I was 11 when I brought a picture of Lizzie McGuire with me to the hairdresser: My bangs had to be straight-across, I made sure to specify, not swept to the side. I’d already blown my allowance on an assortment of sparkly headbands. This cut was the last step to embodying this girl who was everything I wanted to be: Funny and pretty enough to be popular, but also cool enough to realize that “popular” really isn’t worth it and you should always be yourself. (Cue colorful hair accessories and patterned pants.)
As a preteen, I watched a lot of “Lizzie McGuire.” (Or at least I felt like I did — It turns out the show only actually ran for two seasons.) But unlike other shows I obsessed over in middle school — “Gilmore Girls,” “Full House” — I’ve never gone back to it. That’s partly because Lizzie and her friends are so young — just 13 when the series starts — but also because the show was hard to find. “Lizzie McGuire” ran from 2001 to 2004 on the Disney Channel, but never made it to Netflix or Hulu — and buying the box-set seemed extreme. But when Disney Plus debuted on Tuesday, making the full series available ahead of its widely-publicized “Lizzie McGuire” reprise, the streaming platform made the show just accessible enough to tempt me.
I watched 11 episodes in one sitting.
I’m not the only one. All over the country, people — the majority of whom are almost certainly millennial women — are binge-watching Lizzie McGuire. Like me, many are tuning in for the first time since childhood, reuniting with best friends Gordo and Miranda, wondering why on earth the show begins with so many bouncing red balls.
For 24-year-old Emily Isaak, Lizzie McGuire, played by Hillary Duff, was a fashion icon. At age 9, Isaak says, she would spend hours going through her closet, pulling out her “most Lizzie” items — chunky flip-flops, bejeweled jeans, Paul Frank pajamas — and shopping around for other things Lizzie might wear.
“I remember going to Claire’s and getting the colorful elastic fake hair, then putting it over my ponytail so I had all those spikes sticking out,” says Kassidy Fagan, a 28-year-old from Nashville. She drew inspiration from Lizzie’s best friend, Miranda, who, like Lizzie, was “just a little bit unique” in a way that was supremely “relatable.”
This was something I heard a lot, talking to grown-up Lizzie groupies: The characters in the show — and Lizzie, in particular — seemed like regular American kids.
“I liked Lizzie because she just seemed very — and this sounds so silly to say out loud — but she seems very honest and easy to relate to,” said Hannah Pollok, 24. Lizzie was klutzy and awkward, Pollok says, always managing to embarrass herself in front of the guy she liked. When she tries out for the cheerleading team in the first episode, she is laughed out of the gym.
“She’s a little bit of a loser, an underdog,” says Pollak. “And that is how I remember myself.”
But for a lot of kids, Lizzie wouldn’t have been all that relatable: The just-your-average-kids portrayed by Lizzie and her friends are almost entirely white. “The show is all so white,” Pollak says. “Black kids aren’t represented, so would they really want to watch this?” While Miranda’s character is Hispanic, the actress who plays her, LaLaine, is Filipino.
Lizzie’s character can feel distant in other ways, too: For one, she is supermodel-beautiful. At any real junior high, Isaak says, Lizzie probably would have been ultra-popular — and ultra-alienating to your average American tween.
It was strange to come back to the show after all these years, Pollok said. She couldn’t believe she still remembered plot-lines and snippets of dialogue from particular episodes.
“It’s like when you listen to a song that you haven’t heard in years and years, and you know all the words,” she said. “It was like that.”
Fagan has always been drawn to the close relationships in “Lizzie McGuire.” She didn’t have many female friends when she was little, so she loved to watch the dynamic between Lizzie and Miranda. She also grew up with separated parents. Watching Lizzie’s “perfect little family,” she said, was supremely comforting.
“I really enjoyed seeing such a wholesome, neat and tidy family,” Fagan said. “There was a mom and a dad and a son and a daughter.” Even when Lizzie would fight with her friends or family, she said, you knew each installment would always wrap up with a happy ending and a heartfelt message about a lesson learned. (A surprising number of episodes end in some variation of “appreciate your parents.”)
The tidy conflict resolutions feel much less realistic to Fagan now — “obviously no family is perfect,” she says — but she can still snuggle up on her couch and enjoy them.
I had a harder time accepting some of the show’s antiquated gender norms — which I almost certainly did not pick up on at age 11. In one scene, Lizzie’s mom leaves home for a night, and Lizzie’s dad and brother, Matt, are left to eat dinner on their own.
“We’re going to starve, aren’t we?” asks Matt. “Dad, are we going to die?”
“No we’re going to cook,” the dad says, consulting a book called “Cooking for Complete Idiots.” (They end up sticking a mound of raw hamburger beat in the microwave with a few oranges, then ordering pizza and doing dishes outside in the kiddie pool.)
At 28, I am clearly no longer the target demographic for “Lizzie McGuire.” The appeal — and there is certainly still some appeal — is all nostalgia. But what about kids today? Could they get hooked on Lizzie, now that they have easy access to her?
“I don’t think they would connect in the same way,” says Fagan, who works in a middle school as an American Sign Language interpreter. She suspects they’d roll their eyes over predicaments like wearing the same outfit as someone else to school picture day — a major plot line in an early episode. Middle schoolers today, she said, are worried about political issues and climate change. “I think a lot of them would think Lizzie McGuire was silly.”
The show might be too “simple” for kids today, says Pollok.
“Lizzie McGuire was literally just a sitcom for kids. There is no twist,” she says. Even among other iconic Disney TV shows of the 2000s, Lizzie McGuire stands out for its ordinariness, says Pollak. In “That’s So Raven,” the main character was a psychic. Hannah Montana was a secret rockstar. The Wizards of Waverly Place were… wizards.
“There is nothing super special about Lizzie McGuire. It’s just a show about a girl in middle school,” said Pollak. “And I think maybe that’s why I loved it the most.”