Spongebob Squarepants has defined Nickelodeon for the past decade and a half, but it isn’t the face of the network for me. I am old enough to have watched the pilot of Spongebob when it first aired and I am old enough to remember the Nicktoons as an established brand before it aired. There wouldn’t be a Spongebob Squarepants successful enough to run almost 20 years and release two theatrical movies without a little show called Rugrats laying the groundwork for Spongebob back in the ’90s. Rugrats is my favorite Nicktoon, which is saying something because the competition it ran with on Nickelodeon was already incredibly strong. Heck, I would argue that Rugrats at its peak is one of the best cartoons that has ever aired on television. Yes, up there with The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series, or whatever other classic you can think of. It brimmed with such creativity with its design aesthetic (would’ve thunk America would fall in love with such deformed looking babies?) and concept, which were bolstered by the very thoughtful, funny, and intelligent writing. Looking back, I can easily see why the show became such a major phenomenon in the ’90s and I only regret that it seems like its legacy seems to be overshadowed by Nickelodeon’s current fixation with Spongebob and to a lesser extent, the nostalgia for the more overtly adult-oriented Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life.
I think something that was very interesting about Rugrats that ultimately ended up being one of the show’s many strengths was the structure of the gender roles of the characters. There was a recurring theme in the show of female characters having more dominant roles over their male peers. The most subtle version of this is that of the twins Phil and Lil, Lil is slightly older. This example might sound like I’m reaching, but it’s consistent with the other examples I’m about to lay out. I realize Lil looks like a something of a Smurfette considering she’s the only girl in the group of babies (until Kimi came along) and that a male character, Tommy, takes the most dominant role within that group. However, Tommy’s authority is overshadowed by Angelica, who keeps all of the babies under her boot. The only recurring deterrent to Angelica’s power over the babies is another female toddler, Susie Carmichael. There are no other characters in the show that have authority over Angelica or Susie that are still young enough to communicate with the babies. The show later introduces Timmy McNulty, who may be older than Angelica and Susie, but Angelica still maintains the most dominance within their peer group every time they appear in an episode together. This is particularly salient because Timmy marks his power over everyone through male chauvinism. Angelica’s eventual overpowering of Timmy McNulty is a direct rejection of the point of view he’s expressing.
These gender dynamic play out in the world of the grownups as well. The most blatantly obvious example is through Phil and Lil’s parents, Betty and Howard DeVille. Betty is a large, gregarious, athletic woman who wears a sweatshirt with a big female symbol plastered on it while Howard is meek, timid, and soft-spoken. The dynamic is not much different with Angelica’s parents Drew and Charlotte. Drew isn’t as meek as Howard, but Charlotte is even more domineering than Betty. The stereotypical maternal/paternal gender dynamics are flipped in Angelica’s family, which Charlotte taking the traditionally fatherly role of being the primary breadwinner and Drew taking the traditionally motherly role of tending to Angelica. With the examples I’ve outlined so far, it seems like Rugrats is a world of boisterous and abrasive women. It isn’t and they don’t need to be in order to play the dominant role. Tommy’s mom Didi is much quieter and more dainty than the aforementioned women, but she provides the only steady source of income as a full-time teacher. Stu is unemployed and I don’t know how much income comes from his inventions, but I’m sure it’s sporadic considering half the time they either don’t work or go awry. The most important thing about all of these subversion in power dynamics is that the show never frames it negatively. In one of her earliest videos, Anita Sarkeesian brought up Betty as an example of a straw-feminist character. I’m not sure I agree with that. I never felt that the show ever use Betty’s personality as a caricature of feminism nor did they frame her relationship with Howard negatively. She is aggressive and he is passive, but it works for them. It never gets anywhere near “this pussified man is whipped by his feminazi wife” territory. At no point do the dads in Rugrats complain about their roles in their families nor does the show ever mock or demean them for it. It’s never unusual for the kids either; they love their moms and especially their dads just the way they are.
This brings me to the relationship between Chuckie and his father Chas, which was one the core strengths of the show. Chas is widowed up until the second movie, so he has to play the role of Chuckie’s father and mother. Chas’ personality is what some jerk might derisively describe as “feminized male”; he is shy, timid, passive, awkward, dweeby, wimpy, worrisome, and soft-spoken; all traits he passed on to Chuckie. His traits often don’t do him a lot of favors in the unforgiving world he lives in, nor do they for Chuckie. Chas sees this in Chuckie, but he doesn’t balk at his feelings or try to make him “man up”. He acknowledges his feelings and always makes himself available physically and emotionally to console him. He doesn’t hide his own feelings from Chuckie either; he opens up to him about feeling scared or being worried about things that are going on in his life. Chas is not afraid to be openly affectionate to Chuckie either and as a result Chuckie reciprocates the feelings to him. Chas goes directly against the traditional masculine gender roles in his interactions with Chuckie and it made for the most beautiful relationship in the whole show. It’s so beautiful that I get a little choked up thinking about it. Chuckie’s such a scared boy and he has no mother, so I think it’s so wonderful that the only grownup in his life provides a healthy outlet for him to work through his emotions without judgment. At the same time, Chuckie’s affection provides Chas with a much needed relief from all the anxieties that come with being a shy bureaucrat with a deceased wife. Based on such a strong relationship, it comes as no surprise that Chuckie’s popularity would eventually overshadow Tommy’s.
I really appreciate that Rugrats was bold enough to challenge stereotypical gender roles. We don’t have enough media, especially media aimed at kids, that tells girls that they roles in the world aren’t subservient to boys and tells boys that they don’t have to be in total control of everything to be valued. It’s especially bold for Rugrats to challenge the conventional wisdom in the ’90s, considering it was during a time of feminism backlash and comics starring hyper-muscular, hyper-masculine, angry, violent (anti-) superheroes with big guns were popular.