The Creator Behind “Hey Arnold” Talks About The Latina Influences In The Show
As a kid in the ’90s, quite a few of my TV thrills came directly from watching Nickelodeon’s cartoon “Hey Arnold!”
The show was about a 4th grader who maneuvered within the big city alongside a group of racially and ethnically diverse friends. Characters like Nadine (a brown skinned girl with blonde, coily hair) and Phoebe (a girl with a Southern American mom and a Japanese father) were easy for me, a Black Latina who rarely saw characters like myself on screen, to relate to.
Still, despite our physical similarities, the main character I looked forward to seeing on screen most was the show’s blonde pigtailed villain Helga G. Pataki. We had our differences but in a lot of ways, Helga was the character I connected with most.
She was a unibrowed (check) volcano of poetically ferocious emotions (check), and I loved her for it.
Recently, I learned that Helga and I had more in common than I had initially thought.
In August of last year, the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, posted an old childhood photo of iconic Mexican artist and activist Frida Kahlo to his Instagram page. The caption read “#tbt little Frida #helgagpataki” and it didn’t take long for fans to speculate that the young Frida in the portrait had inspired the show’s infamous bully. After all, like the Frida in the Image he posted, Helga sported an oversized bow, thick brows, a strong attitude and (as exampled by her bubblegum shrine) an affinity for art.
In a recent interview with Bartlett, FIERCE finally got down to the bottom of the real inspiration behind Helga.
When I initially asked Bartlett about the correlations between Frida and Helga he chuckled a bit.
“When I first designed Helga I gave her that monobrow because it just seemed right for a villain character,” Bartlett explained before noting that Arnold’s other harasser, Harold, also had a monobrow. “But you know, in art, I’m aware that Frida has the world famous monobrow. So when I think of Frida paintings I always think of Helga too. I’m also a big fan of Frida Kahlo.”
He adds that he thinks Kahlo is cool, smart, creative, and “kind of magical, like Helga, so yeah she is definitely an influence.”
“On the outside [Helga is] angry, brittle, a bully, and then on the inside she’s super sensitive and creative and vulnerable and that’s the side that nobody gets to see thats her secret side, “Bartlett says while noting the stark attributes his character shares with the Mexican icon.
It turns out, Frida left her mark on the series in more ways than one.
Bartlett admits Frida’s artistic influences are stretched throughout the very cityscape the show’s characters occupied, particularly in the way she used color.
When it comes to other Latino influences, Bartlett admits the music and literature are also sprinkled throughout. While creating the show, Bartlett began to read Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love In The Time Of Cholera,” a book infused with magic realism that would go onto inspire the show’s mysterious traits and characters like Pigeon Man and Stoop Kid.
But the Latin influences don’t end there. For Bartlett, portraying all that makes up city culture was also a key part of creating an engaging, magical, and still realistic world his young viewers could get lost in.
“The thing about it was, if you were a kid growing up in a modern city, you pull into the parking lot of 7-Eleven and music is booming out of one car that is something Latin and out of other the car that’s kind of Hip-Hop and the city soundscape is kind of a cool mix up of all these different cultures and I was definitely trying to put that across.”
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