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20 Years Later, Lizzie McGuire’s Magical Mundanity Lives On 

Before Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place, there was Lizzie McGuire. The synopsis was simple: a 13-year-old student navigating life with her eccentric family along with her best friends. For a show about tackling the turbulent times of prepubescence — from buying a first bra to getting a crush to notice you — it approached the experience of being a regular kid in a way that hasn’t been done enough since. 

Unlike the heroines of the shows that aired in the years after Lizzie McGuire, the titular character was just a regular girl. She wasn’t a pop star, she wasn’t psychic, she wasn’t a wizard. The novelty of her was that there wasn’t any novelty — she could be anyone in your class. And what made Lizzie McGuire resonate with audiences was how clearly McGuire resonated with Hilary Duff herself, previously stating that the “character was me.” 

With just two seasons, Lizzie McGuire became a cultural phenomenon, pulling in 2 million viewers per episode. And because of that, everyone wanted a piece of Lizzie. The franchise brought in an estimated $100 million in merchandise that included a clothing label, books, and soundtracks. To this day, fans still flock to resale sites like Depop to snag the now-vintage apparel adorned with Lizzie’s animated alter ego.

Walt Disney Enterprises / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Although pre-teens and teens face different types of pressure on social media, coming-of-age in the early aughts wasn’t very different from what it’s like now. The pressure to be cool, dress a certain way, look “beautiful” and be on-trend is a universal experience. For fans of Lizzie, a character who apprehensively wore a unicorn sweater to school picture day to appease her mother and embarrassed herself frequently, they found comfort in her ordinary life. “She had an impact on me growing up,” explained Naureen Nashid, 30, from New York City. “I wanted to be like her and I think that’s because parts of me resonated with that character. She wasn’t considered ‘cool,’ she felt misunderstood by her family and friends at times, and she was a bit lovesick just like I was.”

Similar to the show, experiencing love and embracing the ‘uncool’ parts of who you are was the crux of the film adaptation. The movie, which premiered 20 years ago in May, follows Lizzie as she transitions from junior high to high school, celebrating her graduation with a trip to Rome. The film marked a time when the young audiences who grew up with her were starting their own new chapters. Two decades later, long after fans feverishly flocked to theatres to watch their heroine hit the big screen, the character’s cultural impact still hasn’t waned. There are even celebrities like Meghan Trainor who, like the rest of us, grew up alongside Lizzie and now approach Duff to gush about how the character shaped them.

Walt Disney/Courtesy: Everett Collection

“At the time [of the movie’s release], I was still in elementary school and I wouldn’t get to high school for another 4 years, but it made me so excited to get to that point in my life,” says Nashid. “I looked up to Lizzie a lot in terms of fashion, her friend group, and the different adventures she had — to the point where I thought that this is how real life must be when you get to middle or high school. Obviously it isn’t always like that, but the movie really is iconic. I got to go to theatres and watch it and now that it’s been 20 years, I feel really old!“

Although the movie is slightly unrealistic (not often does a pre-teen student go on a class trip to Rome and ends up impersonating a pop star), it feeds into every teen’s thirst for escapism; to find adventure outside of the mundanity of life. It’s the exact thing Lizzie’s friend-turned-nemesis-turned-friend encourages her to pursue in the film and something fans can relate to. Although there is a place in pop culture for heavier, dramatized shows and films centered on teens, it’s a testament to audiences’ desire for light, easy-to-watch teen films about an ordinary girl that Lizzie lives on.

“Watching [the show and movie] felt like a glimpse into a glorified version of my own life,” explains Shelby, 26 from Los Angeles. For Shelby, the character of Lizzie became a mainstay for her in her childhood; she owned Lizzie McGuire themed merch, video games and — in true McGuire fashion — wrote about her hopes and dreams in a branded journal that was adorned with cartoon Lizzie in the corners, acting like her own inner monologue.

“I grew up with brothers, [I was the] eldest daughter and a dork just trying to figure life out. She was such an idol for me; a friend to look up to and an escape from a lot of family issues I was dealing with as a kid. [When the Lizzie McGuire Movie came out] I was struck by the idea that life could exist outside a suburban bubble because that was really all I’d personally known to that point. The romance of Rome, the camaraderie and adventure… I never had even considered that I could do that, too. I still rewatch that movie and it feels exciting every time.”

For me, Lizzie McGuire has been such a guiding force growing up. As a shy kid, I found comfort and solace when Lizzie — despite her being the utmost coolest in my eyes — felt awkward and out of place. The film was released when I was 10 and, although I didn’t realize that not everyone gets the chance to have a whirlwind trip to Rome, it was one of my first exposures to adventure and life outside of North America. Lizzie’s courage to bend the rules a little and embrace life as it comes, albeit slightly unrealistic given her age, is something I still take with me as I navigate my own life and career. The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a lesson in saying yes even though it scares you. It’s something all audiences of the show can resonate with.

Walt Disney/Courtesy: Everett Collection

And now, 20 years later, Lizzie McGuire is still as beloved as ever — finding a new viewership on Disney+ and social media. Fans, including yours truly, felt a rollercoaster of emotions after the reboot and its disappointing cancellation was announced within a year of one another. Peruse the comments on TikToks devoted to the film — whether they are videos of best friends dressing as Lizzie and Isabella or clips of the movie — and many state similar sentiments: “I didn’t exist in 2003 but I am obsessed.” For Steve Hancock, 39 from Canada, Lizzie McGuire’s release was after his own coming-of-age story, but he finds the film a pop culture staple in the zeitgeist. “I’ve actually never watched the whole thing,” laughs Hancock. “It just proliferated pop culture. Lines like ‘Sing for me Paolo’ and the igloo dress are iconic. [It shows that] millennial nostalgia is lining up with Gen Z’s obsession with the 90s and early aughts.”

As generations continue to discover Lizzie McGuire and her magic, fans new and old will watch (and rewatch) the film and its messages of staying true to yourself — as mundane as you might be — will still be timeless. Like Lizzie, viewers don’t need to be a wizard or a pop star living a double life to have adventures. They can flee to Rome with their friends and have fun while being themselves, not in spite of it. That’s really what dreams are made of.

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