How Disney Got Me Through Middle School

Until seventh grade I lived in Beijing, China, where my only access to American television was “Star Plus,” an English-language channel that aired shows in syndication. I watched a lot of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, bought Kappa track pants at local Beijing markets and relied on sympathetic Stateside relatives to send me Saved By the Bell VHS tapes. So I was dumbfounded by the technicolor world of tween culture that I encountered when I moved back to the U.S. in 1998, epitomized by stores like Limited Too, where they sold inflatable couches and themed pajama sets.

I also discovered cable television, with its seemingly endless bounty of entertainment options for young, media-hungry Americans. The Disney Channel, in particular, was just starting to invest in original content and re-market itself as a go-to channel for pre-teens. Halloweentown, the story of a 13-year-old girl’s introduction to her witchy heritage, debuted in the fall of 1998 – one of three so-called Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs) that year. The following year, there were eight. In 2000, Disney premiered one per month.

I’ve been way too invested in television for as long as I can remember. But between 11 and 13 years old, when I was still straddling the border between two cultures and two age groups, it’s the DCOMs that left an indelible impression on my tweenage mind.

My obsession really got started with 1999’s Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, a sci-fi film set in 2049 with a trouble-making teenage protagonist and a remarkably sophisticated dedication to world-building. Future soap star Kirsten Storms played an adventurous 13-year-old (they’re always 13) who’s “grounded” to Earth after spending her entire life on a space station. It’s on what’s supposed to be her “home” planet that she encounters other kids baffled by her quirky space lingo (“One sin minor and my life is a living black hole!), outlandish fashion sense, and intergalactic music taste. As someone who had to have ‘NSync explained to me when I first moved back to the U.S., I related to Zenon’s difficulty adjusting and her penchant for synthetic, brightly colored clothing. To my new friends, China might as well have been the space station.

A lot of my favorite DCOMs followed similar themes – teenagers forced to reconcile their old world with the new one. Johnny Tsunami, for example, followed a teenage surfer from Hawaii to Vermont, while Color of Friendship explored the racial and cultural dynamics between a white South African exchange student and the black American teenager she visits. In The Thirteenth Year, an adopted 13-year-old boy finds out his biological mother is a mermaid. Disney obviously dabbled in a range of genres, but they all asked one question: Where do I belong?

In 2000’s Rip Girls, an unrecognizably immature Camilla Belle plays Sydney, a shy, timid 13-year-old Midwesterner. She falls in love with her late mother’s island heritage on a visit to Hawaii, after meeting a ragtag group of teen surfers and discovers her innate board-riding skills – despite her father’s disapproval. I’ve yet to hop on a surfboard, but I still yearn for an ocean and a skateboarding, gap-toothed Hawaiian love interest to tame.

I was so inspired by Rip Girls, in fact, that I bought a series of surf-themed t-shirts from American Eagle’s preposterous line of “vintage” attire. I wore puka-shell necklaces and actually declared to my classmates, the sons and daughters of government employees, that I aspired to be a professional surfer. There were no waves near my home in suburban D.C., so I forced my friends to recreate the scene where three surfer girls chant to the “mistress of the ocean” in the driveway of my parent’s house. We sat with our legs crossed on the rough asphalt, placed the backs of our hands yoga-style on our knees and prayed for big swells.

Motocrossed came out in the early part of 2001, when I was 13 years old and well into my freshman year of high school – old enough to be embarrassed about watching Disney Channel movies. But Motocrossed, a gender-bending situational comedy set against the backdrop of extreme sports, was the perfect tale to send me into full-fledged teenagerdom. Based on Twelfth Night, Motocrossed was the feminist Disney Channel film I’d been waiting for – the story of Andrea Carson, young motocross racer who’s told by her own father that she can’t ride because she’s a girl. Andrea cuts her hair, slaps on a backwards cap and starts pretending to be a boy. Female motocross groupies fall in love with “Andy,” while Andrea pines after a fellow racer.

I was only a month or two ahead of my first, short-lived high school relationship when the film debuted, and I remember thinking that Andrea’s love interest had carefully gelled stick-hair just like my blue-eyed crush from the back of the bus. I wondered if he’d still like me with all my hair cut off. By ninth grade, I had developed a kind of youthful pseudo-feminism, in which I made a big to-do out of my aversion to make up, marriage, children and other “girly” pursuits. Motocross, and films like 10 Things I Hate About You, made it okay to think differently about being a girl.

Unlike 10 Things, however, where Kat Stratford had lost her virginity and school bullies drew penises on people’s faces, Disney Channel heroes and heroines were a little closer to my age and inexperience. Sex was off the table, but the big wide world wasn’t.

Kate Stanton is an American writer and editor living in Melbourne, Australia. She longs feverishly for her homeland cuisine — mostly crispy bacon and goldfish crackers. She sometimes Google Image searches mozzarella cheese sticks. You can find her on Twitter @katestan.

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