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.