Contrary to what haters might think, Disney Channel original movies weren't poorly-produced films about what it means to be a teen who likes sports, or has magical powers, or both. They were, instead, glorious, smart films that were a way of life for every '90s kid growing up. Like, before there was Netflix and pizza, there were DCOMs and pizza. What I'm getting at is: Disney Channel original movies were the iconic films that defined our childhood, and they taught us all a lot about the world we were growing up in.
Sure, when we were young, we weren't viewing these flicks with an eye for gender stereotypes so much as we were viewing them wishing that these crazy plot twists would happen to us. Turn into a merman? Yes please. Discover that you have Leprechaun lineage? Would be a nice change of pace, and also answer why that growth spurt hasn’t happened yet. Be an only child and then suddenly acquire five younger brothers and sisters?
Actually, wait, no. I take that one back.
Regardless of how all of our viewpoints about life, love, and happiness might have changed since our DCOM heydays, thank goodness we can take a look back at all of the films that shaped our current psyche and dissect their messages. Specifically, the feminist ones. OK, so none of these films are going to be perfect archetypes of feminism — but that doesn’t mean their moments can't be celebrated. Let’s look at some of the films that broadened the narrative of gender representation.
Even though it was basically just Sister Sister minus Roger, Twitches was a magical film in more ways than one. The powers bestowed to these long lost twins only worked when they are together. If this isn't an analogy for girls standing by each other instead of against, I don't know what is.
Stepsister From Planet Weird (2000)
Again, a story of two female leads (one alien, one regular human) joining forces to save the world. Some parts of the film were hard to watch, even as a preteen sans an eye for hokeyness (the image of the sister as a bubble will FOREVER haunt me), but a promising message was left in the wake of all those special effects: two unlikely gal pals come together, despite their differences. And they're not related by blood or species! Technically, they didn’t even have to be friends.
Double Teamed (2002)
The best part of this film isn't that it centers around two super tall, super talented basketball players who have more confidence than they do blonde hair — it's that the film doesn't find it necessary to add in some half-formed love narrative in order to "change" the girls. The crux of Double Teamed is all about familial relations, sisterly love, and, of course, doing whatever you want with your life — despite what society tells you. *MIC DROP*
Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century (1999)
Zenon’s friendship with Raven Symone — I mean, Nebula Wade — has #goals written all over it. And guess what? This duo talks about more than just boys (whatup, Bechdel test!): Like, I don't know, how they are going to save their station/family/therefore the world. And yes, there is a love story here, but guess who makes the first move? Our leading lady. “Zedus Lapidus Greg! If you want to kiss me, just do it” may or may not have been a line that I’ve tested out in the real world, so thanks for that, girl.
Cadet Kelly (2002)
Proving that Hilary Duff was totally the queen of Disney in the early '00s, this film basically knocks it out of the feminist park. Even thought he plot is based around a female vs. female battle, it ends on the right note (see: a ribbon dance, females choosing their friendship over a man).
Smart House (1999)
Uhm, forget 2001: A Space Odyssey: Smart House basically predicted everything about technology. Plus it’s super on point with its exploration into the prototype of motherhood. The “Smart House,” named Pat, is every '50s sitcom #goal. Even though she’s actually a machine (created by a female inventor, FYI), she can’t live up to those impossible standards — and not until the children accept that does the film get resolved. Brilliant.
The Thirteenth Year (1999)
What I treasure most about The Thirteenth Year is that it so easily could have been a story about a girl finding out she’s a mermaid, but the writers were like, “Nah! Let’s make this about a boy in his most awkward of times.” I’d like to think this destabilization of gender norms was intentional, but it was 1999 and I can’t be sure. Regardless, the resulting tale (omg, puns! I’ll see myself out...) breaks the mold by juxtaposing a young man with typically feminine characteristics of a mermaid, and it’s refreshing to watch, even now.
Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off (2003)
Taking what The Thirteenth Year did a step further, Eddie’s Million Dollar Cook-Off takes gender ideals and grills them (I can’t stop, I’m so sorry). Because everyone knows that women belong in the kitchen, Eddie is mocked for his love of making sandwiches, and other things. Good thing Eddie’s dad isn’t a regular dad — he’s a cool dad — and supports his son’s quest to become the next Iron Chef (or something like that) by the end of the film. Eddie's Million Dollar Cook-Off questions our society’s outlook on identity and gender, and vindicates Eddie’s right to follow his dreams.
Twin siblings Andrea and Andrew both love motocross, but their jerk father doesn't believe that his daughter should compete in any events, because you know — that's a boy's sport and women have ovaries! They can't even drive! So Andrea cuts off her hair, pretends to be her bro, and dominates the competition. She gets caught in the end, everyone freaks out, and then they all learn HEY, maybe our anatomy doesn’t define our ability to do something. Go figure!
Kim Possible Movie: So The Drama (2003)
Kim Possible as a character was such a well rounded representation of femininity that I’m slow clapping in my head just thinking about it now. You mean a girl can be a cheerleader, maintain a 4.0 GPA, have a male BFF, and save the world? Woah, that’s a lot of dimension for a lady! What do you think this is, 2015?!
High School Musical (2006)
Gabriella (s/o to Vanessa Hudgens) values her education over her boyfriend (and her boyfriend, for the record, is Zac Efron, so s/o to Zac Efron and also to self control). Sure there are issues of gender stereotyping present within the film, but HMS does a good job to try and subvert most of them. Also, it provided us with a tagline that definitely speaks to feminism: "We're all in this together." PREACH.
Cheetah Girls (2003)
This film did for me what I can only assume Sex and the City did for everyone else: establish how important female friendships are. I could probably write a whole piece on why The Cheetah Girls was so wonderfully feminist, but I don’t have the time and I worry that I would cry too much from happiness and get lost in a downward spiral where all I do is listen to “Cinderella” on repeat for a solid year (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything). I will leave you with some ~on point~ lyrics from said tear-inducing song, just to further my point: “I don’t want to be like Cinderella, waiting in a dark cold dusty cellar, waiting for somebody to come and set me free … Don’t want to depend on no-one else, I’d rather rescue myself.”
Though Disney Channel Original Movies didn't get it right every single time, that's not to say these earlier films didn't pave the way for more well rounded portrayals of gender in the future. The unforgettable feminist moments in some of these treasured movies remind us that although we still have ground to cover, we've come a long way, and that should always be celebrated.
Images: Disney–ABC Television Group (12); Giphy