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Is the Entertainment of Our Childhoods Haunting Us?
Recently, many teenagers and previous watchers of the Disney Channel television show Jessie have realized that the show relies on racial and gender stereotypes for its comedy, with its depiction of a sassy Black girl, a nerdy Indian boy, and a dumb blonde girl -- all clearly problematic stereotypes that push one-dimensional ideas about those groups of people.
Jessie, however, is not the only instance of harmful stereotypes in kids shows -- many, if not most, shows we enjoyed as children, particularly Disney Channel programs, were full of harmful tropes.
One of the most prevalent tropes that Disney Channel used for laughs was the character of a nerdy, dorky, or otherwise strange boy who has unrequited romantic feelings for one of his female friends, usually exhibiting decidedly creepy behavior towards her.
Fletcher Quimby from A.N.T. Farm, a wimpy art prodigy, has a hopeless crush on his classmate, Chyna. He makes this clear throughout the series by creating numerous art pieces of her and repeatedly asking her out, despite her resistance to both.
In Good Luck Charlie, Teddy, the main protagonist, is pursued relentlessly by her brother’s friend Emmett, a glasses-wearing band geek. Despite her obvious disinterest, Emmett gives Teddy the creepily affectionate nickname “Teddy Bear” and tricks her into attending school dances with him.
Luke Ross from Jessie hits on his nanny, Jessie, who is many years older than him, throughout the show and eventually places a spy camera in her room.
These unwanted and over-the-line advances were used for comedic effect, but the implications behind them are much more sinister.
The endorsement of this pattern of behavior taught kids how to treat and talk to other people, allowing them to emulate and encourage it. Boys who saw these interactions take place likely took note that persistence was the way to proceed when one is romantically interested in a girl, and girls likely took note that this was something they had to put up with -- both false messages that encourage harmful behavior when instilled in young minds.
The female characters who were victim to unwanted male advances made their discomfort clear, and real life women and girls who are faced with the epidemic of stalking, harassment, assault, and violence towards women know that this kind of behavior is not at all harmless or funny.
However, it is portrayed as such. The male characters guilty of this behavior usually face clear obstacles: they are dorky or uncool, the girl they lust after is far out of their league, or, in Luke Ross’s case, they are several years too young.
Writers used this specifically -- the harmless, hopeless nature of these male characters -- to excuse, normalize, and make a joke out of stalking and harassment. This also encourages the idea that men should “keep trying” when they get turned down by women, which results in women having to deal with persistent advances that quickly turn into harassment and sexual violence.
There are also instances of this dynamic with the female aggressor and a male victim. However, the women in this situation were not at all portrayed as harmless. Contrasting with the pathetic-seeming persistent boy is the character of the very persistent girl, who is often athletic, strong, and violent.
Examples of this stereotype include basketball player Willow from Liv and Maddie, who is highly aggressive and has an obsessive infatuation with her friend’s brother, Joey, and sports prodigy Violet from A.N.T. Farm, who has issues controlling her anger and continuously beats up Fletcher because she has a crush on him. Jade West from Nickelodeon’s Victorious is also a high school girl with unrealistically outrageous tendencies towards violence.
These girls are portrayed as scary and crazy, and the male characters that they hurt, usually because they secretly have romantic feelings towards them, are ridiculed and seen as weak for “being beat up by a girl.”
Not only does this portray a one-dimensional side of female strength with the idea that strong or athletic girls are automatically crazy and violent, but it also excuses abusive situations and mocks men for being victims. Fletcher from A.N.T. Farm is physically bullied by Violet, but this is used as an opportunity for him to be ridiculed and portrayed as weak.
This dynamic, which is present all across many kids shows, and general popular culture, places unrealistic expectations on men and boys. It blames them for not being strong enough and further embraces conformity to a certain traditional masculine ideal, also known as “toxic masculinity.” This warped the mindsets of kids who watched. A young boy who watched someone his own age getting made fun of for crying on TV would likely avoid being emotionally vulnerable for fear of the same social ostracisation. He would likely also uphold the same expectation for "toughness" around his friends, who might also be struggling with the same messaging.
This emphasis on hyper-masculinity, which still exists in our culture despite recent progress made against it, is the reason for many issues men and boys have with their self-esteem, and can be correlated with higher male suicide rates. It is also part of the reason for the epidemic of harassment and assault towards women.
Take Fletcher Quimby, for example: he is consistently mocked by his friends and seen as weak, making him feel inadequate. He feels a need to prove himself, which manifests itself in his pursuit of Chyna, as he hopes that she will eventually relent, and that this romantic success will finally make him feel worthy. This, of course, only serves to hurt his friendship with Chyna and make her feel uncomfortable. In more extreme cases, it could lead to assault.
Although the show writers of A.N.T. Farm portrayed this cycle, their intention was not to enlighten young Disney Channel watchers by breaking down the complexities of heterosexual gender dynamics. The portrayal of Fletcher Quimby as weak, Violet as crazy, and all other characters as their respective stereotypes was meant to do one thing: entertain kids who watched.
And we were those kids. We laughed at the pitiful nerd trying desperately to talk to the girl he liked, and at the crazy girl who yelled anytime the slightest thing upset her. Perhaps not everyone watched Ant Farm or Good Luck Charlie, or even Disney Channel, but these tropes were widespread enough to influence our thinking and treatment of others.
I may call myself a feminist and call for the breaking down of gender stereotypes, but I find myself cringing every time I see my dad cry. When women around me get angry, I secretly label them as crazy, and avoid ever showing those emotions of my own to not receive that same judgement. Despite the progressive ideas I have taken on, I, like many of us, still carry the burdens of gender stereotypes ingrained in my mind.
Perhaps not all the blame lies with Disney Channel alone, but there is no doubt that the blatantly sexist tropes of childhood television shows encouraged flawed behavior and ingrained prejudicial ideas in our impressionable young minds.
The recent addition of many popular Nickelodeon shows like Victorious and iCarly to Netflix and rise of Disney’s streaming service Disney Plus have brought childhood shows back for us to rewatch, and for a new generation to watch. The stereotypes and dynamics we wish to leave behind us are not gone, from us or our televisions.
Gen Z has branded itself as being revolutionary -- a new wave of progressive warriors who can reject racist, sexist stereotypes in favor of an idealized future without any influences from a past tainted by injustice. But damaging gender tropes were ingrained in our young brains through the television we watched, and we cannot immediately shake that.
So, once we have identified what is wrong, how do we reckon with what has been instilled in us?