Some of these stories are new intellectual property, but remakes of pre-existing Disney properties and adaptations of recognizable properties that are created by or starring people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds have also proved lucrative for the studio. These movies and shows and the merchandise ecosystem that accompany them offer big and little screen mirrors for millions of children who identify with the diverse actors of Color cast in starring roles. However, diversifying stories previously cast or imagined with white actors has led to racist backlash online. A recent example of this was the online outrage about the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black actress, as Ariel in the remake of The Little Mermaid (2023). These manufactured conflicts, fed into an “outrage machine” through social media channels, often contain rhetoric of “loss” for dominant groups (Sackl, 2022).
In this contested and often hostile space, studios and networks like Disney continue to acquire rights to multicultural intellectual property, including popular Young Adult and Middle Grades Literature. So what does it mean for these books and series to be “Disney-fied” today? Disney’s corporate imperative to make money while also expanding their market to meet shifting demographics worldwide has led to more representation behind and in front of the camera, but what opportunities and challenges does this offer? One example of recent Disney-fication that highlights the hopes and challenges of the expansion of market share is the Disney+ adaptation of the young adult novel The Crossover.
The Crossover (2014) novel by Kwame Alexander tells the story of Josh Bell, known as “Filthy McNasty” on the basketball court, as he and his twin brother Jordan “JB” navigate finishing middle school and winning big in basketball. Told in free verse, The Crossover reads like spoken word from the mind of Josh, one page visually mirroring moves on the court, the next detailing daily interactions with family and friends. Josh centers his life around his dream of playing professional basketball one day with his twin JB, just like their father, Chuck “Da Man” Bell. But when JB starts to dream of his future differently, and a medical diagnosis threatens to upend the tight-knit family, Josh has to figure out how to balance his dreams with the realities of life.
When it debuted, the novel received rave reviews from children’s literature critics, particularly for its’ portrayal of a successful, tight-knit Black family. The Crossover novel has subsequently made its way into many classrooms and curricula as a beloved novel for many teachers and students. The Disney+ adaptation of the popular novel intrigued us as we wondered: how would the show convey the original text’s poetry and heart? Would toy aisles be filled with Josh Bell dolls and The Crossover branded basketballs? Would commodification upstage the novel's message? Or would it be the type of adaptation that brings new audiences to the original text and author?
One of the potential advantages of Disney’s corporate strategies is a focus on expanding existing properties into longer forms. Because of the choice to make The Crossover into a series (with the help of author Alexander who served as a writer on the show), supporting characters from the novel are developed more fully with storylines that were not present in the original text. For instance, Josh and JB’s mom Crystal Bell has an expanded storyline where she vies for a promotion from middle school assistant principal to principal at the school her sons attend. The show also includes new plot events that center and celebrate Black history and Black joy; in one example, the twins prepare for and attend a Harlem Renaissance-themed middle school dance. Without an emphasis on expanding the source material, fans of the book’s characters would miss out on these storylines.
Additionally, attempts to create dramatic tension in the show end up undercutting the impact of the book’s style. Most episodes are framed by jumps forward in time to see where the Bell family is now, including adding a future car wreck implying one of the twins becomes gravely injured and unable to play basketball soon after being signed to a professional team. These moments add higher stakes to the plot than were present in the book but do not add to the story in a meaningful way, while distracting from the artistry and the joy of the original text. The show ends with a cliffhanger, hinting that the story will continue in a future season, a recognition of Disney’s overarching goal to create long-lasting franchises.
The show also removes any reference to Josh’s locs, which feature prominently in the book, both as a source of pride and individual expression for Josh and a plot event when JB wins a bet and accidentally cuts off more than one. In fact, the actor who plays Josh has an afro throughout the show, and Black hair styles and preferences never feature as a storyline. Removing culturally-specific storylines like this may have left time for more basketball scenes, but eliminates a point of connection for viewers who identify with the characters’ experiences.
Overall, The Crossover series offers readers an opportunity to see their favorite characters come to life, and opens the door to practice critical literacy skills by asking questions like why aspects of the book were changed and to whose benefit.
Thoughts for Teachers
While The Crossover is one example of a multicultural YAL Disney adaptation, American Born Chinese (2023) is another recent example of a Disney+ screen adaptation of the novel by Gene Luen Yan that attempts to weave the original source material into a season (or more?) of television. Readers in classrooms around the country will also enjoy asking critical questions of the adaptation, particularly as film and TV may serve as access points to text for readers.
- How is this film or television show marketed to children, teens, and adults?
- What changes were made to the source material in the adaptation? How do these add to or take away from the original?
- Who benefits from the adaptation? Who benefits or loses from the changes made to the original text?
When thinking about watching these adaptations with youth, these questions become critical to ask. While shows like The Crossover and American Born Chinese have brought more diverse actors, stories, and cultures to wider audiences, that does not mean they are fully capturing the nuance of the diverse perspectives of their source material.
Questions also remain as to the size and scope of audience these shows are reaching given the lack of transparency streaming services have about their viewership. For the new Disney+ adaptation of Goosebumps (2023), Disney has been vocal about the shows success, while it is difficult to find news about viewership for both The Crossover and American Born Chinese, which have been available much longer but with less marketing and merchandising. This exploration of The Crossover demonstrates the complexities of adapting multicultural YAL in increasingly thoughtful and inclusive ways in pop culture while “caught between online participatory culture and corporate fan service, fan activism and conservative backlash” (Sackl, 2022).
Katie McGee is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at Clemson University. Prior to her doctoral studies, she was a school-based, district, and regional literacy coach and middle school English teacher in Oklahoma and Texas for 10 years. Katie holds a B.S. from Texas Christian University and a M.Ed. in Literacy from Clemson University and is pursuing a doctorate in Literacy, Language and Culture. Her research interests include equity-oriented preservice teacher education, young adult literature, and critical pedagogies.
Susan Cridland-Hughes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of English Education in the College of Education at Clemson University. Her research focuses on the intersections of social justice, critical literacy, orality in out of school educational spaces, particularly debate and debate education, and the rise in book challenges and YA censorship. Her work has been featured in the Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and English Teaching: Practice and Critique.