Hey Arnold Hey

Hey Arnold Hey is a critical analysis podcast dedicated to an in-depth cultural and literary conversation based around the popular 90's cartoon, Hey Arnold. 

Arnold's Hat

“Arnold’s Hat” continues the trend of episodes rich in conversation on identity and character. This story is about Arnold’s baby-blue and baby-sized hat. Said hat is always on Arnold’s head - in sleep, in the shower, at the breakfast table (“Once a cowboy, always a cowboy,” says his grandma). Even on the other side of town, as Helga worships a hatless, bubble-gum monument of Arnold’s head, she says, “something’s missing.” She knows Arnold and his hat are connected. So, she sets out to steal it, and succeeds! With her hat nabbing success comes an existential crisis for Arnold. His life falls apart. Gerald calls him out, asking Arnold what the big deal is. Arnold then makes a strong response on his identity: “my hat is special, it’s part of me.” There is a slow and sad moment when he spends time looking at himself in the mirror, hatless, confused, and distraught. Without his hat, he has become something he cannot recognize. There is an element of Julia Kristeva’s uncanny, as Arnold’s self-confusion turns into abject self-deprecation. Even when offered free ice cream, Arnold shouts from his window: “I'm never coming out without my hat! Ever! For the rest of my life!” He locks himself in his bedroom, a sign of strong shame and an indication of self worth. Without his hat, Arnold sees himself unworthy of human interaction.


That moment with the mirror is also a reference to the Lacanian “mirror stage”, when a child first sees his or her reflection and begins to separate his or herself from the rest of the world (or, at least in this case, his hat). The symbol of the “mirror stage”, a reference to infant development, is paired with a flashback to Arnold’s actual infancy. In the flashback, Arnold’s parents (now likely dead or gone) gift Arnold with a hat. “Look at our little man,” they say, “you’re perfect! Just like that.” The memory of his parents is sweet and specific, but it says a lot about the value of his hat. Baby Arnold has learned that he his perfect, especially perfect in that little blue hat. His hat is kind of a security blanket, an object commonly used to help signify “otherness” for young children. Unlike most children, however, 9 year old Arnold doesn't have a mother to separate from; with his anchor gone (and no mother’s embrace to return to), Arnold assumes he is neither perfect nor whole. If there can possibly be a lesson to be learned, it comes from Arnold’s Grandpa, who speaks this truth: “You are who you are because of what's on the inside, not the outside.” With this wisdom (and the encouragement of Gerald and some neighbors), Arnold steps out in public, bare but unafraid, only to be reunited with the hat he just can't quit.

As Arnold deals with his outward appearance (and learns to value “what's on the inside”), Helga also comes to term with what she hides away, in a way, on the “inside”. After taking Arnold’s hat, she bolts home, into her bedroom, and finally into her closet, shutting every door behind her. There is significance in this move; it reinforces the privacy that she desires. Her bedroom is her private life, where she is independent from her family and begins to discovers her identity and develop her gendered sexuality. Her closet, then, is perhaps a symbol of her unconscious (or at least her deepest, truest self), where her innermost wishes are bred. Her bubblegum bust of Arnold’s head (hidden in her dark closet) becomes the catalyst for an innocent sexual awakening - she kisses the bust in the heat of an imagined romance and gets her mouth stuck. When her mother, Miriam, tries to reach in (“what are you doing in there, honey?”), Helga, in the middle of an awakening, pushes her away (“Nothing, Mother!”). While Arnold has no mother to separate from, here Helga makes a clear distinction from Other/mother. This distinct push is ignored later, when Miriam throws away the bubblegum bust. This is a violation of a boundary that Hegla clearly created; it is no wonder that she lets out that abject scream! Helga’s healthy understanding of boundaries does not necessarily lead to a healthy view of self, however: she calls the things in her closet (her innermost self) “a bunch of junk”. And to find “that junk”, she climbs through piles of literal garbage. This theme continues through the series, as time and time again she wades through literal and metaphorical garbage to find her innermost desires and hopes and dreams.

The Little Pink Book

Watching a Helga-centric episode of Hey Arnold pulls at the anxiety deep in your heart. She has so much to balance, what with her undying love for Arnold and her unending need to torture him. Helga is classic bully, throwing spitballs and shade harder than Nelson Muntz(1).  “The Little Pink Book” opens with Helga throwing said spitballs and writing poetry. Her poetry is a surreal mess, full of contradictions. See, her first poem of the episode -

“Your eyes, like two green jellybeans are pools I want to bathe in.

In the classroom, my heart doth swoon - and yet, I want to beat your face in!”

This is her life, swooning for Arnold, and hating him too. Does she write in contradictions to throw off the reader? Also, who IS the reader of a private book of love poems(2)? This question is answered upon a deeper reading of the plot. On the surface level, the viewer follows a panicked Helga, who has lost her pink book filled with her love poems about Arnold. The hitch - Arnold and Gerald have found the book first, and are using some keen detective work to figure out the owner. The narrative wraps up smoothly - moments before Arnold reads Helga’s signature, she rips the page out of the book and makes a spitball. A classic bully tactic, crisis averted!

Outside of Helga’s quest to get her book back is a fantastic meditation on the role (and, ultimately, death) of the Author. When Arnold and Gerald take the book of poetry home, Arnold convinces Gerald that with some good science (“Wait! Don’t touch that! It’s evidence!”), they should be able to figure out who the Author actually is. This is good stucturalist theory - the best way to understand a piece of prose is to consider all evidence - handwriting, tone, voice, and even teeth marks will lead to the Author(3). What he actually understands is this: meaning doesn't lie inside the text; rather, it looks to the outside. Arnold hopes the Author is Ruth McDougal, his crush from the sixth grade. Upon seeing that Ruth’s handwriting (a fine exterior piece of evidence) doesn’t match that in the pink book, he says: “Maybe she purposely changed her handwriting because she was too shy!” So much for considering evidence, and so much for good structuralism. Arnold is leaning into his own assumptions and perspectives, and going against the grain of context and evidence. A nice meta nod is presented when a content Arnold gives a live reading of the poetry written about him. He has moved ahead of context and structure, and is content in receiving the poetry as it is: “obsessive, but cool.”

Helga’s journey, as anonymous writer, looks ahead of a structuralist perspective from the get-go (and thus exists in a post-structuralist context). When she realizes that Arnold and Gerald have found the book, she exclaims - “Why? WHY did I sign my name?! I was too bold! Those poems weren’t meant to be seen until I’m dead and buried and worms have consumed my flesh!” Here is a morbid references to her (the Author’s) death. Consider literary theorist (and post-structuralist) Roland Barthe’s thesis of his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”: to give value to an Author’s intent is to impose limits on the text itself. Helga lives by this thesis: “Arnold must never see the last page!” And so, when Helga rips that “last page” and makes the “first spitball of the day”, she has made a statement not on content, but on the death of self, the death of Author. She knows that “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile”(4). Her work can now exist, floating without context or reference or sign or signature. Her intent is safe, and her work lives on without consequence.

(1) See “Lisa’s Date with Density,” The Simpsons, for a full background on Nelson Muntz, an equally complicated bully with a tough home life and poetic voice. “Haw-Haw!”

(2) Her heart “doth swoon” yet she wants to “beat” his face? This is a contradiction, a break in tone. This is common in Helga’s poetry, and indeed her life.

(3) This could probably be better understood in the context of “the chicken vs. the egg.” A structuralist is more interested in the “chicken” (i.e. poetry as a larger system, or love poems as a genre of a larger system, or, in this case, the context of the Author herself). See “Structuralism”, in Beginning Theory, by Peter Barry, for more about this chicken vs. egg illustration.

(4) Again, see “Death of Author”, an essay by Roland Barthes, Helga Pataki’s post-structuralist manifesto.

Eugene's Bike

The bike of "Eugene's Bike" is so kick ass, with fat tires and a triangle flag and a baseball card flicking on the spokes. This is huge for Eugene, who was given the bike as a “Flag Day” gift. It’s the one thing he’s wanted more than “anything else,” more than world peace even! When Arnold knocks over Eugene’s bike into the middle of the street, they are both crushed (as crushed as that perfect red flag-day bike). Arnold feels terrible, but Gerald tells him not to worry about it too much, because this “always happens to the geeky kids”. This statement has some perceived wisdom, and it suggests this: geeks deserve their bad luck. Arnold’s response, though, is not passive agreement. In fact, after dwelling on Eugene’s unlucky past, he shouts, “every dork deserves his day, and I’m going to give it to him!” This is noble empathy, especially noting that Eugene tucks his shirt into his underwear (a nice touch by the animators).

Arnold’s empathy doesn’t stick around, though; it quickly changes into an obsessive need to fix Eugene. He breaks the bike, “I’ll make it up to you”; he puts Eugene in the hospital, “I’ll make it up to you”; Eugene gets mistaken for a tonsillectomy patient, be sure to wear your “fun clothes”, Eugene, because Arnold is going to “make it up to you”! This obsession feels less empathetic and more insecure in their friendship. This is basic attachment theory - Arnold’s anxiety reads preoccupied and untrusting. At the conclusion of the episode, after planned fun day, Eugene is throwing up over the edge of a local bridge, and Arnold sits sadly and sorry. “I guess this wasn’t such a good day, after all,” he sighs. There’s an assumption that their friendship is intrinsically connected to Arnold’s ability to “fix” those he has wronged. This feels a little like a friendship of utility (as if to say, “if time spent together isn’t successful, what’s the point?”).

Eugene sees their friendship differently. Even at Arnold’s first attempt to make things right, he says (of his fixed bike), “you didn’t have to do this, Arnold!” He says this phrase over and over, as Arnold tries (and fails) to make it better. His joy doesn’t really falter, either. He truly sees Arnold as a friend. When Arnold mourns their fun-day turned not-fun, Eugene smiles and says, “you know, nobody has ever done anything like this for me before.” He sees their flubbed day not as a failure, but as a complete success. Eugene understands that just BEING together is a sign of true friendship. This is unconditional love and true understanding. Arnold gets it, too - Eugene’s arm gets stuck in the bus door, and has forgotten his favorite baseball card, and yet, Arnold’s anxiety is gone. These things just happen, he’ll give Eugene that Spuds McGee baseball card tomorrow. And friendship will live on.


Downtown As Fruits


"Hey Arnold!" is cool, so cool and smooth and hip and cool that my 9 year old brain couldn't exactly name that coolness. Now that I'm 27 and re-watching this near-perfect cartoon, I see it and can name it and revel in it. The series as a whole is sweet and thoughtful and slow in pace, but it's premiere episode, Downtown as Fruits, oozes cool. From the smooth jazz (the muted trumpets, a be-boppin baseline, that tight snare) that permeates the soundtrack, to the desaturated colored-pencil urban cityscape; from the pimp-daddy digs that Arnold and Gerald buy from that groovy shop, to their complete confidence in traversing a downtown context at the baby-faced age of 9 - this is the coolest pilot episode of a preteen cartoon I've ever seen.

The episode is not perfect, though. It opens naming Arnold as daydreamer, surfing the waves of his brain in the presence of fantasy dinosaurs. This is a bit a of character development that the writers leaned into early on in the series, and it feels wrong, especially to those familiar with Arnold's overall character arc. For the majority of the series, at his worst he's a busy-body and a people pleaser, and at his best he has many times more empathy than your average nine-year old; but nobody would ever claim he gets lost in the clouds. His idyllic romanticism is always outwards, and (besides early on) never inwards. By the end of the episode, there is a nice nod to this outward compassion, when he calls out the harm he and Gerald have caused Helga and their classmates. ("Come on, Gerald! We've got a karmic energy to fix"). That's kind of Arnold's lot in life - fixing the karmic energy of friends and neighbors. This theme is carried on throughout the show (even as soon as episode 2, which finds Arnold scrambling and obsessing to give a happy-go-unlucky-Eugene the best day ever).

P.S. 118 is holding a small variety musical based on the four food groups (why utensils are included, I don’t know). The jokes surrounding this gimmick are wonderful. Some lines to consider - “Do vegetables have souls?” and “Legumes? I thought we were beans” and “I’m a ham, you know I am, and if you’re kosher… I’m not in your routine!”, though it’s really Helga (dressed as a carton of milk) who leans into the show: “Do you know how hard I prepared for that role? I ate nothing but dairy products for 2 weeks!” She’s a true director, and it’s easy to think of her as Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: you find Helga barking orders, scowling, and shaking her fist (named “Old Betsy,” of course). At first glance, Helga is a cold antagonist (she makes a student FAINT out of sheer fear). When an embarrassed Arnold and an exhausted Gerald decide to skip the play out of spite towards Helga, the viewer has to wonder - is this show going to pit romantic Arnold against bully Helga? What is the real action and conflict of this show?

At first glance, the primary conflict of this particular episode is maybe found in Arnold and Gerald's joyride, downtown, dressed as fruits. What stands out (for those of us who grew up in the safety of our suburbs) is the ease in which the two friends navigate a seemingly hostile urban landscape. Remember, these are fourth graders. And yet they hop on the city bus, walk the dark streets without a phone or money, hang out at a billiards hall, and see a fortune teller. These are independent kids, allowed to do what they want. Every adult present in this journey lets them do their thing; even the city, a character itself, supports these heroes. Upon receiving a mystery brown bag of money, Arnold exclaims, "Boy, people downtown sure are friendly!" So, what started out as a big problem (no money, no transportation), proves just a big shrug and a step forward. The city is no antagonist. The true conflict is how fickle and faulty the heart really is. Conscience is the antagonist. First, see Arnold's real fear: it's not found wandering the streets of the city, it is rooted in his heart, it is found in letting someone down. For one, it's interesting that the joyride is Gerald's idea, but Arnold's decision. There's visual and audible tension in the decision, seeing his hand waver over the bus cord is a fantastic piece of animation. And notice, the rationale Gerald gives points inward - "was it right for Helga to make fun of you at rehearsal?" No, it wasn’t right; so they spend shady/drug money on Roscoe’s Funky Rags (shout out to those kick-ass Banana Shoes), Souvlaki, and “sodas for everyone!” After a run-in with money launderers and The Great Zamboni (a surprisingly wise crackpot), Arnold has a run-in with his heart (and his Karmic Energy Field) - “Think of Helga and her play and all the kids back at school we’re letting down!” The remainder of the episode is basically Arnold and Gerald paying it forward (extra cash for the broken down family, extra cash for the taxi driver, and show-stopping tune for Helga). Boy, people downtown sure ARE friendly.

Arnold’s character development is interesting and sweet, but of all the fickle hearts in all of fiction, the most fickle of them all is Helga G. Pataki. Here we are, in the pilot episode, and the viewer is already welcomed into her complicated life. Is she bully? Is she romantic? She’s definitely a poet. Taste and see - “If I ever get my hands on that Arnold I'll, I'll… soothe his fevered brow. Oh my poor lost sweetheart, how I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you.” This is a statement of profound depth and tragedy and abjection. She hates the thing she loves(1)! How horrific, for a 9 year old to feel such emotion, with wisdom and pathos beyond her years. And what is so excellent about this moment is the subtle moments of tension created by the production team - a trembling and vibrant violin, the young actress’ vocal intensity, and Brainy’s broken glasses all provide a frame for Helga. She is tightly wound, she is contrary, she is emotional and romantic and intense. The final line of the episode comes from Helga, calling Arnold a “beautiful creature”, followed by a sigh and a smile. This makes sense, because while the show is about Arnold, I kind of think the show is from the perspective of Helga, the preteen voyeur (after all, the title of the show comes from her exclamation, “Hey, Arnold!”). New viewers, look forward to more characters, more emotion, and more Helga.

(1) See "Powers of Horror," an essay by Julia Kristeva. In it, she details the weirdness of hating the thing you love most.