If you grew up in the ’90s and 2000s, Disney Channel Original Movies taught you how to navigate middle school, what to wear, and that your best friend of the opposite sex is definitely in love with you. Through the twin wonders of Netflix and YouTube, we recently rekindled our passion for this very specific art form. Some movies were just as awesome as we remembered, portraying male and female characters as equals in every way and showcasing kick-ass women that inspired us as awkward tweens. Others whipped us into a righteous feminist rage, with backward gender dynamics and objectified women.
We decided to combine these two passions — feminism and Disney Channel Original Movies — and rank the 50 DCOMs that have left the strongest impact on us through a feminist lens, looking at strong female characters, feminist messaging, and overall quality of each movie equally. We realize that feminism is a belief system that informs actions, not a scale upon which people or art can be ranked from “most ” to “least.” That said: In this genre that most might classify as somewhere between intellectual junk food and artistic garbage, there are a wide and nuanced range of feminist messages to be gleaned.
50. Horse Sense (1999)
Horse Sense is male privilege personified. In this supposed coming-of-age story, a spoiled rich, young man is condemned to a Montana ranch after being the worst host ever to his kid cousin. Women are rarely mentioned, except as possessions. This boy is given so many chances to turn his act around. Even worse, there’s a sequel with roughly the same premise, so clearly he does not change his ways! This movie teaches kids that if you’re an asshole, you get to go to a fancy ranch and ride horses. To be fair, that is kind of the way the world works when you’re a rich, white man, but not something the next generation needs to know.
49. Cow Belles (2006)
This movie brought feminism back several years, which is especially disappointing after the glory of High School Musical, which was released a few months earlier, and the potential that Aly and AJ Michalka brought to Disney Channel. The premise — entitled sisters forced to work at their dad’s dairy company’s factory — is basically just a knock off of The Simple Life, without the very specific appeal of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The transformation from entitled brats to hardworking young women isn’t explored with any amount of nuance, and the girl power message seems forced. After watching this, we demand a hard-hitting exposé on factory farming!
48. Johnny Tsunami (1999)
One of many movies in the line of Disney Channel’s bro-on-bro turf wars with secondary tokenized female characters. If the women in Johnny Tsunami are important, it’s only because they are love interests — a prize to be won during a sporting event at the film’s climax. Even Johnny’s mother isn’t given much power, with her husband and her father-in-law running the show throughout the entirety of the film.
47. ‘Twas the Night (2001)
Two con artists and JERKS decide they can knock out Santa and deliver presents themselves on Christmas Eve. Et tu, Bryan Cranston? The only sensible people in this movie are the sister and the mom, and they are ignored left and right! They’re barely in the movie! The con artists end up getting away with their plot — I guess they “learn a lesson,” but do they actually? Direct quote from this movie: “Your sister’s just a little too bright.” EH?
46. Brink! (1998)
The skateboard turf wars film Brink may be the most beloved DCOM, but is it actually feminist? Does it include a female skateboarder? Yes. Does it star Erik Von Detten of Princess Diaries fame? Yes. Is it a shitshow in its treatment of female characters? Also, yes. Brink is basically a macho man versus man battle, with Gabriella sabotaged and almost scapegoated as a plot device, instead of being treated as a complex and autonomous character. This was the last alpha male DCOM sports movie before Rip Girls started the era of the girl power sports flick. Good riddance, we say.
45. Starstruck (2010)
The movie’s creators were aiming for the classic rom-com setup, in which the smart, overlooked girl doesn’t fall for the guy who everyone wants, so then obviously he falls in love with her. But the girl, Jessica Olson, is really just mean here! She’s particularly rude to young pop star Christopher Wilde’s jovial rapper/driver/best friend. Also worrisome: Christopher Wilde’s mom is a caricature of a “bitchy businesswoman.” By the end of the movie, we were left hoping that Christopher Wilde would just return to Hollywood to find someone to be nice to him and finally escape the paparazzi.
44. Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006)
We like that this film rejects the nerdy Asian stereotypes that Disney Channel has enforced in the past in favor of a homecoming queen hopeful played by the beautiful Brenda Song. Unfortunately, it feeds into other stereotypes by introducing a random (hot) Chinese monk who is obviously skilled in the martial arts and has an over-the-top fake-seeming “Asian” accent. It’s kind of like an Asian Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but terribly done. Wendy is never the powerful feminist heroine we want her to be. So much unfulfilled potential.
43. Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure (2011)
From the director of The Santa Clause 2: High School Musical character Sharpay finally puts aside her selfish tendencies for the sake of her dog’s Broadway career in this direct-to-DVD semi-DCOM. Her sacrifices include living in a shitty NYC apartment that is only 50% nicer than an actual NYC apartment. The fact of the matter is that there had been three HSM movies released before this, and Sharpay did not significantly evolve beyond her selfish ways over the course of the series. It would be unfitting if this canine-centric film with a single-star rating on Netflix was Sharpay’s fabulous feminist awakening. Also, great Ryan cameo at the end. We wish there were a DCOM about Ryan’s coming-out process in college, but until then, this is somewhat tolerable.
42. Don’t Look Under the Bed (1999)
If you haven’t heard of this one, it’s because this movie was taken out of the Disney Channel rotation after it came out for being so scary. Honestly, while we rewatched most of these movies, we couldn’t bring ourselves to go through this terror again, and had a hard time even watching the trailer. The plot deals with gender in a really weird way, with a helpless female character creating an imaginary male friend who she then has to save. So, I guess it’s a female empowerment coming-of-age film? And, Priya says, the boogeyman in this film is “as ugly as the patriarchy,” so there’s that.
41. Model Behavior (2000)
Technically, this is a Wonderful World of Disney movie, but we are choosing to include it here because 1) it was continually played on Disney Channel during our youth, and 2) Justin Timberlake. Long before he starred as Sean Parker on The Social Network, the boy band legend was the only really memorable element about this alleged female empowerment tale by way of a Parent Trap–like plot. The two main characters claim to find themselves at the end of the film, but they really find fulfillment with boys. Thankfully, one of these boys is Justin Timberlake.