Out of the seemingly endless reboots, sequels, and re-imaginings announced as exclusives for the streaming service Disney+, the one that seemed to most excite my contemporaries across the pond was Lizzie McGuire. The early-2000s comedy featuring Hilary Duff and her animated self was one of the era’s more watchable tween dramas exploring the perils of growing up through a reasonably candid, if extremely rose-tinted, lens. Technically, the show only had two seasons and a movie but it seemed to leave an outsized impression on that most coveted of demographics: The millennial woman. Lizzie McGuire was wholesome but not tooth-rottingly so, a by-the-numbers sincere show for all the family that ticked off a variety of Very Special Episode tropes, from tackling eating disorders to dealing with peer pressure. If you were ready to head into adolescence in 2001, the chances are you wanted to do it dressed like Hilary Duff.
The announcement of a sequel series in August 2019, as Disney+ began flexing its muscles to show off its slate of original content, somehow felt right. It made sense. Disney wants and needs as wide an audience as possible to sign up to their shiny new service and pandering to the nostalgia of the group who grew up during the company’s animation renaissance and binge-watched everything on the Disney Channel was just good business. Duff returned to the role that made her famous and Terri Minsky, the original series’ showrunner, came on board to continue the story of Lizzie in her adult years. Later, it was revealed that Minsky had departed the show, reportedly due to conflicts with Disney over the show’s direction. Monsky and Duff wanted the new Lizzie McGuire to reflect the truth of a real 30-year-old woman’s life, while the network wanted a family-friendly sitcom free of anything too ‘adult.’ Shooting for the show is now on hiatus after the completion of two episodes. Hilary Duff even took to Instagram to plead with Disney to let the show move to Hulu so that they would not be forced to ‘limit[ing] the realities of a 30-year-old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating.’
This is not the first time that a series intended for Disney+ has been deemed ‘too adult’ for the service. The remake of High Fidelity found its new home on Hulu after similar fears that it would not appeal to the meek families of the world. That at least made sense given that the show is firmly focused on an adult woman’s life. Less so was the decision to do the same to Love, Victor, a teen drama spin-off of the hit Fox movie Love, Simon. Hulu claimed that the series was a better fit for them given the presence of shows like PEN15, but fans couldn’t help but be suspicious at Disney+ suddenly shunting a show centered on a gay protagonist to the ‘adult’ platform. Perhaps the tone and intent of the show is better suited to Hulu, but the optics of deeming an LGBTQ+ as ‘not family friendly’ are hard to ignore.
Disney remains unique among their Hollywood counterparts as the studio that has made tens of billions of dollars off the notion of ‘family-friendly entertainment’, creating a world where anything beyond a PG-13 rating doesn’t and has no need to exist. R-rated works have been released under the vast umbrella of Disney via their myriad acquisitions but they are seldom described as Disney properties in that way. We know what a Disney TV show looks like the moment we see it. Any kid who grew up with the Disney Channel can clock it from fifty yards: Bubbly, sincere, broadly goofy, full of lots of important lessons to be learned, and achingly of its time. Whenever serious issues are explained, they are always cushioned by bubble-gum sweetness. It’s all good clean fun, right? Joy for the entire family.
Disney’s brand as the family company is rooted in a lot of regressive and outdated ideas that have made them billions of dollars. Their pre-set notion of what is ‘safe’ for their desired demographic has changed slightly over the decades but you can still imagine their target audience as being that nice white middle-class family with the mother, father, two children, and rascally dog living in the suburbs. This isn’t exclusive to Disney, of course: Just check out every studio that seems genuinely bamboozled every time a film with non-white characters does well at the box office as if this was a brand new thing. Progress on this front remains maddeningly incremental and it doesn’t take much for Hollywood to run backwards to what it knows best, regardless of how regressive or ultimately unbankable it has become.
Disney’s own attitude towards diversity has been, to put it bluntly, pretty effing depressing. We see this at play with ‘exclusively gay’ moments in the Beauty and the Beast remake and Avengers: Endgame, which are such minute crumbs of inclusivity that you’re afraid to blink in case you miss them. You’re always painfully aware that these bite-sized scenes are disposable, designed to be neatly removed from the narrative for international releases where profits are high and bigotry is tolerated if the grosses pay off enough. Outside of that business model, the notion of ‘family-friendly’ entertainment is doing plenty of the grunt work to keep progress stifled.
The Disney+ conundrum matters even more in an entertainment landscape dominated by a handful of almighty media monopolies who are slowly limiting the options available to general audiences. We already see this at play following the Fox acquisition. The layoffs were plentiful, as were the previously in-development projects dumped to the curb and finished products given the bare minimum release. So many of Fox’s truly iconic titles simply won’t be priorities under Disney because they don’t fit under their safe family umbrella. Stories that don’t fit those decades-old smothering confines will either be shunted to the platform that’s clearly not being prioritized by the company or they’ll just never be made full stop. Who does this benefit?
Moreover, how does this satisfy families? Whose families are we considering here? And to whose benefit is such obvious maligning and cultural smudging for? I highly doubt that a Lizzie McGuire reboot with a 30-year-old protagonist is going to be a full-on drug orgy. Surely it’s smarter and more sensible to show a character like that in a realistic manner, living the sort of life that an adult woman would lead. Such a story would satisfy those older viewers looking for nostalgic thrills and offer something fresh for younger ones who want something beyond Mickey Mouse and the princesses.
In my opinion, Disney’s choices have little to do with families, as vaguely defined as that concept is. This feels like a way for them to avoid the ginned-up controversy that tends to plague them when the same old homophobic ‘concerned mothers’ groups want to gain a few extra column inches of publicity. Oh no, won’t somebody please think of the children who may have to watch Josh Gad look in the general direction of another man for 1.4 seconds? It’s not enough for them to, you know, simply not watch the programs that offend them so much. Nope, they have to obliterate them from the face of the earth. Disney has so fetishized their brand that it’s become all too easy for the worst people alive to claim it as their own and dominate the narrative around it. ‘Family-friendly’ is all too often another overused excuse to pretend that basic human progress doesn’t happen, and it’s in large part facilitated by the media that we consume. When we have one big monopoly that’s spent decades molding itself to represent the entire concept of your childhood making those decisions for the masses, it shouldn’t be all that surprising when the very act of growing up is deemed inappropriate for kids.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Disney