Nostalgia is a fickle mistress. Embrace it too much and you run the risk of looking dated, but diverge and audiences forget why they loved a show in the first place. This is the battle currently raging around Disney+ and their spate of new programming.
At last year’s D23 Expo, in a crowded auditorium filled to bursting with fans, the new streaming service announced plans for a revival of the popular 2001 teen series “Lizzie McGuire.” Reuniting star Hilary Duff and showrunner Terri Minsky, the series promised to hold to what drew fans to the series while giving us a Lizzie who, now in her 30s, suffered from a new string of issues.
But after that splashy announcement the love between the series and Disney quickly soured, culminating with the announcement at the beginning of this year that the series had been shut down and Minsky fired. Yesterday, Variety detailed the behind-the-scenes problems with the series, with Minksy and Duff allegedly butting heads with Disney over how “family friendly” the series should be for airing on its new streaming platform. The article came hot on the heels of the streaming service announcing their spin-off show based on the YA movie “Love, Simon” would be moving to Hulu because it wasn’t sufficiently wholesome enough.
So where is the line drawn between family friendly and straight-up sanitized? This is particularly pertinent when it comes to the “Lizzie McGuire” revival. Nominated for two Primetime Emmys over its two season run, “Lizzie McGuire” was a series that didn’t shy away from discussing elements associated with female adolescence, from Lizzie’s desire to buy a bra to her attempts to find the right boy to date. “Lizzie McGuire” was family friendly, but it made sense when she was a 13-year-old. Today, Disney+ recycles similar material with their Latinx-based series “Diary of a Future President.” Like “Lizzie McGuire” before it, “Diary of a Future President” devotes episodes to menstruation and bra shopping, elements tween girls might know but are too embarrassed to talk to their parents about.
But what is necessarily wholesome about being a 30-year-old woman living in New York City, as the plot line to the “Lizzie McGuire” revival mentioned? An updated “Lizzie” is a chance for Disney to maintain some honesty in a beloved character, one who could still resonate with the aged-up audience interested in the show. Television has presented that era of womanhood as a time filled with high fashion and endless romance (a la “Sex in the City”). These shows were also unrealistic, but they at least emphasized that being an adult woman meant having a job, contemplating children, and, yes, being a sexual figure. Duff’s Lizzie McGuire doesn’t have to jump from guy to guy every episode (or from woman to woman for that matter).
In fact, there could be just as much exploration about Lizzie’s desire to be alone and her own woman and how that doesn’t jibe with how movies and television have dictated where a woman Lizzie’s age should be in her relationships. But to ignore these issues is to contain women, once again, in a safe Tupperware version of femininity. In this situation, nostalgia becomes a prison by which to hold women to outdated standards of who they should be, not who they are. Or, more likely, who they never were.
Disney has retconned and repositioned originally complex shows before for a younger audience, as is the case with the 2014 series “Girl Meets World.” That show was a spin-off/continuation of the popular 1993 series “Boy Meets World” which ran for seven seasons on ABC. The original show centered on the life of tween boy Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) who grew up in front of audiences, eventually getting married to his elementary school sweetheart. Along the way episodes focused on poverty, sexual harassment, and teen sex. When the show went to syndication, airing on the Disney-owned Freeform, certain episodes of the series weren’t screened due to content issues. When “Girl Meets World” eventually aired on the Disney Channel, it was far from what the original series had been, positioning itself as a slapstick sitcom in the vein of “Full House.” It’s unrealistic for “Lizzie McGuire” to make a similar attempt.
It’s unclear where the revival on Disney+ stands at the moment. Minsky said in the Variety interview that she’d love the series to go the way of “Love, Simon” and end up on Hulu so they could make the show they want. When reached for comment by IndieWire, a spokesperson for Disney said: “We paused production on ‘Lizzie McGuire’ a few weeks ago to allow time for some creative re-development. Our goal is to resume production and to tell an authentic story that connects to the millions who are emotionally invested in the character, and a new generation of viewers too.”
In the great Peak TV battle for nostalgia lovers, who is more valued and to whom should shows cater? Is it the millions of viewers emotionally invested in the character they grew up with and who they want to see grow alongside them? Or is it the new generation of viewers meeting a grown woman they can’t aspire to in 2020?