I have a love/hate relationship with Disney’s Hannah Montana. For those who haven’t run across it (though it’s becoming ever-more ubiquitous as its popularity grows), it’s a TV show/music franchise about a girl named Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) who has a normal life with her father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) and her brother, Jackson (Jason Earles). But Miley has a secret: she’s actually the most famous pop star in the country, Hannah Montana. She keeps that a secret by way of a blond wig, and keeps the lives separate so that she can still go to high school like a normal person. So she deals with friends, with bullies, and with boys just like everyone else, even though she’s famous! The show itself is mildly charming, though often completely nonsensical; the music of Miley/Hannah is pure bubblegum pop, which I happen to love. (The music is actually sung by the real Miley, who performs concerts be-wigged as Hannah, but has recently released her first “real” album as herself, the B-side of a Hannah album. It’s kind of confusing, but the upshot is that she does some writing, much of it is written for her, and all of it is her surprisingly excellent singing voice.)
I do have real fondness for the show. It’s a lot of fun, it fulfils a lot of childhood fantasies that I’ve lived out as Mary Sues in my head a hundred times, and I really, really love pop music. It’s a cut above most of Disney’s mediocre programming on a lot of levels. On the other hand, though, while on its surface it’s nothing but wacky hijinks, the show has some seriously deep flaws when it comes to race and gender. I don’t think there’s a mustache-twirling villain trying to indoctrinate tween viewers with stereotypes, but the show is rampant with them, and the fact that it probably isn’t intentional is almost more problematic. It means the show is regurgitating the disturbing stereotypes from the writers’ and producers’ subconsciouses, and transmitting them to a new generation. So while I enjoy this show, I am decidedly not pleased with it at the same time.
Race is probably the biggest problem on the show. As I get started talking about this, though, I want to offer up a general note; I grew up very much as a clueless white girl, and while I’m doing my best to become less clueless about race issues, I still often back away from them out of fear of screwing up. I’m trying not to do that any more, but the fear of saying the wrong thing is still there, so if I do screw up, feel free to wield a cluebat as necessary.
Okay. So. There are only a handful of characters of color in the otherwise totally white cast. This is, sadly, not too surprising, given that a lot of shows have that problem. But things are worse when you actually look at the roles the non-white characters play.
The most minor of them is Cooper, Jackson’s best friend in the first season. Though occasionally a jerk, Cooper was no more or less so than the rest of the cast; he was just a bit player who showed up sometimes when Jackson needed a friend to converse with. The problem? Between seasons, the character abruptly disappeared, and the role of Jackson’s best friend was filled by a new guy — a blond, white character. I don’t think Cooper appeared in more than one or two episodes this season, and never with more than one or two lines, and his friendship with Jackson is all but forgotten about while Jackson has hijinks with Thor instead. (Thor, for the record, is a terrible character in his own right, but that’s a different essay.) So there’s that.
Next we come to Amber and Ashley, African- and Asian-American respectively. These two are Miley’s classmates and nemeses; they’re rich, spoiled, snobby, and stupid. They are the closest thing the show has to villains, and they’re often the only characters of color to appear in an episode. Gosh.
Next there’s Rico. There are actually a lot of problems with his character, which I’ll get to in a later essay, but they certainly tie into his race. Rico is Latino, and despite the fact that he’s the youngest regular character — he’s eleven, everyone else is in the 14-16 age range — he’s also extremely oversexed. (I believe at one point he refers to himself as, “a sexy Latin lover.”) And on top of that, he’s another antagonist. Virtually all he does on the show is sexually harass Miley and find ways to taunt and torment Jackson.
So far, that gives us one character of color who was replaced with a white guy, and three who are nothing but antagonists. But, you may be wondering, is there any recurring, non-antagonist character of color? Why, yes! Her name is Roxy, and she’s Miley/Hannah’s bodyguard. And…oy. Where to start? For one thing, in one of her appearances she mixes up what amounts to a voodoo potion she calls “the funk” for her white employer. Which definitely raised my eyebrows.
But that’s nothing compared to the episode which seems to have been designed to let Roxy chase after a teenager, screaming, “Come back here, you cracker!” But it’s wacky and hilarious! Because she’s chasing off a bully! A bully who happens to be nicknamed the Cracker because she’s constantly cracking her knuckles and can crack nuts open with her bare hands. So when Roxy comes to Miley’s rescue, when Miley fears being beaten up, she aggressively chases after the bully, calling her by the nickname in question.
I…I just…whaaaaa? That isn’t something that happens by accident. It’s not an, “Oops, we didn’t realize there were possibly problematic racial undertones to this!” punchline. It’s something that was carefully set up for. I really just can’t imagine what the writers were thinking or trying to accomplish.
So Cooper, Amber, and Ashley, I can assume were probably not intentionally written in a problematic way. They may even have been backfired attempts to up the diversity in the cast. But oversexing the only Latino character? Having the black woman yell potentially offensive, certainly charged terms? And playing it off as comedy?
And how’s this for another one-off gag the show offers: At the end of a recent episode, to bring the physical comedy, two white characters get tangled in an African-American woman’s braided hair in the middle of a fight.
Disney, what the fuck?
(Next time, or whenever I get around to it, the show’s issues with gender and sexuality.)