By Eliana Buenrostro
I spend a lot of time watching television and a lot of that time is spent indulging in children’s television. These days I rarely see something that is a positive influence on girls or boys. The emphasis in a lot of the shows is appearance, with very little diversity in the types of characters being portrayed.
When the Disney Channel was pressed about whether they would address gay relationships on their shows, Gary Marsh, the president of Disney Channel worldwide said, “We don’t deal with sexuality on the Disney Channel in general. That’s just sort of not where our audience’s head’s at. They’re really a pre-sexual audience, for the most part, and so sexuality is not how we look to tell any kind of stories.”
What Disney Channel doesn’t realize is that by taking no stance on what they consider sexuality, they are in fact taking a stance. Disney is largely heteronormative in its portrayal of relationships, with many shows centering on them. While relationships between boys and girls become increasingly sexualized, (without the actual sex) couples of the same sex are not afforded the same treatment.
Television often promotes certain standards of sexuality and on these kid’s shows it is not acceptable to have feelings for someone of the same sex. If there are possible gay characters, there is a denial that the relationships these characters undergo or experience are sexual in any way.
Girls and boys frequently pursue each other on these shows and often form romantic relationships. Back when Hannah Montana was on the air the show tracked the title character’s relationship with a long term boyfriend. The idea of two people being “meant to be together” was a heavy focus of the continuing arc with her beau. The problem with this is that girls are increasingly expected to have or pursue sexual relationships at a young age instead of just being kids and having fun.
There are many girls who will spend a lot of time thinking about boys. I was one of them, often because that’s what the media urged us to do. Moving the programming to focus on more mature lifestyles hurts little girls in the long run because it teaches them that in order to be normal growing up they must go through all the basic dating milestones by the time they begin high school — and therefore taking away the emphasis on having healthy relationships with our parents and peers. Not to mention, that instead Disney Channel values usurping any form of adult authority on the show.
There is less emphasis on enjoying childhood and more on growing up too quickly. In these shows, 13-year-olds party, wear makeup, and chase boys. With shows like Shake it Up and Hannah Montana, the emphasis of children’s programming is not longer about normalcy of being a kid, it is about the glamour of fame and the limelight.
Meanwhile on Wizards of Waverly Place, the greatest accidental progressive character emerged. What appears to be an accidental transgendered character came to take a large role in the story of this fictional family. Disney Channel introduced the character of “Maxine” who for a long part of the fourth season would take the place of the series regular, Max. The story as it was introduced was that the male character Max Russo was turned into girl by a spell. The spell could not be reversed and he was forced to remain in a female body. The parallel to the real struggles of transgendered children can be easily seen, but did it have to be a spell that caused it? Why not instead of having an actual transgendered youth be portrayed?
Children who watch these TV shows and learn that in order to be accepted they must be interested in the opposite sex and do so with a great passion. It continues to enforce stereotypes about what it means to be feminine. It also hurts young boys by convincing them what “normal” girl behavior is.
A widely known channel like Disney Channel has a widespread influence in pop culture. The limited portrayal of sexuality excludes people from diverse backgrounds and various sexual orientations. Disney isn’t simply refusing to make a statement on sexuality; they are ignoring it and continuing to hurt children with heteronormative messages. There is a severe lack of strong female role models in the media and these kind of TV shows only hinder the great things girls are and can become by limiting their options while they are still young.