For a time in the 2000s, the Disney Channel was the fulcrum of a conservative child-star culture. The most famous of its marquee names during that time, like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Vanessa Hudgens, and Raven-Symone, have gone on to massive success—but not before they were put through the wringer of the gossip press, their every move scrutinized until they turned 18 and even after. Disney seemed to pump out Christian values and starlets who embodied them. Yet as these girls grew into women, the environment in which they began their careers haunted them, as they transformed from beaming child actors into embattled, press-hounded young women. The most obvious example of this was the handwringing around Miley Cyrus’s 2008 Vanity Fair shoot, in which Annie Leibovitz photographed her draped in nothing but a white sheet. Though the image was innocent, Christian groups responded with outrage, and Cyrus was forced to issue an apology (one she later retracted, already well into adulthood).
But the war over America’s most famous kids was clearly gendered, and a double standard of coverage emerged. As one half of this “Disney generation” fought off the eyes of the press and public, another developed almost completely unhindered by the boundaries placed around the other.
These were, of course, the boys: Zac Efron, the Jonas Brothers, the Sprouse Twins, for the most part, emerged from their child-star years without the same kind of scrutiny as their girl counterparts, though between them they shared addiction struggles, an arrest, leaked nudes, and explosively dramatic breakups.
(The Jonas Brothers’ ceremonial removal of their purity rings, and the rampant speculation the simple act spurred, was a notable exception.) Where these types of “scandals” almost constantly threatened to ruin the careers of the women that once populated Disney’s tween timeslots, the boys—now men—enjoyed a “boys will be boys,” almost rockstar-esque embrace of their behavior. This was embodied most obviously in the case of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose antics in the years during and since The Suite Life of Zack and Cody have largely escaped the big, all-seeing eye of the tabloid industry, whose gaze seems permanently fixed on their women counterparts.
The Sprouse Twins did not start acting on the Disney Channel. In their own
Tumblr posts and interviews since, they’ve said that their mother thrust them into the business at eight months old because she needed money. (Dylan has also since revealed she “struggles with drug addiction,” and that it put a heavy burden on both him and Dylan growing up.) Before Disney, they starred in Friends, Grace Under Fire, and Big Daddy, landing the kinds of roles network television bestows on especially cute children. But the Disney platform launched them into the living rooms of kids across the world: The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, in which the two played hotel-bound twins Zack and Cody, premiered on March 18, 2005, and was a natural complement to more obviously “girly” shows like That’s So Raven (2003) or Hannah Montana (2006.)
It wasn’t the channel’s first “boys” show, premiering after Phil of the Future and Even Stevens, but it was noticeably different than its predecessors. The stars were significantly younger—Zack and Cody were 12 in the show’s first season—and the humor was geared more towards elementary and middle school audiences. Gross, I think, would be the word: The jokes consisted of gags about farts, or obsessively deranged gimmicks where the twins would hit on girls at the hotel, like Maddie Fitzpatrick, played by Ashley Tisdale. Its raunchiness even drew criticism from lofty outlets like This American Life; in a 2007 episode, writer Dan Savage called it one of the dirtiest kid’s shows on television, telling host Ira Glass, “What offends me—what worries me—is how horny one of the twins always seems to be. Zack is sexually precocious in a deeply creepy way. Can a pre-pubescent boy be sexually precocious in a way that isn’t deeply creepy?”
But the Suite Life easily telegraphed the pubescent yearnings of its main stars, in
sharp contrast to Disney’s female stars at the time, who navigated a tricky balance onscreen and off. While on the show, writers would have Zack fret over all the guys Maddie had possibly hooked up with—and incessantly call her “sweet thang”—in real life, Selena Gomez announced she was going to “keep my promise to myself, to my family, and to God.” Even the Jonas Brothers sported the same purity rings as Cyrus or Gomez on every television appearance. Meanwhile, the Sprouses gave rambunctious red carpet interviews about kissing. In hindsight, the niche carved out for the Sprouse’s almost reads like a savvy marketing move for Disney, to cover its desired demographic bases at the expense of almost all its girl stars. On the flip side of the virginal and pure country singer pop stars like Miley Cyrus were rowdy, rambunctious boys like the Sprouses, who chased around girls on camera and made fart and poop jokes.
Yet the Disney Machine did aid the Sprouses in translating their money-making potential into a show and its many branded affiliates. In a Parade interview from 2009, archived here, the interviewer noted the twins’ many business ventures: “a new series of books, a California-hip line of boys’ clothing, Hollywood movie roles, a hit TV show and a merger with the Olsen twins’ firm, Dualstar Entertainment.” That merger in 2006 was focused on expansion to their branded merchandise, which encompassed clothes, comics, and a magazine called Code. At a launch event, fans celebrated that it was “geared towards guys interests.” That same year, Dualstar Entertainment even launched Sprouse Bros., which produced branded hygiene products for boys like hair gel, deodorant, and a three-in-one body wash.
As the two got older, their “for boys” twin gimmick intensified. Eventually, the Suite Life sequel, The Suite Life on Deck, premiered. It was an effort to age the characters along with the audience, as the boys revealed in an interview with Good Morning America in 2008. They also continued with their joke-heavy red carpet appearances that fractured the mold Disney often put its stars in—even as those strictures started to wane at the end of the decade. A year before Miley Cyrus would shatter the good-girl image of Hannah Montana with a performance of her “scandalous” hit “Can’t Be Tamed,” the twins wore their underwear over their clothing on The Ellen Show. Sure, they weren’t spinning around in a literal birdcage in a spandex bodysuit, or “pole dancing,” as Cyrus’s critics called it, at the Teen Choice Awards. But the Sprouse’s “boys will be boys” antics largely slipped under the radar, the tabloid press too enraptured by the burgeoning sexualization of Disney’s girl starlets. (Miley Cyrus was 17 when “Can’t Be Tamed” released in 2010. Coincidentally, both she and the Sprouses turned 18 later that year.)
Cyrus was not the first Disney starlet to come under scrutiny for her off-screen life. Vanessa Hudgens was all but forced to apologize to her fans and the public after nude photos of her leaked online in 2007, a “scandal” which seems patently bonkers some 13 years on. Had it happened today, Hudgens would be seen as a victim. Instead, her statement read: “I want to apologize to my fans, whose support and trust means the world to me. I am embarrassed over this situation and regret having ever taken these photos. I am thankful for the support of my family and friends.” Worse, a Disney Channel spokesperson who spoke with People announced that “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson.”
The public policing of Disney starlets would continue, as they got older, and more obviously independent. The press whipped up a panic when a video that revealed Miley Cyrus had smoked salvia on her 18th birthday leaked in 2010. The Media Research Center, a conservative “watchdog” organization, denounced Disney and Cyrus. By 2013, Fox News asked if Miley Cyrus was a threat to Disney’s brand, while the New York Post claimed that parents were “terrified” of her. Concurrently, Selena Gomez’s 2013 appearance in risque thriller film Spring Breakers caused an uproar, while Demi Lovato’s mental health and public-facing eating disorder caused similar chaos for both Disney and the tabloid industry.
Amidst the frenzy surrounding Saturday morning television starlets who were uncomfortably getting older, the Sprouse Twins were up to their own antics, ultimately defying Disney. In 2013, two years after Suite Life on Deck ended, Dylan railed against Disney’s greed in an interview with Salon. He claimed that he and his brother pitched a sequel to Suite Life that would help the crew keep their jobs, and were denied. A year after the proposal was shot down, Dylan claimed that execs essentially repeated their idea back to them, as a Disney original concept. As he told Salon, “Cole and I turned to each other and we basically laughed in their faces and walked out. And that was the last meeting we had with Disney.”
In 2012, Cole had also stirred up headlines after a Tumblr account he created was revealed to be a “sociology experiment,” apparently designed to toy with fans for his own amusement, and observe their behavior online. Or rather, that was the story he stuck with until it changed, and he said it was a college psych “project”:
In 2013, Dylan’s nudes leaked online, after someone he’d allegedly sent the photographs to published them on the internet. In a post on his Tumblr, he wrote he was “not proud of this incident’s potential lasting effects on my academic and artistic integrity,” but that he was “making the best of it through humor.” Noticeably, where Vanessa Hudgens’s nudes drew the ire of Hollywood power players and the public, so much that a spokesperson for the network said she hopefully “learned a valuable lesson,” Dylan’s nudes landed without even a thud. It was a classic child star gossip moment that ended as a complete non-scandal. Public sentiments about privacy had changed between 2007 and 2013, certainly. But there was never the expectation that the channel’s once most prolific child stars had to police themselves or their post-Disney personal. Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, meanwhile, perpetually lived in the shadow of the starlets they once were.
Eventually, the twins graduated from NYU’s School of Individualized Study in 2015. Cole studied archaeology, and Dylan studied video game design. Cole returned to acting on Riverdale, and Dylan opened a meadery in Williamsburg, All-Wise Meadery, which he described as “a very conscious effort to do something that’s not acting.” At his new job, meanwhile, Cole exuded every effort imaginable to shed the tween-image he’d been slapped with on Suite Life. Riverdale, to date, has included plotlines about rape, serial killers, cults, graphic body horror, the for-profit prison industrial complex, mobsters, drugs and, white supremacist gangs.
While Dylan has largely retreated from public life, Cole has stepped back into prominence. He maintains an Instagram account that documents fans who attempt to photograph him. He stars in Riverdale, arguably one of the most talked-about shows of the decade. Interestingly, he also continues with the antics that dominated his early red carpet interviews, goofing off during press junkets, or broadcasting the apathy he feels for the show in which he currently stars. He’s also had multiple cheating allegations hurled at him, which he’s fervently denied. An ex-girlfriend has also claimed he allegedly emotionally abused her. Still, his career persists, in all its jocularity, to borrow the words of Jezebel EIC Julianne Escobedo Shepherd.
What’s most interesting about the Sprouses, in the end, is what didn’t happen to them. Throughout the Suite Life-era, then their college years, and even as adults, the Sprouses have largely bypassed the omnipresent gaze of the tabloid press that thrusts up out of Los Angeles like the Eye of Sauron. Past “scandals,” like Cole’s social experiment on Tumblr, or Dylan’s nudes, are forgotten or seen as quirky pop culture artifacts born of even quirkier former child stars.
Unlike their former co-workers, the Sprouse twins have lived their adulthood largely uninterrupted by fanatical paparazzi or an inquisitive public. In fact, the most interested anyone has been in their lives, as of recently, has to do with their girlfriends. (Or ex-girlfriends, as far as Lili Reinhart is concerned.) Male aging is neither scandalous nor shocking, and the boys’ transition from pre-pubescent child actors to sex-having adults went mostly unquestioned. As such, they have grown up without the usual narratives endured by starlets superimposed over their personal lives: a loss of virginity, the ensuing terror of sexuality, and the influence that chaos has over young fans.
Imagine if the women once shackled to the ‘aughts Disney monolith had been afforded the space the Sprouse twins have carved out for themselves: to learn, to grow, to shed their old selves without resistance. The last decade in pop culture would have been unimaginably different, absent the innumerable scandals the likes of Miley Cyrus or Demi Lovato have found themselves embroiled in. The Sprouses, quite simply, thrived because of the inherently masculinized nature of their career. It’s all so frustratingly predictable.