In these tough times I thought it might be nice to step aside from the muder, mayhem, and mental illness this column usually covers and take on a Disney Channel movie. This was a terrible idea. Old repeats of Forensic Files and American Justice are more satisfying than reliving high school via the Disney Channel.
How to Build A Better Boy tells the story of two smart, nice, high school girls in Washington, DC who accidentally hack the Pentagon (ha!) and release a sentient weapon. Disney Channel packed this 2014 film with stars from its programs, including Austin & Ally, The Troop, True Jackson, VP, A.N.T. Farm. The Better Boyfriend is Glee‘s Marshall Williams, while the brainy girls are Mae, played by Kelli Berglund, and Gabby, portrayed by China Anne McClain.
Gabby is he best character in the film, but is stuck playing Mae’s sidekick. This is too bad. Not only does Gabby successfully code the robot, he creates a robot that (occasionally) appears to displaying feeling and thought. She’s also a driven, kind young woman with a bright future, but no one acknowledges that she’s an asset to the nation. She’s brilliant and unstoppable, but no one praises her for her genius.
The film feels like an attempt at feminism from someone who believes in #NotAllMen. That’s not the fault of screenwriter Jason Mayland though, who calls himself a “dorky Democrat dad.” Look at his Twitter feed:
This is the #1 result for “Dad Gifts” on Amazon. This country has absolutely no problem with misogyny. pic.twitter.com/OJQHw5c62H
— Do Not Normalize (@JaymayAllDay) November 21, 2016
This is clearly the fault of Disney. Which is a shame, because while the Disney Channel and Disney are separate entities when it comes to film, The Princess Diaries is a series that has a firm grip on girls who are smart, weird, awkward, and want to change the world and kiss cute boys.
Can we, for a moment?
Of course, media aimed at youths rarely reflect how truly terrible it is to be a teenager, and it’s never accurate to the way the social world works. (Freaks & Geeks got it right, though.) I dated a “bad” boy in high school but instead of Jess, he was dumb as shit. (He had blue hair and my family is still bitter about it.) Still, the way high school works is not accurate to Mae and Gabby’s existence. Two brilliant girls in Washington, DC would go to a private school, and they wouldn’t be surrounded by idiots, they’d be up to their eyeballs in the world’s future leaders. Some of their peers would suck (such is life) but they wouldn’t be the only awkwardly dressed smartypants.
And no mean girl has tried to take down her nerdy nemesis at Homecoming (geez, save it for Prom), usually because Mean Girls have their own crew, and they’re busy having fun at Homecoming. At my senior prom a girl stormed off the dance floor because her boyfriend was King (or Prince) and paired with a girl who wasn’t her. But she didn’t take the mic and reveal that the popular girl who won was a robot.
The third act of this film is particularly weird as Mae’s father and the military try to give Mae the perfect night. We spent trillions of dollars in defense for this? And odd subplot is that an Eastern European group of arms dealers are trying to steal the robot boyfriend (oh, right, he’s Albert, from Alaska) but are beaten during a football game. They linger around until they’re suddenly gone. How they’ve learned about Albert so quickly is never revealed, except they’ve attempted to steal secret weapons “every time.”
It’s weird how the film gets so much wrong yet imitated the University of Maryland logo for the high school and used Taxation Without Representation plates on the cars. It’s weirder how easily Disney will Mae fall apart so easily. Maybe this is “only” Disney Channel, but by 2020 Buzzfeed will be dredging this for a post on the Best Disney Channel films of all time. Tween and teen brains hold on to this forever (I love Brink!), and this could have been an opportunity to let Gabby and Mae shine.