That’s So Raven: The Representation We Deserved
So I’m writing this with having just watched the final episode, it snuck up on me to tell the truth; one day I was belting the theme tune in my room for the first time in years and the next Disney Plus is recommending that I start Hannah Montana. I guess my shock makes sense considering the fact that I’ve lived the same day for the 40th time now (but who’s counting?). However, what doesn’t make sense to me is just how much more I enjoyed the show as an adult.
The timing of Disney Plus’ UK release was so perfect it was almost suspicious. The lockdown hadn’t been officially announced but we all knew it was coming and a lot of (sensible) people had already started taking measures towards practicing social distancing. My housemate & I, being the massive Disney kids we were, had already pre-ordered our subscription and planned the things we were going to watch together and I’d unconsciously found comfort in the fact that I’d have a partner whilst wading through the nostalgia. However, Miss Rona had other plans and as I found myself scrolling through the app on a coach back home halfway through my final semester at university, I couldn’t ignore the trepidation that crept in about reliving a large part of my childhood alone.
When re-watching things that were huge sources of entertainment for your younger self, it’s more than normal to be disappointed with a lot of aspects of the show in your adulthood because we know we missed a lot as children. More often than not we notice jokes that were in bad taste or just plain offensive, we realise things weren’t that funny or just awkward to consume with the increased level of consciousness that comes with adulthood. Knowing that I was watching it with a friend meant that I could at least laugh about it when the reality of our childhood crumbling before our eyes set in, which is why the anxiety about doing so alone crept in. So imagine my surprise and sheer relief when after finishing the first season of That’s So Raven, I realised I hadn’t cringed once.
That’s So Raven caught my eye pretty much immediately; a sense of familiarity drawing me in almost magnetically and within a few episodes I was both hooked and incredibly impressed. From Raven, Orlando (Eddie) & Anneliese’s (Chelsea) on screen chemistry and their impeccable comedic timing, to the effortlessness with which a show meanders through serious topics in a light hearted way, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth Disney even let this show happen in the first place.
The lead character was an obviously black full-figured girl with an obviously black full figured brother, best friend and dad. Her mother wore her natural hair in the most beautiful plaits, Eddie switched his hair between afros, cornrows and dreads throughout the show and her white best friend was in fact her hilariously, unproblematic side-kick. The gravity of the latter point was lost on me until a friend brought to my attention just how rare it is for a black female lead to have a white female sidekick now. In 2020.
Furthermore, unlike a lot of predominantly black shows, this one never had issues with colourism or tropes either. I mean Raven is undeniably light-skinned, but usually the only one as we watch her like/date a healthy list of boys in her school ranging from multiple shades of black (oh, Devon) to Caucasian; as well as her brother who had the most gorgeous relaxer-box looking dark-skinned girlfriend throughout the show. Her dad was a hard-working, slightly effeminate chef who loved boybands, knitting and his family whereas her mum was a goofy but very intellectual teacher and lawyer in training who would often join in Raven’s antics.
None of these things should actually impress me because if we’re being frank, a mixture of body types, skin tones and hairstyles should be the norm for anything on television. But when you consider that this show made its debut on Disney Channel in 2003 and not a ‘black channel’ (for lack of better phrasing) where you would assume creators would have more creative freedom in the way they capture black existence, you kind of have to double take. Although black music and culture being extremely prominent in pop-culture in the early 2000’s might help to put things into context, the deliberate commitment to displaying a black family with nothing but unadulterated positivity and class has to be considered a silent act of defiance. Raven being visibly plus size was only ever discussed from a place of complete confidence in herself and in order to call out industries that continue to exclude girls like her. During an episode which we watch Chelsea get a job at a store over Raven even though the former had performed terribly during the interview, the reason was stated blatantly to be a racial one. Her blackness was always something mentioned with a straightforwardness that is still missing in media today, and from a place of pride without being ignorant of racism itself.
I can’t help but feel mildly grateful to Disney for creating a platform that’ll allow me to share shows like this with the future black generation that come from me. Even though we may all be over the political correctness of it all, representation is and always will be so important for black children which is why it’s still very pivotal that we catalogue the gems that actually managed to provide that for us as kids. Shows like this one that have aged so well were often cut short before their impact could be widely noted which means we often forget them. But I can’t help but wonder how differently black TV for kids would be handled today if creators went about representation the way shows like That’s So Raven did.