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Hilary Duff, Fearless Hero

For more than a decade, she’s been a feminist role model on her own terms

“There’s people talking, they talk about me / They know my name, they think they know everything / But they don’t know anything about me” —Hilary Duff, “Wake Up”

Let’s go back — back to the beginning. Ten years ago, Hilary Duff was three years out of the Lizzie McGuire school of life lessons and boldly asserting herself as a grown-ass woman. With three studio albums under her belt and another one in the works (2007’s Dignity), the then-19-year-old had already broken into film, launched her own perfume, and bestowed upon us “Stuff by Hilary Duff,” her clothing line.

But the most impressive thing about Ms. Duff back then was her music. While around the same time Britney Spears was realigning her image as a form of damage control (see: 2007’s Blackout), Christina Aguilera was in the midst of her “jazz phase” (Back to Basics), and Lindsay Lohan was delving deep into her personal life for musical melodrama (“Confessions of a Broken Heart”), Duff was spinning good, old-fashioned common sense. Through songs like “Come Clean,” she celebrated the process of self-transformation. With jams like “So Yesterday,” she gave us a “hell no” anthem perfectly suited for MSN Messenger away messages. And “Why Not” ushered in an ahead-of-its-time YOLO state of mind, wherein she challenged the object of her affection to take notice of her general awesomeness — a common theme in most of her songs.

Hilary Duff waited for no man. And unlike, say, Taylor Swift around the same age, Duff never took on other women as her enemies.

Because even when lamenting a broken heart (particularly in “Break My Heart,” a song in which she dares the subject in question to look upon and revel in his emotional work), Duff portrayed herself as the protagonist — not the victim — of her own narrative. Songs like “Fly” acknowledged a fear of failure amid big life changes, and 2006’s “Supergirl” proudly touted her ability to be the Best Partner Ever (So Thanks for Noticing, Idiot). Her songs established her as an assertive, independent, intelligent woman. And yet few took notice of how cool she really was until she “grew up,” got married, had a baby, and starting talking more about sex.

Where many former child stars use sex to establish themselves as grownups to be taken seriously (enter: Miley Cyrus, Nick Jonas, Justin Bieber) (#duh), Duff seemed to avoid explicitly tackling it. Which was fine. She wasn’t overtly pro-abstinence (like The Jonas Brothers), nor did she really wear any sexual preferences on her sleeve. She just wrote and sang her songs as she grew confidently into an adult woman, letting song topics like a family member’s infidelity (“Stranger”) and a destructive relationship (“Play With Fire”) allude to her experiences or familiarity with those similar.

It wasn’t until 2011 that a pregnant Duff began volunteering more and more about her personal life — and the media lost their shit. After Chelsea Handler jokingly asked how Hils got pregnant in the first place, the singer responded with a quick, “Everyone thinks I’m such a good girl — but I figured it out.” That cool, casual retort set the stage for the version of Hilary Duff we know now — a woman following the lead she’d already begun to create, while speaking her mind just a little more loudly.

As the early 2010s progressed into the 2015 premiere of Younger on TV Land, Duff’s interviews began to focus more and more on her personal life. [Note: TV Land and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.] In an interview with Cosmopolitan, she talked about losing her virginity with ex-boyfriend Joel Madden as well as her divorce from Mike Comrie, while she used an interview with PrideSource the same year to talk about her zest for monogamy, her support for the LGBTQ community, and her admiration for fellow Disney alum Miley Cyrus. Even this year, when coming under fire for wearing short-shorts to pick up her son from school, Duff channeled the strong persona she always sang from and penned an Instagram response that politely told those shaming her to kindly fuck off.

All this and rainbow hair dye, too.

But if you’d been paying attention to Hilary Duff a decade ago, none of this (not even the hair dye) would be particularly surprising. While the subject matter of Duff’s conversations may have changed, the singer was always sound in her honesty and controlled vulnerability, particularly in her music. And, like her press in the wake of Younger — a series about relationships and sex, created by Darren Star — it was also a marker of her personal and professional evolution.

The aptly titled, multiplatinum Metamorphosis in 2003 set the stage for the way Duff would approach her career as it progressed: Each record capitalized on the best parts of its predecessor before finally making its way to 2007’s Dignity, a dance-pop album that was more adult both in its subject matter and in the way Duff sounded on it. Which is similar to the way Duff now embraces adult subject matter when doing press for a grown-up TV show.

So while Hilary Duff may not be a fixture within the #squad or show up wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt (praise Jesus), the work she’s done and has been doing is important. Over the last decade-plus, she’s set a strong example via song for her fans to stand up for themselves and take no shit, all while embracing the pitfalls of being a person who’s just trying their best. Now she’s opened that world up and let her fans in — within reason — while wearing whatever goddamn shorts she wants, thanks.