Here I am at 22, messy bun half intact, staring at a screen that’s asking me if I’m still watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. It’s addictive. Of course I press yes. Here I am in your life, here you are in mine! Nostalgic bliss.
When Disney+ launched in 2020, I knew I’d be binging shows from my childhood for weeks straight. What I didn’t expect was how progressive they were compared to current Disney Channel sitcoms. Disney, to me, had always boasted prelapsarian charm. Their sitcoms were family-friendly and apolitical, excuse a few racist accents. In fact, Disney’s first tentative exploration of a gay couple wasn’t until late 2019 with HSM: The Series. This was such a controversial pairing that the show aired only on Disney+, never making it to Disney Channel. Despite first airing in 2005, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody puts the censored Disney Channel sitcoms of today to shame.
Unlike Good Luck Charlie or Liv and Maddie, the lack of a nuclear family couldn’t be more obvious. There’s no cushy house with a white picket fence in The Suite Life. Only Maddie’s parents are still married, yet they bicker constantly and live in a cramped apartment. Carey, a single mother, provides a stable upbringing for the twins with ease. Just three episodes involve Carey dating, though she turns her dates down, proving the lack of importance and need for a husband.
The Suite Life was no stranger to direct social commentary. Initially, Ashley Tisdale was cast as the ditsy heiress London, and Brenda Song the poor Maddie, but creators Danny Kallis and Jim Geoghan disliked the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype of the early 2000s. Carey frequently reminds the twins to treat women with respect, e.g. ‘you can’t dibs a human being, especially a woman, who is your equal in every way’ (French 101). Though London’s ignorance of her privilege is a comedic gag, Maddie frequently reminds London of the realities of low wages and their socioeconomic differences. Daryl Mitchell, a disabled actor, features in an episode criticising ableism.
Reruns of The Suite Life ceased in 2017, alongside Wizards of Waverly Place. However, Wizards was brought back by popular demand in 2020, although fans noticed an odd censorship. Theresa Russo’s cleavage had been blurred (and still is) in Baby Cupid, prompting criticism of the regressive anti-feminist politics at play. Once again, Disney Channel came under fire for gratuitous censorship in 2020 with the series Love, Victor, which centres around a gay, mix raced high schooler. The show was originally produced for Disney, but never aired. Instead, Disney passed the series to Hulu, due to its ‘adult themes’.
Current Disney Channel shows such as Austin and Ally and Bizaardvark follow famous teenagers, with no social commentary. Though Hannah Montana was a starlet, her double life allowed an exploration of her single father. The focus in newer shows lies solely with the famous teens; their families are given little attention. Rather than utilising Disney+ as the network for shows that don’t fit Disney Channel’s ‘perfect’ ideals, littered with teens who have it all, Disney ought to hark back to the shows that were a mirror to a diversity of everyday life.
Categories: Film & TV