Tyrel Stendahl, HelloGiggles

What watching Lizzie McGuire taught me about White America

September 18, 2019 1:00 pm

My native tongue, Tagalog, is one of the most beautiful languages I’ve ever heard. The language is a musical blend of ancient Tagalog, Malay, Spanish, and Chinese. It took me years to appreciate the abrupt dropping of consonants at the end of words, the repetition of syllables used to shift between tenses, and the vowels that chewed in your mouth like pork siopao—those nuances of a postcolonial native tongue.

I wish I knew how to appreciate my language when I moved to the United States in 2003, just in time to start middle school. To mold my American accent, I stayed glued to the television screen watching an all-American Disney Channel legend, Lizzie McGuire, portrayed by actress Hilary Duff. Growing up in Quezon City, I was afraid of being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking while doing ordinary things, like leaving home to go shopping. I grew up in a country that installed bars in the windows of school buses so that pickpockets couldn’t steal our phones and wallets while we sat in traffic. Meanwhile, Lizzie, Miranda, and Gordo walked confidently through the mall with the singular thought of buying $110 rhinestoned blue jeans from The Style Shack so that Lizzie could win Best Dressed in the school yearbook.

My cousins and I joked about the new life waiting at the other end of a 26-hour journey to our new home—the Filipino dishes I’d share with potential white boy suitors, the outfits I’d wear now that I didn’t have to wear a Catholic school uniform, and the promise of personal space and privacy that only exists in suburban teenage stories.

Change happened quickly. Weekends were filled with babysitting and quiet church activities instead of what I was more used to: gigantic family gatherings overflowing with food, playful cousins, and gossiping Titas. Puberty made my body unrecognizable, a fact complicated by my new sense of ownership over my private space and freedom to move with less danger. I felt somehow safer at home but more foreign in my own skin.

Through it all, the suburban world according to Lizzie McGuire remained my haven. Each episode started with a conflict that forced Lizzie to choose between her American family-centric values and opportunities to climb the social ladder. But the show never presented any significant roadblocks on the path to forming Lizzie’s identity. Lizzie McGuire was allowed to innocently rebel by wearing a black motorcycle jacket, flaunt her independent streak while working behind the counter at the movie theater (to earn extra shopping money), and, more importantly, grow her inner voice through the flamboyant Cartoon Lizzie. All of her mistakes were catalogued as innocent explorations; in my own reality, I couldn’t even say the word mirror wrong.

Mrs. M, one of my middle school teachers, refused to call me by my nickname Bea (pronounced bay-yuh), insisting that the American pronunciation of my name was Bee.

Every Friday, she reserved an hour for her students to take turns reading aloud from the books we were introduced to in class. That hour terrified me. It felt deeply embarrassing to see heads bob up at my shaky mispronunciations while I stuttered down paragraphs. As chuckles floated through the air, Mrs. M sat in silence, never scolding those who laughed at me. Soon, I ditched familiar siopao-filled vowels for condensed, jaw-gritted ones. I opted for the less physically straining American pronunciation of meeyr (mirror) over the mouthy Taglish version, mee-rohr. Even though I was an enthusiastic student at Lizzie McGuire’s School of the American English Accent, my brain and my tongue couldn’t work fast enough, leading to utter shame when my accent accidentally slipped out.

To say that this linguistic change is scarring gives too much credit to my oppressor, so I call it simply by its name: postcolonial trauma. After generations of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and American occupation; after the violence that erased Filipino tribal cultures in favor of gray skyscrapers in the metropolitan capital of Manila; after leaving the country we knew so well to make a better life for future generations in the West, my family—like most immigrant families—was not equipped with the emotional tools to confront people who didn’t understand or care to learn about our culture. Meanwhile, white people, like Mrs. M, were taught to believe that white culture is superior through American institutions: education, news media, film, television.

Walt Disney Pictures

“Luckily,” I wrote to myself in one of my old school Lisa Frank journals, “I have Lizzie.” As I watched, I realized that Lizzie was raised on the fundamental idea that her thoughts, feelings, and identity should always come first. In contrast, my crowded hometown—replete with strict religious hierarchy and impoverished families building makeshift houses on the sides of roads—led my family to raise me with collective consciousness. My girlhood lessons are bound in collective care, the signature Filipino “hospitality” that sits on the border of service and martyrdom. Coming to America stories are marked by a shift in priorities. Collective consciousness falls in the shadow of validation afforded by ascending corporate and social ladders.

Lizzie helped me to navigate the American spaces I was lucky enough to enjoy without the threat of violence looming over my head. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that white Americans were allowed to explore their identities while Black, Indigenous, and other students of color like myself walked on eggshells around them to protect their learned notion that whiteness is superior. The show itself provided a safe space for me to witness a young girl fighting to do whatever it takes to win in life, but slowly built in my subconscious the idea that oppression works to support those who look like her, leaving Black and brown girls to fend for themselves.

The McGuire family was too busy upholding the standards of white American success and social acceptance to ever consider their privilege. In the same vein, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Phil of the Future, and Even Stevens focused on the everyday mini-adventures that brought white families closer. Even when shows and movies like That’s So Raven, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior explored Black, Mexican-Italian, and Asian American family dynamics, the stories still pivoted around assimilation and proximity to whiteness with only the sparest cultural nuance.

When we still lived in the Philippines, my cousins and I wondered if Lalaine, the actress who played Miranda in the Lizzie McGuire series, was Filipino. Years later, on a weird Wikipedia detour, I would confirm that Lalaine is of Filipino descent. When I was younger, the idea that Miranda was Filipino and white-passing gave me hope that I’d one day assimilate so well that people would forget I was foreign. Today, my American accent is so inherent that most of my friends are surprised to learn I didn’t grow up in this country.

I realize now that this American freedom is granted to me because of my own proximity to whiteness, that my light-skinned features and carefully crafted American accent made it possible for me to feel safe around white people. Being assimilated by white television allowed me to not fully consider the ways in which people in other cultures continue to be oppressed in America. Only in my late teens would I learn that dark-skinned South Asians and Middle Easterners were being unjustly targeted as a result of 9/11. Only in my early twenties would I learn how to empathize with Black people as I watched Black America stand in solidarity with the men and women being shot down by a militarized police force. Only in my mid-twenties would I learn that the Brooklyn land I now occupy once belonged to the Canarsie tribe.

I’m grateful to Lizzie McGuire for giving me an emotional framework to anchor the incredibly difficult transition of moving to a new country. I’m grateful for my ability to switch between Tagalog and English or Taglish to translate the family stories that my sisters and future daughters need to know. With a Lizzie McGuire reboot recently announced to fanfare, I hope that one day immigrant teens might find more of themselves in shows that paint a picture of the American family experience.