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.