Disney and the disservice of college acceptances

Feb. 16, 2018, 1:05 p.m.

I don’t think there’s any ’90s kid who would argue that early-2000s media was ever notable for its realism, or even that it was ever intended to be particularly realistic (see: a 14-year-old-turned-pop-star, or magic family hijinks). But at the same time, television was for many preteens a source of social education. As such, when characters from Disney Channel and teen dramas, in a popular series-ending plot device, aged out of the target demographic and subsequently matriculated at universities, their application (and acceptance) process shaped a lot of my early perceptions of what the college search looked like.

Now that it’s a decade later and I’m in college myself, I have Opinions on this.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not outraged that the Disney Channel didn’t portray their protagonists in the throes of existential agony that often come with college rejections. Shows like “Hannah Montana” or “Kim Possible” are wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t mean that they need to reinforce toxic mentalities about success and achievement when trying to be realistic for once. The vast majority of early-2000s television characters attended top-tier universities with recognizable names, most commonly Yale or Stanford (yikes, call us out, Disney), but very, very few of these characters would have studied at these schools in the real world. Yale is an understandable stand-in for the generic concept of “prestige,” a schema that connotes “smart and accomplished, but not snobby.” Harvard, in its stead, would have been dismissed by audiences out of hand as far-fetched and heavy-handed, but Yale – as with other Ivies – supposedly makes the more palatable impression.

The problem, though, is that most top-tier institutions are just as hard to get into as Harvard, or even more so (*cough* five percent acceptance rate), and the lack of school work or community service that these protagonists do is rarely ever addressed in these shows – and yes, homework is boring as far as plot fodder goes, but that’s no excuse. In “Hannah Montana,” Miley’s best friend, Lilly, gets into Stanford largely because of her extracurriculars (extracurriculars that we don’t ever see on screen in the show’s previous four seasons), while Miley is rejected – from, apparently, the only college to which she applied – until she reveals her celebrity status at the end of the episode. Not only that, but Lilly’s and Miley’s high school bullies, Amber and Ashley – two mean girls who were implied to be poor students, or at the very least terrible critical thinkers – also get into Stanford, continuing their habit of socially ostracizing the girls. (Side note: Go watch the clip of Miley arguing with the admissions officer at Stanford; they couldn’t use a shot that at least looks like our campus?)

On the other side of the spectrum, in “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” Cody’s girlfriend, Bailey, a straight-A student and known perfectionist, gets into Yale, while Cody doesn’t – despite, in an earlier episode, Zack listing his accomplishments as having written “four novels, a cookbook, an opera,” having a “5.0 grade point average” and being “brilliant.” What’s an even worse disservice to Cody is that he apparently didn’t apply to any other schools despite being characterized as a chronic overachiever. (What is it with these shows and making their characters only apply to one college? I know they need narrative tension but, honestly, at least have them try, if you’re aiming for realistic stress. I applied to 19 schools my senior year; while that’s admittedly a bit much, most of my peers – and this was three years ago – applied to at least 12.) While I understand the narrative desire to end the series with the twins as a united entity, off to face their future together, doing so is an insult to the character integrity established on the show.

The other option here is not based on merit, but on money. The CW behemoth “Gossip Girl,” infamous for its hyperbolic conflict and inflated interpersonal drama, managed to tease out an entire season’s worth of infighting based on college acceptances. Blair cajoles, blackmails and machinates her way into Yale; Serena ostensibly applies to Brown both against her parents’ wishes and without their political clout; Nate, perhaps the most guileless of the core cast, is pursued by Columbia purely on charm and old-money connections. While it’s again understandable that the writers need the characters to remain in the same circles to continue their show, they couldn’t have at least made it a bit more believable by moving them to another city? Or spreading the cast out between Columbia, NYU, Fordham, Juilliard and FIT? It’s not like there’s a lack of universities in New York.

There’s a similar situation with “Gilmore Girls,” the feel-good mother-daughter dramedy of the Oughts, in which Rory, the bookish good-girl of small-town America, gets into not only Yale but also Harvard and Princeton, in spite of a résumé consisting of nothing except good grades and a writing job on the school newspaper. Furthermore, her rival-turned-bestie Paris, the competitive prodigy incarnate, gets rejected from Harvard and instead attends Yale with Rory. Again, while I understand the decisions of the television powers that be to keep Paris in the cast (and qualified candidates truthfully get turned down by universities all the time), it’s lazy character work to not even insert some throwaway lines about Rory’s commitments as Key Club secretary or an NHS officer.

The middle ground in this pedantic litany of Disney-show-should-haves is the “High School Musical” franchise. Gabriella, described in the first film as “an Einstein-ette” and “the school’s freaky genius girl,” quite believably gets into Stanford in the third film, and does so with an offer – a fictional one, unless I’ve missed quite a few things in the last two years – to attend a prestigious program for ProFros during her senior year. (And they, at least, had the budget to actually film Gabriella walking along the Quad.) Troy, in “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” is courted by countless colleges for his basketball prowess, which is credible, but he’s apparently also in the running for a scholarship to Juilliard based on one and a half productions’ worth of singing experience – and without applying for it himself. While I’m personally pleased that the Juilliard award eventually goes to both Ryan and Kelsey, my under-appreciated HSM faves, it’s again stretching my willing suspension of disbelief to claim that Juilliard is scouting four students from the same public high school in New Mexico without even additional rounds of auditions.

But, you might ask, what’s the point of this complaint? Do Disney writers care? Is it even reasonable to expect a television show that caters to a young audience to be realistic when it comes to colleges? What do we do with the dichotomy of unworthy and unfortunate students portrayed on television? The answer comes, as so many good things do, from Disney’s “Kim Possible” – again, not a show that aims for or even remotely captures realism, since it sports a 16-year-old crime-fighter and a talking naked mole rat, and yet it might be the only early-2000s show that handled the college process both dramatically and realistically. Ron, Kim’s best friend and a student with a history of a poor work ethic, ends up in a last-minute scramble to apply to as many schools as he can to secure his options; Kim sardonically says to her parents, “Ron applied to every college.” Kim, on the other hand, is characterized by her extroversion, natural diplomatic grace and cosmopolitan sensibilities, so she seeks out schools in London, Hong Kong and Venice with emphases in international relations. Personalized college preferences like this are both healthier and more believable moves on the writers’ part, and it reinforces the concept that academic success is not, in fact, the height of a happy ending. While the show ends on the bittersweet note of Kim and Ron’s high school graduation and an uncertain future, it rings true because that is exactly what ending high school is like – melancholy, hopeful, relieved, jittery and intoxicated by the blank expanse of what’s to come.


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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