Of the NickToons that aired during Nickelodeon’s heyday in the 1990s, Hey Arnold! may not have had the widespread popularity of Rugrats or Spongebob Squarepants nor the monumental influence of Ren & Stimpy, but it was a thoroughly beloved show by its considerable fanbase during its tenure and long after. Behind its vague title and unusually designed characters was a surprisingly deep and heartfelt show that thoroughly explored the depths of its characters’ personality quirks. No character on Hey Arnold! was as thoroughly explored as Helga G. Pataki.
The first impression viewers are given of Helga is a character who is not far off from Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts. Like Lucy, Helga is bossy, brusque, vulgar, aggressive, and quick to knock out anybody that steps out of line with her. However, from the beginning of the series to the end, the show explored why Helga is the way she is and why she acts the way she acts. We learn over the course of the show that Helga is an artistic and poetic prodigy who is stuck in the shadow of her overachieving and unanimously admired older sister and has always been unacknowledged by her self-involved, overbearing father and her unfulfilled, subtly-hinted-alcoholic mother (remember this was a “kids’ show”, folks).
Helga’s character got even more complex in her complicated relationship with the main character Arnold. The initial quirk of this relationship was that Helga simultaneously liked Arnold (or “liked him liked him” in the show’s terms) and hated him (“How I hate you! And yet…how I love you!”). To elaborate, Helga has had feelings for Arnold for as long as she has known him, but in fear that her feelings are unrequited, she outwardly lashes out and picks on him. The show gradually pushes this dichotomy within Helga to its comedic, dramatic, and psychological extreme.
As contentious as Helga’s and Arnold’s relationship was and although the show ended with their relationship unresolved, multiple signs throughout various episodes hinted that Helga and Arnold would eventually end up together and get married. It invited the audience to root for the both of them to end up together.
Romantic, isn’t it? Well….
Hey Arnold! does an excellent job of getting us as an audience to sympathize with Helga so that her outward aggression is understood and forgiven. But let’s think about this from the perspective of Arnold, who is completely oblivious to the fact that Helga has feelings for him. All he knows about Helga is that she is cruel to him and has no idea why. Is that something he should have to put up with? Is it still so romantic that much of their interaction with each other is abusive? The show downplays Helga’s behavior either by framing it in a comedic context, framing it as just the way kids interact with each other, or calling back to her troubled upbringing as a reason for it. I think it deserves more scrutiny than it got.
The extent to how antisocial Helga’s behavior is should be alarming. She is antagonistic, condescending, and verbally abusive towards all of her peers, but Arnold in particular. Alone, her infatuation with Arnold gets into unhealthily obsessive territory (she has sneaked into his house and/or bedroom more than once and has built a shrine of him in her closet using his discarded bubble gum). And can I mention the fact that she frequently punches out Brainy for, in her words, “breathing” behind her?
The depth in which Helga’s personality and her affection towards Arnold is explored dissuades the audience from taking much issue with her behavior, but let’s remember that none of this should be an excuse for how she treats people, especially Arnold. Remember, this type of behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “Love-hate” childhood crushes like Helga exist in real life too. And I admit I didn’t think much of it myself until I came across an article that drew parallels between relationships like this during childhood and much more toxic relationships in adulthood.
Hey Arnold! covers its behind (or attempts to anyway) by giving the audience a full picture as to why Helga is the way she is and by making Arnold flatly reject her cruelty. Let’s remember that Arnold is astonishingly mature and well-adjusted for a kid with no siblings and whose parents died halfway across the world. Most children in Arnold’s position would likely struggle with loneliness or abandonment issues and their vulnerabilities might make desire any attention, even extremely negative attention like the type Helga gives him.
Another way that Hey Arnold! covers its base with its relationship between Helga and Arnold is by making the girl the abusive one in this relationship. Don’t get me wrong; abuse is horrific no matter which gender is being victimized. However, it is much more common that girls and women are victims of abuse to boys and men due to the gender roles we are all conditioned to fit in to in our society (boys/men as aggressive, girls/women as passive, boys/men as subjects, girls/women as objects, etc.). I imagine that Helga’s treatment of Arnold wouldn’t be so amusing or understandable if she was a surly, one-eyebrowed boy who yells at and threatens everyone, punches out dweeby kids, and picks on some soft-spoken football-headed little girl.
…or maybe not.
The troubling aspect of Beauty and the Beast is that love is all the abusive character needs in order to stop being abusive. It’s quite literal with this in its use of the “beast transformation” device. The movie justifies the Beast’s behavior to the audience by framing his coldness and cruelty as a result of his years of isolation and showing that deep down, he wants to change and get his life back together. The only thing that saves him in the end is Belle’s love, so it’s okay that before that comes to fruition, the Beast kidnaps her father, isolates her from everyone, verbally abuses her, flies into violent rages, and threatens to starve her. This often doesn’t play out in real life. Many women in abusive relationships love their partners as much as Belle loved the Beast or love their partners enough to forgive or put up with their abusive behavior, but all the love doesn’t stop the abuse. These relationships more often manifest in future trauma for both people (particularly the abuse victim) and their children if they have any, the cycle of abuse continuing through their children, hospitalization, and even murder. Not unlike Arnold, Belle just happens to be well-adjusted enough to take the Beast’s abusive behavior in stride and fall in love with him despite the fact she didn’t even have to (remember, she was only in his castle in the first place to rescue her father).
Look, Hey Arnold! is one of my all-time favorite NickToons and I completely agree with most critics that Beauty and the Beast is one of Disney’s finest movies. I don’t write this post to wag my finger at anybody that likes these cartoons or these characters. With that said, what both Hey Arnold! and Beauty and the Beast suggest about relationships is extremely troubling. Particularly with Hey Arnold!, the idea of cruelty and bullying as an innocuous way for a child to show affection for another child may be a way of grooming both children for adult relationships that resemble that of Beauty and the Beast (but without the magic and the happy ending).
This is Michel’le. She was an R&B singer in the late ’80s and is perhaps best known for her long term relationship with Dr. Dre during that time. By all accounts, Dr. Dre was extremely physically abusive to Michel’le. She had said that Dr. Dre had given her black eyes, forced her to get a nose job after breaking it so badly, and had even shot at her. Michel’le had been groomed for this type of abuse through constant physical abuse at the hands of her father and in prior relationships before she got involved with Dr. Dre. When Michel’le broke up with Dr. Dre and got involved with Suge Knight, she commented on a change in her relationship with him.
“I stayed [with Dr. Dre] because my father had never told me he loved me until just the last three years when my mom died, so I think I had to go back and figure that out. It’s in my book but I think that had a lot to do with that. Getting beat was love to me. Believe it or not when I got with Suge he really didn’t beat me. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you beating me? You don’t like me?’ I asked him that. He thought, naw that’s not…’”
Considering the high likelihood that women are to be raped or killed by their intimate partners, we have to be very alert about the ways in which our media romanticizes abusive behavior. Unfortunately, Hey Arnold! and Beauty and the Beast are hardly alone in this regard.