On Thursday, Cosmopolitan posted a preview of their July 2016 cover interview with Zendaya. During the interview, Zendaya discussed her return to the Disney Channel, and her reasons for that return,
"The only way I was going to come back to the Disney Channel was if I was in a position of more power. One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel. It's hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is very important."
That struck a chord with me in particular, and not just because I've been a fan of Zendaya's entire existence since her self-titled album came out in 2013. It struck a chord with me because of how much of my childhood was made up of, or influenced by, what I saw on the Disney Channel. Growing up as a person of color, fresh off the boat from Jamaica, I looked to places like the Disney Channel for American children who looked like me. Many times, the channel did not disappoint. But what Zendaya suggests with this simple quote is an entire world of possibility that didn't seem to exist when I was growing up — the possibility that representation of people who look like me might become a rule rather than an exception.
The first Disney Channel series I remember watching as a child was The Famous Jett Jackson. Lee Thompson Young played Jett Jackson who played Silverstone on the show within the show, and nearly everyone in the main cast was black. Jett Jackson was one of my first fictional crushes, and watching Lee Thompson Young on TV as an 8-year-old made me think that perhaps I had a future as a child star as well. (Well, All That inspired that idea, but The Famous Jett Jackson reinforced that I could do more than just scripted comedy.)
As I grew older, I added more shows with people of color like me and unlike me to my favorites list. The Proud Family became my favorite cartoon after its debut in 2001. That's So Raven, 2003, taught me so many important lessons about family, friendship, and women of every size being acceptable and beautiful. On the tail end of my Disney tenure, Lilo & Stitch (2003) and American Dragon: Jake Long (2004) cropped up to continue the inclusivity of the Disney Channel line-up. But these were all just a handful of shows in a forest of uniformity. From 1998 to 2003, most of the shows on the Disney Channel featured predominantly white casts. Some, like Lizzie McGuire, featured one person of color as a main character, but not central enough to matter. (They did the entire Lizzie McGuire Movie without Miranda, after all.)
But things are different today, though it might not seem that way at first. After all, the current Disney Channel series include Bunk'd, Stuck In The Middle, and Zendaya's K.C. Undercover, alongside predominantly white shows like Liv and Maddie, Girl Meets World, Best Friends Whenever, and Descendants: Wicked World. But the hopelessness that I felt as a child trying to find the diamonds in the rough is completely lacking now. Inclusivity seems more achievable for the sheer fact that diversity in media is more of a talking point now than ever, and Disney Channel appears to be making that effort listen to the conversation. Descendants: Wicked World, for example, features more than just one token person of color in the main cast, and Bunk'd is more or less equal in white characters and characters of color. Stuck In The Middle debuted on the channel in February 2016, and is to be followed in June 2016 by Bizaardvark, starring Olivia Rodrigo and Frankie Wong.
And then, on top of that, Zendaya of Shake It Up fame — a show she co-starred in with white actress Bella Thorne — returned to the Disney Channel not only with more power over her project than she's had in the past, but also with a mind to keep the inclusivity train going on the channel. Because she recognizes, as I recognize, that inclusivity is the most important in media geared toward children. It is important for children like me, who don't look like nine out of 10 people in ads and magazines, to know that we can be actors or psychics or super spies. It is important for children like me to know it's OK if we mess up and piss our parents off, like Penny Proud always did, or that being lost in the shuffle of a large family doesn't mean you don't matter, like Harley Diaz. These are messages you just don't absorb as well from a white hero for the sheer fact that, well, of course that hero can do it. They're white.
Although I'm far outside of the target demographic for the Disney Channel these days, there's a certain pride that I feel when watching their shows now. (Girl Meets World, K.C. Undercover, and Stuck In The Middle are legitimately amazing, OK?) If a 19-year-old former Disney star like Zendaya can be given the power to bring more diversity to the channel, then it's clear that Disney Channel is making that a priority. And my 8-year-old self couldn't be happier about what the next generation is getting to witness.
Images: Disney Channel; Giphy