Cheetah Girls, Cheetah Sisters: How Disney Channel Set the Precedent for Strong Women Protagonists

Nick Gambini | Guest Writer

Over the past 60 years, there has been a rise in the representation of gender, racial, and class minorities on television. Individuals belonging to these groups have slowly gained a voice within the American entertainment industry, and children’s media is no exception to this progression, thanks, in part, to Disney Channel.

During the 1990s, Disney Channel began production of series such as The Famous Jett Jackson, Lizzie McGuire, and Even Stevens. Two of these series put female protagonists front and center and the other cast a black actor in its lead role. The same trends bled into the channel’s Original Movie line up. While I hesitate to applaud Disney for simply doing what should’ve been done from the beginning, it’s important to consider the very high hurdle the company is forced to jump every time it creates a more feminist-oriented, racially diverse product.

The trickiest part about writing for a youthful audience is reaching that demographic — specifically one as developmentally broad as ages six to 14. Beyond that, it’s assumed by some that driving home a lot of feminist ideals can be difficult without involving some degree of mature material. Feminism often deals so heavily with subject matter beyond the mental reach of Disney’s intended audience — how is a six-year-old expected to internalize race relations or microaggressions as seen on their favorite TV show?

It wasn’t until 2003 that Disney Channel nailed down a way in which it could properly present a feminist point of view that remained both accessible and entertaining for a younger audience. What set Disney apart in 2003 was the late summer broadcast of The Cheetah Girls. As a book-to-film adaptation featuring three leading actors of color reaching for their musical dreams, The Cheetah Girls gave its audience a narrative that boldly stated the idea that no matter who you are, you deserve a chance — and that is incredibly noteworthy. Screenwriter Alison Taylor ultimately crafted a complex narrative while remaining accessible and entertaining to both a six-year-old and a 14-year-old through the film’s catchy music and dialogue.

The film centers on a quartet that is racially deconstructed by high school drama teacher, Drinka Champagne, at the start of the film. Drinka beholds the Cheetah Girls, and acting as audience-surrogate she says, “When I see you girls, I see myself.” She continues: “Galleria, when I see you, I see a bi-racial, hip-hoppin’ version of me.” Moving on to Chanel: “A hot, Latin, spicy version of me.” For Aqua: “As if I was from the Sassy South.” Here, the film’s diversity is reaffirmed. Children were not just seeing this diversity on-screen — they were hearing it directly addressed through dialogue that not only avoids criticism entirely, but goes on to unashamedly praise each woman’s individuality. At a talent show audition, the girls perform Cinderella, an industrially-meta commentary on the problematic nature of the 1950s film adaptation of Cinderella. The song critiques the Cinderella trope and reaffirms its characters’ individuality and strength — without men to save them. Later on, however, the industry becomes a roadblock when the marketing department at Deck Dock Records explains that they would like to “create whole new identities,” for the girls. “So you guys want us to be, like, something other than the Cheetah Girls?” Chanel asks. Here, the film’s commentary on society’s view of women, is epitomized. The girls are told directly, by industry insiders, that although they’d like to be one thing, they’ll have to be something else in order to achieve success, and the girls object – with the song “Girl Power,” no less. Moreover, this is all happening in the lives of African-American, African-Italian, and Cuban-Dominican characters in a Disney Channel Original Movie. This is huge.

In perhaps its boldest scene, Taylor sidelines Galleria’s storyline to get into a bit of the undertones of the film. Chanel tracks Dorinda down in a home where a woman lives with ten foster children. Upon seeing the black woman at the door, Chanel assumes Dorinda is bi-racial. “Why did you try to hide it?” She asks. Dorinda stutters in response, “You guys are all – I don’t know.” Chanel goes on to explain that, “Miss America has ten blood lines,” but she’s missing the point. This isn’t about race, it’s about class. “I’m not black and I’m not half-black, I’m not even white, I don’t know what I am,” Dorinda explains, through tears. She’s a foster child, and Dorinda’s feelings about lacking an identity and living below the poverty line in a friend group made up of upper-class girls are not invalid, even if she’s wrong about the possibility of not being accepted by her closest friends. The film explores race with an educational degree of success by characterizing the personal, internal struggle of an overwhelmed young woman struggling to come of age. At this point Alison Taylor has made an effort to explore race, feminism, and class, all within the confines of a Disney Channel Original Movie. I’ll say it again: this is huge.

The film rides the momentum of its third act through some sad music montages and a deliciously campy bit about Galleria’s family dog getting stuck in a sewer which somehow garners the attention of all of Manhattan, and multiple news outlets, just in time for the girls to rush together, in matching jumpsuits, and make up. It’s a bit rushed, but it gets the point across when they perform Cheetah Sisters on the news which sums up the films themes of race, class, and womanhood with lines like, “Our spots are different, we’re different colors / We make each other stronger, that ain’t ever gonna change. Believe it, Mister. We’re Cheetah Girls, Cheetah Sisters.” And that, my friends, is feminism. So, what are your kids watching?

Now you can go back and watch through a feminist lens – the trilogy is all on Netflix