You might remember that I referred to my initial watching of Disney as prompting a “comfortable smugness”. At the beginning I was turning to the Disney Channel in a mindset that I’m sure many of my peers share when flipping to the station, one of irony and intellectual superiority. I had watched the Disney Channel before with friends specifically to ogle witheringly at the quality of these shows. We deemed Disney Channel shows to be absurdly puerile garbage, but the kind of puerile garbage that was so impossibly sincere in its artlessness that it provided the special kind of titillation one gets with watching B-movies and “so-bad-it’s-good” films like The Room. In his seminal essay on television “E Pluribus Unum” David Foster Wallace addressed this phenomenon of television as a “weird hate-need-fear-6-hrs.-daily gestalt”. Wallace was writing about the contradiction in American TV critics and viewers in the general awareness that television is frequently tawdry and uninventive but that somehow a compulsion exists to watch; Wallace relates the viewer to TV relationship to a person unwilling to split up with their spouse despite explicit dislike.
But simple hate-watching doesn’t justify the comfort that I get from watching the channel. I know the kind of giddy disbelief that ironically watching “garbage” provides, and while the Disney Channel may have prompted a kind of amused repulsion in me at first the more I persisted in watching it the more I began to suspect that the Disney Channel offered something sui generis in its experience; its programs contained a quality that set it apart from the rest of television. There is plenty to hate-watch on TV from an endless litany of grotesqueries (child pageants, the various toilet births of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant) to reality/entertainment television, but the experience of watching those has a decidedly different taste. Those shows possess what Wallace referred to in “Unum” as television’s quality of being, “its own most profitable critic”. They all have a sense of self-consciousness about them, a quality of exhibitionism and irony that seems to embrace “lowness” and use trashiness as a marketing tool. A show like Here Come Honey Boo-Boo will demean its main characters, but in doing so explicitly and using intentional outrageousness as an agent of irony, paradoxically elevates them to an ersatz breed of star.
In Wallace’s essay irony in television is addressed as a necessary tool to mediate our dislike of watching television with our enjoyment with the act of doing it. Television as he saw it had co-opted postmodernism’s penchant for self-criticism and used it as a means to secure the faith of the viewer. As an example Wallace describes an Isuzu advertisement that mocks the unsettling quality of car commercials while, of course, subsequently selling cars. The viewer, in on the irreverent joke, feels better about the experience of watching but has not actually transcended the commercial itself. TV works as its own critic by using irony as a way to assuage dislike of television but without actually changing. Of course, irony is a double-edged sword. Wallace noted that “irony…and fear of ridicule” tyrannizes our consciousnesses, creating a great aversion/fear of sincerity. Television’s liberal use of ironic meta-hate protects it from criticism but stifles what is genuine.
This is where the Disney Channel comes in.
The Disney Channel is obsessed with sincerity. It’s basically an irony free zone. Tune in at any time and you might get to see a group of earnest-faced teenagers crooning “we’ll always be more than a band” to one another in the original movie Lemonade Mouth, or traditional morals being explicitly outlined in the denouements to Good Luck Charlie or Dog With A Blog, or a short promo clip featuring kids from around the world talking about what food they eat in an effort to promote diversity. Maybe most striking of all is the promo I saw one night about the sitcoms themselves. It’s a collection of short clips from various shows interspersed with text that talks a lot about friends, adventures, experiences, etc. The promo (weirdly solemn in tone) ends with the statement “this is for you.” It’s all uncomfortably sincere and a perfect encapsulation of the Disney viewing experience.
The Disney Channel does not use irony because it has transcended irony. General television uses irony as a defensive tool but it leads to a sort of asphyxiation. The Disney Channel is so relentlessly sincere, so unflinching moral, so blatantly communal and engrossing in its structure, that it has no need for irony or meta-criticism. Unlike the rest of TV, Disney tries to assure us that there is nothing to dislike because it dislikes nothing, there is nothing to be cynical about because it is cynical about nothing. It dares to be earnest. And this is likely what leads to the initial repulsion among viewers outside the target demographics but also what eventually leads to engrossment. I used to think that I was hate-watching the Disney Channel because it was beneath me. But the more I saw of it the more I stayed because I recognized that the Disney Channel itself does not believe it is beneath me. Here Come Honey Boo Boo and its ilk do, defended by and reliant on irony. But watch a promo for “Disney Channel Summer”, full of beaming tweens go-go dancing earnestly in front of animated surfboards, all geared at kids, and you don’t see a fortified wink-wink self-defense system but rather something rare and real, corny for sure, but definitely real. The Disney Channel does not demean itself and in doing so, dares the viewer to read its content with a genuine eye. If watched with openness, the emotional capitulation to its unflinching sincerity that is necessary to be a devoted audience can feel something like transcendence, blissful surrender. This is the source of a unique comfort.
Of course, one could certainly argue that Disney’s emphasis on sincerity is itself a form of hyper-cynicism, channeling a traditional value system unabashedly for commercial purposes. At the level of structure, the no-ads strategy supposedly insulates Disney from commercialism but the fact that all of Disney Channel programming is itself a meta-advertisement means that it has essentially embraced it. Whether this is all nefarious on a complex level is subjective. Maybe the “this is for you” ad slot is actually a sinister kind of guilt-trip that uses our own sense of genuineness against us. I recognize this. But putting aside for a moment the politics of the channel, this in itself does not lead to a lack of interest in watching. For the younger target demographic, the surface of sincerity and communality is likely taken at face value and the engrossing effects proceed as designed. For me personally, when viewed without deeper analysis the channel produces the same effect. When watched with a critical eye attempting to expose a hyper-cynicism, I find Disney Channel always convinces me otherwise when I’m involved in the experience of watching. Conviction is the engine of Disney, its steadfastness is its greatest strength.
When I view the Disney Channel looking to expose its exploitative heart I will never be able to condemn it with total faith because of the relentless bombardment of heartfelt-ness. I’ll watch everyone acting like friends, I’ll watch the stars from the shows invite me into their homes during in-between clips to talk about their passions, I’ll watch Shake It Up actor Bella Thorne talk openly about her dyslexia. I can argue on paper that the Disney Channel is cynical and exploitative but when actually watching it those thoughts are parried by design, for when immersed in the experience of a totally convinced spectacle of sincerity, to cry “cynicism” is to become cynical. TV this comforting and easy will turn you against yourself should you seek to decry it. I find that watching the Disney Channel often represents a greater human struggle over defining what is genuine and sincere and what is cynical, and the design of the channel makes such a convincing argument for surrendering to a belief in sincerity (and consequently, a belief in the good of the Disney Channel) that it is difficult to resist once inside it. It’s a bit like having an affectionate dog and choosing to believe that it loves you rather than believing that it only shows loyalty to you because you give it food. Both are arguable on some level, but one clearly feels better.
If I’m watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians and seeing clips from next week’s episode organized to show the most grotesque and exhibitionist segments I see that deep down the program knows its cynical and wants to get me in on the irony to flatter my intellect and allow me to watch the show. This ironic strategy has worked many a time, certainly. But the Disney Channel gambit of sacrificing irony for steadfast earnestness in its own “goodness” ends up being much more effective, because suddenly I have something to lose in not watching (my ability to believe in the “goodness” of something) and when I do watch positively I feel as though I am doing myself a service by consuming programming that is ultra-easy but not riddled with all the rest of TV’s intellectual baggage (awareness of trashiness, awareness of vapidity) that Wallace recognized and painted as the source of the crippling irony that hurts as much as it helps. Irony on the rest of TV is the knowledge that something is bad but watching it anyway (because hey, at least I know) but the sincerity of the Disney Channel is a dare to believe something is good (and I have much more to lose in dissenting than the channel does) despite it sharing the attributes of being undemanding, formulaic, and pleasure-based. And even though there is television out there that presents unironic programming, typically these shows are more challenging, less easy to consume at leisure. Mad Men is not an ironic show but it’s also not easy nor blissfully formulaic. Sincerity and “utopianism” don’t often align. Disney’s shows are as effortlessly palatable as the lowest most base programming out there, but unlike the rest that “easy” television, they aren’t ruined by the gristle of insincerity, they are buoyed by the same sort of magic that made shows like Full House and Friends easy viewing sans grossness: a marriage of the spectacle of “genuine” and the accessible. It’s a guilty pleasure that tells me not to be guilty. Checkmate, Disney.
I wouldn’t say that these tools employed by the Disney Channel make it good television. I don’t think that the immersive structure is necessarily good (nor do I think it is necessarily nefarious). But as a subjective viewer I will say that this is the best explanation I can reach for why I keep going back, night after night, and can’t seem to stop thinking about it.