Disney Channel Movies and How I learned Not to Sell Out
Edit: Apparently, a paragraph was eaten in the posting process. Quick summary: Disney Channel’s early history is under investigated.
It’s important to note that Disney’s influence has skyrocketed in the last decade. After its glory days from the 1930s to the 1960s, Disney entered a state of malaise. Walt’s death deeply wounded the company and it seemed to be bouncing from project to project, increasingly looking rather irrelevant. It would be in the early 1990s that it would begin to climb out of the whole. The “Disney Renaissance” marked Disney’s re-emergence as a cultural force, largely through a series of very successful animated films, perhaps most dramatically illustrated by Beauty and the Beast, a Best Picture nominee in 1991.
Its most powerful current tool, the Disney Channel, was still a fledgling network at the time. Better known as a launching pad for careers outside the Disney Channel (the Mickey Mouse Club famously had Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears on as members), the channel was a premium-channel that was available in about 15 million homes by 1997. I remember being angry at my parents for not getting me the channel in 1995 and having to only get small weekend previews once or twice a year.
However, 1997 would be a big year for the channel. Under new leadership, the channel made an aggressive two-part move. First, it created a brand for its original movies, DCOM, and aggressively began to market and created them. Secondly, it made its move to basic cable. By 2002, the channel was available in 80 million homes in the United States, an over 500% increase in availability and cultural reach.
We’ll be coming back to the Disney Channel in many other posts, mostly because the cultural influence of its DCOMs beginning in 1997 is understated. After 2006, the channel began to use DCOMs as a cross-promotional tool for its biggest stars. In the time period between 1997 and 2005, however, Disney was producing anywhere between 6-12 movies per year, with very clear themes in many of them. The movies largely focused on teaching several types of cultural lessons: being true to one’s self, working hard, teamwork and fighting against discrimination. As a tween and teenager, I would anxiously await new Disney Channel movies. I remember a particularly funny moment in 2002, watching the premier of “Gotta Kick it Up!”, a movie about a low-income, Mexican-American dancing team, which devolved into me and my close friend trying to do some of the dance moves.
All of this prologue is to make a broader point: these movies had the power to define norms and made those arguments explicitly, particularly through the commercial segments, where they would heavily cross-promote a movie’s actors making cultural and normative statements. One particular movie + lesson combination still resonates today: Brink! and not selling out.
Brink! and the Dangers of Selling Your Soul
Brink! begins by introducing us to Andy and his teenage friends. They are ‘Soul Skaters’, a group of friends that love to skate for skating’s sake. They are juxtaposed by Team X-Bladz, a group of sponsored skaters. Like all great plot devices, both teams go to the same high school. Ten minutes into the movie, it’s clear what the dichotomy is: if you are a good person who helps others, you are a Soul Skater. If you like being selfish, fame and try to hurt others, you seriously belong to team X-Bladz.
This dichotomy gets a bit complicated when Andy, our intrepid hero, realizes that there are serious financial problems going on at his house. His dad, a construction worker that was injured, is unsure if he will be getting his job back. Real estate agent mom is not having the best time at work. Andy overhears this and starts to worry. Val, our evil villain from Team X-Bladz, taunts the good guys by mentioning there is an open spot on the team, knowing that in particular, Andy is liable to join, simply to help out the family. His line works and before you know it, Team X-Bladz has a new member: our hero, Andy.
Andy has to hide his defection from his former teammates and from his father, who forbid him from joining the sponsored skating team after an incident at school. He has a second job at a dog grooming shop, courtesy of his dad, as a way to get him some pocket cash without resorting to skating, which creates further problems for Andy. The hero starts having to lie and weasel himself out of situations. Our happy, principled hero has been reduced from his perched, hurting those around him.
The situation comes to a head when Andy’s friends discover him at the seasonal invitational meet, competing with Team X-Bladz, after he had feigned sickness so that the “Soul Skaters” wouldn’t go compete. . An injury to Gaby, a female member of the Soul Skaters (caused by Val), causes some soul searching from Andy and advice comes from two corners. These serve as the cornerstones of the broader lesson being taught:
Gaby: We all need the money, Brink, what does that have to do with it? That’s how it starts, you know. First, you do something that you really love. Then you start doing it for the money. Before you know it, you’re just another sell-out.
Andy then tells his father that he joined the sponsored team and a conversation ensues between the two:
Andy: I tried out for the sponsored team.
Dad: When I told you no.
Andy: We needed the money.
Dad: Not so bad buddy that we needed you to disobey us.
Andy: I guess it wasn’t just for the money, either. I wanted to be a part of Team X.Bladz. I wanted to have my picture in every magazine, I wanted to be someone.
Dad: You know, you and me, are a lot alike. I used to love being construction foremen. I’m Ralph Brinker, I’m a construction foremen. People looked up to me. Suddenly, no more construction foremen. What to know the worst part about being disability? I didn’t know who I was anymore. I used to define myself by my job title. You want to know something? After being laid off for six months, I finally figured out that construction foremen is what I do, not who I am. Andy, you are defined by the company you keep and by how well you keep it. You are Andy Brinker. You are a good son and you are good friend, who just happens to skate.
Both interactions point to the heart of the movie: success is being true to one’s self, being a dependable human being and being kind to everyone. The concept of selling out is judged harshly, which is imbued with the idea of giving up all that is good for the opportunity to engage in selfish desires. As a kid, I remember this lesson being rather important to me. There were many moments in my life where this movie has been in the back of my head as I’m about to make a decision. The movie contains no moral ambiguity: there is a strict dichotomy between good and evil and falling upon the evil side is a choice that quickly leads to moral depravity and the inability to show kindness to any human being.
The way in which money is treated is a bit more nuanced. Andy takes out a loan from work to pay for new skates and gear for his team before the championship. Andy’s dad gets his job back which will allow the family to comfortably make their payments. It’s only when Andy combines his need for money with his dream of being a public star that the money, which would help his family, become corrupted. Though it’s unclear if simply wanting the money would remove the taint of association. The movie presents us a world in which engaging in a task that you love and monetizing it simply corrupts it and would be ill-advised. The moral lessons get complicated, but this concept of selling-out seems to be at the core of our ability to dichotomize the moral agents in the movie. Oddly, it never seemed to be well-defined, left to the viewer as another application of the famous doctrine, “you know when you see it.” If anything, it seems to be connected to purity of heart. At the end of the movie, the ESPN announcer explains during the final stretch of the downhill race that it all comes down to heart. Andy wins and Val is ostracized when he is discovered to have tried to hurt Andy.Yet, this doesn’t remove our confusion: did Val sell out because he is evil or was he corrupted when he sold out? It’s unclear.
I’d like to go in more detail about this another time, but I think this is the sort of example of what I mean by social production. Simply due to the mass availability to the productions of the Disney Channel, certain kinds of behavior were normalized in the public sphere. I’m not sure how one could test this effect – clearly, there are thousands of cultural influences and it would be hard to isolate for individual influence. However, it is consequential that Disney’s rise also corresponded to its most moralistic phase in its DCOMs.
As an undergraduate, I was always rather disdainful of people who were going to do something they were sure wasn’t going to be that much fun for large sums of money. As much as I intellectually argue it, at some level, I have to admit it is an aesthetic choice largely defined by my cultural context. Movies like Brink! were a part of that.