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The Disney Channel Original Movies that made us realize we were queer

A.V. Club staffers tackle big questions like, "Which formative teen flick is more queer-coded: The Thirteenth Year or Cadet Kelly?"
Clockwise from top left: Cadet Kelly, The Thirteenth Year, Motocrossed, and The Cheetah Girls (Screenshots: Disney+) 
Clockwise from top left: Cadet KellyThe Thirteenth YearMotocrossed, and The Cheetah Girls (Screenshots: Disney+) 
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola
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If you grew up with access to a television in the 1990s and 2000s, you probably ran across a Disney Channel Original Movie. And if you’re queer, as reminiscing members of The A.V. Club recently discovered, chances are even better that those family friendly flicks meant a hell of a lot—and maybe even made you gay.

Well, they didn’t make you gay, of course. That’s … insane. But you know what we mean: The Disney Channel’s impact on a generation of young couch potatoes is a fascinating legacy to consider, especially for those sorting out their queer identities then and now. In a roundtable conversation, The A.V. Club staffers who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community recalled their fondest memories watching DCOMs. Were they formative in forging a queer identity, whether or not we knew it at the time? Which wholesome teenage stars caused—gasp!—sexual awakenings that reverberate to this day? And are we, in fact, reading way too much into all this? It’s Pride Month, baby, so read on to find out.

Which Disney Channel Original Movies, consciously or unconsciously, “made you” queer? 

Jack Smart: My gut reaction to this cheekiest of prompts is simple: The Thirteenth Year made me gay. As an impressionable pre-teen, the story of a middle schooler discovering he’s a merman resonated. See, I too was on the swim team and loved the ocean, so who’s to say I wasn’t also about to hit puberty and grow a fin? But now, as a grizzled cynic of a homosexual, my fascination with that Disney Channel Original Movie is clearer in retrospect. Leading man Chez Starbuck was a total cutie in a classically wholesome, Disney-specific way. And, well, he was wearing Speedos. He and his fellow swim team buddies were shinier, more telegenic versions of the boys I didn’t want to admit I was ogling on the pool decks of my childhood. (Side note: A body changing to reflect a true inner self? A trans-coded allegory if I ever heard one.) Honorable mention should also go to Johnny Tsunami starring the adorable Brandon Baker, another example of a pre-teen boy I was both identifying with (as a kid growing up surfing in Hawaiʻi) and, much more subconsciously, lusting after. Is there anything more queer?

DCOMs are one of those pop culture ephemera that you don’t think much of. But once you enter that mental rabbithole, you discover that your knowledge borders on encyclopedic. A note about the specific generation of titles I consider formative, about which I’m curious to hear from my beloved co-workers: I was born in 1989, so in terms of the canon’s chronology, I was approaching middle school in the Jett Jackson: The Movie to Cadet Kelly range. By the time High School Musical was kicking off a buzzier, starrier DCOM chapter, it was no longer cool for me to claim affinity for a TV channel made for kids. Having said that, my gay ass ate up every minute of The Cheetah Girls, and in particular the diva-licious “Strut” number from The Cheetah Girls 2 that I watched on repeat in high school with equal parts guilt and pleasure. (How Raven-Symoné doesn’t have yet an EGOT, Pulitzer, and Kennedy Center Honors is beyond me.)

The Cheetah Girls 2 - Strut (Music Video)

Shanicka Anderson: So, I don’t think there’s one single DCOM I can point at and say, “This one. It was this one.” However, like Jack, in hindsight I can absolutely look back at all of the movies I was most drawn to as a baby queer and recognize, “Ohh, so that was the reason for my obsession.” And so there are the big three: Double Teamed, Motocrossed, and Wish Upon A Star.

The first two feel pretty obvious, with sporty girls who are pretty damn queer-coded. The last film is a little less evident, but the leather dominatrix outfit Danielle Harris’ character Hayley wears is still seared into my brain!

Alison Foreman: Though queerness is not canon for any of the characters in these films (at least as I can recall), some blend of The Cheetah Girls, Cadet Kelly, and Halloweentown made me into the spooky bisexual typing to you today. As a cis woman, my exploration of sexuality has been shaped—and unfortunately, sometimes stymied—by the patriarchy [shakes fist at sky]. In my experience, women and girls are too often told, directly or indirectly, that they take up spaces not intended for them. Cheetah Girls, the bold and beautiful three-film musical series that plagued living rooms for nearly the entirety of the aughts, delivered a friendship fantasy that not only permitted but praised a group of young girls for being too loud, too excited, and frankly too much. The Cheetah Girls were entirely themselves and got rewarded for it.

Cadet Kelly hit those same beats with star Hilary Duff, who introduced a kind of Limited Too lesbian chic to a military school entirely disinterested in her artsy, identity-affirming bullshit. Of course, Kelly comes out on top anyway—teaching her squad captain-turned-friend Jennifer (Christy Carlson Romano) the many benefits of flag dancing (or something) before learning her own lessons about responsibility. But the main focus is once again on a girl who, by the standards I grew up with, was in some way not being a girl in the appropriate, demure, rule-following, “right” way.

Finally, Halloweentown had Debbie Reynolds and witches—and very few things say “I am a bisexual girl” like an early age obsession with Debbie Reynolds and witches. Seriously, while y’all were waiting on your Hogwarts letters, you could catch me at the bus stop waiting on Grandma Aggie or Benny the cab driver.

Gabrielle Sanchez: Standouts for me from that earlier era include Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century and Pixel Perfect. Being a young bisexual girl meant having a crush on … all the leads … in Pixel Perfect. 

As a person (a little) younger than my fellow cohorts, my relationship with DCOMs lasted until the mid to late 2010s, where I was connected with films such as Twitches and Wizards Of Waverly Place: The Movie. Though I was a little too young for Halloweentown, I agree with Ali that queerness is often found not too far away from an affinity for witches and magic. Bisexual women’s interest in the mystic has endured for centuries. Plus, Tia and Tamara Mowry’s characters in Twitches were named Artemis and Apolla, and nothing screams “young gay” more than a deep interest in Greek mythology.

JS: Oh my gay gods, Gabrielle, that’s right. I’m rewatching Twitches immediately.

What exactly makes a DCOM? And what, if anything, is its legacy and cultural impact?

JS: To take a step back and give some context here: Disney’s premier basic cable channel has been producing original films for TV since the 1980s, but from 1997 onward, it began branding them Disney Channel Original Movies. Their growing success led to an almost monthly cadence; I remember as a pre-teen tuning into each heavily advertised film of the month. We should also note that Disney’s ability to turn kid actors into kid stars lent itself perfectly to these originals. Without DCOMs, Hilary Duff, Raven-Symoné, Frankie Muniz, Demi Lovato, Zac Efron, and Vanessa Hudgens wouldn’t be the gay icons—sorry, I mean household names—they are today. (Did you know Kaley Cuoco is in the seminal bowling classic Alley Cats Strike?)

GS: Thinking about it now, I appreciate how many girl-focused stories I was given as a child, with mighty, young girls at the center of magical adventures. While they weren’t explicitly queer, they were empowered young girls who often found themselves on the fringes of popularity and what’s considered “normal.” They often stood up for themselves, and felt affirmed in who they were, which I think is vital for any young girl to see.

SA: For older millennials, I honestly think these films were extremely impactful. I know most people my age could easily list all the DCOMs they remember watching and loving as a pre-teen. I think the DCOMs from the ’90s achieved something so campy and kind of cringe that they circled right back around to being good.

But, I’d also say that there was a clear shift around 2006 when High School Musical and Cheetah Girls 2 premiered, and then Camp Rock was released two years later. Those movies were definitely still campy and cheesy, but they also went mainstream in a way that old DCOMs didn’t. There was tons of merch, magazine covers, concert tours—the last High School Musical film even made it to theaters. And, as Jack mentions, many of those actors are still famous and working in high-profile projects today, something we can’t really say about the actors that starred in those earlier films.

Troy - Bet On It (From “High School Musical 2")

AF: Realistically, any given viewer’s relationship to nostalgia content like this is more personal than we can practically analyze. Age factors into it: Did you come aboard the monthly DCOM ship before, during, or after the mainstream musical renaissance Shanicka mentioned? Taste factors into it: Did you avoid movies you perceived as being too masculine or feminine when you were a child? Exposure factors into it: Did you accept that Mom’s Got A Date With A Vampire is one of the greatest movies in cinematic history—or was your childhood just, like, bad?

To paraphrase a reality TV icon: We, as gay people, get to choose our family DCOMs. I think these TV movies’ cultural legacy is that they’ve become something of a Rorschach test, a shared touchstone exciting enough for us to compare notes on even decades later. That’s an especially fun thing for us queer folks, since revisiting media so often means something extra special to us.

What is your relationship with these movies now?

SA: I honestly don’t know if I have much of a relationship with these movies at all now. I’m a bit of a nostalgia monster so I will always be fond of them and feel comforted by the idea of them or just reminiscing about them. But I don’t think they have made a lasting impression on me or my relationship to my own queerness.

AF: Listen, as an unabashed nightmare, I can tell you I have watched both The Even Stevens Movie and Zenon Girl Of The 21st Century within the last week. That fact is definitely not popping up on my Hinge profile anytime soon, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say any DCOM actually did that much to shape my sexuality. (Your girl was on her way, no matter what!) But I really do appreciate them as a continued source of comfort content.

Supernova Girl | Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century | DCOM and Dessert | Disney Channel

Revisiting pop culture you loved as a child with the benefit of hindsight and maturity is incredibly rewarding, not only because it shows you how much the world has changed, but because it shows you how much you have changed. I’m a very different person than I was when I saw these originally, dirty feet kicked up on my mom’s clean couch and her loving frustration not far off. It’s fun to recall what silly things I thought then and appreciate the ways I’ve grown into a strong and confident queer adult.

GS: I look back very fondly on these films. However, like the young stars who appeared in DCOMs, we’ve all moved on from this time in our lives. And rightly so. However, this roundtable may spur me to go back and watch a few of the classics.

JS: One of my most firmly held beliefs is that art made for children deserves more respect than it tends to get. Adults will roll their eyes at the idea of taking kids’ movies or YA fiction seriously, but ask them for their most formative piece of art and it’s invariably one from childhood. Disney Channel’s original flicks featuring tweens and catered toward tweens are a case in point. Yes, the channel churned them out at a rate that may suggest quantity over quality, but since when did storytelling have to be impeccable and impressive to be considered important? Lowbrow culture informs and inspires us just as much, if not more, than the serious stuff.

All of which is to say, am I eager to now revisit Johnny Tsunami in all its probably-not-politically-correct glory? Alas, no. But it’s exactly the kind of childhood art that planted seeds sprouting into my adulthood in ways both conscious and deeply subconscious. Perhaps Hawaiʻi-born Johnny’s struggles to fit in on the Vermont ski slopes resonated with the ways I sometimes struggled to fit in with hetero-normies. His tale of transmuting his surfing skills onto snowboarding and besting those evil teenaged skiers could be interpreted as one of a queer identity triumphing over adversity. But maybe I’m reading too much into such stories. Which brings us to…

Do we think queerness in DCOMs was ever intentional, or are we just reading into it? Is queerness in the eye of the beholder?

SA: I don’t think it was intentional. However, I do think it’s funny (okay, maybe “funny” isn’t quite the word. Bleak? Frustrating? Infuriating?) that Disney is constantly trying to scrub and sanitize its content when, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a pop-culture obsessed baby queer and as a pop-culture obsessed adult queer who has been in fandom circles literally my entire life, queer and questioning teens and pre-teens will “find” themselves in characters and latch onto them no matter what. It’s an act of comfort just as much as it is an act of survival.

AF: Shanicka hit it straight (hehe) on. With no overly LGBTQ+-friendly Disney Channel programming in sight growing up, DCOMs offered me an opportunity to queer-read with reckless abandoned. Sure, I was probably doing that with everything else I was watching (SpongeBob and Patrick are queer marriage endgame, in this essay I will…). But DCOMs do stick out as having been an especially important space in which I found myself.

GS: I think, especially as we analyze Disney’s culture toward queer storylines even today, none of it was ever intentional. I think we (queer folk) worked with what we were given, and tried to see ourselves mirrored in the films and television shows we were consuming. It’s been the case across art forms throughout time. And I am happy for the kids now who have more opportunities to see themselves represented in media.