Life / Television / TV News

‘Hey Arnold’: Revisiting A Hit For Millennials of Color 20 Years Later

Hey Arnold was an animated series starring a boy named Arnold who lived with his grandparents in fictional Hillwood city. One of the things that set it apart from some of the other series that were broadcasted was the maturity displayed throughout the show. Our protagonist Arnold, is very introspective and mellow compared to other male protagonists seen in animated series at the time. He lives in a boarding house that is under the freeway, Arnold lives in a swanked-out room converted out of the attic of the boarding home. Unlike most male protagonist in animated series, Arnold enjoys music and is often seen daydreaming. Arnold, like the most male protagonists, struggles with making the right choices. However, unlike the male protagonist we see that are overly gung-ho to solve problems Arnold is more subdued. Often seen in various episodes, Arnold’s reserved nature usually has him serve as the mediator and someone who is readily accepting of outcasts. Arnold tries to see the best in people, his naivete often sets him in troublesome circumstances.This alone creates a more realistic depiction of childhood, having not only Arnold have learned about the world around him but the people in it. The young hero and his friends deal with family, love, and decisions. The residents of Hillwood city we encounter hold just as much importance as Arnold, which adds to the value of the series.

Another standout of Hey Arnold is the ensemble cast which adds the charm of this show. The show is diverse, as cliche as it that sounds. Arnold lives in a boarding house his grandparents operate, which is filled with eccentric boarders from a range of backgrounds. Even the school children that attend school with Arnold promote a sense of multiculturalism supported by showcasing various ethnicities, religion, and class. The remarkable thing about the minor characters is that they add weightiness to the show as Arnold. The characters often represent the commentary on various topics. For example, Helga’s story arc is a commentary on negligent parents, Harold’s arc is childhood obesity, and Phoebe’s arc is about being the model minority.

For a child’s show, the topics were heavy handed but the creators worked to create a show where there’s a bit of nuance. The realism depicted in Hey Arnold is a case study in human nature, witness prejudices and exclusion see with Pigeon man episode and stoop kid. We see the plight of the working class in some of the kids and the borders at Sunset Arms. Another standout is undoubtedly is Helga G. Pataki, a character that is pinned as a bully who is obsessed with Arnold. Without making her one-dimensional which many animated series treat young female characters, we receive thoughtful development. In one episode we see Helga visit a therapist dealing with the trauma from an unsteady home environment for her. Due to her home life, the viewers get a clear understanding of her characterization. Helga is neurotic but reasonably so, this is a contrast to most young female characters in animation. While it is becoming more common in all types of media, diverse is a hot topic. However just because a piece of media is visibly diverse, does not mean that it’s not problematic. Hey Arnold subverts this by giving screen time to minor characters with sufficient dialogue and storylines. There’s a darkness in this show that deals with structured in themes like disappointment, rejection, and unrequited love. The show does have it’s lighthearted moment but there’s a balance that can be appreciated by both adults and youth watchers.

Helga: The GOAT

Unlike most of the animated series geared towards children, Hey Arnold was full of rich, urban landscapes. Many of the shows during that era were nestled in the cul de sac of anywhere, any place suburbia. Hillwood city was a mix of real life American cities the borough of Brooklyn, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. We saw the characters interact with the cityscape, cultural sites like places of worship. Hillwood city is seemingly familiar, we see the good things of urban life and the not so enchanting aspects. The sounds and sights were orchestrated within the episodes, you can see water towers and Brownstones in the background. Mr.Hyunh, Ronda, Mr.Simmons seem like people you know in real life. Hey Arnold’s cast of main characters can be seen not only in school, but exploring downtown and doing things that only young kids would do. This adds to the realism of the show and they can be depicted seen playing in the park, riding the metro, and exploring cultural sites. Hillwood city is a city that breathes, with downtown traffic, buzzes of apartment buildings, the whirring of sirens of law enforcement vehicles. One of my favorite episodes is the episode when Arnold and his classmates engage with the outside world around them: ie: Elk Island, Local aquarium.

For many millennials of color, this was one the first time we saw characters like us in this rich a setting. This cast spanned so many different races, classes, and religions. The families were not all nuclear, proving to us a family is family as long as love is there. As someone who was reared mostly by my mother and grandmother, it was reaffirming. I saw myself in Arnold as an introverted child, preferring to drift off into my own little world. Arnold was a typical old soul, often holding insight into relationships far beyond his years. I relate to that because I remember growing up often being the mediator on the playground. I had friends of different backgrounds like Arnold and reveled in our differences, I could attribute that attitude of acceptance coming from the show. That does not mean we were without conflict but our friendships like the show prevailed. In the Era of Trump, millennials of color could possibly take cues from this show, unlike some of the other Nick classics which seem overwhelmingly juvenile. While the Hey Arnold crew were pre-the age of serious dating and sexual contact, they did offer insight on romance: that unrequited love is normal, that you shouldn’t let your desires crush you. Even as thousands of millennials of color are defining what love for themselves, it can be messy even when feelings are in between friendship and lovers. This amorphous state is something we all either have witnessed or partaken. We’ve been both Helga and Arnold, longing for a love that is unrequited. Teetering on the edge of our own perception of someone we find attractive, only to be crushed by reality when they don’t feel the same way. Whether you are longing for your Arnold or Lila, remember you don’t always win at love.

Though the show is structured in a coherent way Millennials of color may find themselves clinging as our young heroes issues such identity, family, and growing older. What my generation faces in a time of great uncertainty they can look to Hey Arnold for insight and humor. Whether suffering from the disappointment of watching our favorite celebrity let us down. Hey Arnold reassured us that life happens. Millenials of color may see some of the family dynamics within in the show, as they forge their own paths trying to still honor traditions but not make the same choices their parents did. Hey Arnold was special because we saw families that were not White or Christian as the norm. As a millennial of color, I am transitioning fully into adulthood and taking the reigns. I feel a great deal of uncertainty but the messages of optimism learned from Hey Arnold gives me hope. Hey Arnold taught me to be more tolerant of the people that pass us in our ordinary lives, that we are on our own journey but we want to be loved.

In millennial fashion, we are concerned about future, which often lies at the tips of a country that never seemed to love us. With countless news of the impending dystopian state of the world, many millennials are turning inward. They are figuring out how they are contributing to the world, their communities, and society as a whole. They may find comfort in knowing that some of the trappings they are dealing with occur in Hey Arnold covertly. Also, many millennials of color may still be longing for representation that looks like them in mainstream animation. While there have been several animated series that have characters of color, they are usually in the background. Hey Arnold made their characters of color with intention bringing a new perspective seen with Phoebe and Gerald. Where audiences could see Black and Brown kids with believable struggles about identity through standalone episodes.

While there’s the nostalgia factor, that attempts to reimagine things better as they initially were Arnold succeeds at being a show of its own. It imparting important messages on moral messages to them. Hey Arnold 20 years later is unforgettable and readying fans for its return this upcoming November with a television film. Whether you look forward to the urban legends Gerald shared, empathized with Helga’s crush, and worried about the mystery behind Arnold’s parents. Hey Arnold’s characters do the heavy lifting of the stark realities of life in 30-minute episodes. The show is backed by a variety of music but most notably the acid jazz that is introduced in the opening sequence.There’s maturity seen that graces the series from the attention to detail or the reflective moments. While other animated series from this era seems shortsighted all the aforementioned elements bypass it making it still a worthy show of being re-watched. Arnold is neither oversaturated with neon colors, catch phrases or celebrity appearances, it remains an overlooked masterpiece. As millennial of color, I think the series is not only a good blueprint of what a children’s show should be but what all media should aspire to do.


***Written by guest writer Atari Gems***

Images From: Huffpost, Hey Arnold Wiki, Giphy, Nick

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