Ilana Cruger-Zaken, a 34-year-old mom and graduate student at the New School, likes to compare generational notes with a friend who’s in her 20s.
“We often do what we call cultural exchanges,” Cruger-Zaken told me over the phone, her toddler crying in the background. “We talk about the difference between our ages, and she tells me things that I don’t understand about her generation. I was thinking about Disney Channel and 9/11 and then suddenly, out of a hole in my brain, I remember these videos and I was like, ‘was that real, or was I hallucinating?’”
It was no hallucination. In the early aughts, the Disney Channel aired a series called Express Yourself in between its regular programming, featuring Disney Channel stars like Hilary Duff and Shia LaBoeuf as well as other celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg chatting about their family, friends, hobbies, and music. The tone of the series shifted dramatically after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, veering into a kind of hyper-patriotic propaganda. Those post-9/11 videos are still burned in Cruger-Zaken’s brain.
“Just remembered these absolutely wild post 9/11 disney channel propaganda videos,” she tweeted in early August.
Disney’s post-9/11 content definitely seemed harmless and wholesome at the time; kids were traumatized and seeking comfort. But now, 20 years later, the clips eerily mirror a nation drunk on jingoism.
“I saw a fire truck pass by the other day, and it had an American flag on it, and it was blowing in the wind,” Duff, then the star of the Lizzie McGuire, says in one clip as she gazes serenely at a tiny handheld American flag. “It was so amazing, and everybody started clapping and cheering and it was really special.”
“The flag means everything to me,” said Seventh Heaven’s Beverly Mitchell. “It means life, it means freedom, it also means unity, and it means love.”
“You see American flags everywhere,” said Melissa Joan-Hart of Sabrina the Teenage Witch fame. “It just... it reminds you, but it also makes you really proud.”
“It’s a beacon of peace, and liberty, and justice, and democracy,” said Joey Lawrence, sandwiched between his two brothers Andy and Matt. They were best known for the sitcom Brotherly Love and a series of Disney Channel original movies. “And we can hold it up high and hold it up proud.”
And in one of the most earnest displays that would perhaps portend his adult career, Shia LaBeouf, star of Even Stevens, read a poem.
“I wrote a poem about it,” said LaBoeuf in one of these videos, producing a piece of paper with a flourish. He then recites his 9/11-inspired poem titled “One Man” as footage of him standing in front of a massive American flag flashes across the screen.
“Me is only one man, they call me an American, no matter if I’m Christian Jewish, Muslim, or Catholic, any persuasion,” he says at the poem’s end. “I think through this pain I’ve learned a valuable lesson, that it’s awesome to be an American citizen.”
Even First Lady Laura Bush got a spot on Express Yourself, emphasizing that “our flag stands for all of us.”
Disney Channel’s Express Yourself series wasn’t all jingoism-lite; the 9/11 heavy ones featured moments that pressed the importance of respecting others (Adam Lamberg, of Lizzie McGuire, said in one spot, “Well, I think racism is really bad.”). Disney’s intent was clear: Press the importance of unity, tolerance, and American pride at a time when morale was low and fear was high.
To be fair, it was a deeply traumatic time to be a kid, and there was certainly some reassurance in seeing some familiar faces speak candidly about that day. I contacted Christy Carlson Romano, who was LaBoeuf’s Even Stevens co-star at the time and appeared in the Express Yourself PSAs, to reflect on the commercials. She replied via a YouTube video about her experience being in Manhattan on 9/11.
“It was really about being an American that they were trying to promote, or at least some unity,” Romano said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
It’s hard to find fault with these young Disney Channel stars speaking about patriotism and what it means to be an American in the ways most of us were taught to do. But it’s fascinating, now, to look back at the way in which Disney Channel participated in the collective cultural pressure to produce patriotic content to be consumed en masse. Disney wasn’t going to create a kid’s version of 24, but they had to do something. Express Yourself was Disney’s solution.
I was 10 years old on September 11, 2001, watching the events bleary-eyed in the early hours of the morning in Los Angeles. Most channels—even the Home Shopping Network—were plugged into news feeds of the destruction, images of the second plane crashing on loop, the fireball that followed, the towers disintegrating into a cloud of dust. But the cable networks geared toward children—namely, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network—displayed solemn messages about suspending their programming for the remainder of the day. Of the three, Disney Channel stood apart from its competitors in its handling of the event; Cartoon Network didn’t acknowledge the attacks in the aftermath. Mr. Rogers came out of retirement to deliver a message to confused children, and Sesame Street leaned heavily on metaphor for its 9/11-inspired episode which aired the following February.
Disney, meanwhile, was significantly more heavy-handed on the subject, even producing an original movie about the attacks. Tiger Cruise aired on August 6, 2004, starring Hayden Panettiere plays Maddie, a teen who is aboard the USS Constellation with her Navy Commander father and a slew of other military families. The excitement of the vacation is cut short when the September 11 terrorist attacks occur just a couple of days into their week-long cruise. The ship goes into crisis mode, and drama ensues. But all is well by the movie’s end, when Maddie helps unfurl a massive American flag on the ship’s deck, bursting with pride. Anita Gates of the New York Times wrote that it was “hard not to think of another banner on an aircraft carrier, the one that said ‘mission accomplished,’ more than a year ago.”
If Disney didn’t intend the similarity to the optics and George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq, they certainly didn’t see an issue. This wasn’t much of a departure from Disney’s history of peddling patriotism and militarism to the masses, a practice they can continue to push via their acquisition of Marvel films as they produce superhero film franchises with a stamp of approval—and additional funding—by the Department of Defense.
It was all well and good to see Tia and Tamera Mowrey say that it’s normal to be traumatized by 9/11. Children needed an outlet, and Disney was eager to provide one that stayed deeply in line with the overwhelming American message post-9/11: Love it or leave it. As President Bush famously said during his September 20, 2001 speech: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
But this was likely significantly less comforting for a Muslim American preteen who couldn’t even get through an episode of Lizzie McGuire without seeing a commercial about the preciousness of the pledge of allegiance, especially considering how anti-Muslim crimes soared in the year after 9/11.
Still, Disney’s target audience post-9/11 were wholesome all-American preteens, which was reflected in the network’s purity ring-wearing stars. Why busy themselves with the nitty-gritty of what it is like to be a young Muslim kid at a time like that? Besides, they covered it in an episode of The Proud Family. Problem solved.
The months and years after 9/11 were troubling as an adolescent; color-coded terror threat levels, Freedom Fries, American Idiot, the ubiquitous American flags becoming a symbol of dogged support of carnage abroad as opposed to unity. My generational cohort who endured Disney Channel during the peak of its sentimental patriotism are in their early 30s and late 20s now, and we came of age in a political landscape defined by Osama bin Laden and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s now an entire generation of children for whom 9/11 is distant history. Children’s entertainment has adapted to incorporate the narrative of September 11th.
“I never thought I’d write a book about the attacks for kids,” writer Kate Messner told me via email. “But time has a way of changing things and providing new perspectives.”
Messner has written dozens of children’s books, from coming of age novels to a recent picture book about Dr. Anthony Fauci. She’s also the author of the Ranger in Time book series, which features a time-traveling search and rescue dog named Ranger. Ranger, with his modern-aged search and rescue team, has traveled everywhere from the Oregon Trail to the Underground Railroad and even New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. And in an installment released in 2020, Ranger shows up at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Messner told Jezebel that she decided to write the book after school visits where students would ask her to write a Ranger in Time book about 9/11. She was hesitant at first, deeming the event too sad and too raw to explore. But in time, Messner realized that this silence didn’t dampen their curiosity.
“Our elementary school readers of today don’t have any of the sad memories of 9/11 that we carry around as adults,” Messner said. “They’ve heard about that day, and they’re curious, but the adults in their lives don’t like to talk about it because it still makes us so sad. That leaves kids wondering, and that’s why they’re asking for stories to explain what happened—to shine a light on that awful day in history so they can understand.”
That’s why she decided to write Ranger In Time, Escape from the Twin Towers. It may come across as slightly macabre for adults—the cover features an adorable, time-traveling dog looking solemn as the Twin Towers burn. But with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 upon us, parents and educators are trying to figure out how to explain the tragedy to a new generation of children born several years after the attacks.
A quick Google search on how to teach children about 9/11 brings up 911lesson.org, a website with teaching tools and suggestions about teaching 9/11 in the classroom. The site is run by non-profit Global Game Changers, and largely focuses on teaching children what a terrorist is and sharing the stories of heroic first responders. While there is certainly some language that flirts with the language of American exceptionalism, they lack the kind of flag-waving that defined the Disney Channel PSAs. And while Islamophobia isn’t explored in depth, it’s mentioned explicitly, something that I would have been hard-pressed to find in children’s media in the early 2000s.
“I think it’s important to address not only what happened on 9/11 but also the impact it had on our communities, particularly when it comes to anti-Muslim prejudice,” said Messner. “Helping kids to understand where that kind of bias comes from can also help them to speak up and be allies when someone is being targeted. Saadia Faruqi’s new book Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero does a great job exploring these ideas.”
Of course, taking marginalized voices more seriously is a newer, if deeply imperfect, development. Stories of hate and ignorance toward Muslim-Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 certainly existed, but finding intimate, first hand perspectives weren’t as easy as a simple Google search like they are now— “What It’s Like to Be a Muslim American in a Post-9/11 World,” “9 devastating, revealing stories of being Muslim in post-9/11 America,”—there wasn’t a book like Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, which details the trials of young Muslim-American kids growing up after 9/11, and there was certainly no Ramy.
Yet it’s this decades-long reassertion and reassessment of the post-9/11 era that makes the Disney Express Yourself PSAs such a relic. A child actor preening in front of the stars and stripes didn’t directly dictate U.S. foreign policy or singlehandedly perpetuate anti-Muslim violence. But Disney was certainly complicit in promoting shallow symbols of unity and American strength at a time when such symbols were used to justify everything from blowing Iraq to smithereens to spying on Americans under the guise of safety. And the implications linger now that the United States has left Afghanistan, and will likely continue as it becomes safer to critically reassess how we got here in the first place.