Once Upon a Time: A Tale of the Disney ‘Child Actors’
When Disney transitioned from the movie medium to the television one, it incorporated new features to efficiently adapt itself to this new form. The newest and most evident element that was implemented was the constant use of the same young actors, dubbed as ‘child actors.’ This essay will explore how Disney has created (and imposed) a certain image for its ‘child actors’ and how they have been presses into morphing into that specific Disney image, and be only that persona throughout their career.
In the early 2000s, Disney decided to begin pursuing a strategy to create their own talent when they observed that recordings of live concerts by young pop musicians delivered constant solid ratings to the company. They realized that they were creating opportunities for other record companies to launch stars –who got their start on the very Disney Channel with The All New Mickey Mouse Club (1989-1994)—, when they had more than enough outlets to help those same actors gain that equivalent superstar status through their own company instead of allowing them to slip away with others. One example of this is with Hilary Duff. When Duff declined to sign on for a second season of Lizzie McGuire, Disney amplified her work deals with other Disney affiliations (such as her record deal with Hollywood Records) in order to continue gaining her monetary value as a franchise star through other Disney-owned outlets. The company not only utilizes this strong cross-promotion to establish a loyal network, but it also develops a particular business model for building and managing the images of their young stars. (Armstrong, Hogan, Littleton)
The Disney image has always been a topic of interest of various conversations because of what it signifies and what it ultimately entails, such as its advantage and disadvantages, not only for the company, but also for their own actors. One author mentions how Disney tells the agents of young aspiring stars to take it “One step at a time. Let us [Disney] help develop your talents” (Littleton A41), because in order for the talents to take off and reach the audience, they have to start out on Disney Channel first (Littleton). Starring young talent on that channel allows for the Disney brand to gradually frame the actor’s image through guest roles, cross-over events, and the channel’s self-promoting specials and/or bumpers. This allows them to test the waters with the new talents without having too much of a financial loss. If those casted deem a worthy potential, then Disney transfers them onto their own shows (created specifically around their persona) and sign them on a more detailed and loyal-restraint contract. (Hogan, Littleton)
Due to their promotion strategies and a high turnover of young performers in Disney Channel, many researchers, press and mainstream media consistently pin the spotlight on them, highlighting their successes. However, for this same reason, the success of ‘child actors’ have also been the joke of many, such as the humor magazine The Onion, which poked fun at the company’s multi-platform stars by interviewing a (fake) scientist of the Disney company who said things like, “our company [Disney] engineers their [child actors] brains for advanced singing and dancing capabilities, even posing for photos”, adding that, “we use the exact same DNA structure for all of our stars” (Onion). Many describe Disney’s star-driven content strategy as the “fresh face factory” (Sanders B1) or the “tween star machine” (Boorstin 112). Whether it is the press or the media or scholars, characterizing Disney ‘child actors’ as a factory-produced product has a lot of connotation attached.
Richard Schickel, in his book Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America, covers the power of celebrities and how they shape culture due to their influence. He also addresses the importance of the celebrity as a branding mechanism in today’s culture. As Banet-Weiser, Hendershot and Hogan all comment on, franchises have always been the “bread and butter” (Hogan 5) of any company. Hogan even mentions that Disney takes this strategy a step further by developing media franchises that both introduce and sustain the character brand, and the star persona. This effort to build franchise around not only the character on-screen, but also on the young kids who act out those characters, making them become a certain star persona, has implications for everyone. Disney heavily modifies construction of its star personas in order to fit their fun, family entertainment image that kids enjoy, but most importantly, of which parents approve of.
As many scholars have argued, part of the reason Disney’s brand has become so universal is because it aligns with the dominant ideologies that project a fantasy of white, middle-class childhood as a magical place of innocence (Hogan). The ‘child actors’ are built around this vision, thus their star persona as young, wholesome and real fits right in because it aligns with the ideological interests of the parents of the children who watch Disney Channel, because they are seeking a role model for their children. In an interview, Raven-Symoné mentioned how one mother approached saying that she only let her child watch That’s So Raven because Raven starred in it and she looked like her daughter (Tauber). Various stars have mentioned in interviews that they knew they were a star when their persona gained more attention outside than their own performance on stage and on screen (Newquist, Martin, Roshanian). This goes hand-in-hand with the thinking of various scholars, such as Gledhill, Hogan, Leonard and Raymond, who all concur that actors become stars when their off-screen, private lives gain more importance to the fans than their on-screen character, or even their acting ability. In other words, to be a star, is to be a figure that embodies more than the creative work for which one is originally known for (Hogan).
One of Disney’s tactics to attract and maintain young performers is by having a combination of short-term and medium-term commitments across a wide range of platforms in their contracts (Armstrong, Hogan, Littleton, Poniewozik). For talent agents/managers, this is attractive because they can get their clients to sign with a big corporate such as Disney, which has film, music, and TV divisions in which their client can appear across all of those categories. On the young performers part, these types of contracts also appeal to them because it is a convenient, “all-in-one entre into the entertainment business” (Hogan 12). Dove Cameron not only stars in the original TV movie series Descendants, but the soundtracks she collaborates on, are also put on Radio Disney (a music division of Disney), therefore she is getting seen and heard, which also translates in benefits for Disney. The key word here is synergy (Armstrong, Hogan), and the type of interaction that Disney is proposing, works for all three parties, at least in the beginning.
If the child actors (or their managers) decide to stop working on the same show they have been on, Disney will allow them to explore other options, always staying within Disney’s reach of course due to that synergy contract. If they do happen to go beyond, their new roles draw on, and contribute to, their already existing star image without significantly challenging their Disney persona. On Zac Efron’s first non-Disney film 17 Again, not only did his character play basketball, but the film featured a dance sequence, so it is safe to say that he stuck to what he knew (Graser).
Not only does Disney give opportunities for their ‘child actors’ to branch out while at Disney, but if their transition to non-Disney affiliated work is successful and they follow the path that the company laid out for them, they will be able to find even more opportunities to expand their work. In an interview, Raven-Symoné said she is aware of the “wholesome image” that comes with being a Disney star and even though she enjoys things she could not before while on her time in Disney, she states that “I still have my fun. I just do it tastefully. I still have my mama to answer to” (Tauber 2). This avoidance of things that could potentially damage her image has helped elevate her status and assist her in seeking other options. Since leaving her show That’s So Raven, Raven has since become a businesswoman, a producer, an executive producer, a musician, and even appeared on the big screen. Even though she has moved on, by keeping her Disney persona in check, Disney has even called her back to star in Raven’s Back, as the title suggests, the sequel to her first show.
However, an important example of a ‘child star’ keeping their image clean and finding more chances to branch out is Zendaya Coleman. She made her television debut in 2010 when she was only 13 in the series Shake It Up, and has since risen non-stop. As a rising star after her TV show, Zendaya appeared on other Disney shows including Good Luck Charlie or A.N.T. Farm and scored lead roles in original Disney TV movies Frenemies and Zapped. In 2012, she signed with Hollywood Records (just as other ‘child actors’ such as Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez or the Jonas Brothers have done) and is still in the music business till this day —she is featured on the 2015 Finding Neverland soundtrack, she has collaborated with Chris Brown in 2016 and Prince Royce in 2017. This clearly shows the effect of the synergy contract I have been mentioning. Besides being an actress and singer, she is also a dancer —she competed on Dancing With the Stars (and placed second!)—, a writer—she wrote a book titled Between U and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years with Style and Confidence—, a shoe and clothing designer —the ‘Daya’ collection is sold at Nordstrom—, a coproducer —as in the Raven example, Zendaya was asked to return to TV as the star of Disney’s newest show K.C. Undercover and she starred in and served as a producer of that text— and a fashion icon, among many things. Due to Zendaya’s mix of empowerment yet at the same time Disney-oriented representation on television and elsewhere, it is no wonder that she is such a huge role model for everyone. So much so that a famous designer created a Barbie in her honor, she was the new face of CoverGirl in 2016, Taylor Swift asked for her appearance in her “Bad Blood” music video as well as Beyoncé in her album Lemonade or Bruno Mars’ in his “Versace on the Floor” video.
Even though she is far from perfect and has stretched the Disney image a bit farther than the company would have liked —in “Bad Blood”, she plays a slightly aggressive looking woman, Bruno Mars’ video is a bit too sexy, and she is currently filming a crime thriller —yet, she sends a message of empowerment and diversity while also embracing a “Disney-approved” path, that Disney had no doubts on asking her to sign up for another of their show (as I mentioned above). Not only that, but she has continued to expand her theatrical career by starring in the musical film The Greatest Showman (alongside ex-child star Zac Efron), voicing characters in the films Duck Duck Goose and Smallfoot, but she has even extended into the Marvel Universe by being cast as Michelle in Spider-Man: Homecoming. (Oswald) All this highlights the fact that even though the ‘child actors’ have to move on, if they continue embracing the Disney image, they will have better possibilities to branch out.
If and when their actors have moved on to non-Disney owned content, Disney can still benefit from them through re-runs of their shows, selling their franchises, or creating new shows around them since their characters in other media texts are still aligned with the Disney family-friendly image. But can Disney utilize this same strategy of syndicated infinity re-runs even if their stars do not stay on the straight and narrow path? OR As with everything, there are always two sides to all, and it is no different in this case either. Disney has a positive outcome for their ‘child actors’; however, the image that Disney imposes on them also has negative consequences.
For those actors who make it past the temporary contracts and guest-star roles, Disney makes sure to act fast to secure them a bigger contract, as well as a loyal one too. This can be an advantage for a young actor, because they know they will have a consistent job; however, there is also a downside to it. Now, Disney’s contracts include clauses that block the young actors from working outside of the Disney series for a certain amount of time. This is in part due to the experience they had with their first ‘child actor’, Hilary Duff. Disney did not have a strong enough measure to keep Duff attached to her show, so when she declined to sign up for a second season of Lizzie McGuire, Disney could do nothing but place her on other Disney-owned media so that she would stay in a Disney-oriented environment (Hogan). James Poniewozik touches upon the fact that Miley Cyrus did not appear in a non-Disney Channel role until two years after her debut in 2006 as Hannah Montana, and even that outside appearance was a voice-over for a Disney animated film. In total, Cyrus did not appear in a non-Disney produced media text until 2011, where she spent those earlier five years working on films, television shows, record albums, concert tours, and book projects, all Disney-affiliated of course (Poniewozik). Though some Disney Channel stars appear in projects for other studios while they are in contract with Disney, their visibility in that role is low and their new character does not challenge their Disney-branded wholesome, kid-friendly persona. Their new contract clause and this project limitation has various benefits for the company including maintaining control over the actor’s image and privileging the Disney brand in the construction of the star image; limiting them to only the single Disney series and not permitting them to make outside deals that could prevent the star from extending their contract with Disney or agreeing to sequels; and allowing Disney to launch into cross-platform promotion quickly because speed and time is key (Boorstin). For this latter point, Disney emphasizes that the young actors’ “life” in the star’s life cycle with Disney is related to their adolescence years because they acknowledge the fact that their star may soon be too old to appeal to a desirable young demographic, or stay within the boundaries of the Disney’s family-friendly vision.
They take on a “now or never” mindset which in theory sounds like common sense for the type of society we live in, but in reality, it entails crushing contracts and a fast-paced production schedule which wears the actors thin, especially at their young age. All this illustrates the actor’s very compressed life cycle.
On top of that, the ‘child actors’ are still minors, therefore, their agency and Disney act in their behalf, making all the decisions for them, allowing for little or no room for negotiation on the young performer’s part. One talent agent even mentioned that “they [Disney] owns you [the actors]” (Armstrong 1). This illustrates the hold Disney has on them from very young and how their strategy is to groom ‘child actors’ as carefully as one carves a puppet out of wood. The amount of pressure that builds up on the actors is undeniable, especially at the stage of life that they are going through. They are normal teenagers, going through the ups and downs just like any other teen because they have not fully developed as human beings yet, plus, they also have the added weight of conforming into an already established image instead of being able to explore other avenues. Many ex-‘child actors’ —among them Bella Thorne— have remarked how it never feels good to have to conform or change who you truly are (Blue, Martin, Tauber). Raven-Symoné declares she was pressured to lose her curves in order to fit into a more American-Disney vision of what a teenage girl should be (Tauber). This fits in with Morgan Blue’s argument that female ‘child actors’ have more pressure to deal with because they are subject to a more detailed persona representation. This delicate stage of a teenager’s life where they are exploring the golden question of “who am I?” is already pre-decided for Disney’s ‘child stars’.
So what happens when the child actors start growing up and realize they have more of a say in their career/life and they want to move out of the Disney environment? As Jennifer Armstrong and Adam Markovitz put it, “what happens when Pinocchio becomes a real boy? What happens when a princess wants to rule her own kingdom?” (Armstrong 1) For one, Disney has made its young ‘child actors’ so famous and dependent on their image that many have a hard time adjusting to their life outside of a Disney-oriented atmosphere, especially since everyone is watching your every move. Celebrities have a higher risk because their mistakes are amplified by hundred and are harshly judged by everyone (Gledhill, Leonard, Martin, Raymond, Schickel). This is due in part to the fact that they have to learn to detangle/dismantle the Disney persona with their own representation of who they are now since they have missed a good portion on discovering who they truly are, and if they are happy that way. This has led many astray, having all types of tabloid scandals be on the front news, from public meltdown —Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Jake T. Austin—, to drug abuse —Macaulay Culkin, Demi Lovato, Zac Efron—, jail time—Shia LaBeouf, Orlando Brown—, leaked photos —Vanessa Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne—, erratic behavior—Amanda Bynes— etc. (Armstrong).
Zendaya’s co-star in Shake It Up is a great example of a ‘child actor’ having to learn to detangle/dismantle the Disney representation from their true persona. Bella Thorne did not have the best of luck rising to fame because of her association to Disney, she had more of an opposite reaction actually. As she was trying to extend her work, she commented on her struggles to find employment following her role in that Disney show because directors would frequently judge her Disney background and they did not see their roles as fit for her persona (Martin). People rejecting her for not only being her true self, but also at the same time, because of that Disney connotation, led her to completely shred her Disney past to not only get rid of that wholesome, innocent representation but also to let others perceive who she really is. Part of this process included coloring her hair numerous times, piercing her nose, constantly changing her clothing style, and posting various scanty pictures online. If someone started following Bella Thorne right now without having heard anything about her before, it is safe to say that they would not recognize her as a typical ‘child actor’.
In an interview, she stated that people would ask her who she was now, and she would answer that the Bella Thorne of today, and of the past years after Disney, is who she is, who she has really been. She even went as far as to comment that during her Disney days, people were not able to see her for who she was because she was just a puppet, not being allowed to make her own decisions or think for herself. In another interview she extended this point by stating that during meetings while at Disney, she had to talk with a higher pitched voice because that “was the whole innocent Disney appeal” (Martin 3).
Part of this underappreciated/“hate” relationship can be due to the fact that Bella Thorne herself admitted that she never wanted to be a Disney girl. She auditioned and accepted the role due to the financial benefits, but if it were up to her, she would never have jumped on the ‘child actor’ bandwagon. Now, she is constantly being judged for being herself just because she was part of that brand in the past. Nonetheless, she has plunged on, in command and living the life she wants, sticking with the fans that appreciate her true self, and proving people wrong that she cannot find more acting opportunities —she landed main roles in Midnight Sun, Famous in Love and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan— as well as other avenues. (Martin)
However, this is not just an excluded case, tons of child actors themselves voice their opinions, and even tease, about the image they were subjected to play out during their childhood lives. Miley Cyrus starred in a Hannah Montana movie where Miley’s characters disowned the Hannah wig to learn to be simply herself, while Zac Efron on in a Saturday Night Live skit, dressed up as his character in High School Musical to warn his classmates that basketball teams (and people in general) do not break out in songs in the real world, and Corbin Bleu, castmate of Zac Efron, even states in an interview that “We [the child actors] cannot be the teenagers we were in High School Musical forever, as much as parents want us to. It will be nice to shake off some of the nice-guy, wholesome image.” (Armstrong 3)
If the “child stars” have moved on, they are no longer affiliated with Disney, and one of the upsides for the company is that they do not have to answer for any public scandal or drama that encircles their ex-star anymore (Armstrong). Another thing is that Disney does not take those stars back, since they do not stand for their slogan anymore. A way that Disney relieves that “open gap” is by replacing them with new talent. But that new talent does not fill the left-open iconic roles such as Troy Bolton or Hannah Montana, Disney, instead, makes new shows for them to star in. When Hilary Duff left her show, Lizzie McGuire did not continue without her, Hannah Montana is no more without Miley Cyrus. This strategy keeps Disney’s brand and content looking “fresh” (Armstrong, Hogan).
One of the many successes of Disney’s growth is their evolution. Disney has always been growing and evolving, so when a new medium appears and seems beneficial, Disney joins the cause in order to stay with us. Ultimately, it also translates into more viewership because they transition into what we are watching so that we will stay with them. With this transition, Disney Channel has adapted various institutional practices of the classic studio system with new elements in an attempt to privilege the Disney corporate brand. One of these newest and most highlighted elements are the ‘child actors’. Molding and constructing their young talents character and star persona with a consistency of Disney’s core brand of family-friendly helps both children and the parents of those kids look to them as role models in their life. Disney clutches onto those actors and promotes them in a cross-platform pattern, making sure they appear across their holdings in film, television, consumer products, theme parks, etc. (Boorstin, Hogan). That way when we think of them, we do not simply see them as “stars”, but as “Disney stars”. This utilization of its stars and characters franchises as tools to unite multi-platform content and as a tool to synergize the company’s larger brand helps promote this brand consistency and image (Armstrong). With this strategy, it reveals the challenges that Disney is facing in trying to control the authorship of young stars for their financial benefit while also appearing as they are acting in the young actor’s interest.
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