The Football-Headed Comeback Kid

   There have been two major shifts in children’s programming in the time since I was a child. The first shift seems to have happened following  the success of 2003’s The Lizzie McGuire Movie– a film in which Gen Y’s favorite semi-animated preteen finds fame and romance in Italy. Networks like Nickelodeon (Nick) and Disney focused their efforts on live-action programming that portrayed kids and teens living a somewhat (read: extremely) charmed life. There was Zoey101, which focused on a teenage girl and her brother whose boarding school put the Ritz to shame; Hannah Montana, a program centered around a teenage girl’s secret double-life as the world’s biggest pop star; iCarly, which spotlighted the lives of famous internet vlogger friends living, essentially, under zero adult supervision; and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, a show that followed mischievous twin boys on adventures throughout their 5-star hotel/home.

    About 4 or 5 years ago there was a second shift in children’s media: perhaps prompted by Cartoon Network’s diverse, poignant, and socially forward hit show, Adventure Time. At about the same time, an online social revolution fueled by a new generation of activists, writers, and artists began to rise. These people started coming together to share ideas and experiences on personal, cultural, and political topics through social networks like Tumblr and Twitter. Awareness about the prejudice and poor representation prevalent in our media was beginning to spread, whether media giants liked it or not. One way or another, something had to budge, and it didn’t look like it would be the people clamoring for change.

    And so, it came. Networks realized that kids want to be represented in the shows they watch, and parents want their kids to watch shows that are both educational and good for their self-esteem. Disney’s Liv and Maddie provides empowering ballads about self-love and self-worth. Nickelodeon’s Korra is presents an epic tale with diverse representation in its fictional world ranging from characters who struggle with mental illness to those who are LGBTQIA+Cartoon Network’s gem Steven Universe (no pun intended) does the same, featuring a young boy and his 3 gender diverse caretakers. One of them is a fusion named Garnet (a fusion is a powerful union that’s a sort of communication between the energies of all partners involved). Her existence symbolizes the love between two genderless gems named Ruby and Sapphire. While these shows are made first and foremost with a child audience in mind, they’ve found faithful followers in my generation as well. But why? It’s anyone’s guess and I’m sure there are a number contributing factors, but personally, I like to think a lot of it harks back to the shows we grew up on. These were shows that managed to find the perfect balance between entertaining children and providing emotionally captivating programming.

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    Earlier this year, Nickelodeon announced plans to revive programs like Rugrats and Doug, possibly retooling them for a newer audience. The Adventures of Pete & Petes creator and the newly appointed conductor of Nick’s nostalgia train, Chris Viscardi, stated in a recent interview with the A.V. Club that when it comes to developing new programs, the network draws ways to speak to children and the experiences of being a kid from their archives. So what was it that made shows from Nickelodeon’s so-called “golden age” so iconic? Why did they develop cult followings so immense they prompted these major television networks to bring them back?

    Though there are countless examples, one show in particular has always stood above the rest for my friends and me. To us, it embodies everything it means to be a kid while also maintaining a diverse, well-developed crop of characters. Hey Arnold! was a Nicktoon created by Craig Bartlett, whose other works include PBS’s Dinosaur Train and early seasons of Rugrats. It centers around an imaginative and compassionate 9-year-old boy and his group of friends and neighbors as they deal with everyday responsibilities and pressures while navigating life’s more complex obstacles. All, of course, while retaining the imaginative, receptive nature of children.

   Throughout the show there are several episodes dedicated to Arnold and his friends confronting or debunking urban legends that have been passed down “from kid generation to kid generation.” In one such episode, Arnold takes his injured carrier pigeon to the elusive, “mad” Pigeon Man. In time, the two establish a sense of understanding for one another. Arnold realizes how and why someone like Vincent might isolate himself and come to exist as Pigeon Man, and Vincent decides that people might not be as cruel as he remembered. Alas, all comes crashing down when a group of Arnold’s classmates destroy Pigeon Man’s home. Left with no other choice, Pigeon Man decides to leave. Rather than allowing the experience to further tarnish his views about humanity or impressing his cynicism upon his young friend, Pigeon Man reassures Arnold that the time they spent becoming friends restored his belief in people, though inevitably he just wasn’t meant to be around them.

    What made this show so appealing to kids was how accessible it was. Save for Arnold having, like, the coolest bedroom in history, everything about the settings and characters felt real. Nothing, not even the life of rich socialite Rhonda Wellington Lloyd or popular girl Lila, was polished. Instead, the show played to the imaginations, desires, and insecurities of growing children (as well as the difficulties one might face as an adult), in ways that were filled with compassion and empathy instead of judgment and ridicule. This is highlighted in an incredibly powerful body-positive episode towards the end of the series. Harold, the large class bully, signs up for a weightloss cruise after he overhears his friends making fun of his weight. To the dismay of his parents and ridicule of his classmates, he returns twice as large. He goes into hiding out of embarrassment. When Arnold visits him, Harold confesses that he over-ate on the cruise to deal with the fear that he wasn’t going to lose enough weight to get people off his back. Harold soon realizes that despite how others made him feel, he himself did NOT see anything wrong with the way he was before. With renewed self-confidence, Harold is able to get back down to his former weight and embraces his fatness. Similarly, in the episode “Oskar Can’t Read,” Arnold’s neighbors discover that fellow tenant Oskar Kokoschka is illiterate and begin to taunt him. Rather than joining in, Arnold takes it upon himself to teach Mr. Kokoschka to read (at least enough that he’s able to use maps and signs to find his way home when he gets lost).

    The show also had an almost unmatched ability to touch on the various traumas of childhood. Perhaps the character that best embodied this aspect of this show is Helga G. Pataki, an aggressive classmate of and bully to Arnold, despite the fact that she is obsessed with him. Her character refused gender norms/expectations and the gross maturation of underage girls in favor of staying true to herself and being able to just be a kid. Helga is the younger sister of a highly accomplished prodigy named Olga. Their parents, Bob and Miriam, favor Olga over Helga and as a result tend to ignore her needs as their daughter and as a growing girl. Bob is an aggressive businessman who constantly refers to Helga as Olga and projects a lot of feelings of disappointment onto her while berating his wife. Miriam, for her part, is an alcoholic who neglects Helga and is often too drunk or hung-over to be there for Helga or even handle her basic needs. In the climactic episode “Helga On The Couch,” it is revealed that Helga became a bully after being teased for showing her vulnerable, sensitive side. Specifically, she targets Arnold and develops such a deep infatuation with him because he was the first person to notice and take care of her. Helga is emblematic of the show’s efforts to give children an honest depiction of the things they feel and how they might go about handling them.

    Sadly, despite Hey Arnold!’s mass appeal, a contracting conflict resulted in Nickelodeon pulling the plug on the show, ending it on a cliffhanger wherein Arnold finds a map that may or may not contain the location of his parents. Thankfully, Nickelodeon has decided to give Arnold and his friends a proper send off, green-lighting the previously cancelled Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie which picks up where the series left off.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really excited for new generations to be exposed to the vivid stories and characters of our childhood. I have a lot of hope that, given the radically changing social climate, the positive new television programs now available to children, and the future ones headed their way, the coming generations will develop a strong sense of compassion, empathy, and acceptance towards others. (In the meantime, I’ll be waiting impatiently for The Jungle Movie to air.)

p.s. The entire Hey Arnold! series is available on Hulu, while the first feature film is available on Netflix.

Art by Devyn Park.