Representations of Girlhood in Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold!

Copyright Nickelodeon Network


By Emily Chandler


Emily Chandler is a PhD candidate in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW. Her research investigates the representation of girlhood and gender in Western popular culture.

[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]

My PhD thesis focuses on the representation of girl characters in American children’s television animation between 1990 and 2010. My previous work looked at the representation of the homosocial coming of age of adolescent girls in film. I focus on the representation of girls because both anxiety and anticipation regarding social change have historically been articulated through the ways societies discuss, address and depict girls and young women. From hysteria over white slavery, flappers and beat girls to the modern panics over hookup culture and “kids growing up too fast,” it becomes clear that when a culture is beset with anxiety over a particular issue, it displaces this issue onto girls.

In my discussion today, I focus on the 1990s. During the 1990s, heightened awareness of girls’ potential as consumers led to an increase in music, books, films, television series and other products being marketed to them (Carter, 2005; Harris, 2004; Ward, 2004). This was epitomized by the runaway success of Titanic, which “drew teen girls to malls and theaters in droves” (Anderson, 2012, p. 141).

This increased interest in marketing to girls was arguably propagated by concerns about a lack of “strong role models” for girls (Sweeney, 2008). During the 1990s, the publishing market was flooded with books and reports on the negative effects of body image, sexism, family breakdown and other factors on girls’ mental health. The most successful of these was clinical psychologist Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, which draws on Pipher’s professional experience as a clinical psychologist to examine the impact of societal pressures on American adolescent girls. Pipher claims that girls are encouraged to self-silence by social, cultural and environmental factors, including parental separation, beauty culture, media sexualisation of girls and the threat of sexual assault. In order to survive, girls must “be attractive, be a lady, be unselfish and of service, make relationships work, and be competent without complaint” (Pipher, 1994, p. 39). Normative American girlhood in the 1990s was largely premised on the performance of niceness, a specifically White, middle-class understanding of girls’ role in society, which involves “smiling, being welcoming, available, open, nurturing, kind, [and] nonconfrontational” (Lipkin, 2009, p. 91). This behavioural standard creates the expectation that to be considered worthy of inclusion, attention, praise and love, females should not express negative thoughts or feelings (Brown, 1992). According to Pipher, this disconnect between what girls feel and the image they must present contributes to negative body image, self-destructive behaviours and suicidal ideation.

These years also saw the rise of the youth-focused Girl Power discourse, which positions girls as empowered subjects by virtue of being girls. It emphasises the importance of ambition and assertiveness for girls. This discourse was prolific in music, film and television from the 1990s to the mid-2000s. Discourses of girls’ empowerment offered a rose-tinted outlook on girlhood and particularly on bonds between girls. It may be understood as echoing the second-wave notion of sisterhood, in that girls’ strength is achieved through perfect female friendship. The depiction of girls attaining empowerment through bonds with one another contradicts “the patriarchic pattern of the lone male hero who is depicted without friends, family, or any other social networks” (Knight, 2010, p. 327). However, the tendency of Girl Power media to situate heroines in opposition to an other girl whose gender expressions and personality are different and therefore threatening renders female bonding anomalous, as “finding your few true girlfriends in a social landscape peppered with female competitors” (Tally, 2008, p. 107). The focus upon female friendship, rather than larger female solidarity, means that the prospect of bettering circumstances for all girls, instead of just the protagonist and her closest friends, usually remains unexplored.

Marnina Gonick proposes that the “Girl Power” and “Reviving Ophelia” discourses represent alternate viewpoints of the “neoliberal girl subject” (2006). The Girl Power discourse articulates the anticipation felt as a new breed of adolescent girl, an “idealized form of the self-determining individual,” became poised to realise the hopes of second-wave feminism (Gonick, 2006, p. 2). The Reviving Ophelia narrative encapsulates the anxiety regarding the possibility that the girls might not succeed “in taking up these new forms of subjectification” (Gonick, 2006, p. 15). Both these discourses position girls purely as individuals, serving to “direct attention from structural explanations for inequality toward explanations of personal circumstances and personality traits” (Gonick, 2006, p. 2). To summarise, American middle-class white girls were seen as triply important during this time in history: as a crucial market demographic to reach, as at risk, and as empowered go-getters.

My research focuses on animation during this period because changes in the television animation industry and the conception of audiences for animation arguably influenced the diversification of female representation within this medium. Changes to television production policy heralded a change in the conception of children’s programming. The introduction of the 1990 Children’s Television Act in the United States aimed to “serve the child audience as part of the obligation to the public interest” (Banet-Weiser 2007: 16). This reacted to the toy-based, starkly gendered children’s programming of the 1980s, which had flourished under deregulation of television broadcasters by the Reagan administration (Perea 2011: 92-94). “Girl cartoons” of the 1980s, such as Strawberry Shortcake (1980), Rainbow Brite (1984-1986) and Care Bears (1985-1988) were distinguishable by their pastel colour schemes and emphasis on consensus within a group (Schine 1988). By contrast, “boy cartoons” such as G.I. Joe (1985-1986) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996) were criticised for their violent content (Carter and Weaver 2003). What the vast majority of “girl” and “boy” cartoons of the 1980s had in common was that they were, essentially, programme-length toy commercials, noted for “spending the majority of the program talking [about] or showing the licensed product” (Metroka-Kirkham 2008: 3). While implementation of the Children’s Television Act took several years, its introduction granted writers and animators expanded storytelling and artistic opportunities, since there was less of an imperative to sell toys and other merchandise.

The medium of animation experienced further changes with the introduction of cable television channels. In 1989, Geraldine Laybourne became network president of the children’s cable channel Nickelodeon, a title she held until 1996 (Hendershot 1998). She instituted a structural and image overhaul of the network, which had previously aired game shows, sitcoms and educational programming (Hubka 1998; Banet-Weiser 2007). For the first time, Nickelodeon contracted animation studios such as Jumbo Pictures and Klasky Csupo to produce original animated content (branded as “Nicktoons”) which would air in a special Saturday morning programming block. Nickelodeon’s “kid-centred” philosophy aimed to “find fresh ways to entertain [children] without patronizing or corrupting them” (Swartz 2004: 114). Their first three Nicktoons, Doug (1991-1994), Rugrats (1991-2004) and The Ren and Stimpy Show (1991-1996) premiered in August 1991. These series were intended to appeal to girls and boys, in contrast to the gendered, toy-based programming prevalent in the 1980s (Sandler 2004).

Laybourne’s overhaul of Nickelodeon’s brand image and programme schedule would change the face of Western animation. In 1985, Nickelodeon was the least popular channel on basic cable, “airing programs that parents wanted their kids to watch, not programs that kids themselves wanted to see” (Banet-Weiser 2007: 36). By 1993, Nickelodeon “was watched by more children than similar programming on all four major networks combined” (Yago and Trimbath 2003: 137). The success of the Nicktoons caused other children’s channels, such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Fox Kids to try and replicate Nickelodeon’s success by producing their own original animated content in order to fill time slots and entice new viewers, inundating television with new animated offerings (Banet-Weiser 2007: 61).

The period 1990-2010 proved a fertile one for Western television animation. This twenty-year time span was characterised by the rise of creator-driven animation, where “the balance of creative control in TV animation favored artists for the first time since the early-1960s, and artists exercised vast influence over the visual style, writing, and overall direction of TV shows” (Amidi, 2010). Producers and creators of children’s television animation were granted unprecedented freedom to trial new concepts and ideas (Banet-Weiser 2007).

The differences between children’s television animation in the 1980s and 1990s herald a “shift in how child audiences were imagined. The kids who were understood in terms of “innocence” – an innocence that corresponded with the bland formulaic quality of most cartoons – were reconsidered in terms of citizenship and empowerment within the context of brand culture” (Banet-Weiser, 2007, p. 186).

Thus, the combination of an industry dictate to create series with cross-gender appeal, the trickle-down effect of feminist discourse, the imperative to provide positive role models for girls and an awareness of girls’ sway as consumers resulted in the creation of numerous animated girl characters in programmes such as Rugrats (1991-2004), Hey Arnold! (1996-2004), Recess (1997-2001), The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2004), Daria (1997-2001), The Wild Thornberrys (1998-2004), As Told By Ginger (2000-2004), X-Men: Evolution (2000-2003), Kim Possible (2002-2007), Pepper Ann (1997-2000), The Proud Family (2001-2005) and Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008). I focus on girlhood in Hey Arnold! for the reason that virtually no scholarly work has been published on this series.

My main interest in today’s discussion is the series’ representation of girlhood, particularly in the character of Helga G. Pataki. I believe that the series’ placement after the inception of Girl Power but before its widespread commodification allowed it to present a girl character as truly uncontained and unruly. One way that this is accomplished is through the use of slapstick humour. In an interview, animation production executive Liz Young recalls veteran animator Friz Freleng telling her “that female comic characters just wouldn’t be funny. … you couldn’t have a female character [endure] the same kind of cartoon calamities that would happen to Bugs Bunny [or] Daffy Duck … He felt audiences would not accept, nor find any humor in, this sort of slapstick and physical treatment of female characters” (Young in Nagel, 2008, para.22). However, in Hey Arnold!, much of the comedy inherent in Helga’s character derives from Helga shouting, fighting, being injured, injuring others, falling down, getting messy, being humiliated. I argue that for a girl audience, there could be something freeing in this, the spectacle of a nine-year-old girl being subject to, and instigator of, chaos, but always coming out on top.

Copyright Nickelodeon Network
Copyright Nickelodeon Network

Helga’s tortured crush on Arnold drives her to be distrustful and scathing toward more normatively feminine girls. Helga despises her high-achieving older sister Olga and Arnold’s love interests Ruth and Lila for being what she cannot be. This may be considered regressive from a feminist standpoint. However, this series presents a comparatively nuanced portrait of internalised misogyny, compared to the innumerable children’s series where a plucky, tomboyish protagonist clashes with a girly-girl nemesis. In Hey Arnold!, Helga’s worst enemy is herself, and her antipathy for other girls is generally completely one-sided. Ruth and Lila are unaware of Helga’s loathing, and Olga wishes that they could be closer. Helga’s dislike of girly-girls is shown to stem from her own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Helga has been neglected by her parents and made to feel unfeminine and unworthy, especially in comparison to Olga. Helga has internalised the idea that having feelings is a sign of weakness, which she must conceal at all costs. The writers mine this for comedy, having Helga land herself in ludicrous situations as a result of trying to conceal her emotions. However, the episode “Helga on the Couch” (C. Bartlett, 1999) sympathetically explores Helga’s aggression by showing Helga visiting a child psychologist, suggesting that while Helga’s anger is justified, her means of venting her feelings is not.

Other girls typically serve as a point of identification for Helga – she wants to emulate them or displace them, often at the same time. What I find particularly interesting about the representation of girls onscreen is the positioning of gendered identities as mutable, as a matter of simply changing costumes. Here, the animation medium enhances this sense of mutable, liminal identities with its capability to change the characters’ designs to show how completely they have taken on their new role. This is an example of how “girl identities” in media are “explicitly defined by the social appearance of the body” (Driscoll, 2011, p. 73).

At one point, Nickelodeon considered creating a spin-off where Arnold was written out and Helga became the star. The Patakis would have featured an adolescent Helga dealing with friends, her dysfunctional family and her desire to become a writer. While the series did not go into production, due to perceived similarities to MTV’s Daria, this does demonstrate the extent to which Helga was the series’ breakout character.

I think that Helga is one of the most significant animated girl characters to emerge out of this time. She is a nine-year-old girl who is allowed to embody the ugly side of 1990s girlhood. She has a voice and a body. She is, by turns, hero and villain. She struggles with the dictates of normative femininity, she schemes and fantasises and she ultimately wins and loses in unexpected ways. It is unfortunate that girl characters like Helga are so far and few between, but for me, this underscores the importance of the research opportunity this text offers.


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