Like so many children of the nineties, I’m a huge fan of Hey Arnold!. Oddly enough, I always found myself identifying with Helga G. Pataki, the school bully and secret romantic. That disconnect between the bully and romantic personas, like the disconnect between Helga’s brusque demeanor and the girly pink bow she always wore, reflected the anxiety I felt over how to reconcile the masculine and feminine parts of my identity. Could I watch hockey and still like frilly dresses? Helga did it, though she too felt considerable anxiety over it. I never remembered how subversively Hey Arnold! portrayed Helga, though, until I returned to the show on Netflix after not having seen it for at least ten years. Season One Episode Four, “Helga’s Makeover”, shows the difficulties Helga has reconciling her masculine and feminine traits. The episode involves popular Rhonda’s girls-only makeover-themed party, to which Helga is conspicuously not invited.
Helga’s main problem is her abrasive personality, which is not viewed as acceptable for female children. As Rhonda passes out party invitations in class, Helga rips up a piece of paper in order to prepare spitballs. She admonishes Rhonda for staring at her ( “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer!”), and Rhonda remembers that she hasn’t invited Helga, probably because of the same brusque behavior Helga has just shown. Helga also has positively masculine-coded traits, though; she regularly creams the boys at baseball, for instance.
However, Helga can’t get away with masculine-coded behavior without her sex being called into question. Gerald and Arnold gossip about her at school: “I wonder why Helga hasn’t been invited to Rhonda’s party.” “Well, it is a girl party.” “Helga’s a girl.” “She is? Oh yeah, I always forget.” Cut to Helga throwing a spitball, implying that not only are brusque behavior and spitball-throwing unfeminine, but doing them makes you an un-female. In this system, you can’t be a girl and participate in unfeminine behavior at the same time. This is reinforced later at the baseball game, when Harold says Helga’s “not girl enough”, starting the chant “Helga’s not a girl” with the boys, who prance around and sway their hips as if to imply that even they are better at performing femininity than she.
Though Helga argues that she didn’t want to be invited to the “stupid girly party” anyway, it’s clear that she still wants to be accepted by the girls. This would require her to properly perform femininity, which she claims she can do: “I am too a girl! I’m pretty! I’m feminine! I’m delicate!” Yet to be accepted by the girls would mean compromising her masculine behavior, the behavior that she is most comfortable performing (as ironically evidenced by her spitting and physical threats each time she argues in favor of her own femininity). For this reason she argues that she was invited to the party but she felt it was beneath her, implying that the true cool girl is liked by other girls but is too cool (read: adept at masculine-coded behavior) to participate. (Sound familiar, ladies who denigrate other ladies in order to seem cool to male friends?)
Clearly, Helga’s cool is not genuine, but a performance. In the second part of this analysis, I’ll investigate the second half of the episode, which subversively questions the place of performing femininity within girls’ lives.