When it comes to kid’s shows, Disney and Nickelodeon dominate the stage. These two networks together have produced some of the most memorable and greatest children’s shows of all time. Even though they are both in the children’s market, they are in many ways very different from one another. One of the most notable ways is in their depiction of romance and dating.
From Nickelodeon, people get hooked on shows like iCarly, Make it Pop, Fairly Oddparents, Degrassi, and SpongeBob. From Disney Channel, people can get addicted to shows like Girl Meets World, K.C. Undercover, Liv and Maddie, Best Friends Whenever, and many more. Many Nick and Disney shows have explored the topic of dating to some extent. We see characters love and care for one another while they laugh, argue, break up, and make up. However, there is one major difference in how these two types of TV network characters interact with each other: the amount of physical intimacy.
On Nick, characters kiss passionately, hug, and hold hands. Disney characters do almost the same things, except they RARELY kiss each other. Very rarely. When they do kiss, it is usually during a pivotal or special episode. Intimacy on Disney is more centered on emotional connection and companionship. Nickelodeon shows tend to have a broader range of emotional and physical intimacy, with more kissing scenes in comparison to Disney shows.
Can you think of examples of these types of relationships? Let’s explore an older Nick show: Drake & Josh. Drake and Josh are step brothers with very different personalities. Drake is considered to be a casanova while Josh is more of the “clumsy but lovable” friend. Drake often dates and makes out with different girls each week. There is actually one episode when both brothers compete to see who can date the most girls in a short time period (Schneider, 2004).
iCarly presents another example. During one episode, Carly has a happy smile on her face as she watches what she believes are two squirrels wrestling with one another. Her face turns bright red as Sam explains to her in her ear what the squirrels are actually doing. By hiding the conversation while keeping a visual on Carly’s shocked face, Nickelodeon lightly grazes the topic of sex without going into detail. Sex is shown as something natural and addressable, albeit in secret. Another memorable episode features Gibby accidentally dropping his pants on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and exposing his “flapjacks” (in Sam’s words) on national TV. Lastly, in the finale, Carly and Sam lightly joke about how they both at one point during the series dated and made out with their male friend Freddie. Still, they all managed to stay good friends (Schneider, 2007).
Victorious, another Nick show, tackles revenge, dating, and bullying in the very first episode. Jade immediately dislikes new girl Tori because she started a conversation with Jade’s boyfriend. Jade humiliates Tori in front of all of their classmates by making Tori act like a dog during an Improv class. To get her back, Tori kisses Jade’s boyfriend in front of everyone during another scene in their Improv class (Schneider, 2010). All of these light-hearted antics and humorous attempts at addressing sexuality are representative of Nickelodeon’s liberal stance as a network.
Disney, on the other hand, is quite different. There tends to be a build up toward the kiss in their shows. In Wizards of Waverly Place, Alex has her first real crush on a handsome werewolf. However, it takes a while until she kisses Mason for the first time in the rain. In future episodes, they are typically only shown hugging and holding hands. Meanwhile, viewers are taken on a ride as the couple tackles the challenges of being together as wizard and werewolf (Hampson, 2007).
In the show Hannah Montana, Miley kisses her first boyfriend Jake for the first time during a red carpet event. After that, they too are often seen only hugging. Yet, viewers are exposed to a complicated relationship between two child stars. They actually break up shortly after, only to be seen briefly kissing again at a hotel concert event a couple seasons later. Then they later break up again, but this time for good. In the series finale, Miley hides behind balloons to secretly kiss her new boyfriend goodbye (Peterman & Poryes, 2006).
In a more recent example, Girl Meet World, there is a major love triangle between the three main characters. Not much physical intimacy is shown, but the emotional distress and entanglement is palpable. Instead of focusing on physical intimacy, viewers are shown the inner turmoil of three friends who are deciding between love and the possible destruction of their friendship (Jacobs, 2014).
Why is there such a sharp contrast in the depiction of romance between these networks? This may be a hard question to fully answer, but there may be an explanation that lies behind the ownership of these TV networks. Nickelodeon is owned by the parent company Viacom, which owns other networks such as MTV, VH1, BET, and Comedy Central (Viacom, n.d.) A quick list of shows from these networks include: Love and Hip Hop, Dating Naked, Jersey Shore, and Inside Amy Schumer. These shows and networks tend to have more sexual content and humor, so it makes sense that a children’s network under this company would hold more liberal values as well. Disney, on the other hand, is owned by the Walt Disney Company (Walt Disney Company, 2016). It’s the same people behind Disney World, Disneyland, and all those adorable cartoon films. Anyone who watches Disney films can acknowledge the fact that they have a more wholesome and conservative mindset to them. Even more poignant of their conservative values is Disney’s ban on smoking in their movies (Walt Disney Company, n.d.).
Based on the values of two different parent companies, we end up with two different views on romance. Although different, neither one is necessarily better than the other. Depending on people’s personal or family values, they may lean towards one value set more than another. Or maybe it can be a combination of both. What is important here is that together, Nick and Disney shows can offer an array of different romantic experiences, conservative and liberal.
However, it is also important to note the lack of sexual diversity in both networks. With the notable exception of Degrassi, there are no shows that I have seen so far that have relationships outside of hetersexual relationships.* Finding Dory conspiracy aside, it is unlikely for Disney to have an open lesbian or gay couple in one of their shows, let alone in a kissing scene. Nickelodeon is guilty of this lack of diversity as well. And when we complicate the matter with the lack of racial and gender diversity, it can seem that both of these networks are more similar to each other than different.
My purpose here is not to slam or shame these networks. As I mentioned before, Nick and Disney do represent romance and dating nicely to a certain extent in their shows. It would be wonderful, then, it they could also represent a wider variety of gender and sexual orientations. One might argue that it may be too early in a child’s development to have different representations of gender and sexual orientation on children’s television shows. This view is countered by the research that shows that children who grow up in sexual minority household are just as adjusted as those from a hetersexual couple household (Bos, Knox, van Rijn-van Gelderen, & Gartrell, 2016). If that is the case, then children being exposed to different types of characters on television will probably not hinder but aide in their development and interaction in the real world. Food for thought.
*If you can think of any Disney and Nick shows besides Degrassi that have openly gay or lesbian characters, then GREAT! Please let me know in the comments below.
Bos, H. M. W., Knox, J. R., van Rijn-van Gelderen, L., Gartrell, N. K. (2016). Same-Sex and Different-Sex Parent Households and Child Health Outcomes: Findings from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 37(3), 179–187.
Hampson, G. (Producer). (2007). Wizards of Waverly Place [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: It’s a Laugh Productions.
Jacobs, M. (Producer). (2014). Girl Meets World [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: It’s a Laugh Productions.
Peterman, S. (Producer), & Poryes, M. (Producer). (2006). Hannah Montana [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: It’s a Laugh Productions.
Schneider, D. (Producer). (2004). Drake & Josh [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: Nickelodeon Productions.
Schneider, D. (Producer). (2007). iCarly [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: Nickelodeon Productions.
Schneider, D. (Producer). (2010). Victorious [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: Nickelodeon Productions.
Viacom. (n.d.) About Viacom. Retrieved from http://www.viacom.com/about/pages/default.aspx
Walt Disney Company. (n.d). Smoking in movies. Retrieved from https://ditm-twdc-us.storage.googleapis.com/Smoking-in-Movies.pdf
Walt Disney Company. (2016). Our businesses. Retrieved from: https://thewaltdisneycompany.com/about/#our-businesses