(Images Credit: Nickelodeon)
Hey Arnold! was one of the original cartoons (“Nicktoons”) airing on Nickelodeon in the late 90s and the early 00s, running from 1996 to 2004. The series centered on the life and experiences of Arnold Shortman*, a nine-year-old boy with a football-shaped head living with his grandparents in a boarding house located in Hillwood, an urban amalgamation of New York City, Seattle, and Portland. Many episodes focused on Arnold navigating life in the city, dealing with the rigors of school, urban legends, or childhood adventures with his friends and local denizens. While early on Hey Arnold! concentrated on Arnold as the central character, over time the series turned attention to secondary characters, with Arnold nearly becoming a superhero to help them deal with their problems.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting the series, which airs on TeenNick’s “NickSplat” block from 11pm-midnight in an effort to capitalize on nostalgia for childhood cartoons. Compared to other Nickelodeon cartoons, Hey Arnold! holds up fairly well, with surprisingly adult story lines and a setting and characters that are not too dated to enjoy today. Two episodes in particular stand out, possessing eerily similar plots and themes but reaching vastly different conclusions. These two episodes, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” deal with class and inequality, with one episode handling these issues well and the other botching the message so poorly that it stuck with me, motivating me to take time and critically analyze a children’s show from almost twenty years ago (and now I feel old).
In the show, Rhonda is the rich, popular girl in Arnold’s class, wearing only the latest fashion and flaunting her wealth and status as a demonstration of superiority, much to the dismay of her fellow classmates. Rhonda-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! often focus on the drawbacks of Rhonda’s wealth and her behavior, with “Cool Party,” in which Rhonda invites only “cool kids,” and “Polishing Rhonda,” where Rhonda goes to finishing school, showing the limitations of wealth and the detriments of snobbish and condescending behavior. The lesson in episodes centered on Rhonda largely offer the message, “don’t act like Rhonda,” with Rhonda’s “cool party” ending up being anything but and Rhonda only succeeding at finishing school by completely changing her attitude to be humble.
Likewise, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” fixate on Rhonda’s behavior, aiming to teach kids once again that conceited behavior and treating people as lesser simply because of differences in wealth or status is mean-spirited and wrong. The former episode begins with Rhonda sending a new kid, coded as a “nerd” due to glasses, quiet demeanor, and lack of confidence, to the “geek seats” in the back of the bus, where the “geeks” experience motion sickness and inferior treatment simply because of their status as geeks.
Eventually, Rhonda takes and fails a vision exam, requiring glasses in order to see. However, wearing glasses defines Rhonda as “a geek” and she is also banished to the back of the bus with the rest of the “geeks,” experiencing the same humiliation and substandard treatment she inflicted on them.
Rhonda suffers further humiliation and sub par treatment, sitting with the other geeks at a broken lunch table and playing with a flat ball at recess, until she decides she’s mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. She urges her fellow geeks to rebel, inspiring them to proclaim her “queen of the geeks” and resist the unwritten rules of “geek seats” on the bus. The episode ends with Rhonda inviting the previously shunned new kid to sit with her at the front of the bus, learning her lesson and becoming a better person.
“Rhonda’s Glasses” features a “want vs. need” character arc involving Rhonda as well as lessons for children regarding class and inequality. At the beginning of the episode Rhonda acts like a jerk, believing herself to be superior based on an artificial class system based on popularity, largely informed by wealth. Upon receiving glasses, she initially “wants” her life to go back to normal, to be rid of her new spectacles and retain her place at the top of the social hierarchy. But, after experiencing life as a geek, she recognizes the unfairness of the entire system and rebels; she “needs” to treat people better and do away with an unfair system, even if she benefited from said system. The broader lesson in this episode, particularly important for a children’s program, is to treat people fairly; one should not act condescending based on status, in this case social class within the school system. Rhonda and the intended audience of children both learn that differences are often artificial, with discrimination based on perceived differences being immoral and violating the golden rule of “treating others is you would want to be treated.”
“Rhonda’s Glasses” aired on December 7th, 1997, and offered a positive message for children as well as an accessible understanding of class difference and discrimination. A little over three years later (January 5th, 2001), Nickelodeon aired the episode “Rhonda Goes Broke.” On the surface, this episode appears to follow a similar formula and offer the lesson to not act like the conceited version of Rhonda. The episode begins with Rhonda flaunting her clothing, wealth, and impeccable sense of fashion, once again acting snobbish and superior to her classmates based on her status. Upon returning home, she learns that her parents lost all of their money and they are now poor, forced to move into the boarding house where Arnold lives. Initially, Rhonda pretends that everything is normal, claiming that she will soon receive new clothes and go on expensive vacations in Aspen, but it is finally revealed by another rich classmate that Rhonda’s family is poor, so poor that they cannot afford food or clothing.
Rhonda cries and laments, wanting to go back home and “be rich again,” explaining to Arnold that being rich is the one thing she’s “really good at.” Arnold reprimands her, calling her pathetic and arguing that just because she is no longer rich doesn’t mean she is no longer Rhonda, “unless being rich is all she’s about.” Rhonda takes this advice to heart and makes her own clothes, keeping up her fashionista persona despite the fact that she can’t afford expensive clothes. Her classmates are impressed with the new Rhonda, and at this point, the “want vs. need” arc is complete, Rhonda learning once again that wealth and status are not what truly makes her identity and that putting people down because of their lack of wealth or status is not appropriate behavior.
But, the episode doesn’t end there. No, the episode ends with her family’s stock “bouncing right back” and the Lloyd’s being rich again (even the musical cue finds this ridiculous (minute 22:22)). Rhonda completely reverts back to old Rhonda, flaunting her wealth and offering Arnold a tip for his help and his advice, as “people in his position appreciate these things.” Rhonda is rich and back to her previous behavior, completely negating the story arc and her character development.
While “Rhonda’s Glasses” successfully handles the lesson of class and inequality, explaining to the audience that status distinctions are often artificial and should not be used to discriminate, “Rhonda Goes Broke” muddles its message, contradicting its story arc for a mean-spirited joke. The lesson in the former episode, “discrimination is wrong,” is a positive lesson for children, whereas the ending of the latter episode seems to argue, “be yourself, unless you can be rich. Then be rich.” Though both episodes follow a similar trajectory and focus on the same themes, one episode effectively handles the narrative and lesson with the other completely mishandling it. When looking to entertain and educate children, this becomes more important and negative lessons can be detrimental in the short and long-term.
*Though a running joke throughout the series was that Arnold did not have a last name, in the recent television movie, Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie, it was revealed that his last name was indeed “Shortman,” a nickname used frequently by Arnold’s grandfather.