I grew up in the golden age of the Disney Channel. I watched the hits: Hannah Montana, The Cheetah Girls, Wizards of Waverly Place. And if it was a Friday night, I’d settle in to devour the latest Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM). I watched it all. Now, as an adult, I’m part of that very specific Gen-Z Twitter and Instagram community who constantly reshares their favorite scenes from the shows, and whose childhoods can very much be defined by those Disney Channel programs. Everyone has their favourite Disney Channel show from their youth and mine was That’s So Raven. Even as a child, I could acknowledge that Raven Baxter was way ahead of her time. That’s So Raven premiered on January 17, 2003 and now, 20 years later, I’m a 21-year-old Black woman who credits the show for educating me on so many issues I would face growing up.
That’s So Raven debuted almost three years after the end of Moesha, and Raven Baxter (Raven-Symoné) was the breath of fresh air that network TV needed. Raven-Symoné was the youngest Black woman to have a TV show named after her. The show proved stereotypes surrounding Black girls being unable to lead hit shows wrong, and Raven paved the way for Zendaya, Keke Palmer and China Anne McClain to excel on their own shows with Black girls at the helm.
That’s So Raven overcame Disney Channel’s controversial “65-episode rule” that saw the network cancel popular series with large fan bases, like Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens, at episode 65 with the assumed aim to limit production costs and fit in with the channel’s programming schedule so they could keep making new shows. The Even Stevens movie, which acted as the show's finale, reportedly brought in over 5.1 million viewers, the DCOM Cadet Kelly, starring Hilary Duff and Christy Carlson-Romano, was the network's biggest original film premiere at the time, and The Lizzie McGuire Movie made over $55 million at the box office. Yet it was That's So Raven that broke the 65-rule barrier. That’s So Raven’s ability to appeal to a variety of different audiences, inclusive of race, age, and gender, allowed it to be one of the most successful Disney Channel shows in the network’s history. It earned two Emmy nominations for outstanding children's program in 2005 and 2007, and two sequel shows in the same universe with Cory in the House and Raven's Home. It was the only show up until that point to end because the actors were ageing beyond the teenage demographic rather than the 65-episode rule and it became the first Disney Channel series to hit the 100-episode mark and Disney Channel’s longest-run series until Wizards Of Waverly Place surpassed it years later.
That’s So Raven gave us a quirky Black female protagonist long before Insecure, Grownish, and Chewing Gum. Raven was funny as hell and had a bold fashion sense with outfits that shouldn’t have worked, but for some reason, they did. While I wouldn’t wear any of Raven’s outfits myself, her ability to wear clothes that clearly brought her joy inspired me as a teenager to do the same. I’m sure over the years, my friends have wondered what on earth I was wearing, but I never cared because as Raven taught me Black girl joy trumps everything, and my quirky outfits bring me joy.
Raven Baxter taught me Black girl joy trumps everything.
But beyond fashion, That’s So Raven combined comedy with education. The storylines of That’s So Raven prepared me for hurdles I would face in my own life, especially when it came to dating. The episode "Driven To Insanity” or as friends and I call it, the “Worst Date Ever” taught me to have standards when it came to dating boys. In the episode, Raven goes out on a date with an older boy, which she regrets. The date was a mess: Raven’s date licked his spoon in the restaurant, unintentionally spat on her, dangled food in her face and when he flicked a piece of meat in her drink, he then scooped it back up with his hand to eat it. I still remember recoiling at his foolishness and swearing never to accept those kinds of antics on a date. Raven’s dating experiences on the show helped me realise I was not the only one who would struggle dating in my teens. Bad dates are something most of us have to go through, so we can appreciate a good date when it comes around.
“That's So NOT Raven,” which aired in 2004, was another standout episode. In it, Raven gets the chance to model the clothes she designed at a fashion show. Until the magazine sponsor photoshops someone else's body over hers to make her appear smaller and look like their type of "model." The episode taught me early on that I would probably never see myself in the models presented to me by the media. It broke down the problems with beauty culture, modelling and the fact that these issues weren’t my fault and that there wasn’t anything wrong with me; it was the industry perpetuating the myth that there is only one type of model, or one way to be beautiful. As the episode highlighted, just because I didn’t see myself in those models didn’t mean I wasn’t beautiful. Reflecting on the episode to Girls United, Raven-Symoné said, “I remember what I personally was going through at that moment and I was so disconnected. I was in my own turmoil of weight, battles, and fighting all of the negativity of that time period that I never really fully understood what I was doing when I was doing it at that age because I was going through my own things that have now created triggers,” she said. “Now, when people bring it up or body image is much more [accepting] of all the types, I’m like, ‘Dang, y’all got it good nowadays. Y’all got it so much better. You guys can embrace your body without judgment of anything.'” And the reason things are “so much better” (even though there’s still a long way to go on mainstream media’s acceptance of body diversity) is partly because of That’s So Raven.
“True Colors” is another episode I’m sure many people who watched the show will remember, and clips from the episode were reshared multiple times in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. The episode shows Raven getting passed over for a job in a department store in favour of her white friend Chelsea (Anneliese van der Pol). Raven then has a vision where she sees the store manager say she doesn’t hire Black people. The episode’s ability to tackle racism through awkwardness, humour but also with the underlying message that Black women should fight to be treated fairly is exactly what I needed to see at that age. Raven Baxter’s ability to inject humour into the most uncomfortable moments is what made the show so great and understandable for all audiences who may have struggled to relate otherwise.
I can’t talk about That’s So Raven without giving credit to its star, Raven-Symoné. In an interview with Variety, Raven-Symoné credited her career longevity to the fact she doesn’t reinvent herself she is just “growing into who I am.” From her making a star out of Raven Baxter, Symoné went on to star in the first Disney Channel Original Movie musical as Galleria "Bubbles" Garibaldi, where she helped the phrase “Cheetah Sisters” became popular and taught girls in a song why they didn’t want to be like Cinderella. While some of her career can be credited to luck, something she mentioned in an interview with Grazia: “I know a lot of people who worked their whole careers in order to make a standout moment. And I, at the age of 16, was able to have my own show with my name on it, and work with some of the most talented people to create a show that will entertain families for years to come.” Her career can also be credited to her continued drive to speak to a variety of different audiences, which she has constantly done with projects such as Dr. Dolittle, The Princess Diaries 2, black-ish, Empire, and as a former co-host of The View before returning to Disney Channel to influence another generation of kids.
That’s So Raven redefined network TV for a generation...while also showing that “diversity” isn’t just a marketing tactic.
Being able to watch her over the years tap into different audiences has only furthered my opinion that Raven-Symoné is a powerful force in the entertainment industry. She has continued her drive to inspire while also ensuring she uses her platform to speak up on important issues such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (which the cast of Raven’s Home walked out in protest of), has only furthered her ability to make shows like That’s So Raven — and now its spin-off — so groundbreaking. ‘Television is something people have on and interact with more than we do with the people in our lives. You need television that is educational, that is entertaining, that is drama-filled, you need all kinds,” Raven-Symoné said in an interview with Grazia. “That’s So Raven explored things going on in children’s lives, and showed how to deal with it.”
That’s So Raven thrived at subverting typical TV stereotypes, which is why it holds up 20 years later. A Black girl as the lead protagonist and the white best friend as the comedic relief wasn’t common to see at the time, and it still isn’t. Raven’s friendships with Chelsea and Eddie (Orlando Brown) went as deep off-screen as highlighted by Van der Pol on TODAY when crediting her lifelong friendship with Raven-Symoné to the fact the two have “always really respected each other's talent, and that goes a long way. And if somebody can make you better in your job, and you can make them better, I mean, you better stick together.” Their relationship showed the importance of friendship.
Raven’s psychic powers often caused more chaos than good and showed that it was OK to make mistakes. At its core, That’s So Raven is a show about a normal flawed teenager (well, as normal as you can be with psychic powers), and the radical way it leaned into Raven’s complexity and relatability as a regular Black girl is what made the show so special.
That’s So Raven redefined TV for a generation, as it embraced kids’ multifaceted nature by teaching them to make the most out of every experience and learn from their mistakes while also showing that “diversity” isn’t just a marketing tactic. Raven Baxter is proof that a show about a Black girl can be relatable to a large audience and stand the test of time. And if you want more proof that That’s So Raven changed the Disney Channel, then just look at its 2017 spinoff, Raven’s Home, which is currently on its fifth season with a sixth season already confirmed, or her beloved role in The Cheetah Girls franchise; all a living testament to Raven-Symoné’s impact on the network. Twenty years later, I’m so excited new generations are discovering That’s So Raven and that all these years later, its legacy lives on.