More Exit Strategies from The Escape Aid
Or: How I learned What a Stoop is…
I realize that a site thrives with regular posts and regular traffic.
That is seriously the end of that thought. But if you are reading this, welcome back and I am glad to announce that I have one or two posts for each arm of The Escape Aid. I cannot tell a lie, this one comes with a lot of help.
I asked my dear, sweet, sensitive friend Kathleen Kellett, who co-wrote with me on The Escape Aid, to write me her thoughts on Hey Arnold, a series that we both love. While I have seen much of it, the channel I saw it on only seemed to get the first season reruns. I usually like to track down and watch an entire series or a film when I review it, so I out-sourced this piece to someone else who I knew would do it justice.
And readers, did she ever.
I won’t color my opinion of this post any further. Suffice to say, it’s nice to have a little support and read someone else write poignantly about cartoons and stories for children. I appended a portion of it in the end to talk a bit about the stuff I usually do, like representation, art, and music. I hope you enjoy the piece as much as I did.
Thanks to Gizmo for letting me write a guest post about Hey Arnold! This is one of my favorite cartoons from my childhood, as well as one of my family’s collective favorite cartoons. My mother, my sister, and I are all incapable of hearing music from the opera Carmen without filling in the words from “What’s Opera, Arnold?” (and my sister was a music major). So I’m excited to be revisiting my beloved childhood media and talk about what made this show so great. I will provide the general caveat that most of my Hey Arnold viewing was done actually as a child, and while I have a weirdly good memory for media, some details may escape me. Considering how often I quote it at people, though, I think I remember enough to babble about it here.
Hey Arnold (dispensing with the exclamation point for now) is a show primarily about a group of fourth-graders in the big city. Each half-hour episode contained two eleven-or-so-minute stories about the usually funny and often poignant trials and tribulations of these children, whether at school, at home with their families, or in the city at large. There were a lot of characters, and nearly all of them got a narrative moment in the sun at one point or another. Hey Arnold showcased all sorts of complex relationships that a 10-year-old child may experience: relationships with friends, rivals, family members of various sorts, devastating crushes, and the large variety of strangers and acquaintances kids in urban areas will encounter.
The central character is the eponymous Arnold, a small “football-headed” kid with a bedroom that every viewer envied. (Okay, that past tense is disingenuous. I still envy it.) Arnold lives at the top of his grandparents’ boarding house, which tends to house only the most eccentric of boarders. Perhaps this constant exposure to colorful characters has something to do with Arnold’s generally calm, patient demeanor. He’s not eternally collected; Arnold often tries to take on the role of peacekeeper in conflicts, and he can experience moments of frustration when people refuse to act reasonably. Actually, I’m beginning to realize that Arnold is an awful lot like Kermit the Frog. He’s often the only level-headed one in a large group of total weirdos, which can be a bit exhausting at times.
On the whole, though, Arnold is a compassionate and forgiving sort of guy. He reaches out to people who have been cast out, like Pigeon Man, Stoop Kid, or even Helga (more about her later). Maybe that is another thing that his life in the boarding house has taught him: the restless and rootless are still deserving of a helping hand. Arnold himself is an orphan, but his grandparents (who are rather odd folks in their own right, especially his grandmother) have made sure that he still has a family. Arnold tries to pay it forward to the rest of the city. This can lead to disappointment when people don’t live up to his idealistic goals, but he never stops trying to make the world conform to his optimistic views.
I’m getting awfully emotional about Arnold right now.
It’s unsurprising that a kid like this would inspire a great deal of loyalty. Arnold’s closest relationship is with his best friend, Gerald Johansson. Gerald is the keeper and teller of urban legends amongst the fourth-graders. Place is very important in Hey Arnold, and it is clear that both Arnold and Gerald consider the entire city to be their beloved home. On the whole, Gerald and Arnold have a very supportive and caring friendship. They confide in one another and accompany each other on whatever adventure or sometimes ill-begotten project is underway. I remember it as a very healthy relationship, and I appreciate that this show demonstrated that children are capable of putting real effort into their friendships with one another.
One of the strengths of this show is in its diversity of relationships. Children are capable of being loving and supportive, but they are also impacted when they are exposed to very unhealthy relationships, and may have difficulty building relationships of their own. This is where Helga comes in. Helga G. Pataki is Arnold’s classmate and admirer-from-afar. Up close, she is Arnold’s main antagonist. She constantly heckles his every effort, and addresses him primarily as “football head.” She doesn’t fare much better with her other classmates, either. Helga is not the only bully of PS 118, but she is one of the most aggressive. Even those she considers friends rarely receive good treatment; Helga constantly takes advantage of her best friend, Phoebe, even though Helga does seem to genuinely care about her. She’s just terrible at showing it.
The show, on the other hand, is very good at showing why Helga is the way she is. There are several episodes that focus on Helga and her family, but I’m going to concentrate on “Helga on the Couch,” partially because this is one of the few episodes I’ve seen more recently than when I was in middle school, but mostly because it’s just plain great. In this episode, PS 118 gets a new school psychologist, Dr. Bliss, who observes some of Helga’s aggressive behavior and invites her in to talk about why she might be acting this way. Helga is extremely resistant at first, but slowly begins to reveal the reasons behind her behavior.
Helga’s father, Bob, is a confrontational boor who greatly dislikes things like minor inconveniences, taking other people’s feelings into consideration, or taking ownership of his own actions. Helga’s mother, Miriam, is a very thinly veiled alcoholic. Now, when I was very young, this flimsy veil was actually sufficient, and I didn’t pick up on the implied addiction; I did, however, note her lethargy and inattentive parenting. In other words, I comprehended the behavior and consequences, if not the cause, and I think the show did well at portraying the way adult problems filter down into children’s lives, even if the children don’t necessarily understand them. (With that said, due to Helga’s disdainful attitude towards her mother’s “smoothies,” I think she probably knew exactly what was going on.)
There is one thing that can make Bob and Miriam act proud and caring, but it’s not Helga. Instead, her older sister Olga gets 100% of the Pataki parental attention, and Helga is completely ignored. In other episodes, the show explores how this has done a number on Olga’s psyche, as well, but here Helga is front and center. She remembers how her parents were too busy doting on Olga to take her to her first day of preschool, so she walks there alone in the rain. As she arrives, a little boy holds out his umbrella for her to share. It’s tiny preschool Arnold, who compliments her clothes and later shares his food with her. However, when the other class bully, Harold, notices and mocks Helga’s open adoration of Arnold, Helga strikes out violently. From that point on, she keeps her love for Arnold inside, suppressing it until she is in the privacy of her own closet, where she builds a gum shrine to Arnold, which she worships ritualistically (as you do).
Now, the show does not excuse Helga’s violence and aggression. When she genuinely hurts or upsets her peers, it is clear that she is in the wrong. However, by letting the viewer into her really upsetting world, the show provides insight into why Helga is so confused and twisted up inside, and invites the viewer to empathize with her, the way Arnold always tries to empathize with people. Dr. Bliss advises Helga to try to be nicer to the people around her, but she also understands why this is so difficult for Helga. Dr. Bliss, and by extension the show, also allows Helga her eccentricities. The gum shrine is odd and not overly hygienic, but it serves a purpose in Helga’s life. This show has a strong “you do you” message that still resonates with me today. Hurting people isn’t all right, but being weird? Well, if it makes you feel better, then that’s not all that weird, no matter what anyone else might say.
This show also has an enormous amount of respect for its child characters, and by extension its child viewers. Every character exists in a web of relationships, which is why the city is such a good setting. All of them are shaped by the people in their life, and they also shape each other’s lives, whether they know it or not. Arnold has no way of knowing what his moment of four-year-old kindness means to Helga even years later, but to her, he is not just any old crush. He is an example of the kind of care and generosity that Helga does not regularly experience in her life, and therefore he is a reason for her to hope that maybe she can experience more of that. Arnold serves a similar function for the reclusive Pigeon Man, who tells Arnold that he has reminded the Pigeon Man that some people can, in fact, be trusted. Through Arnold, the show demonstrates that young children have the power and ability to be strong forces of good in their lives.
Meanwhile, through Helga, the show demonstrates that young children have the right to struggle. When their lives are difficult, they have difficulties. This seems so obvious and intuitive, and for adults, it is, yet children’s problems are often downplayed by those who don’t remember that children are actually very aware of their own lives. They are not ignorant of their own circumstances. Children also have a responsibility not to harm others, but like adults, they do not always handle this responsibility well. In short, children are people, for better or worse. They are not in the process of becoming people; they are people now, and they have to deal with everything that goes along with that.
But, of course, that’s what makes their stories so rich and interesting to watch. And funny. We mustn’t forget that. While I focused on a particularly emotionally devastating episode, because that’s just how I roll, Hey Arnold is actually hilarious. Child viewers can enjoy the humor while secure in the knowledge that the show is not laughing at them. And seriously, if you’ve never seen it, go watch “What’s Opera, Arnold.” You’ll have high culture melodies with lyrics about satin pants stuck in your head for a week, but it’ll be worth it. Trust me, Football Head.
GIZMO’s LIGHTNING ROUND:
ART and SOUND
Hey Arnold stands out as a brilliant cartoon not only for its art and subtly supportive soundtracks; it was part of an era of cartoons that seemed more interested in telling stories rather than selling toys. It was among the shows that followed the wake of Nickelodeon’s bankruptcy and rebranding, and just goes to show that a children’s cartoon can be both poignant and economically viable. It had a good eight years and is easily one of the more character rather than concept driven cartoons you will find today.
I remember one commercial which showed silhouettes of Hey Arnold! character’s heads and match them with various things and ask you to guess who it was. Eugene’s hair looked like an open soup can, Nadine’s looked like a spider, Arnold with his famed football head, etc. etc. While the game was always fairly easy, it spoke to me on the level of design and individuality. None of the characters could be mistaken for another even if we saw them behind a curtain.
Much like in manga and anime, character’s faces appeared so similar that odd shaped hair was the only way they could ever be told apart—hence the outlandish, spiky hair styles still used today. In Hey Arnold! the design seems more like it is used to soften the seriousness of some of the stories and themes talked about. There was as much seriousness as there was humor in many of the narratives that I remember, but it always seemed to be easier to take since it was obviously a cartoon. The fact that this was accomplished without taking from any of the show’s themes is a testament to the verve and thoughtful of the art.
Addendum to THEMES and CAST
As mentioned earlier, Hey Arnold features a diverse cast of children as well as adults. They are from diverse communities, cultures, and have varying accents, yet these factors are incidental to plots. The boarders living in Arnold’s grandparent’s place, as well as kids from PS 118 are from varying walks of life. They live and thrive in the city and experience life as a community despite obvious differences. It is an almost idealized view of metropolitan living. To a non-white, non-American viewer, it seemed like a place that anyone could be part of if they tried.
Hey Arnold! was and is an enduring cartoon. It was character and plot driven, idealistic, funny, thoughtful and complex. It put the spotlight on children and their interactions with adults. It exposed their comedies side by side with their dramas, which is something we don’t always get to see. I talk a lot about how good cartoons do more than focus on toy sales and heavy handed moralizing, and Hey Arnold! is a champion of children’s narratives—anyone can see that even in its silhouette.
**About Kathleen Kellett
Kathleen just got two degrees in children’s lit (talking about it and writing it) from Simmons College, and is now trying to figure out the rest of her life. She writes fantasy for young adults and children and loves monsters a lot. She can be found online at kathleenwriting.com and @MonstrousWonder. She also collaborated with Gizmo on The 9th Hour at theescapeaid.com.