A lot of people of color of my generation who are passionate about diversity and representation in the media tend to point to the media we consumed as children as the reason why — to the absences, omissions, and misrepresentations, and to the token presences we latched onto like lifelines. Today, our childhood experiences are ever-present motivators in our lives as fans, consumers, and creators in our own right, trying to redress past wrongs by ensuring the existence of the mirrors, windows, and doorways we were denied years before.
As a father watching contemporary media aimed at kids, tweens, and teens with my own tween and teen daughters, I’m slowly getting the hopeful feeling that their future will be different — or, if it isn’t, there will be hell to pay. That’s not to say that there isn’t vast room for improvement — we haven’t solved it, not by a long shot — but the energy, the diversity, the mere and sheer presence in the media world with which my children interact and which they take for granted as normal is so far from what we grew up with, and so close to what we wish the media landscape at large looked like, that I can’t help but be a little optimistic.
Case in point: Disney Channel’s Andi Mack. Created by the same person as Disney tweencom Lizzie McGuire (which stopped production the year my oldest child was born) and initially inspired by the story of how Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) discovered his big sister was actually his mother, Andi Mack enters its third season as a show centered around a mixed-race Asian American girl dealing with all the general ups and downs of adolescence as well as those specific to her diverse family and friends. It has been a favorite of my almost-14- and 9-year-old daughters since it premiered, especially my eldest, who is the same age and grade as Andi and her friends. For me, who had to grasp onto a half-alien played by a white guy for a childhood role model, being able to watch a show with a quapa protagonist with a hapa mom, both played by hapa actors (Peyton Elizabeth Lee as Andi, Lilan Bowden as Bex — and let’s not forget Joy Luck Club veteran Lauren Tom as grandma Celia), with my Pinay-Japanese-Jewish-American daughters is a milestone, and that alone would recommend it in my book.
But in two seasons, the show has done more than that. Andi Mack has deftly interwoven the adolescent angst and nascent relationship drama (romantic, friendship, and familial) to be expected from a laugh-track-less dramedy about a young teen girl with storylines about alternative family structures, single parenting, military families, gender roles and equality, sexual orientation and identity, religious identity, ethnic heritage and difference, learning differences, and mental and behavioral health disorders, all without resorting to the kind of “very special episode” tropes I grew up with.
To be sure, this is not the Disney Channel I was familiar with as a younger parent when I snootily said things like “Oh, I don’t let my kids watch that stuff” (guaranteeing that they would, of course, watch that stuff later on). It’s not even the Disney Channel that they started watching a few years ago, when “diversity” was jokes about class difference and one-of-each-rainbow-adoptive-families (complete with actors forced to do fake accents and wear ethnic-signifying clothing) on Jessie. Of course, we’re not all the way there yet — witness the continued existence of the aforementioned Jessie’s sleepaway camp-based sequel Bunk’d, where poor Karan Brar still has to fake an Indian accent through self-deprecating nerd jokes and Skai Jackson still sasses it up.
But at the same time, over the past few years my girls have been able to watch everything from the girl-power coming-of-age dramas of Girl Meets World and the sibling hi-jinks of the Diaz family in Stuck in the Middle to the more classically high-concept sitcom stylings of K.C. Undercover, featuring the adventures of an African American family of spies, and Bizaardvark’s attempts at capitalizing on the YouTube era zeitgeist, in which the title comedy team are both Asian American girls and it’s their putative sidekicks who are white. Meanwhile, on channels and streams across the media landscape, children younger than my girls are growing up on gender-role-smashing black and brown princesses and doctors, Daniel Tiger’s mom works as a builder, and toddlers will soon solve Blue’s Clues with the help of a friendly Filipino American man. Yes, we’ve had a past littered with tantalizing hints of coming change that haven’t always panned out, but I can’t help feeling like, in the context of what’s happening beyond the confines of children’s television, we’re looking at a groundswell.
My daughters got the chance to talk with Peyton Elizabeth Lee (Andi), Sofia Wylie (her best friend Buffy and the newly announced voice of Marvel Rising’s Ironheart), Joshua Rush (her other best friend Cyrus), and Asher Angel (erstwhile love interest Jonah and the DCEU’s Shazam!’s Billy Batson) ahead of the third season premiere, and they asked them about the show’s place in the larger on-going discussion about diversity and representation in Hollywood and what it means for young people like them.
[You can watch the whole 8-minute interview below. You know you want to — kid interviewers are cute! Or fast-forward to 6:43 to watch the Andi Mack stars sing their show’s theme song with my daughters! Even cuter!]
For Peyton, “…it means so much to us that we get to bring these real, authentic stories to the big screen, and that people are sort of inviting us into their homes” every time they watch. The cast’s “racially diverse backgrounds” and “all the storylines [that] are very unique and authentic… [give] a little insight into what our future holds…. We’ve come such a long way […] from having no acceptance and diversity in the media, to now we’re definitely growing, and I think that Andi Mack is hopefully just a little landmark in that progression towards acceptance and loving everyone.”
Sofia agrees with her parents that the show, and what it represents, “is such a big deal, and we’re able to kind of be […] the trailblazers for that in our generation. And not just us, but so many others out there, speaking up about what they want in female equality or different subjects that are going on in our life. And I just am so thankful for the generation before us for getting us to the point that we’re at. And I think if we work to have more acceptance in the world, that we can make a better place for the generation that comes after us.”
When I ask my oldest why she watches and loves Andi Mack, she doesn’t talk about diversity, or being able to watch a main character who looks like her. (My youngest may have imbibed a little more of daddy’s kool-aid, though, and will say that such things are “inspiring.”) She just loves the characters, and the acting, and the storylines, with all the little interpersonal dramas that may or may not fill the real lives of teenagers like her. But the fact is that, unlike for her parents’ generation, she and her peers will be able to look back, years from now, and remember that the shows they grew up on did, at least in part, at least sometimes, look like their world, reflect themselves back at them. And as young adults and beyond, they will be watching, demanding, and creating media that reflects the reality they grew up with, both on-screen and IRL, rather than media that redresses a gap between the two. They will be wanting more of what they have always had, and they won’t settle for less. This, I hope, will be their new normal, the way toward it paved by shows like Andi Mack. Because, as its theme song says, “Tomorrow starts today.”
New episodes of Andi Mack air on Disney Channel every Monday night at 8 p.m. ET.