16 Years Later, Hilary Duff and ‘The Lizzie McGuire Movie’ Still Matter Culturally

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Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

When I started university, I started watching The Lizzie McGuire Movie at the end of every semester as a way to relax. It may be cliché, full of plot holes, and targeted towards millennial preteens, but very few movies have the power that the film’s most famous song has, “What Dreams Are Made Of,” and singing along with two versions of Hilary Duff at the top of your lungs is the cure for pretty much anything, if you ask me. Looking back, the film is just about as poetic and meaningful as the Spice World and Josie and the Pussycats movies (all of which are colorful and musical romps that remain endearing for those who grew up in their eras) but what remains enjoyable about The Lizzie McGuire Movie is what it continues to represent culturally—a turning point in both the Disney and music industries, retroactively making it a pop cultural touchstone that is too often overlooked. Indeed, all jokes and prepubescent awkwardness aside, The Lizzie McGuire Movie actually represents much more than one may think and, nearly 16 years later, is worthy of another look.

Around the time that former teenyboppers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were redefining notions of what it meant to behave for the millennial teenage girl, mainstream media and culture were beginning to take notice—as some may recall, Britney was initially marketed to young girls of all ages, not just teens—and thus began a trend of sexualized toys and clothes for young girls which still continues to be met with controversy nearly two decades later. Cable outlets that these girls would watch after school and on the weekends like Disney Channel would soon begin to take notice of such trends, too, but before that happened, the world was introduced to a new teen idol named Hilary Duff on the Disney teen sitcom Lizzie McGuire, which first debuted in 2001. Unlike the Disney television series that would follow McGuire in the later half of the 2000s, such as Hannah MontanaWizards of Waverly Place, or Sonny with a ChanceLizzie McGuire was overwhelmingly simple and innocent. A typical episode followed Duff as Lizzie alongside her best friends, Miranda (Lalaine) and Gordo (Adam Lamberg), navigating middle school social situations while trying to avoid embarrassment and humiliation.

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The main cast of Lizzie McGuire circa 2001: Lalaine as Miranda, Hilary Duff as Lizzie, and Adam Lamberg as Gordo (Photo: Disney Channel)

Of course, Lizzie is a clumsy and accident-prone girl who tends to have her worst fears (that is, the worst fears of a preteen girl) come true, and she has to deal with the humiliating consequences all before the last commercial break. What helped to sell and invent Lizzie McGuire’s quirk and charm was an animated version of Lizzie which the camera would focus on to vocalize the character’s inner voice. Lizzie McGuire was just your average white American preteen girl who wants to find her place in the world without having her bully and frenemy Kate Sanders (Ashlie Brillault) embarrass her in front of the ditzy but dreamy skater boy she likes, Ethan Craft (Clayton Snyder). Lizzie McGuire was more influenced by the family friendly sitcoms of the ‘90s, such as BlossomBoy Meets World, or Family Matters, than it was by any other Disney series up until that point—and rather than imitate or cater to the mainstream primetime audience that ‘90s family sitcoms did, the series was aimed more towards kids no older than 12 turning on the TV when they got home from school, and the scripts represented that. Blossom might have had some jokes in there for the adults or addressed some tough issues, but Lizzie McGuire was not the place you were going to see characters deal with peer pressure or underage drinking, but rather the humiliation of having toilet paper stuck to your shoe in front of your crush. And just like that, Lizzie McGuire set a trend by catering to nobody else but the real-life audience that was the same age as its main characters.

Lizzie McGuire aired for 65 episodes between 2001 and 2004, by which point Disney had already found another comical and charming star in the form of Raven-Symoné on That’s So Raven (which would go on to become the highest-rated children’s program of all-time). But something else had started to happen behind the scenes of these Disney teen vehicles, which was the idea that if there was a market for these girls to be charming on their own television series, there was probably a market for these girls to be charming on their own albums, too. Lest we forget that, by this point in the 2000s, artists like Britney had completely revitalized and reinvented the market and demand for teen pop, which only made Disney’s ideas grow bigger. Both Hilary Duff and Raven-Symoné had recorded the theme songs for their respective series, and both stars would then record songs that would appear on accompanying soundtracks for Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven. The difference was, of course, that music or their singing abilities was not in any way apart of the premise of their programs, but more just sugar on top to make more money off of the brand name.

Duff began recording other songs for various Disney soundtracks and when she expressed genuine interest in pursuing a music career, Disney was the first one to hop on the bandwagon—her first official studio album, Santa Claus Lane, was released by Walt Disney Records in 2002 and saw fair commercial success, going on to be certified gold. Soon thereafter, Duff signed a record deal with Andre Recke of Hollywood Records, a label owned by Disney Music Group, which had been in significant decline in years prior since its foundation by Michael Eisner of the Walt Disney Company in 1989. “There are singers like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, who have legendary voices,” said Jay Landers, senior vice president of artists and repertoire at Walt Disney Records at the time. “There are artists like Britney Spears with lesser voices, yet they have the ability to communicate. They all possess that unique thing we call charisma. From the moment we met Hilary, it was evident that she has that in abundance.” And just like that, Hilary Duff was on the road to becoming Disney’s first real teen star who was the whole package—charming actress, charming singer—before anyone really knew what it had started.

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Promotional poster for The Lizzie McGuire Movie, with the slogan “From ordinary girl to international pop star” (Photo: Disney)

Before Lizzie McGuire aired its official final episode in February 2004, Duff had already transitioned out of teen sitcom actress and into legitimate films, appearing alongside Frankie Muniz (of Frankie in the Middle, a similar counterpoint to Lizzie McGuire) in Agent Cody Banks, released in March 2003. But what would come just two months later was the theatrical major motion picture event that was The Lizzie McGuire Movie, in which the entire cast of the series reprised their roles (with the exception of Lalaine as best friend Miranda, who declined to appear in the film to focus on music—another potential teen star with a marketable opportunity). The film follows Lizzie and Gordo’s middle school graduation (where Lizzie manages to cause the entire stage to fall down and land herself an appearance on Good Morning America) and their graduation trip to Rome, accompanied by the blunt yet sassy Ms. Ungermeyer (Alex Borstein). In a twist that makes the film almost like Under the Tuscan Sun but for 12-year-olds, Lizzie is mistaken for an Italian pop star named Isabella with whom she bares a remarkable resemblance (also played by Duff, just as a brunette and with a cartoonish Italian accent) and is whisked away on an adventure by Isabella’s singing partner Paolo (Yani Gellman), who enlists Lizzie’s help to fill in for Isabella at the upcoming Italian Music Awards. Faking illness and leaving Gordo to cover for her, Lizzie (who, at the beginning of the film, is shown to be an aspiring singer performing into her hairbrush) is convinced by Paolo that Isabella lip syncs and teaches her to mouth along to their song. By the time of the awards ceremony, Gordo takes the hit for Lizzie and is about to be sent home from the trip when he runs into the real Isabella at the airport, to whom he explains the entire situation. In yet another turn of events, Isabella reveals to Lizzie moments before she is to go on stage that Paolo in fact lip syncs and only wanted to use Lizzie to embarrass “Isabella” in front of a crowd. In a now-iconic climax, Isabella turns off Paolo’s microphone (exposing his horrific vocal ability) and enters the stage alongside Lizzie saying, “Sing to me, Paolo.” Isabella and Lizzie sing the first few lines of the song “What Dreams Are Made Of” before Isabella leaves her alone to have what can now be seen as a would-be iconic pop star moment, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young, sweet, and innocent Lizzie McGuire. That moment, and the movie itself, instantly became known for all young minds who experienced it as truly what dreams are made of.

It goes without saying that The Lizzie McGuire Movie is hopelessly glib and leaves little to no entertainment value for grown-ups who have never heard of Lizzie McGuire or Hilary Duff. But for those who grew up on the series, watching the film spin-off was the equivalent of a performance high like no other—which I really think was the entire point, given that the film (other than the first 15 minutes) bares little resemblance to the setting or situations portrayed on the series, which I also think was the entire point. Lizzie McGuire was a simple and innocent sitcom aimed at middle schoolers who could easily see themselves in Lizzie’s shoes. In the same vein, The Lizzie McGuire Movie was aimed towards fans of the series who could easily see themselves in Lizzie’s shoes—as a sudden pop star, suddenly “living the dream” in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Disney’s agenda when Lizzie McGuire started in 2001 had shifted dramatically by the time The Lizzie McGuire Movie hit theatres in 2003, and solidified the message spread across most of Disney Channel in the years following—little girls should dream of being famous, and this is a realistic and healthy dream to have.

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Lizzie McGuire and Isabella (both played by Duff) take the stage to perform “What Dreams Are Made Of” in The Lizzie McGuire Movie (Photo: Disney)

The implications and impact of The Lizzie McGuire Movie and “What Dreams Are Made Of” became clear not even a year after the film’s release—Isabella the Italian pop star became a foreshadow of who Hilary Duff was to become in real-life. A mere few months later, Hollywood Records released what would be billed as Duff’s debut studio album, Metamorphosis, containing songs such as “So Yesterday,” “Why Not,” and “Come Clean.” The album fell into the pop rock genre, innovating a distinct sound influenced by the pop punk success of Avril Lavigne (one of Duff’s earlier songs, “I Can’t Wait,” battled Lavigne’s “Complicated” for the top spot on Radio Disney in 2002), which would soon be copied by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Ashlee Simpson. Duff was now living the same dream in real life that Lizzie got to live for just a few minutes before returning to her usual clumsy, accident-prone, yet charming life. She would release two more studio albums and one compilation album with the Hollywood label, including the self-titled Hilary Duff in 2004 (which was a critical failure) and Dignity in 2007, but none of them would match the instant success that Metamorphosis saw in 2003. She also remained in the public conscious and pop cultural conversation as a teen idol for most of the 2000s (even with celebrity gossip rags buzzing about a feud with Lindsay Lohan) and appeared in a string of moderately successful films, including A Cinderella StoryRaise Your Voice, and the Cheaper by the Dozen movies.

Her public image at the time was even the subject of praise, with at least one critic commenting in 2005 that Duff did not use sex appeal to sell her albums or films like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera but rather remained a strong role model that adolescent girls can relate to. Richard Huff from the New York Daily News called Duff the “2002 version of Annette Funicello” and observed that Lizzie McGuire would be both a blessing and a burden for her, predicting that her entire image would be tied to the character. She was the subject of criticism in 2007, however, when she appeared somewhat provocatively on the cover of Maxim magazine (but nowhere near as provocative as some of her peers), where she was billed as “the queen of teen to breakout sex symbol.” Thereafter, following the completion and expiration of her recording contract as well as a series of unsuccessful films, Duff entered an indefinite hiatus from music. She appeared in a few independent films, including According to Greta (2009), and even co-authored a trilogy of novels with at least one of them becoming a New York Times bestseller. It was no mystery that her time as a leading teen star had reached its inevitable end, and she quietly established herself as an adult star by her own definition. Duff has since guest starred on several television series and has starred as Kelsey Peters on the TV Land dramedy Younger since 2015. She also signed with RCA and returned to music a few years ago, releasing her exceptional but tragically underrated fifth studio album Breathe In. Breathe Out.

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Hilary Duff poses “provocatively” on the cover of Maxim magazine in 2007, which makes her the inevitable subject of criticism (Photo: Maxim)

Hilary Duff’s transition from teen idol to adult star has been praised although is generally acknowledged as less “successful” than those who would come after her. Her appearance on the cover of Maxim magazine in 2007 was described by the Associated Press as a way to put Lizzie McGuire behind her and receive more Top 40 airplay by posing “provocatively” on a magazine cover, writing that, “Ultimately, nature, time and genetics may help Duff in a way Disney, despite all its might, cannot.” Given that posing provocatively on a magazine cover appears to be—at least in this context—the most bankable way for a young woman to sell albums, Duff appeared quite uncommitted to selling herself as an adult star in this way (given that the Maxim cover is nowhere near as provocative compared to that of Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears), which would then connect the dots as to why she did not experience the same level of adult professional success as those who came after her, despite the incredibly restrictive and no-win situation created by the media when a female child star attempts to demonstrate maturation. But by the time Duff would call it quits with Hollywood Records, Disney had already successfully replicated the formula they had used with her and Lizzie McGuire in more distinct ways, most notably with Miley Cyrus from Hannah Montana, Selena Gomez from Wizards of Waverly Place, and Demi Lovato from Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance—all of which are either directly or indirectly influenced by Hilary Duff and what dreams appear to be made of in The Lizzie McGuire Movie.

The implications that Disney had perhaps failed to ponder by this point was that young children—especially young girls—would immediately look up to any leading teen star on Disney Channel, regardless of whether anyone was truly cognisant of what was being fed to them. I seem to remember an extraordinary amount of time on Disney Channel circa 2009 being dedicated to presenting Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato as BFFs who were just like you, but living the dream. But what dream exactly? The pressures of stardom at a young age? Growing up too fast? Life in the fast lane is hard but no matter what, it’s worth it? Sounds like Hannah MontanaCamp Rock, and Sonny with a Chance could have benefited from listening to the song “Lucky” by Britney Spears—if there’s nothing missing in her life, why DO these tears fall at night? I’m sure if you asked Duff, Gomez, Lovato, and certainly Cyrus about the lasting negative impact these roles had on their adult careers and overall mental health, their answers wouldn’t be short ones.

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Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez link arms at the premiere of Princess Protection Program in 2009 (Photo: George Pimentel)

But as much as Duff endured the pressures of full-fledged teen stardom in the 2000s, she was able to perhaps transition the most successfully to an adult career—despite what publications say—given that she allowed herself to fall from the limelight while she somewhat silently re-established herself beyond her teen image. The same cannot be said for Gomez, however, who has been suffering the consequences of attempting to honestly mature into an adult singer and actress for the last few years (she most recently checked back into rehab late last year after suffering an emotional breakdown). The key difference between Duff and Gomez as the face of their respective Disney generations—while there are many—is perhaps the age of social media, which has made Gomez the most followed person on Instagram several years in a row. It becomes increasingly difficult to find yourself as an adult star when the pressures and eyes never seem to let up for a single moment, which is continuing to halt Gomez’s maturation. In that regard, Duff had the privilege of being on top during an era that still relied on physical CD sales and radio play, and not near-constant musical output to top charts on Spotify in the streaming era (where Gomez remains one of the top played artists despite not having released an album in over three years). Conversely, the only reason Cyrus has been able to perhaps earn her place as a potential adult singer and actress (she has yet to fully make the leap, after all) is that she acted so provocatively, outrageously, and controversially for a period of years all as a method of breaking out of her teen image and proving to the world that there was an adult woman underneath all those layers of Hannah Montana. The only one out of Duff’s successors that has been able to fully manage to create an adult career without the unnecessary pressures from a media that won’t let young female stars age is Lovato, who was perhaps aided by her decision to leave Disney Channel much earlier than her peers following a stint in rehab in 2010, beginning to mature past whatever teen image she held almost immediately thereafter.

When Hilary Duff sang the impeccably catchy and powerful anthem “What Dreams Are Made Of” in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, it’s a wonder if Disney fully understood the cultural phenomenon it was about to inspire—after all, it wasn’t only Disney Channel who took notice of the marketable idea of a teen star who could both act and sing: Nickelodeon most notably tried their hand at the same idea with Miranda Cosgrove from iCarly, who at one point was the highest-paid child star on television. The ramifications that the Hollywood Records formula would have on pop music is undeniable, and Disney has continued to try to build the same kind of teen stars (Zendaya, Sabrina Carpenter, and Bea Miller, to name a few), but nothing will ever be able to top the initial generation of Disney stars. One can only hope that those stars will all be able to successfully find their footing as successful adults.

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