“Untouchable.” “Grammy-worthy.” “Ahead of their time.”
These are just a few ways Twitter and TikTok have described The Cheetah Girls in recent weeks. The platforms have suddenly been saturated with clips from the beloved Disney Channel movies, as fans are determined to give the titular group their flowers, again, 20 years after their debut.
The Cheetah Girls film trilogy boasts a major legacy, with the franchise’s first film reportedly reaching 84 million global viewers and subsequently propelling the eponymous girl group to worldwide fame. Released in 2003, it was also Disney Channel’s first musical feature film, paving the way for the success of films such as High School Musical, Camp Rock, and Teen Beach Movie.
But unlike the more commercially successful franchises that followed, The Cheetah Girls has gained an online following that’s still invested in the group’s music—analytics suggest the group still garners over half a million Spotify listeners per day, despite splitting up in 2008.
The group’s ongoing revival stretches beyond music alone. The fandom focuses on visual aesthetics, performance pedigree, and the establishment of “icon” status—all of which the group excelled in. Fans on social media do everything from curate perfectly coordinated replica looks inspired by the group, to recreate that iconic “Strut” scene in Barcelona. On Twitter, memorable lines from the franchise have been recycled as reaction pictures and videos. (I imagine there’s nothing more devastating than someone dismissing you with Galleria’s iconic line, “Let’s bounce, girls.”)
Why has The Cheetah Girls held a decades-long grip on social media and a generation of Disney Channel-loving kids? Hold onto your hats, people. I know talking about race is scary, but we’re going to do it anyway.
An almost-universal experience amongst non-white girls who grew up in majority-white regions is being “Taylor.” No, not Swift—McKessie. When “playing” High School Musical on the playground, we were always assigned the role of Taylor McKessie, even when we desperately wanted to be Sharpay Evans. Why? Our brown skin, obviously. How dare we ask to play someone else?!
This was always slightly confusing to me, because I knew I was South Asian, while Taylor was African-American. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that, to some people, we were both simply “the other.”
But when we girls would pretend to be The Cheetah Girls, I was suddenly presented with choices. I looked like most of the characters, so I could be whoever I wanted. I was Galleria, belting my heart out to lyrics like “my knight in shining armor is me.” I was Dorinda, dancing like nobody was watching. I was Aqua, strutting around the playground, pretending I was in scenic Barcelona. I was finally seen.
The Cheetah Girls series, based on the books by Deborah Gregory, follows the journey of four New York teenagers who dream of superstardom. The cast for the Disney Channel adaption was led by Raven Symoné, who had recently established herself as the first Disney it-girl by starring as her namesake in That’s So Raven, the first program on the channel to run more than 65 episodes. Its huge viewership allowed it to air 100 episodes over four seasons and spawn the first Disney Channel spin-off with Cory In The House. Symoné starred alongside 3LW members Adrienne Bailon and Kiely Williams, as well as Sabrina Bryan, real name Reba Sabrina Hinojosa.
Visually diverse, featuring four women of different skin tones, cultural backgrounds, and body types, the group would unknowingly revolutionize children’s television for the better.
Before The Cheetah Girls, there were no live-action Disney Channel productions exclusively aimed at kids of color. By the late 1990s, the broadcaster had almost mastered the formula for a successful original series: an all-American, white-picket-fence type of family, centered on the trials and tribulations of a teenager as they navigate those awkward adolescent years. Shows like Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire were hits, prefacing a golden era of original series that would dominate youth culture.
Kids of color tended to play a small part in this formula, often relegated to supporting roles. The channel’s film roster was similar. Disney Channel did feature some ethnic minorities as leading characters, though generally in those productions that centered entirely around issues of race discrimination and white tolerance. Movies like The Color of Friendship, the story of an unlikely friendship between a Black American and a white South African during the apartheid, were praised for the “real world” lessons they taught their younger audience.
With some exceptions, like the recently rebooted, fan-favorite cartoon The Proud Family, the overarching message was clear: If Disney Channel was going to “do” racial diversity, it would be to teach its viewers—predominantly the white ones—a lesson.
Enter The Cheetah Girls, a film centered on the unbreakable bond between four Black and brown teenagers as they pursue superstardom. It went against the grain of the established formula in every way, and yet, 20 years later, it remains one of the channel’s greatest successes.
The ethnic makeup of the cast has been a talking point since the original premiere, sometimes as a point of ridicule. A 2003 review reduced the movie to a “culturally diverse morality lesson disguised as a musical fantasy.” This narrative followed the group through to the franchise’s final installment; a New York Times journalist described the premiere of The Cheetah Girls 3: One World as “less like [a] typical Hollywood cast party than some sort of United Nations session.”
Today, however, the diversity of The Cheetah Girls makes up a large portion of the group’s popular appeal and longevity. The ensemble’s energetic performance was, at the time, a novelty that helped fill a large gap in children’s entertainment. It was a much overdue inclusion of Black and brown girls in cinema as complex characters, liberated from the cruel lens of racial analysis for the entertainment of white audiences.
It’s important to note that the ability to withstand the test of time isn’t just rooted in the fact that the group was racially diverse. It’s more dependent on the fact that each member’s differences were present and celebrated, not without defining the characters themselves.
This nuance is perhaps best evidenced in the portrayal of Chanel (Bailon) in the second film. Chanel’s Hispanic heritage was an obvious difference from the norm, both in her medium-brown skin tone and her ability to switch between Spanish and English with ease. She acted as a translator for the others as they navigated Barcelona, correcting Aqua’s incorrect pronunciation of the Sagrada Familia (sorry, Sagrrrrrrrada Familia – roll those ‘R’s, people).
Chanel was, simply, Hispanic, and at no point did she shy away from this fact. Her identity was never exaggerated for comedic effect, and it didn’t present an inherent obstacle she would have to overcome. This was a straightforward, yet significant, portrayal, which taught a generation of young girls to normalize their differences too. This was a universe where girls from minority ethnic backgrounds could thrive without question.
It’s this tasteful type of inclusion that made the group a safe space for marginalized children, and it’s this sense of safety that allows the franchise to thrive. For women of color, The Cheetah Girls are one of the few sources of true, pure nostalgia.
That, perhaps most of all, is why the group is able to experience a social media takeover in 2023. Contemporary entertainment and pop culture is defined by nostalgia. This isn’t limited to those watered-down reboots of your favorite childhood shows; it also manifests as the revival of Y2K fashion and the reemergence of late-’90s R&B in the mainstream. It’s a yearning for the younger version of ourselves, and rediscovering those first inklings of our identities.
When on-screen portrayals of teenagers of color are scarce, women of color are left without anyone to directly relate to. In an era where nostalgic entertainment reigns supreme, we’re left in the dark.
And with this in mind, the recent explosion of The Cheetah Girls content on social media makes so much sense. We have found solace in what was one of the only children’s franchises of the early-2000s that presented a nuanced and accurate representation of Black and brown girlhood. The group and its actors personified a feeling of uninterrupted, unapologetic joy for those girls who couldn’t find themselves on screen elsewhere, and they still inspire a sense of pride in their long-serving fans..
It’s this unparalleled sense of inclusion within the group that makes the franchise precious. Symoné, Bailon, Williams, and Bryan showed a generation of girls the values of self-love, self-empowerment, and self-belief. For that, we’ll always be thankful to The Cheetah Girls—and singing their hits.