OpEd: Okay, Disney+. How Do You Define “Family-Friendly”?

in Disney, Movies & TV

Disney Plus Family Friendly Content

Credit: Disney

Disney+ has been under fire about its “family-friendly” status since it debuted. First people were divided about whether Disney should censor the “outdated” and politically incorrect parts of its classic films. Which it did not. People were upset that Disney+ censored some National Geographic documentaries for language. Now, people are mad that Disney+ is moving an original show Love, Simon to Hulu and making it a spinoff called Love, Victor, and there is concern that the Lizzie McGuire reboot series will also be banished to Hulu.

Let’s talk about this situation, shall we?

The Definition of “Family-Friendly” Content

Credit: Disney / ComingSoon

Out of all the popular genres we enjoy today, the “family-friendly” genre is arguably the most misunderstood. Everybody seems to have their own definition. You can see that in the MPAA’s rating system. Movies that would’ve been given a G-rating without question in the 1990s are now given a PG rating. It’s as if the association’s members are tired of hearing parents complain that they were misled by a G rating, so they surrendered and gave almost everything that wasn’t only for 3-5-year-olds a PG rating “Parental Guidance Suggested.” In other words “Okay parents, you decided.”

What is “family-friendly” nowadays? The general–timeless–idea is that family-friendly content suitable for all age demographics. Every member of the family. But the general hope is that it also offers something that every age demographic can enjoy together.

Let me repeat that: something that every age demographic can enjoy together. I’m not talking about what is appropriate and what society believes parents should be discussing and normalizing with their children. I’m talking about entertainment. What can they enjoy together that also just so happens to teach a lesson?

My middle school deemed The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Pearl by John Steinbeck, and Night by Elie Weisel age-appropriate for me and my classmates. Sure they’re masterful pieces of literature with some of the most crucial lessons a kid could learn. But I did not enjoy reading them at that age and my parents did not enjoy helping me with them. Why? Because they are extremely depressing!

Marvel movies teach the same lessons: Individuality is good and you should fight to free yourself from tyrannical governments that want to take it away (The Giver). Greed will only lead to madness, death, and destruction (The Pearl) and man is capable of some of the greatest horrors imaginable but at the same time, he can also overcome those horrors and survive (Night). But, guess what? These lessons are dumbed down into the form of classic action-packed superhero movies that are far more enjoyable for families looking to just relax and shut off their brains for an afternoon.

It is the enjoyability aspect of the “family-friendly” status that–I think–Disney is attempting to uphold with its content for its direct-to-consumer streaming service Disney+. The people in charge are asking themselves, “What will most families enjoy watching together without issue?” I think that is why Love, Simon was pulled from Disney+ and that is why Lizzie McGuire will most likely be pulled as well.

Enjoyable vs. Socially Acceptable

Disney+ content
Credit: Disney+

These are not the same things. Each household is its own individual society with its own rules. standards, and ideas about what is enjoyable. But there are certain things that overlap and remain unenjoyable despite the fact they are becoming more and more socially acceptable in the outside adult world.

For instance:

Could most families find a gay character enjoyable and root for him/her? Yes!

Could most families enjoy an angsty dramatic show about a gay kid and his crush? Probably not.

Would most new parents love to enjoy some new adventures of Lizzie McGuire with their kids? Yes!

Would most new parents enjoy watching an adult Lizzie that may or may not show her doing normal adult things like drinking, cursing, and having conversations about sex? Probably not.

Hollywood has a way of kowtowing to the wave of trending social norms. It’s the idea that “well, you’re already exposed to this in schools and extracurriculars. So it’s not like we’re showing you anything new.” Parents are a little more strong-willed than that. It might not just be the parents either. Some kids might also be turned off by the content themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Disney is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be an escape. It should not be used to spark some of the most uncomfortable conversations parents have with their kids outside of “the birds and the bees.” And sure, people don’t have to watch everything on Disney+ but Disney is clearly deciding that it doesn’t want to invest in a show that is only going to be watched by–what they view to be–a minority of their target audience.

The Very Special Episode

Now, there is a tradition in television writing where the message does take priority over the fun of the show. It’s called “The Very Special Episode.” They’ll show up about once every half-season and use their reputation as a fun family show to spark that conversation. Disney shows did it too. Usually, the message is simple. “Don’t smoke,” “Say no to drugs,” “Don’t cheat,” etc. And this is solid and important to any episodic show. Everything in moderation, right?

But when a show acts as if certain things foreign to a household are normal, then that makes every episode a very special episode with the parents often backtracking on the story reinforcing the “otherness” of what they just watched from their life to their kids.

Diary of a Future President

Diary of a Future President Movie Poster for Disney Plus

Diary of a Future President is different and will remain safe on Disney+ because it knows how to walk the line. It has empathy with Disney’s target audience and has a perspective for everyone. But at the same time, its theme is development. Development of both the protagonist, her family, and those around them. It overtly says what every family is saying right now, “This isn’t normal. At least, it’s not supposed to be normal. But I’ll figure it out. It’s going to be okay,” with enough cringe-worthy middle/high school family comedy to not make it too overwhelming.

Still, Disney+ has clearly found the right way to deliver certain messages and tell certain stories with Future President. As for Love, Victor, and Lizzie McGuire, they may not be able to find that right delivery. And because of that, they and shows like them will be sent to Hulu. But that’s not a bad thing!

Stop Looking at Hulu as a Punishment for Shows

Is Disney+ canceling the shows? No! Love, Victor and possibly Lizzie McGuire are being sent to Hulu so they can tell their stories properly for their target audience. It is a blessing to be free of the constrictions of Disney! In fact, Hilary Duff and Lizzie McGuire’s former showrunner spoke out hoping that the show does get moved to Hulu.

Lizzie McGuire Hilary Duff Disney Plus
Credit: Disney/Hilary Duff

Disney owns two streaming services and ever since they divided up the Fox assets they made it clear that one would be strictly “family-friendly” and the other would get the questionable and adult content. A perfect digital match reminiscent of how Disney utilized Touchstone Pictures.

Love, Simon
Credit: Fox Movies

Parents should not have to worry about Disney+, but they can set parental restrictions on Hulu. So like the MPAA with their PG ratings, let the shows go to Hulu, tell the stories the right way and let parents decide not just if they are appropriate for their child, but can they enjoy watching the shows with their child.

But Disney is still exploring that line of “Family Friendly”

I’m sure you’ve noticed classic Fox movies like 10 Things I Hate About You or even the entirety of The Simpsons. They don’t fit the “family-friendly” status I created, but it is Disney’s safe play. They don’t need to spend any money. It’s pre-existing content that they can easily upload to the site that tests the lines of where many are expecting shows like Lizzie McGuire will go. The verdict will be decided in the analytics reports. How many people watched the content and who specifically watched the content?

Disney+ is less than a year old. What Disney wants its audience to be compared to what its audience actually is is yet to be figured out. And they’ll get there. They will see both the profits and the demographics and the dissonance between what they were wanting. If the dissonance is great enough they will then decide whether to continue to pursue what they want or continue to do what it making the most profit.

But until those facts are known and a decision has been made, why would the Walt Disney Company spend millions of dollars on a show that wasn’t in some way enjoyable for everyone if not the majority of its target audience?

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