The “Magic School Bus” Reboot Ditches Ms. Frizzle's Extravagant Spirit

Miss Fiona Frizzle, voiced by Kate McKinnon.

Miss Fiona Frizzle, voiced by Kate McKinnon (Photo credit: Netflix)

When news broke that the Magic School Bus would be rebooted, I felt hopeful. I could easily envision Ms. Frizzle, the eccentric teacher with a penchant for magical field trips, sailing back into the classroom to invite a new generation to invest in science. I wanted the series to be a reprieve from climate change deniers and politicians who weaponize “science” against LGBTQ people. If the book series and the TV program, which aired on PBS from 1994 to 1997, could offer up a feminist icon, couldn’t the 21st-century revival take those radical roots even further? My jaded bisexual heart fleetingly dreamt up a cool tech-savvy girlfriend for this queer icon of my youth. Instead, the reboot isn’t giving audiences anything new: Instead there’s uninspired scenery and characters—and a weirdly sexualized Ms. Frizzle.

This week, the internet revisited the drastic changes made to Ms. Frizzle’s appearance in The Magic School Bus Rides Again, Netflix’s 2017 reboot of the beloved classic television show. A viral March 19 tweet juxtaposes an image of the quirky science teacher from the original show with her Netflix counterpart. “I don’t know how to explain it, but the new Ms. Frizzle is homophobic,” the tweet reads. Though the tweet’s designed to be humorous, it also reveals an important truth: Many queer viewers connected with the original Ms. Frizzle, and it’s distressing to see her quirks flattened. As another Twitter user put it, “If I came out to old Ms. Frizzle she would hug me and make me tea but if I came out to new Ms. Frizzle she would be like ‘ew do you have a crush on me?’”

While the rebooted character is the Ms. Frizzle for all intents and purposes, she’s not the same Ms. Frizzle many of us grew up with and that queer fans admired. Instead, in the Netflix series, Valerie Frizzle, the original Ms. Frizzle, has been replaced by her younger sister, Fiona Frizzle, who took over her class when Valerie left teaching to embark on independent research missions. Educators leave the classroom all the time, but that still doesn’t answer an essential question for The Magic School Busqueer fanbase: Why did Ms. Frizzle need to undergo such a major makeover?

The Netflix series shows us the women together when Professor Frizzle, the original teacher, briefly returns to the classroom with her PhD and a bland beige-and-brown outfit that no Magic School Bus fan would’ve ever associated with the character. Gone are her creatively educational dresses and earrings; instead, she wears monochrome vests and suits. For instance, as she dives underwater in the second episode, her scuba suit is an uncharacteristically plain baby blue, a stark departure from the one bedecked with starfish and seashells featured in 1994 “The Magic School Bus Gets Eaten” episode.

Meanwhile, Fiona, a.k.a. the new Ms. Frizzle, relegates bold fashion choices to episode-specific necklaces and patterned skirts. Her attire for outer space, the jungle, and the ocean are practically interchangeable and, no matter how hazardous the conditions are, she insists on leaving her wavy red hair down. Fiona’s seemingly much younger than Valerie and any inherited oddness is overshadowed by how conventionally attractive she is. For LGBTQ viewers who delighted in the sartorial choices and unkempt hairdo that made “The Friz” unique among fictional teachers, this update is, in short, a downgrade. Despite both characters being voiced by lesbian actors—Lily Tomlin has been voicing Valerie since the ’90s and Kate McKinnon stars as Fiona—some queer audiences disapprove of the new series’ flat animation style that neutralizes the earlier series’ perceived queerness. Even Janet, Arnold’s annoying know-it-all cousin, was made to be more traditionally feminine, with shoulder-length hair and prominent eyelashes.

This issue goes further than Ms. Frizzle’s lack of brightly patterned dresses: Fans first voiced concerns about the Frizzles’ appearances in 2017 when Netflix first released the trailer for the reboot. The Washington Post called the shift in appearance soulless and wrote that the characters had “plastic facial expressions of a children’s Barbie or Bratz ad.” Much like the issue of the Disney princess face, the series offers little more than the same drab outfits and indistinguishable faces. Some have also pointed out that Professor Frizzle’s transformation also has antisemitic undertones—her crooked nose is less pronounced and her signature frizz is flattened—with one Twitter user writing, “When I was your age, Ms. Frizzle was a Jewish lesbian.” Others remarked on the colorism at play in how Tim Wright and Keesha Franklin, the only Black students in the class, are depicted with considerably lighter skin in the reboot. To top it all off, Mr. Producer, the Black man who hung out with Liz the Lizard and clarified fact from fiction at the end of episodes, has been replaced by Professor Frizzle answering children’s questions. Only Jyoti Kaur, a South Asian American student, is a new and recurring addition who adds to the classroom’s diversity.

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The best teachers offer novel worldviews, topics, and opportunities to their students, and for some closeted teens, a supportive educator is a welcome respite from strained relationships at home. (The dynamic between English teachers and their gay students has even become a meme in recent years.) In the ’90s, Ms. Frizzle was one of several onscreen educators who echoed that open-minded and accepting sentiment—and capture the hearts of queer viewers in the process. In Matilda (1996), the soft-spoken and kind Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) became both a role model and a sexual awakening for lesbian and bisexual girls. Study Breaks even crowned Miss Honey “the original lesbian cottagecore queen” in a recent piece. “Miss Honey’s lack of heterosexuality does not necessarily indicate a clear example of homosexuality,” Emily Jewett wrote. “But the absence leaves room for the viewer to imagine Miss Honey as a lesbian.”

Longtime fans will always intensely scrutinize reboots and sequels. (I’m certain we’ll have similar conversations about the upcoming live-action magic school bus film starring Elizabeth Banks as Ms. Frizzle.) After all, when Netflix rebooted Bill Nye the Science Guy, another beloved ’90s show, in 2017, fans criticized the show for being too “preachy” and “corny.” Though Bill Nye Saves the World couldn’t compete with the original, it at least attempted to evolve with the times without abandoning its heart, focusing on top-of-mind topics including anti-vaxx sentiment in the United States, gender, and climate change. It’s hard to say the same for The Magic School Bus Rides Again.

Instead, for many LGBTQ viewers familiar with the confident and fashionable Valerie Frizzle, it’s as if the reboot hired a substitute teacher who struggles to work the video player and refuses to wear glowing Saturned-shaped earrings. Sure, she still encourages intellectual curiosity, Carlos still makes groan-inducing jokes, and Arnold is as anxious as ever, but these rich character traits no longer translate. In “Lost in Space,” the first episode from 1994, Ms. Frizzle reassures the children when they’re temporarily separated: “No reason to panic. I’d never leave you.” But for queer fans, her extravagant spirit has done exactly that.

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by Maggie Chirdo
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Maggie Chirdo is a historian and journalist from a humid little slice of Southeast Texas. She writes about American history, LGBTQ communities, pop culture, and whatever else keeps her up at night. She is the art director for The Interlude, previously worked as city editor for NYU Local, and has bylines in The Knockturnal and elsewhere. You can find her entire portfolio here (including her foray into graphic design), and follow her on Twitter @maggiechirdo.