My youngest sister is seven years old. My second youngest sister is fourteen. Put them together and you get a lot of Disney Channel during my weekends at home. And during my ritual wanderings through the flow of the house in attempts to avoid homework, I often end up flopped on the couch for a bit of an episode here and there. Sometimes I laugh at the jokes. Sometimes I lurch from them. Sometimes I wonder whether Jessie is a little bit racist. But anyway.
Disney Channel has garnered a lot of popular criticism in recent years due to its distinct and narrow emphasis on the female lead, drawing in target audiences inclusive of my two sisters. And although the network has, for several years, promoted—almost exclusively—shows centered around female protagonists, it tends to present them in fiction the same way their actresses appear in the limelight—hyper-stylized, multi-talented comedians with a gift for singing and dreams of becoming a pop star (a dream usually fulfilled on-screen and in real life).
But these characters, despite their schedules and personalities, are also allowed to be smart and make good grades, no matter how incredulous. In Hannah Montana, for example, Lilly, the secondary female lead constantly compensating for her lack of brains, ends up being accepted to Stanford University.
But Lilly is the exception to the Disney’s rule. Just lying on the couch, I can’t help but notice a specific variation of this “dumb sidekick” trend present in almost every show within the network’s current lineup. I eventually had to ask myself the overriding question:
Why are all the Disney Channel boys so dumb?
For anyone without young family members who may not know of what I speak (or past the prime of Lizzie McGuire), let me provide some specifics.
Disney Channel currently airs at least five television shows that bank on the trope of the dumb male companion/brother/sidekick, including Good Luck Charlie, A.N.T. Farm, Austin and Ally, I Didn’t Do It, and Dog With a Blog. In Good Luck Charlie, the female lead, Teddy, films video diaries documenting the funny experiences accompanying the growth of her baby sister, Charlie. She has an older brother, PJ, whose comedy mostly stems from his pitiful mental flops and scatterbrained misinterpretations. Despite actor Jason Dolley appearing somewhat regularly in Disney Channel movies prior to this role—often in opposite character as a shy and sensitive high school boy—his scripted purpose in this show diminishes PJ to little more than a recurring gag. Austin and Ally takes the trope even farther, with both of its male leads constantly staring off into space or otherwise whining with no more tact or mental development than a kindergartener. The two boys always require explanation and appeasement from the female lead, Ally, who, like Teddy and every female lead in all shows mentioned, dedicates her life to overachievement.
In A.N.T. Farm, a show about child prodigies at their special school, two of the three male leads, despite their advanced skills in art and science, are portrayed through their exceptional dim wit in all other subjects and social situations, or else obsessed with eating fattening junk food and playing video games. Likewise, I Didn’t Do It also portrays two male leads whose only character trait seems to revolve around mental deficiency, one character even proclaiming proudly that he’s never performed well on a school assignment without cheating. In Dog With a Blog, the brother character verbally bemoans his lack of intelligence again and again, all while his class-president younger sister strides ahead with straight-A’s and plans to become president of the United States. Oh yeah, and she sings, too.
Obviously, men as a whole haven’t exactly received the short end of the stick for the majority of our species’ history, and I don’t mean to imply that any negatively portrayed or foolish characters have no place in entertainment. Of course that can be funny. Of course that can perfectly acceptable; people portray themselves as foolish fops plenty of times in everyday life, after all. But in a place like Disney Channel, the main source of entertainment to two members of my own family and to many young consumers around the country, the constant presence of such a specific stereotype is at least a little curious.
A similar examination of this culture stems from A.O. Scott’s much-talked-about article for the New York Times, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Although his purposes concentrate on shows and figures far removed from the average Disney audience, his argument—that characters seem more and more attached to some perpetual adolescence—might still be applicable in smaller form to the young men on Disney Channel as perpetual childhood. Or infancy.
And the male, dumb-sidekick trope has origins everywhere. Although the actors victim to this typecast on Disney Channel play young, middle-to-high-school-aged students, the older-cast, “bumbling dad” stereotype is perhaps more recognizable and more talked about in main stream criticism. After the release of the children’s fantasy, Epic, for example, The Atlantic published an article by Hugo Schwyzer about the winning combination of silly dad plus feisty kid and its monetary benefits. He cites Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the first examples of this paradigm shift from the stern, protective fathers of fairy tales like The Little Mermaid to fathers more akin to Belle’s “crazy old Maurice.” Little more needs to be said for Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin.
Again, the concept of a somewhat inept, comical character in a kids show doesn’t disturb me to the point where I think we need a revolution. But what I think lacks in the modern Disney Channel lineup—and therefore in the characterization of young adults for young viewers—is depth.
Boy Meets World, which aired on Disney Channel from 1993 to 2000, is perhaps one example of the dumb-sidekick trope performed with more flexibility. The character Shawn Hunter, for example, is in most respects portrayed as the unskilled, one-lining goofball to main character Cory Matthews (also, granted, a goofball). Neither of these two characters grows into particularly strong students over the course of their story, but they do grow in wisdom, something too often lost in the broken storylines of their Disney Channel successors.
Shawn, in particular, falls behind in class and plans to avoid college. He is easily fooled by his more intelligent friends, and at one point is almost convinced to take the SAT by promises of cake and bogus test questions about the ingredients of mud. His role is largely comedic, but Disney provided him with something else. It gave him a difficult past, a reason for his poor academics and even for his constant jokes. It gave him insecurities unrelated to his brain.
Even Cory’s brother Eric, the epitome of the “dumb male” trope in Disney, receives the same wisdom allotted to every other character and is treated as an equal by Mr. Feeny, the most important source of wisdom in the show.
Each man played funny roles, but were never disrespected or blindly ridiculed by the writers that created them. Unlike the other typical male roles on Disney Channel today, these characters were developed with the same poignancy written for their costars.
(The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, by the way, also found success using this same balancing act between wise-cracking Will Smith and the stern, but comic presence of his father figure, Philip Banks).
Maybe I wouldn’t care as much if I hadn’t already outgrown the Disney Channel target audience. But as a member the target audience during the run of shows like Boy Meets World (and at least during the reruns of Fresh Prince), I think more needs to be said for what kids appreciate in the characters they watch grow—or remain fools—week after week.
Until next time.