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Lizzie McGuire: A Tale of Tweens and Disney Synergy

 
Figure 1: Hilary Duff (and animated Lizzie) pose in character as Lizzie McGuire

Tween TV was a powerful medium in the 1990s and 2000s. Nickelodeon’s slimy green heyday included diverse offerings of live-action sitcoms, animated series, game shows, and sketch comedy programs. While Nickelodeon’s young actors hammed it up on All That and delivered thoughtful dialogue on Clarissa Explains It All, Disney Channel was inching towards a signature style of their own. Nickelodeon’s success went into the Disney Channel’s DNA. Geraldine Laybourne was Nickelodeon’s president for over a decade, and then she took her expertise to Disney/ABC Cable Networks as their president from 1996 to 1998 (Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center 2004).


An anonymous ad agency executive told AdAge in 1996:


“The problem as the Disney Channel sees it isn’t distribution but that consumers don’t know what the Disney Channel stands for, that there isn’t consistency of vision and definition of the brand” (Jensen1996.).

The Disney Channel had launched in 1983 as a premium cable channel, featuring Mousercise, Welcome to Pooh Corner, and Dumbo’s Circus in its first decade, along with both licensed and original family movies. The early 1990s brought about a new crew of Mouseketeers on The All New Mickey Mouse Club – including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and JC Chasez – future pop stars whose musical talents would earn their record labels top dollar.


With Disney Channel’s switch from a limited audience of premium cable subscribers to a more widespread basic cable format, new live-action scripted programming was developed to cultivate an audience of tweens. From 1996 to 2000, middle and high school growing pains took center stage with the debuts of Flash Forward, The Famous Jett Jackson, So Weird, The Jersey, Even Stevens, and In a Heartbeat. Under Laybourne and her successors, Anne Sweeney and Rich Ross, Disney Channel delivered some of the most authentic and emotionally engaging programming in its history.


As legend has it, a blonde newcomer from Texas was a bridge connecting Disney Channel’s tween TV wheelhouse to a wider world of entertainment. Halfway into the channel’s history, a “grand plan” transformed the network into “a prized possession for the larger [Disney] corporation,” Fortune Magazine reported in 2003 (Boorstin and Wheat 2003).


Single-camera sitcom Lizzie McGuire premiered in January 2001. The titular tween character, played by Hilary Duff, is universally known for being relatable, average, and even a little clumsy. Duff created a role Patrice Oppliger classifies as a “main girl.” Oppliger (2019) argues:

“Shows establish a template for a ‘normal’ main girl character. Hyperfeminine characteristics are usually reserved for the mean girl, as a way to disparage her by focusing on the most negative stereotypes of shallow, helpless, needy, and clueless. The ‘main girl’ … tends to exhibit both traditional feminine characteristics and feminine ideals. In other words, she is both pretty and confident” (4).

However, as Oppliger notes, foibles contribute to a main girl’s relatability factor. Oppliger’s “mean girl” and “main girl” theory posits that viewers will typically root for the main girl, the “underdog” who stands up for herself against the mean girl (Oppliger 10). Viewers may feel connected on a deeper level with the main girl, as many fans clearly did with Lizzie McGuire.


Lizzie sparred with mean girls Kate and Claire on numerous occasions, with help from her best friends, Miranda and Gordo. Memorable stories required Lizzie to outsmart or outshine Kate in some way. For example, Lizzie had strong potential but fleeting interest in rhythmic gymnastics (Myerson 2001) and modeling (Holland 2001a), both of which gave her an advantage over Kate. However, Lizzie didn’t always win, and the mean girl and the main girl were on the same side once in a while, too. Lizzie and Kate were paired up for a class project and revealed that they formerly had a friendship but had grown apart (Holland 2001b). Lizzie coached Kate in cheerleading to help the queen bee earn back her spot after breaking her arm (Williams 2002). In The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003), Kate covered for Lizzie so she could sneak out of their hotel room and find an adventure with Paolo in Rome.


There were social dynamics on screen with very real stakes for an audience of 9 to 14-year-olds. Not only did Lizzie navigate the friends and foes of her junior high experience; she also felt the fragility of crushes and first dates. The tween heroine unsuccessfully vied for the heart of the most popular boy, Ethan (usually attached to Kate), and she gently rejected the stereotypically nerdy guy who was interested in her, Larry. By being Lizzie so vulnerably, Hilary Duff earned the trust of impressionable fans who would follow her new endeavors, including her music career.


The Cheetah Girls and Lizzie McGuire are two chapters in a specific synergistic plot that emerged in the 2000s on Disney Channel. The talent often started out on TV shows or Disney Channel Original Movies, and many of them pursued musical opportunities – a song on a Disney film soundtrack, a single for Radio Disney, and maybe a pop album that could lead to a respectable discography under Disney’s Hollywood Records label.


The character of Lizzie McGuire initially had no musical angle to her story, and Hilary Duff didn’t begin her music career until 2002. She covered “I Can’t Wait” by Brooke McClymont for the Lizzie McGuire soundtrack and “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” for the inaugural Disneymania compilation CD, and she released a full Christmas album, Santa Claus Lane, as her debut record. Duff’s musical world finally collided with the character who made her famous, when Lizzie pretended to be an Italian pop star in The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003).


Figure 2: Hilary Duff doubles as Lizzie and Isabella, clasping hands onstage in celebration of their musical performance

Both the TV series’ soundtrack and The Lizzie McGuire Movie soundtrack were certified platinum. Disney had begun releasing Lizzie McGuire books based on the show for purchase in May 2002 (Boorstin and Wheat 2003) and offered free Lizzie-themed games fans could play online. An animated version of the character was easily transferred from the show to the marketplace. Animated Lizzie is still a commodity for Disney fans who want to buy commemorative pins, makeup color palettes, or T-shirts!


Per a 2003 Walt Disney Company Annual Report, Duff’s career as a solo artist took off with ease:

“Her debut solo album on Buena Vista/Hollywood Records, Metamorphosis, soared to the top of the charts and was certified platinum in 10 days. Her single, So Yesterday, was number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart” (“Annual Report”).

Young consumers embraced Duff as a worldwide sensation, and her home network took advantage of this. There were no traditional advertisements on Disney Channel; instead, commercial breaks were opportunities to showcase any and every branch of the Disney company. Kids who tuned in during the 2000s may recall watching “Disney 411” and “Disney 365” for all the latest on Disney Parks, Movie Surfers for news on theatrical Disney releases, and “Mike’s Super Short Show” for the latest Disney titles available to own on video and DVD.


Duff and her character presented a fascinating case of media nesting dolls within this framework. Fans could watch Lizzie McGuire on Disney Channel, see music videos featuring Duff singing songs from The Lizzie McGuire Movie soundtrack, and ask their parents to buy the DVD on the recommendation of “Mike’s Super Short Show.”


Disney Channel saw proven success with a similar structure for years to come. It’s hard to find a franchise more all-encompassing than High School Musical, for example. The Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) debuted in 2006, followed by a DCOM sequel, a theatrical sequel, a concert tour, and eventually the Disney+ mockumentary show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.


In an alternate reality, Lizzie McGuire lives on in a similar way. Duff was set to star in a reboot for Disney+, but creative differences contributed to the series being paused, then shelved, in 2020, with just two episodes filmed (Otterson 2020). On re-inhabiting the role, Duff had told E! News in January 2020, “I really feel like [Lizzie’s] an extension of me, but different. I don’t think I’m quite as neurotic as she is. But she has this energy, this positive like – she wants everything to work out, and then nothing quite always works out for her the way she envisions it” (Nilles 2020). E! News recognized Duff as “the blueprint for the Disney girls who would follow in her footsteps,” and a similar phrase has been uttered in millennial nostalgia communities for years.


Disney and Disney Channel balanced the bottom line with successful storytelling through television, film, and music. They got the attention of young viewers and therefore the dollars of viewers’ parents. By 2006, a devoted Disney Channel fan could watch Hannah Montana episodes and Cheetah Girls movies on Disney Channel, listen to the soundtracks, and go see the acts on their first concert tour together. Tweens of this time witnessed a girl-driven, pop-infused revolution. If Duff and Disney are able to reconvene for a reboot after all, their devoted audience will be ready to get reacquainted with Lizzie McGuire and all that she represents, past and present.


 

Allison McClain Merrill is an entertainment journalist with a passion for pop culture and television history. She works as a freelance writer and editor and loves interviewing actors, artists, and creators for her projects as a Disney Channel historian. Allison is represented by Susan Velazquez Colmant of Jabberwocky Literary Agency. Allison grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and earned her bachelor’s degrees in music education & English at Jacksonville University. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 2019 and now lives in the Detroit area.

 

References:


Boorstin, Julia and Wheat, Alynda. 2003. “Disney's 'Tween Machine How the Disney Channel became must-see TV--and the company's unlikely cash cow.” Fortune Magazine, via CNN Money. https://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2003/09/29/349896/index.htm


Holland, Savage Steve, dir. 2001a.“Last Year’s Model.” Lizzie McGuire. Season 1, Episode 23. Disney Channel.


Holland, Savage Steve, dir. 2001b. “Lizzie and Kate’s Excellent Adventure.” Lizzie McGuire. Season 1, Episode 28. Disney Channel.


Jensen, Jeff. 1996.“Disney Channel Opens $10 Mil Review.” AdAge. https://adage.com/article/news/disney-channel-opens-10-mil-review/79838


Myerson, Alan, dir. 2001. “I’ve Got Rhythmic.” Lizzie McGuire. Season 1, Episode 5. Disney Channel.


Nilles, Billy. 2020. “Lizzie McGuire and More: Relive Hilary Duff's Most Memorable Roles Over the Years.” E! News. https://www.eonline.com/news/1109211/lizzie-mcguire-and-more-relive-hilary-duff-s-most-memorable-roles-over-the-years


Oppliger, Patrice. 2019. Tweencom Girls: Gender and Adolescence in Disney and Nickelodeon Sitcoms. Lexington Books.


Otterson, Joe. 2020. “‘Lizzie McGuire’ Revival Not Moving Forward at Disney Plus.” Variety. https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/lizzie-mcguire-revival-disney-plus-1234864368/


Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center. 2004. “Geraldine Laybourne.” https://syndeoinstitute.org/honorees/past-honorees/2004-honorees/geraldine-laybourne/


“The Walt Disney Company 2003 Annual Report: Celebrating 75 Years of Mickey.” 2003.


Williams, Anson, dir. 2002. “The Rise and Fall of the Kate Empire.” Lizzie McGuire. Season 2, Episode 4, Disney Channel.


Images:


Fig. 1: Minsky, Terri, creator. Lizzie McGuire. Aired 2001-2004 on the Disney Channel.


Fig. 2: Fall, Jim, dir. 2003. The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


 

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