“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.