi and Miley (TDC Holy Trinity) were that they were ordinary girls, just in extraordinary situations, which created a sense of relatability and intrigue with the protégé girl bosses watching at home. Plus, the mystique of teenagedom was intoxicating to a junior viewer. I saw facets of myself in their characters but, crucially, they had traits I aspired to possess: I longed for Alex’s conviction and capacity for cheek; Sonny’s ambitious self-belief; and Hannah’s social confidence (as well as the magical powers, Hollywood agent and pop career, I suppose). The shaming Discourse™ has long dissected the child star to “junkie”/promiscuous adult pipeline, especially those who are female. The imposed notion that these young girls had to live out their virtuous characters’ legacies in real life was always ridiculous. Indeed, I was actually part of the prime demographic of potential victims to their “corruption” as they transitioned into adulthood, and never once felt the “harmful influence” of their provocative posturings that were ostensibly impacting the youth for the worse. They were simply exploring their sexuality – and yes, a 12 year old was able to understand that, believe it or not. Alas, when it comes to girls on screen, chastity has always been conservative currency.
“The shaming Discourse™ has long dissected the child star to ‘junkie’/promiscuous adult pipeline, especially those who are female.”
The Disney Channel’s most lucrative export however was High School Musical (HSM). I look at my life in chapters and HSM commands its own. Besotted with a piece of IP at age six? Sickening.
I like to view my adoring relationship with HSM as distinct from the grim fetish the millennial “Disney Adult” is gripped by (this is me aggressively declaring my self awareness). HSM set my world alight and Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens birthed my bi-panic. Wetting my palette for nosiness, and unethical TMZ-adjacent intrusion, I would watch all available behind-the-scenes content of the cast on YouTube. At seven I set up a HSM club with classmates (we held weekly Wednesday meetings); procured all the unofficial biographies and tacky stationery Woolworths had to offer before their administration and – rivalling Paris Hilton in velour Juicy Couture – indulged George at ASDA’s sick tracksuits which read “WILDCATS” across the arse.
Now, in terms of unbearable pain, there’s being stung by a bullet ant and then there’s the prospect of missing the network premier of High School Musical 2 due to a family trip; for honouring its debut into society was sacrosanct. This sequel dared to question: do workers have rights? Maybe we should unionise? I still welcome the advent of every summer, in the seconds before I click “submit” on my final exam of semester 2, with a crescendo-ing “Summer … Summer … Summer!” (if you know, you know).
Moving to the silver screen, the third movie levelled up and I recall skipping choir practice to see the singalong version in the cinema (a field trip is proven to consolidate in-class learning!). In this final instalment we experienced the redemptive arc of former martinet Mrs Darbus; Troy’s verbal patricide of Coach Bolton (à la “No Dad, it’s not my dream. It’s yours”); and the explicit closeting of the flamboyant Ryan. Looking back I realise that misunderstood succubus Sharpay was a walking masterclass of artistic self preservation and led by example that there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, so you may as well get that personalised license plate!
Of course, the musical merit of the franchise cannot be underestimated, the soundtracks are forever ingrained in my being. Even at angsty 15, all cliques at my school were united in their singing of I Don’t Dance as we played rounders in PE, aping the slick baseball game of the second movie. As for the dancing, well, before Parris Goebel, there was Kenny Ortega. While not being a fully-formed musical theatre geek I do have an undying appreciation and respect for the craft that is choreography. Courtesy of the DVD’s special features, I got to see Ortega and his spirited collaborators Chucky Klapow and Bonnie Story create and block routines with an ensemble of a hundred kids, working out and adapting formations so as to best complement the film’s main character: the music. It was all rather exhilarating.
Ultimately, visiting Salt Lake City, Utah one day and roaming the halls of East High still holds a high ranking in my bucket list. HSM was a rare, stars-aligned phenomenon, from the alchemy of the near-perfect cast, to the infectious songs. Not to mention the heart-warming themes: the characters learned not to condescend any one’s passions, how to commit to resolute optimism and be delusional about the efficacy of long distance relationships!
Since ceasing my engagement with the channel some nine years ago (swapping it out for binge streaming) TDC seemed to descend into a problematic snafu throughout the 2010s, with damaging Indian stereotypes persisting in Jessie; Girl Meets World sermonizing anti-communism and the cancer tumour that is Jake Paul cursing the Bizaardvark set. TDC ain’t what it used to be. Although, my personal fond memories did live on despite the channel’s later sins and so I thought hearing of the The Disney Channel’s demise would elicit a sensation analogous to that of someone abruptly removing the last jenga block (the final remnant of childish joy) from the tower (my soul), leaving it to collapse in an ungraceful dismount (having the crushing realisation that my childhood is officially over). But it did not. I saw the news on my Twitter feed and gave it the 5 second engagement time I would do any other post. For, I fear my soul dimmed long ago, as did those of my peers. Was it learning in my teens that former purveyor of order, Mr Moesby had committed vehicular manslaughter in the 90s, that ushered me into the pessimistic, propelled me into the fatalistic? Maybe, but probably more so that the maturation of myself and age mates had to accelerate as devastating global issue after global issue bombarded our consciousness, while the digital sphere simultaneously claimed the monopoly of our sense of selves. So, I think we lost our innocence long ago – just as millenials before us were shaped by 9/11, the Iraq war, the initial emergence of the internet and the 2008 economic crash in their formative years, so too older Gen Z’s came of age in a time of historical crisis and digital numbing. TDC’s closure is merely the coffin-nailing symbol that has marked the end of our childhood.
Still, if you want to cushion the catastrophic with childhood comforts, you can still revisit most of these beloved series and films, albeit some in very grainy quality, on Disney Plus, where the 2000s catalogue is currently housed. Undeniably there is something profoundly sad about the original medium being snuffed out. However, I think we are such hardened beings now, that maybe our collectively morbid, sometimes tasteless, and dry humour can’t even fully attach earnest meaning to most things, never mind this.
I am grateful to The Disney Channel for making my foundation of culture wholesome and convivial. I am grateful that I got to experience a golden era of TV, an era that those only a few years behind me simply did not (where they chased an equivalent magic I do not know). And as for what form today’s iPad kiddos’ cultural epiphany will come in years from now, I am truly terrified.