Disney is sort of objectively awful when it comes to feminism and people of color, so maybe my standards are low, but I firmly believe Wizards of Waverly Place is the best thing Disney has ever created. Disney’s girls are so often either defined entirely by their relationships to the men around them (see: almost every princess movie ever) or overwhelmingly peppy and ditzy (see: most female protagonists on Disney Channel), but not Alex Russo. The protagonist of Wizards is a girl who acts like girls really act: she has boyfriends and broken hearts, but isn’t overly boy-crazy or dependent on them; she’s curious and smart enough to ask questions when other people are telling her not to; and throughout the series she faces a lot of the struggles women really do face throughout their lives.
Throughout the series, Alex struggles very realistically with her biracial(/biwizard) identity and surpasses the low expectations set for her by her family, school, and the entire wizarding world. She is confident, witty and independent in a way that would make her an instant “hero” if she were a boy, but instead there is an entire post-series made for TV movie about how the things she likes most in herself are also the characteristics society is constantly telling her to repress. When this show first came out I had just graduated high school, and I aspired to be as strong of a woman as this fake TV character who was probably 5 years younger than me. The fact that Disney – the same company that demonstrates female characters’ femininity by making their wrists smaller than their eyes – created a female character this strong still amazes me.
Alex is the middle child of the Russo family, a half-Mexican/half-Italian half-wizard family whose behavior and use of magic is considered too mischievous for her to ever succeed in winning the competition she must have with her siblings to see who becomes the family wizard. Unlike her brother Justin, a hard-working student who always follows the rules, Alex often uses magic in a way that is referred to throughout the series as “selfish”. So selfish, in fact, that in the post-series movie Alex v. Alex, when she extricates the “bad” parts of her personality that make her “misuse magic” they join forces with another “bad” wizard to try to take over the world. Throughout the series these words – bad, selfish, misuse – are used to describe Alex’s behavior, but I don’t think they are quite accurate. Her younger brother Max is often “misusing” magic but doesn’t get chastised for it; it is simply written off as a boy just playing around. So what makes Alex’s curiosity different? She pushes limits to see what she can get away with, she experiments with spells just to see what would happen, and when the “bad” parts of her are isolated we see that she has a desire for power – but none of these seem like extraordinarily “bad” characteristics to me. Especially when you consider that she is constantly being told she is going to lose the wizard competition to her brother, after which point her powers would be taken away forever; any child in her situation would seize the opportunity to use magic as much as possible while they still can.
Alex also struggles with her biracial identity: She understands the importance of a quinceanera to her mother, but doesn’t feel enough of an attachment to her heritage to put up with wearing a frilly pink dress – or, as she puts it, “I love being half-Mexican and half-whatever he is, but look at all this stuff it’s girly and lame.” Throughout the course of the episode she manages to get out of having to wear the awful dress while still learning that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do because they are important traditions to your family, for reasons you might not always understand. Alex and her brothers might not know how to dance the salsa, but they know how to eat it when their mom makes it – and sometimes that’s enough.
When presented with challenges, Alex hardly ever just gives up. Despite everyone telling her she can’t become the family wizard, when she finds a motivation to want to succeed (falling in love with another magical being), she pulls herself together and does everything she can to win. She doesn’t do well in school, and her principal and teachers are always explicitly telling her they don’t have any expectations for her, but when she finds a subject she really truly enjoys (art), she works incredibly hard to put together a mural. In “Justin’s Little Sister”, the children learn that genies are con artists who are always trying to outsmart wizards, to which Alex responds, “Well no genie can trick me; I’d make them wish they never met me.” All the men in her family respond to this confident assertion with annoyance and ask why she can’t be more like her brother. What girl with siblings can’t relate to her struggle?
In the end of the series, Alex shows everyone she is capable of way more than what they expected by winning the wizard competition with flying colors and getting to keep her powers. Post-series, she shows everyone they were wrong again, when even after winning the competition they still doubt her ability to responsibly handle magic. Even a children’s TV show is addressing the difficulties strong, successful women face: that when a woman surpasses all expectations by doing really well, her actual merits are still questioned. In fact, Alex’s family makes her feel so terrible about her success that she tries to solve the “problem” by removing her “bad” parts. In the end, she learns that this was the wrong decision and that even the “bad” parts of herself are actually making her a stronger woman – a fantastic end to a fantastic series. Wizards might be just a cheap rip-off of Harry Potter, but as far as girl wizards are concerned, I’ll take Alex Russo over Hermione any day.