If you grew up on Louis and Ren’s insane sibling rivalry, Raven’s cool psychic visions, and Suga Mama’s words of wisdom, then consider yourself really lucky. Us millennials were fortunate enough to have Disney Channel shows that not only entertained us but also taught us important life lessons and values. Classics like Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven helped shape our identity and our morals (in fact, they still influence us to this day!). And so considering how much of an impact they’ve had on us, it’s no surprise that we get the urge to revisit our childhood by watching the network again from time-to-time. However, have you ever tried to watch today’s shows and realized that they pale in comparison to the older ones? Or have you ever struggled to make it through one full episode? Well, it’s not just you, because frankly, most of today’s Disney Channel shows fall devastatingly flat.
A popular counterargument is that these shows are meant for the kids of today’s generation. Since we (the ones who grew up on the old-school Disney Channel) are adults now, we ought to move on and ditch the Mickey ears for good… And in all fairness, this is a valid argument. After all, times have changed and we can’t expect the network to stick to the same kinds of shows when their target demographic is always shifting. However, this doesn’t change the fact that most of these shows are less thought-provoking and relatable. And we don’t know about you guys, but we’d say that the mark of a really good show is its ability to attract even more than its target audience. So you know what? Our age group isn’t the issue here. Keep in mind that we’re not claiming every single Disney Channel show that’s on-air right now is bad. We’re just saying that if you were to compare them to the older shows, you’d see that they simply don’t measure up. Here’s why:
1. The characters in older shows were more complex and relatable.
Is it just us, or do today’s characters feel a bit shallow and one-dimensional? Sure, they have interests and hobbies… buuuuuuuut we can probably label their personality type within minutes of watching them. There isn’t much more to them than the stereotype they play.
This was never the case with older shows, and the proof lies in none other than Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place. She’s pretty sarcastic, selfish, manipulative, and unapologetically lazy (which, ironically, makes her character all the more likable). But at the same time, she often has good intentions and she cares deeply about her family and friends. Seeing so many layers to her character was part of what made the show so great to begin with.
2. There were episodes that tackled real-life issues, such as racism…
Remember that shocking moment when Raven realized that she wasn’t hired for a part-time job because she’s black? Or when Eddie shared that heartbreaking childhood story about seeing his white friend’s dad pull him aside and tell him that he can’t be friends with black kids?
That episode openly discussed racism and discrimination in such a genuine and realistic way — without it feeling too intense or depressing. Rarely do we ever see such powerful episodes on the network today. And considering the state of our country right now, this topic could not be more timely.
3. … & body shaming…
One of the most powerful episodes of That’s So Raven was when she tried to model her own design to be featured in a fashion magazine. She looked fabulous just as she was, but since the agency’s director believed that all models should be thin, the magazine photoshopped a much thinner body over hers.
Being the fierce fashionista that she is, she stood up to these guys and told them that girls don’t have to be stick thin to look beautiful. To this day, we’re still impressed at how this show tackled the issue of body image head-on. It sent a powerful message that all young girls needed to hear. Since we live in a world that’s so obsessed with being skinny, it’s important to remind kids that they’re beautiful just as they are.
4. …& they deal with eating disorders, too.
In one Lizzie McGuire episode, Gordo makes a (seemingly harmless) comment about Miranda’s eating habits and says, “Wow, you sure do eat a lot.” But actually, that one statement causes her to obsess over her weight and appearance. She tries out a new “diet” where she starves herself for as long as she possibly can and the outcome is so scary that Lizzie and Gordo have to confront her.
There are tons of young girls who struggle with eating disorders and body image, and it’s especially tough when they’re in middle and high school. But a storyline like this lets them know that they’re not alone in their struggle and that they can always reach out for help.
Need proof that we don’t see this enough in more recent Disney Channel shows? Demi Lovato called out Shake It Up with Bella Thorne and Zendaya for actually making a joke about eating disorders when a model says that the girls were so cute that she could eat them up… “if [she] ate,” of course.
5. Older shows weren’t afraid to talk about the awkwardness of going through puberty.
Who can forget that iconic scene where a flustered Lizzie tells her mom “I want a bra”? It instantly gives us flashbacks of the time when we asked our moms to go shopping our first bra… And then actually went out with them to get one in the most public place.
Going through puberty is awkward enough — even more so when your parents are involved — so it was pretty refreshing to see that experience reflected on TV. These days, though, the shows are so censored that the mere idea of bra shopping would sound kind of weird and out of place.
6. They taught us that it was okay for guys and girls to be close friends (without looking for romance).
In all fairness, most BFF characters of the opposite sex have either developed feelings for their bestie or at least toyed with the idea of dating them. However, those romances were never forced and they never felt like the sole focus of the show.
If those BFFs ever became something more, it happened naturally because of their connection as friends. But otherwise, they were just best buds who always supported each other no matter what. Case in point? Look at Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable. Yes, there was romance involved at one point, but throughout most of the show they proved that it is indeed possible to have that close friendship without looking for romance.
7. & showed that people with totally opposite personalities can be the best of friends.
Duos like London and Maddie from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody reminded us that you don’t have to share the same qualities, strengths, and interests to be best friends. Sure, they often clashed (with London poking fun at Maddie’s bad fashion sense and Maddie poking fun at London’s ignorance). But at the end of the day, they always had each other’s backs. It goes to show that opposites really do attract.
8. They proved that girls don’t always need a boyfriend to feel accomplished.
Louis’ big sister was often painted as the antagonist of the show, but we loved Ren for her intelligence, ambition, and grit. Yes, she did have a major crush on Bobby and even dated him, but the fact that she was able to ditch the guy for cheating and move on with her life sent a pretty powerful message.
Ren still remained the ambitious over-achiever that we all grew to know and love. And she inspired us all to strive for more than just romance.
9. The portrayal of sibling rivalry was spot-on.
Speaking of Ren, if you were to look up the phrase “sibling rivalry” in the dictionary, you’d probably see a photo of her and Louis fighting over the remote. These two constantly pushed each others’ buttons as seen in their hilarious pranks and screaming matches. But what made them so special was that they captured what it truly feels like to be a sibling.
We have no doubt that some of today’s shows (like Liv & Maddie, for instance), have cool siblings too. But when those characters don’t have much depth or personality, it’s just not the same.
10. Important life lessons were the main focus of the episodes, rather than minor subplots in the background.
If you watch these new shows closely, you’ll notice that they all have one thing in common: a ton of emphasis is placed on mischief, adventure, and slapstick comedy. Meanwhile, the real message is either pushed to the background or only briefly mentioned towards the end.
In older shows, however, we always knew what the overarching theme was. For instance, remember the “Aptitude” episode from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody? When the twins got their results with predicted careers, it totally transformed their confidence and behavior throughout the entire episode. This actually shed light on a harsh reality: that tests of all varieties can have a huge impact on how kids see themselves, as well as how they choose to move forward with their lives.
11. There wasn’t an obsession with cell phones and social media.
Yes, we know that kids these days are uber obsessed with social media tools and text slang. But is it really necessary to reinforce the idea that technology and social media are the best forms of entertainment? Of course, we understand that they’re only trying to be cool and relate to the viewers, but really, it just comes off as over the top and, well, fake.
If you want to incorporate social media, that’s fine. But do so in a way that actually reflects how real kids use social media. Or, better yet, use it to tackle real-life issues like cyber-bullying (we’ve seen this in one episode of Austin & Ally, but we need to see more).
12. Parents were usually the boss, not the kids.
If you watch the modern-day spin-off for That’s So Raven, you’ll notice that Chelsea often lets her son, Levi, take charge. And though we love that she’s staying true to her original character, we hate that she’s also being portrayed as incompetent. It’s like we live in an age where parental control is at the bare minimum, so in a sense, kids can get away with almost anything.
This is the total opposite of what we grew up watching, and the perfect example is the sassy Suga Mama from The Proud Family. She was never afraid to put her son Oscar in his place. And it was also apparent that Penny (though she wasn’t always a goody-two-shoes) rarely ever challenged her parents or went out of her way to get into mischief. That’s because she was being raised in a family where the elders were in charge (like, isn’t this the way it should be?).
13. They weren’t loaded with sexual innuendos or inappropriate jokes.
If you’re dirty-minded or basically an expert at finding naughty meanings behind innocent exchanges, then you might argue that even the older shows had a few subtle dirty jokes that went right over our heads. We’re totally not denying that. But if you look at today’s shows, it’s like the writers aren’t even trying to be subtle with them anymore.
For instance, on Jessie, there’s an episode where Jessie asks a Luke, “Do you have an ‘on’ button?” And with a sly smirk, he responds with: “Yes… Wanna come find it?” Like, who are they really kidding here? THIS IS FOR KIDS.
14. The acting was actually way better.
Sorry, guys, but the actors and actresses from throwback shows were wayyy better than most of the stars you’ll see on the network today. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so difficult to relate to any of the characters on a personal level, it’s partly because the execution just isn’t that great (although you can only do so much with a shallow role, to begin with). To be fair, most younger kids probably can’t tell the difference between skilled actors and those who are less inexperienced but I feel like when we were younger, we could! Hilary Duff, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus… it can’t get better than that! (Sorry, Dove Cameron.)
15. They reminded us that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything (no matter how many mistakes you made).
Disney Channel has never stopped trying to communicate this message to viewers – and we applaud them for that. But it feels like they’ve been slacking on this for the sake of entertainment. A lot more attention is usually paid to things like crushes, pop culture references, and of course, social media. This makes it harder for the true message to have a lasting impact on viewers.
16. Today’s Disney Channels shows are actually prioritizing the latest trends over teaching valuable life lessons.
If you really think about it, the network has become a pro at capitalizing on the hottest trends and the latest technology to stay “hip” and “relevant,” and it’s kind of impressive. But at the same time, they’re sacrificing the very things that once made them great: complex, relatable characters, and stimulating episodes with meaningful discussions that helped kids navigate life’s everyday challenges.
On the bright side, we can always satisfy our nostalgia (and show today’s generation just what they’re missing out on) by binge-watching the old classics as many times as we want.