Cartoons, whether they’re made for kids or grownups or absolutely everyone, aren’t obligated to be educational. It’s not required that animated shows and movies have some larger message about ethics or how a person should be.
It’s art, and I think we’ve moved past a point where we, as a people, feel that all art needs to do a particular thing to be considered good.
Still, I understand why children’s entertainment has all these added expectations. I understand why parents would want to know that when their kids are watching TV, they’re getting something positive out of it, not just entertainment value.
But when creators are forced to jam specific lessons into their work by outside forces, there’s a huge risk that the quality of the show will suffer and that viewers will be able to tell how disingenuous the messaging is and subsequently ignore the advice being given.
The case in point here would be the PSA cartoons of the 80s, where influence from the federal government resulted in ham-fisted episodes and TV specials, or isolated PSA spots, that told kids not to do bad things in the most obvious ways possible.
Were these episodes effective? Did they teach kids to stay away from drugs and strangers?
Well, it would be really hard to say. But if we move the discussion to similarly moralistic animation from the late-90s and very early 2000s, I can speak from personal experience and say that they weren’t convincing in the least.
I actually liked Arthur growing up. I don’t know if that makes me a square, but it was an ok show.
Given its nature as original programming for public television, it makes a lot of sense that it was squeaky clean and tried to have positive messaging.
But when Arthur went out of its way to be extra educational or moralistic, I tuned out. In general, I think kids over the age of five are really good at sniffing out heavy-handed point-making in their entertainment.
So this brings us to a dilemma. If morality tales in kids’ entertainment need to be really subtle to work, then should we even bother with them or just let entertainment for kids be entertaining?
Everyone’s free to disagree, but I do think it’s possible for kids’ entertainment to have positive messaging, and it doesn’t need to be limited to common PSA stuff about staying away from drugs and strangers with candy.
I’ve talked previously about a contemporary show that does this really well, Summer Camp Island, (which, by the way, has been moved wholesale to HBO Max? I’m still not completely sold on that decision. I get that HBO Max needs exclusive programs, but it also limits access to the series.)
But even contemporary shows with positive messaging owe a lot to a beloved 90s series that set the gold standard, probably without even trying.
We’re talkin’ about Hey Arnold here, so let’s take a few moments to indulge in the warm, addictive nostalgia that the title brings with it.
Mmmmmm, remember the intro where they’re walkin’ on the street for some reason? And the episode where they take a train to Hell, kinda? And when they clean up the vacant lot? Ahhhh, love it.
But what we’re really here to talk about is how Hey Arnold very passively encouraged viewers to be good people.
Relatable Characters in a Filthy, Filthy World
One of the biggest compliments I can give to Hey Arnold is that it’s pretty uncomfortable to rewatch.
More specifically, it’s uncomfortable to be in the world of Hey Arnold, but not in a bad way.
It looks and feels like a not-so-nice neighborhood in a very real city. In fact, the boarding house Arnold lives in is described as a tenement in the Wikipedia article on the show.
The show’s interiors have a consistent sleaze, outside of Arnold’s bedroom, which is just a kid-fantasy bachelor pad.
But the neighborhood still has a charm, and I think any kid who watched the show kind of wanted to live there, despite all the sleaze.
And that mix of gross and lovely bleeds into the characters, too, which is what we’ll be focusing on today.
This is just so different from most mainstream television, especially mainstream television of the time. Whether it’s a live-action show or an animated series, TV characters tend to live in pristine houses and apartments that, in reality, would be extremely expensive.
But long before Bob’s Burgers and Man Seeking Woman created dingy, realistic homes for their characters, Hey Arnold created this incredibly grounded feeling.
But the setting is just one ingredient. The real strength of the show was its characters and the kinds of problems they faced.
Arnold alone is a great example of a character who hasn’t been dealt a fair hand, life-wise, but chooses to do the right thing anyway.
But we’re gonna be focusing on a different character in this chunk of the video.
I could have picked just about any member of the main cast because, while they all adhere to good character writing by each having an easily-identifiable personality, none are limited to their surface-level traits.
Harold isn’t just a bully. Lila isn’t just Ms. Perfect. Gerald isn’t just a helpful sidekick.
And 20-some years after the show first aired, I can see that one central character was much more than just an antagonist.
Helga Pataki: A Person with Problems
Growing up, Helga was probably my least favorite character, at least for a while.
She yelled a lot, she was creepy, and in general, she was just plain mean.
But the show started to give the character some more breathing room, first with those moments in the Arnold shrine, which are still a bit concerning, but also with her own episodes where we started to understand a lot more about why she acted the way she did.
We got to meet her parents, who are ……… [in the script here I just have about 12 dots in a row] pieces of work. But above all else, they definitely don’t express any real affection for her; all that attention goes to the perfect older sister (boy, that’s a great episode).
And still, in moments where Helga’s forced to make a tough choice, she usually does the right thing.
Despite her situation, which we can very safely say is not ideal and potentially even harmful to her wellbeing, she still shows compassion.
It’s impressive enough that a kids’ show explained why a character wound up as a bully, but it’s something else entirely that the show then lets the character change, at least temporarily.
I’m trying to think of another character from a 90s animated kids’ show that got to have this much emotional range, and if you can think of one, put it in the comments because I’ve got nothin’.
Helga has problems. Real problems. And anyone out there with real problems can tell you how rare it is to come across a character this relatable.
Helga Pataki knows what it’s like to be surrounded by people who apparently just get to be happy, just get to be successful and popular without having to put in much effort.
Helga knows what it’s like to look into the future and see nothing of interest, just more slog and more disappointment.
And with all that hanging over her, she still does the right thing … most of the time. Now go ahead and tell me that’s not a helpful concept in August of the year 2020.
Here’s my address. Come to my house and tell me right now that this message isn’t relevant.
Putting it all Together
The real value of realism in content made for kids is that it adds a lot more color, and I mean that in a symbolic sense.
It adds depth to the characters and the environments, and in the case of Hey Arnold, it means that no character, at least among the main cast, is purely a protagonist or an antagonist.
No one is pure good or pure evil, and that gives the show’s subtle lessons so much more impact.
And yeah, realistic settings aren’t the only way to break down outmoded views of right and wrong. Miyazaki, for one, accomplishes the same thing with extremely fantastical and even escapist settings.
But the reason Hey Arnold worked so well for me is that I believed all of it. I believed the characters because I understood their motivations, which was especially powerful when it came to the characters I didn’t like at first.
I will never make the argument that all stories need some kind of gritty realism, because that’s just not the case. One approach isn’t inherently better than any other. Each one has its own strengths.
But here’s my analogy: it’s kind of like any relationship you’ve ever had with another person, whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship or what have you.
Most kids’ shows are like those very early days of getting to know a person. You really only see the good stuff. They like the same kinds of things you do and they talk about all this interesting stuff and if they come up in your memories later they have bright, clean teeth and perfect hair and this big smile on.
But Hey Arnold and puh-lenty of other, more adult entertainment is more like knowing a person for months, then years, then lots of years, until you’ve had time to notice their problems and faults and the weird discoloration just above the ear and how quickly they heat up when someone mentions The Brave Little Toaster.
Both of these experiences can be nice in very different ways, but the latter, learning more and more and more about a person, can be really special.
For me, this explains why Hey Arnold was unique. It felt realistic while also letting me examine very real problems from a safe distance. It’s not just about the realism but the compassion with which that realism was conveyed.
If there’s a call to action here, it’s for animators and screenwriters working in TV, I guess, especially people who work in children’s entertainment, though I doubt my current audience reaches quite that far.
Your characters feel real when they act like real people, and none of them deserve to be looked down on, even the ones you don’t like.
When kids see that a show respects its characters’ situations, there’s a good chance they’ll feel respected too, like they’re being heard and represented in some way.
This is how entertainment can be something more without drifting into the barren wasteland of bad edutainment. There’s an in-between space, one that Hey Arnold discovered for us twenty years ago.