Hey Arnold a Primer on Racial And Other Popular Stereotypes The Trenchcoat Mafia’s Project on Cartoons And Social Theory

                                                         Characters from L-R: Gerald, Stinky, Arnold, Harold, Eugene,  Brainy , Sheena, Rhonda, Helga, Phoebe, Nadine

Quick recap: Hey Arnold! Opening Credits http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKL1ffelnNk&feature=related

(This post is one of a five-post series for our group project,where we sociologically analyze beloved cartoons of our generation. In this post, I will be discussing Hey Arnold!)

Hey Arnold! was a popular 90s cartoon that revolved around Arnold, a typical fourth grader, and his many adventures that often incorporated his family and friends. This show was such a hit because it was relatable to all audiences, as it showed realistic portrayals of American elementary school life. I found a lot of touching and humorous components to this show. For one thing, there was Helga and Arnold’s love-hate relationship which was typical elementary school romance. Helga pretended to dislike Arnold, by constantly bullying him and embarrassing him to hide her deep love for him. She even made him poems and a creepy secret shrine in her bedroom!

Like most cartoons of my generation, it had jokes and clever dialogue, as well as interesting characters with distinct personalities that kept me hooked to keep watching. This was one of my favorite shows growing up, and I was sad when they stopped showing it on television. However, it was only recently that I noticed several subtle themes and stereotypes that I did not see before.

First, let’s look at some of the characters. There’s Arnold, the main character of the show. He is the protagonist and embodies the white heterosexual male. He is generous and helpful, and quite popular and well liked among his peers. When his peers or family members have disputes, he acts as peacemaker and often saves the day. Next, there is Gerald. Gerald is Arnold’s best friend and confidant. He is a tall African-American boy with a tall afro. He wears a red shirt with a number 33 and kind of resembles a basketball/sports jersey. Plus, Gerald wears shoes that resemble Converse Chuck Taylors. When I see his get-up, I am reminded of the stereotype that African-Americans are naturally good at sports like basketball for instance. Then, there is Phoebe, the only Asian in the show. She embodies all the Asian stereotypes: strict parents, brainy, meek, and plays the piano. In one episode, she skipped a grade and went to the 6th grade where she made “friends” a bunch of popular girls who were using her to do their homework. Lastly, there is Oskar Kokoshka, one of Arnold’s fellow boarders in the boarding house. He has a strong Eastern European accent and is depicted as lazy, selfish, unemployed and is something of a con artist, constantly trying to scam others. These characters all embody a specific “type” in society that we see throughout pop culture: the powerful white male, token black guy, geeky Asian and the odd other who rarely gets any screen time or attention.

Arnold and his friends live in a big city (that resembles New York or LA), yet where is the diversity and representation? You would think that there would be much more accuracy. Gerald is the only black person, Phoebe the only Asian person and the other minorities have very heavy accents and stereotypical personalities. It’s not like they haven’t fully adapted into American society yet. In addition, there is some sort of segregation going on. For instance, while Helga and Arnold have a weird love-hate relationship that is further complicated by some outside parties as witnessed in other episodes, all potential love interests for Helga and Arnold are other whites. Whereas in comparison, it is hinted that Phoebe and Gerald have a thing for each other. Why is there a need for only the whites to be paired together and the minorities paired together? Also, whiteness seems to remain supreme. As the episodes/seasons progress, all the characters become increasingly white and most of the time, the storyline centers around them, making the minorities forgotten as they are not treated with equal importance. In this way, this show seems to clearly illustrate the concept of the sociological other, the entity used to measure social difference, and subtly the show seems to reinforce white privilege and the societal standard that being white is the norm. What’s unsettling is that this formula has been reproduced in cartoons and other forms of popular culture, and not much is being done to change it.

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13 thoughts on “Hey Arnold a Primer on Racial And Other Popular Stereotypes The Trenchcoat Mafia’s Project on Cartoons And Social Theory

  1. Pingback: The Trenchcoat Mafia presents: Cartoons and Social Theory | Contemporary Sociological Theory

  2. Gerald is not the only Black person. The mail man is also Black. However, he is depicted in a stereotypical way. He has course hair and big ashy lips. He also talks in a manner traditionally associated with Black people.

  3. First of all, Phoebe is not the only Asian. Mr. Hyunh in the boarding house is from Vietnam. You said you just spoke of the main characters, but you included Oskar. Secondly, how do ‘the characters become increasingly white’? That a) makes no sense, and b) is a stereotype in itself. Also, what about Connie and Maria? They are aggressively Italian-American (as are their boyfriends) and they are romantic interests for Gerald and Arnold respectively. And Maria is black. So Arnold does have a love interest who is not white and Gerald does have a love interest who is. One of the best things about this show is that racial diversity is used without being a plot point. Stereotypes exist in the show, but not as stereotypes. Helga’s sister Olga is also super perfect in school like Phoebe and she is not Asian.

  4. although i do think this is a well thought out analysis i do believe it is overreaching. the writers were most likely white, so without much thought it would be easy to write a story as a white person would see it. just the same if the writing staff was all black or hispanic, it would deal with more racially charged issues. i really don’t think a ‘white privilege’ was meant to be perceived and quite frankly think it’s racist in its own to call out racism if characters in question do not exactly depict each culture equally in a real world scenario. as for stereotypes, stop trying to quantify a natural human quality. you can’t rid the world of stereotypes indefinitely, stereotype is just a word. what it really is is our ability take information of a subject and apply it to similar subjects. it’s our way of processing information and making it applicable. think of it as drawing eyes on a piece of paper. when you draw eyes you make them geometrically relative. are our eyes perfect, no. but we “stereotype” the general idea of our eyes when we try to convey their appearance. some stereotypes are bad but they don’t go without reason. nothing about hey arnold is or should be perceived as racist or a ‘bad’ stereotype. (sorry for trying to put your analysis down, very emotionally attached to the series.)

  5. This is way off. In fact, I was really impressed when I looked back in retrospect at the diversity displayed in Hey Arnold.

    First off, Phoebe isn’t just an Asian american. She’s biracial- her mother is a red-headed, white, southern woman from Kentucky, and her father is Japanese. You mentioned her strict parents? Her parents only appear, briefly, in two episodes, and in those brief moments appear to be quite supportive and nurturing. She’s a smart and shy girl, characterized by much more than just being an “asian geek.”

    As mentioned above, Mr. Hyunh is Vietnamese, and is as recurring as Oskar. He had a great storyline about how he had to give up his daughter because she was born at the height of the Vietnamese war, and was forced to choose to either send her to safety and never see her again, or keep her in war torn Southern Vietnam.

    Yes, Gerald is wearing a shirt that resembles a sports jersey. But his shoes look almost the same as all his other classmates’- they’re just generic cartoon shoes. Do you have a problem with a black character wearing a sports jersey? Because in real life, African-Americans don’t wear those? Or are you instead making generalizations about the entire character based on his outfit? Because seriously, I can’t find any tokenism in Gerald.

    Both Eugene and Mr. Simmons (their teacher), have been explicitly stated by show creators to have been gay. And in fact, if you were to watch the Thanksgiving episode, you would see that Mr. Simmons’s boyfriend is quite clearly having dinner with him.

    For a quick run through of the diversity of the show: Eugene, again, is also jewish, along with Harold. Nadine is biracial- white father, black mother. Rhonda is a Welsh-American. Lorenzo is Hispanic. Helga was Hungarian-American. Park is Korean-American. In addition to Gerald’s family, Joey (one tooth kid) and Maria are African-American. Connie is Italian-American. A one-off character had parents who had dwarfism. There’s lots of racial diversity in the show. And except for the very rare exception, like when Harold had his bar mitzvah, the diversity is never mentioned. It just is- which is really the way it should be.

    There’s also a display of socioeconomic diversity, with Rhonda being incredibly wealthy, while many of the borders who live at Arnold’s home being less so. Stoop kid is both homeless, and an orphan.

    Some characters on the show also clash with stereotypical gender norms. Eugene is mildly effeminate, while Helga is quite the antithesis of gender stereotypes for little girls- she’s strong, in charge, and cares little about her physical appearance. The girls all play sports with the boys, and Grandma is quite radical (and possibly quite senile) for an elderly woman. Nadine is incredibly interested in bugs, which are typically expected to gross out little girls.

    Arnold is, ostensibly, a white heterosexual male. In fact, Arnold’s background is one of the only characters on the show that isn’t really delved into. Arnold’s background is basically supposed to be generic, because he’s the primary character the audience experiences the show through. While there can be a problem when men don’t realize the privilege they have by being white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men, there’s nothing wrong with being a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered man.

    Saying that Hey Arnold! is full of and perpetuates stereotypes can only be justified by looking at the series from the most jaded, superficial point of view.

    P.S. While it’s not really an issue of diversity, I like pointing out to people that Helga’s mother is an alcoholic who is always drinking bloody maries, waking up in weird parts of the house, and apparently had her driver’s license revoked. It’s just something neat to look back and realize now that we’re old enough to understand.

    • Hey Kevin,

      Terrific Analysis! I hardly think it could have been done better, seeing as how it was only a “comment.” I’d be interested to know if you study a particular scholarship.

  6. I second that. People are only seeing what they want to see and trying to make excuses to cover up the truth. This world is corrupt and as scary as it may sound, it’s all to real. But go ahead, fall in line like the rest of them.

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