It was like clockwork as I ran to my grandmother's house every day after school, plopped right in front of the TV and toggle between 31, 32 and 33—the channels I'd memorized as Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon (depending where you live of course). But almost always landed on Disney Channel until I headed home. What made it so special? Well, lucky number 31 showed many BIPOC faces and stories. It was one of the few stations that made me feel seen when I saw my world reflected on screen.
We Don't Give Disney Channel Enough Credit for Its BIPOC Representation
In the early years, we got Lilo & Stitch, American Dragon: Jake Long, A.N.T. Farm and Cory in the House. But my fandom really took shape when That’s So Raven premiered. The teen physic concept was fun and silly, in fact, I still use some of the catchphrases today. (“Oh Snap!” and “Ya Nasty!” will always be in my repertoire.) And amazingly, the sitcom represented a positive Black family, a Black lead that was unapologetically herself while also roping in tough subjects—like race and body image—from time to time.
One episode that stands out is “True Colors,” which aired in 2005 during Black History Month. After Chelsea was hired over Raven (even though she was more qualified for the job), she has a vision of the sales associate saying, “We don’t hire Black people.” Aside from The Color of Friendship, a 2000 Disney movie with race at the center of its plot, the Raven episode was one of the first times I witnessed mainstream television tackle tough conversations surrounding race and privilege.
But most of all, That’s So Raven just brought me immense joy. It didn’t take itself too seriously and it was a prime example that Black leads can exist. Raven didn’t have to be a sidekick or a cringy punchline. She didn’t have to be the Angry Black Woman or demean herself for the benefit of a white audience. She was for us.
The animated shows were also stepping it up. There’s no question that The Proud Family was made for the BIPOC community. Come on, the theme song was sung by the legendary Destiny’s Child and Solange Knowles. Most of the cast was voiced by Black actors (which has proven to be a blind spot for many animated shows over the years), and it continually showcased a variety of characters of color.
Similar to That’s So Raven, Proud Family also dove into themes about cultures, religions and family. It taught us about Kwanzaa in the “Seven Days of Kwanzaa” episode and the Muslim community in the “Culture Shock” episode through the eyes of the protagonist Penny Proud. While it wasn’t always culturally sensitive, it was at least showing perspectives beyond the white gaze.
And let’s not forget about the DCOM universe, aka the Disney Channel Original Movies that basically raised every single millennial. We had Asian representation in Johnny Tsunami and Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, Latinx representation in Gotta Kick It Up! and Black leads in Jett Jackson: The Movie, The Proud Family Movie, Jump In!, Let It Shine, Twitches and and, of course, my favorite: The Cheetah Girls.
Released in 2003—just as I was heading into preteen territory—the movie about four girls from different backgrounds in one music group seemed to parallel themes in my life. Of course, I didn’t have the vocal chops of Raven Symoné or Adrianne Bailon, but I saw myself in every character since they never pigeonholed them into predictable stereotypes. And trust me, the movie still holds up 20 years later.
Fast forward to today, and Disney’s still keeping the representation alive. There are far fewer programs these days in general as they compete with the rise of streaming services. But, in the last few years they’ve had shows like Andi Mack led by an Asian actress and Stuck in the Middle led by star Jenna Ortega, who’s now been catapulted into Wednesday fame. The channel also programmed Spin, which showcased the first Indian American lead actress, Avantika Vandanapu, on the network.
Don’t get me wrong, Disney Channel is far from perfect. The network has used stereotypes and tropes like the ‘sassy Black friend’ in Good Luck Charlie, or the most cringe (and downright problematic) characters like Ravi from Jessie and Esteban from Suite Life of Zack and Cody. And when Disney+ exploded onto the scene, so did its expansive archive, highlighting many moments from the parent company’s racist past.
But Disney Channel has been actively trying to change the narrative. In the 2022 reboot of The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, they changed the Chang triplets, often used at the butt of the joke and plagued with the ‘Minority Myth’ trope, into fully fleshed-out characters with individual personalities instead of one-dimensional, racist depictions.
Two things can be true: Disney has a complicated past, and, I really appreciate the great BIPOC content my younger self got to watch with three-dimensional characters that were more than just sidekicks, service workers or villains. These depictions showed me that we can lead shows, we can show positive stories, and we can be funny or strong or vulnerable (or all of the above).
They can also be totally cheesy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be playing The Cheetah Girls soundtrack for the rest of the day.