THE CALCULUS OF DISNEY LOVE TRIANGLES
From the ICONIC Carter-Duff-Lohan love triangle to drivers license: I did the math. Here are my calculations.
As my mother likes to say, “don’t sh*t where you eat.” You never know what could happen, and the risks almost always outweigh the benefits of dating someone whose circle overlaps yours exactly. Is it worth dreading going to school and work and dodging them around every corner?
But consider the fringe cases: you might be a Disney Channel child star, and dating within your circle would make the most sense. Why wouldn’t it? A fellow cog in the Disney machine? Hey, it’s called “giving the fans what they want.” We see this happening again and again; at this point, relationships between Disney Channel child stars almost feels cursed, though this doesn’t discourage the fans from cheering them on any less. From Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s tumultuous relationship to the Zac Efron and Vanessa reconciliation we’re still holding out for, when things don’t work out, they don’t get to move on, but instead are haunted by ghosts and journalists of relationships past. During the ICONIC Carter-Duff-Lohan love triangle, I was 5, and I’m not sure I could have even pronounced Aaron Carter. Growing up, though, I was an avid watcher of Lizzie McGuire (and thus gutted by the cancellation of the reboot), and I loved any movie Lindsey Lohan was in, but I didn’t much care for Aaron Carter. I didn’t understand the full scope of the feud and love triangle until recently when I have caught up on old forum discussion boards and video essays.
Let me bring you up to speed.
The Carter-Duff-Lohan love triangle started in 2001 when Carter and Duff met on the set of Lizzie McGuire, and shared an on-screen performance of “I Want Candy” and mistletoe kiss. They dated for over a year and a half until the then-15-year-old Carter decided Duff was “too boring” and started dating Lohan for a few months before Carter crawled back to Duff, then cheated on her again.
However, the Duff-Lohan feud didn’t end there. The two seemed to be talking to everyone but each other (Tina Fey, Chad Michael Murray, Amy Poehler...) and showing up at each other’s premieres uninvited to get on the other person’s skin. Is it really a Hollywood celebrity feud if you don’t get Rachel Dratch to dress up as them on Saturday Night Live? The feud eventually died down in 2004, alongside Aaron Carter’s career. In 2007, Duff confirmed that she had long-buried the hatchet, and it was a spat of the past.
When the Carter-Duff-Lohan love triangle started, Duff and Lohan were only 13 and 14 respectively. While this may all sound like middle school cafeteria gossip, it was middle school cafeteria gossip on a national scale. While a middle school principal may have stepped in, Disney chose not to mediate between the two teenage starlets.
History tends to repeat itself. Just two years later, Miley Cyrus and Nick Jonas found themselves stepping into the same shoes. The pair first met at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation charity benefit in 2006, it was described as “love at first sight.” The pair attended several Disney events together and eventually started dating in 2007. Not only did Jonas and his brothers make an appearance on Cyrus' show, Hannah Montana, but the brothers also served as the opening act on her tour from 2007 till 2008, with the pair breaking up only a month before the tour ended.
What came out of this breakup? Miley Cyrus’s hit single, 7 Things, where we learned that Nick Jonas was “vain,” played “games”,was “insecure”, “loved” Cyrus while he “loved” Selena Gomez, made Cyrus “cry” and acted like his friends (who “are jerks”), whatever that means. While Jonas denied that 7 Things was about him, Cyrus sported Jonas’ dog tag necklace in the music video.
Where does Selena Gomez fit into all this? Gomez dated Jonas for a few months, shortly after his split from Cyrus in 2008. It gets spicier: in 2008, Cyrus and Gomez even sang 7 Things together.
While Cyrus and Gomez may seem to have bonded over a shared ex in Nick Jonas, the two were still not the best of friends. Though Gomez claims that there was never any actual feud between the two, and described it was “a Hilary Duff–Lindsay Lohan thing,”Cyrus, on the other hand, sang to and threw a cutout of Selena Gomez into the crowd of her 2014 Bangerz tour, all whilst singing her song, FU, to the lyrics “I don't really have much to say, I was over it the second that I saw her name.”
By the time the Cyrus-Gomez-Jonas love triangle had ended, I had moved on from Disney Channel to the CW. Shows like Bizaardvark and Girl Meets World feel foreign to me, though I did binge High School Musical: The Musical: The Series using my Disney+ free trial, for nostalgia’s sake.
Fast forward to 2021, like many others, I have spent the past year on TikTok, and have learned a lot of things about a lot of people against my free will (read: TikTok content houses and superspreader stars).
Nothing has quite gotten me as invested as the Joshua Bassett-Sabrina Carpenter-Olivia Rodrigo love triangle. Bassett and Rodrigo are co-stars in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, where they were castas Gabriella Montez and Troy Bolton, respectively. The two’s on-screen chemistry sparked speculations over their relationship, though it was never confirmed. Many speculate this is mainly due to the two’s controversial age difference, as Bassett was 19 and Rodrigo 15 when they first met. This age difference is especially highlighted in fan debacles, who pinpoint this as the reason behind their initial split.
(Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)
Their relationship entered the current media cycle when Olivia Rodrigo released her debut single, drivers license (stylized in all lower case without an apostrophe). The song is a somber portrayal of Rodrigo’s first heartbreak, correlating it with her experience of getting her driver’s license. This song was highly anticipated, following her previous success from her performance in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, and Rodrigo's teaser performance on her Instagram (of which features “that brunette girl” instead of “that blonde girl”).
Not only is the song influenced by Lorde and Taylor Swift, but Rodrigo — who is a big fan of Swift, took on Swift’s affinity for clues and easter eggs, and embedded several hidden messages of her own in drivers license. When the song exploded on TikTok — sparking its own trend, people started to put on their detective hats to figure out who and what the song was about.
It wasn’t long before people realized it was about her co-star, Joshua Bassett, and his newfound relationship with Girl Meets World’s Sabrina Carpenter. The two had been spotted on dates, and even more recently, in matching Halloween costumes, and Carpenter is indeed a “blonde girl” that’s “so much older” than Rodrigo. Fans immediately took Rodrigo’s side, many sending hateful messages to Bassett and Carpenter. Carpenter’s ex-boyfriend, Griffin Gluck, even shared the song on Instagram (Bassett shared the song too, but was immediately turned into a meme).
This all gets complicated when Bassett announced his own single, Lie Lie Lie that followed drivers license’s release date. It is also worth noting that only one of Bassett’s castmates congratulated him on the song, while Rodrigo’s comments were flooded with congratulatory messages from their castmates.
When Bassett’s music video dropped, the mirroring imageries between the two videos fueled the speculation that this was all a publicity stunt. To his credit, Bassett has come out and said he wrote the song “a long time ago.” From the blonde girl, the car, to the fact that both of them have their whole body hanging out of the moving car window, it is hard for people not to draw associations between the two videos. But are people too eager to jump on the wagon, minimizing Rodrigo’s genuine talent and well-deserved success in contrast to a juicier publicity stunt?
As of now, Olivia Rodrigo’s drivers license has been out for a week and is sitting pretty at the number one spot across streaming platforms, Joshua Bassett was committed to the emergency room on Lie Lie Lie’s release date, and Sabrina Carpenter still hasn’t commented on the situation, and I don’t blame her.
Nothing gets people riled up like a Disney love triangle. People watch Disney Channel child stars for years on end, growing up alongside them, and many can’t help but feel like they’re entitled to more than what they see on television. With so many eyes watching, it is hard for child stars to have a healthy relationship with anyone, their relationships are magnified and manipulated just for the public’s enjoyment.
Is it ethical to portray minors in love triangles? While many of us have the sanctity of our first love and heartbreak to ourselves, when you’re on Disney Channel, it’s all happening and unravelling in front of everyone. There is no room on Disney Channel for problems that take longer than 23 minutes to solve.
Why should Hilary, Miley, and Olivia be painted as the crazy ex-girlfriend just for mourning their first relationship? Why should Nick and Joshua be painted as the two-timing player for moving on? Why should Lindsey, Selena, and Sabrina be painted as the temptress for liking someone?
Even when they leave the news cycle, they still exist as growing humans, and all the scrutiny and speculation leave a real impact on their childhood. Perhaps Disney thinks the public guesswork over love triangles are essential to the making of a star, but we’re all complicit in our rabid fascination with them beyond their talents.