The false dichotomy of Disney’s female characters
By Simi Best
The first time we see High School Musical’s Sharpay Evans, she’s dressed head to toe in pink, strutting through the halls of East High, texting on her pink flip phone as the crowd parts around her. Even before Zeke calls her the “ice princess” and proceeds to high five his laughing bros, we already know all we need to about Sharpay: she’s The Bitch. Aspiring star Sharpay loves shopping with Daddy’s credit card, wearing short skirts, cozying up to Troy Bolton, and trying to manipulate anyone and everyone who might stand in her way—like, for instance, Gabriella. Gabriella is different. She has brown hair and she reads books…for fun.
And so we have our opposites. In what is familiar territory for the Disney Channel, we’re tipped off to the fact that we’re supposed to identify with Gabriella not just because she’s the sympathetic antithesis to Sharpay’s “ice princess,” but also because she’s modest and quietly intellectual. We’re conditioned to hate one and identify with another very specific type of girl, and by creating this opposition Disney pits us against girls with certain characteristics and encourages the same bias we see on TV in our own lives.
Character pairs are all over Disney Channel. Camp Rock’s Tess Tyler (resident Camp Bitch) bears a striking resemblance to Sharpay—blonde, rich, fashion-obsessed, boy-obsessed, and in possession of a temper and a drive to make it to the top. But Mitchie is different. She comes from a modest family: her dad owns a hardware store and her mom is a cook. She’s got brown hair to match the earth tones of her casual outfits and a shy, unpretentious personality despite her beautiful voice. Of course, Tess is the sequined villainess pitted against our down-to-earth heroine. Take, too, Lizzie McGuire’s ex-best friend and later enemy, cheerleading captain and evil queen bee Kate Sanders—Kate came back from summer camp one year with a bra and consequently, a new attitude. In addition to displaying her unfortunate personality, our antagonist tends to check her hair in the mirror and refuses to eat carbs. And of course, it follows that we hate her.
According to Disney Channel, cool girls are allowed to be beautiful, smart, and talented, but they can’t be boy-crazy, wear pink, shop at the mall, care about dieting, or, apparently, require a bra. Why does Disney Channel consistently use stereotypes of popular-girl femininity as shorthand for “bad”? This isn’t just lazy TV and film writing—it is part of impressionable childhoods. Content like this makes kids think that “girly” interests are an invitation for mockery. We grow up knowing that we’re meant to identify with modest, casual Gabriella and not sparkly, over-the-top Sharpay, because Gabriella is good and Sharpay is evil. To anyone watching those characters, girly is equated with mean.
“It feels good to feel superior to the cool girl, and Disney feeds that. No one identifies with the villain…”
The concept of “girly” as shorthand for “mean” is more lazy than vindictive. Maybe the intent is to give credit to the girls who don’t fit the stereotypical teenage popularity norm, so that while caring about appearances is equated with vanity, girls who don’t feel like they fit the beautiful, popular girl image (read: pretty much all girls) can feel proud of their own diffidence. Instead of encouraging self-esteem, all Disney Channel does with these stock characters is reinforce the notion that we should be proud of our assumed superiority over Sharpay’s vilified characteristics. It feels good to feel superior to the cool girl, and Disney feeds that. No one identifies with the villain—we’re all underdogs in real life, we all want to identify with the protagonist, and therefore, that protagonist can’t be the untouchable cool girl.
It’s true that, of the two, Gabriella is the High School Musical character to which we should aspire. She’s genuinely presented as a generally cool gal, while Sharpay is still a probable sociopath. Even if Disney Channel isn’t aiming to blame Sharpay’s horrible personality on her pink feather boas, it’s still enforcing that pink boa as a symbol, implying that because she’s attractive, rich, and well dressed, she’s probably also vapid, narcissistic, and cruel. If all of our role models look and act like Gabriella, that’s not great encouragement from Disney Channel to tell girls that you can look and act as “girly” as Sharpay but still be, you know, not sociopaths.
What’s even more troubling is that not just the audience is meant to swoon over the nerdy girl and reject the prom queen; because the nerdy girl is so different, she’s always the one to get The Boy. Sometimes the nerdy-but-secretly-cool girl is the protagonist, but other times she and her evil foil character exist only to teach The Boy a lesson about nice girls—the lesson being, according to Disney Channel, that they can be found hiding behind brown hair and glasses but never in the body of a cheerleader, prom queen, or aspiring celebrity. Gwen, the most popular and beautiful girl at Sky High, literally turns out to be a supervillain, the reveal of which finally pushes Will to realize that he should maybe just be into girl-next-door Layla instead. Even Max Keeble learns that pretty, blonde Jenna isn’t worth his time, seeing as he’s got girl-next-door Megan to keep him occupied.
Disney Channel is telling girls that this is what you should want to be. This is how boys want you to be. You should be secretly, modestly gorgeous and cool, but super casual and uninterested in anything stereotypically feminine. Basically, be one of the boys, but hotter. It’s yet another botched attempt at a positive message—Disney wants to tell its viewers to go for substance over surface, but of course it’s a lot simpler to tell that story if the gap between those two qualities stays wide open and the character remains concerned with only one or the other.
Telling us over and over again that we shouldn’t want to look like the hot, popular cheerleader is fundamentally about attacking and tearing down other girls. Disney Channel makes it seem like for every Gabriella in the world, there’s a Sharpay waiting to attack. This sad dichotomy grooms young viewers to scoff at pink boas, cheerleading uniforms, lipstick, and anything else “feminine,” and aspire to be more like reserved, low-key Disney Channel heroines. There’s nothing wrong with either type of girl—but the two shouldn’t be pitted against each other, or even portrayed as opposites. Sharpay, Kate, Tess, and all the other blonde Disney antagonists based on a ridiculous stereotype are part of a lazy generalization, teaching us intentionally or not that judging people by their appearances equates to judging them by their actions. If in the Disney universe the girl in the pink dress is always the villain, what does that say about spotting villains in real life? Sooner or later Disney Channel is going to have to face the fact that finding the source of all evil is not as easy as locating the head cheerleader.