she doesn’t need to give him a chance

This ridiculous essay was previously published on Medium. The original title was “The One Episode of Lizzie McGuire That’s a Big Bummer.”

Like many people in their mid to late twenties, the rollout of Disney Plus excited me in part because it meant revisiting old Disney Channel Original classics. For three weeks straight, I used the extra hours between the end of my workday and the return of my fiancé to watch late 90s and early 2000s DCOMs and shows. (Sean is nine years older than me and grew up without the mind-numbing luxury of a cable package that included tons of channels devoted to just-for-kids programming. As a result, this cheesy, poorly scripted content holds little interest for him.)

Returning to the dawn of my mystery- and horror-loving roots, I watched movies like Get a Clue and The Phantom of the Megaplex. I just about fell off of the couch when I realized that I could finally rewatch the Canadian-American spookfest, So Weird, a show I was oft banned from watching as a child due to the crippling nightmares it gave me.

There was one show, in particular, that I was beyond excited to binge. It had nothing to do with ghosts or disappearances or broom-chomping changelings and everything to do with one awkward suburban pre-teen’s journey through middle school: Lizzie McGuire.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s about a girl named Lizzie (played by the ever-adorable Hilary Duff) and her best pals, Gordo and Miranda. Oh, and her brother Matt, who nobody cares about, and her parents, who are overbearing in a “fun” way. Sometimes Lizzie makes it. Sometimes Lizzie breaks it. But Lizzie’s getting one step closer each and every day, and she totally figures it out on the way.

Let me tell you that yes, that show is every bit as good as I remembered. The outfits are glaringly 2001. Miranda almost always has something feathery in her hair and if she doesn’t, it’s because she needed the extra room for colorful hair extensions. Gordo is the voice of reason and gives no shits about what anybody thinks. Lizzie is charming, kind, and prone to falling in front of her whole class. It’s totally embarrassing, but it’s okay, she’s a champ. In spite of any hiccups or embarrassing moments, Lizzie’s inner monologue cartoon will always show up at the end to recap the moral of the story.

And that’s the thing. Lizzie McGuire is a wholesome show that was designed to gently walk kids and pre-teens through their own minor failings or misplaced priorities. Each episode is a reminder that the most important things in life are friends, family, and happiness. That is a purpose that stands the test of time and, for the most part, the show translates pretty well to the climate of 2019.

Except for one episode.

One episode that made my jaw drop, much like Lizzie’s when Kate Sanders led a cheer routine declaring Lizzie’s loserishness in front of the entire school.

The episode is called “Scarlett Larry.” Google summarizes it, “On the advice of her mother, Lizzie decides to go out with a geeky kid named Larry (and also Matt does stuff nobody cares about).” Allow me to tell you what actually happens.

It opens like any other episode of Lizzie McGuire. The gang is in gym class, learning some ridiculous square dance at the behest of Coach Kelly when Kate Sanders drops some middle school career-breaking news: someone has a crush on Lizzie. Because Kate is a dick, she refuses to tell Lizzie who it is, so Lizzie-and-friends start guessing. (One of the possible suitors is the never-again-mentioned transfer student, Winston, who moved to Lizzie’s unnamed town from Mali and who Lizzie deems “Exotic!” This is arguably the first problematic moment in the episode, but definitely not the last.)

Since you already know who it is, let’s cut to the chase. The person crushing on Lizzie is known dweebo Larry Tudgeman, the show’s archetypal nerd. He’s smart, he’s into nerd culture (unfortunately for the Tudge, loving D&D-esque roleplaying games and possessing a wealth of Star Wars knowledge won’t become “cool” for another seven years or so), and, oh yeah, he’s kind of an asshole. Not an all-the-time asshole, not a force of constant terror like Kate Sanders, but definitely capable of asshole behavior.

Mere moments after Lizzie discovers that Larry is her want-to-be-beau, he asks her if she’s available for a date on Sunday. Lizzie stumbles through a response that boils down to, “I’m busy.”

This episode could have been about the benefits of making up excuses to get out of shit you don’t want to do. Adults do it all the time. We don’t reserve that tactic for unwanted advances, alone. We do it to our friends, our families, our colleagues. Getting out of social interactions you’re not in the mood for is a basic survival skill. Let the lie lie, Lizzie.

Of course, she doesn’t, because Lizzie is nothing if not guilt-ridden. Instead, she goes home to consult her mother, who, I am quite certain, provides the worst life lesson in the entire series. (And this is a show where Lizzie gives up a highly improbable, swiftly advancing modeling career because she doesn’t like the way people are fawning over her.) Roll scene:

Lizzie: “Mom, I need your advice.”

Inner cartoon Lizzie: “I’m obviously desperate.”

Lizzie: “It’s about a boy.”

Mom: “Omg, etc”

Lizzie: “What do you do if a guy you don’t like and never will like, like in a million years like, wants to go out with you?”

Mom: “Well, how do you know you don’t like him if you haven’t given him a chance?”

Okay, so if we’re on the same page, you’re already filled with mental and emotional agony. Lizzie could not have made it more clear that she doesn’t. Like. This Guy. She doesn’t need to go out with him to confirm that. We’ll come back to this, but first, we have to finish the scene.

Lizzie: “Okay, let me rephrase the question, Mom. What do you do if the guy you don’t like is a total geek? You have to agree with me in this case, Mom. I can’t go out with him.”

Mom: “In that case, you may have to marry him, because that’s the McGuire curse.” (Har, har, Lizzie’s dad is a geek, har har.)

Lizzie: “You mean this is my destiny?”

Mom: “Well, maybe. One thing I know about boys, honey, is that some of the best ones come in very strange packages…I can’t tell you what to do about the boy who likes you that you don’t like…I’m just saying, nobody likes to be rejected. Boys are very sensitive creatures.”

OKAY. Listen. I see what’s supposed to be happening here. Don’t judge Larry because he has weird taste and questionable hygiene. He could be a NICE GUY. You know, kiss the frog, he turns out to be a prince kind of shit.

And hey, boys are very sensitive creatures! Because they’re human beings! And we’re all very sensitive creatures! That’s true!

But to use that as a coercive tactic to convince this young, impressionable pre-teen, this innocent cherub who has never been on a date in her innocent cherub life, to go out with someone who she will never like, like in a million years like, is HORRIFYING.

Lizzie’s mom is implying that mutual desire is unimportant in the instance of a first date, that Lizzie should “give Larry a shot” before she decides whether or not she’s romantically attracted to him. (I say romantically because this is a show that would never, like in a million years never, touch on the topic of sex.)

More importantly, it implies that Lizzie owes Larry this date because he had the courage to ask and because, to rehash this little ditty, “nobody likes rejection.”

What, exactly, is at stake if Lizzie does reject this kid, and why is it weighted more heavily than what’s at stake if she goes out on a date with someone she isn’t interested in? Why is it on Lizzie’s shoulders to bear the burden of Larry’s confidence or lack thereof? What does this interaction teach Lizzie and her young admirers? That all male attention should be flattering, that all boys who like you deserve a chance, that rejecting a date is somehow more loathsome or morally compromised than going along with it against your better judgment or feelings.

Which brings us, briefly, and I’ll try to keep my promise when I say that, to the end of the episode. Lizzie and Larry go on a date to a science museum. There’s a whole montage, over the course of which Lizzie’s cringe turns into the face of genuine enjoyment. Larry’s not such a bad guy. Does she like him-like him now? No, not in a million years. But he’s alright.

Then comes the following school day, and Miranda is incredulous that Lizzie not only survived but enjoyed her date with the Tudge. Dreamboat/airhead Ethan Craft is spotted, Lizzie summons the courage to talk to him, and suddenly, from the depths, Larry Tudgeman emerges, throws an arm around Lizzie, and says, “I can’t believe you’re my girlfriend.”

So, of course, we have a new problem that, once again, I found a bit more disturbing than the episode lets on. Larry has made an assumption about Lizzie’s feelings and taken it upon himself to fill in the gaps of her lack of commentary on where they stand after their date with his own perception that they have advanced their relationship. As someone who experienced a similar phenomenon not once but twice in high school, I can tell you, that shit sucks.

To spare Larry the embarrassment (of being confronted with his own mistake??), Lizzie pretends to be his girlfriend for the rest of the day before “breaking up” with a boy she was never actually dating. She expresses concern about leading him on, another socially constructed pressure many girls and women have felt in the course of their dating lives, but the episode ends and there’s never much of a sign in later episodes that this “relationship” existed in the first place.

Do I think that this single episode of Lizzie McGuire is at fault for the misogynistic terrain that dating can be? Do I think Mrs. McGuire is the reason that men (and women) often hold women accountable for the negative, aggressive, and oftentimes dangerous reactions of the so-called spurned lover?

No.

Do I find it disturbing that these harmful ideas flew under the radar of a seemingly harmless and neatly packaged episode of a show geared towards young girls?

Yup.

And hey, I’ll be the first to say that one creepy-ass episode isn’t going to stop me from reveling in the nostalgia of one of my favorite childhood shows. There are levels of toxicity in pop culture, and I would say that this time around, the stakes were fairly low. I do, however, think that it’s important to be critical of the things we love, even if it’s only to exercise the muscles that help us recognize when and how a line is being crossed in a bigger and more detrimental way. And to those who think that we should be allowed to leave some things alone and just enjoy them, you’ve clearly never experienced the joy of spending a couple hours writing a critical piece about something that you’re deeply fond of.

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