Lane Toran and Francesca Marie Smith in Hey Arnold! (1994)

Revisiting Helga and Arnold’s Relationship in Hey Arnold!, Over 20 Years Later

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Recently, I felt a burning desire to watch some episodes of one of my favorite old shows—yes, it really premiered twenty-two years agoHey Arnold!, and it is a show that I have found holds up in many ways. The animation is solid, the stories are solid, and it has one of my favorite female characters ever, Helga G. Pataki. A part of me was worried about looking back and reexamining how the show famed Helga and Arnold’s relationship. Would it be Urkel-creepy? Well, I am happy to report that not only does the show hold up, but it really explores the unhealthy aspects of her obsession with Arnold.

At the beginning of the series, Helga’s over-the-top longing and desire for Arnold is framed entirely for comedic value. Helga is made to look ridiculous, and her awkwardness, combined with her cruel, bullying nature towards Arnold pushes him further away. Never does the show “reward” Helga’s behavior. The only times Arnold shows any affection or mutual attraction to Helga is when she’s being nice, and the times she does that, it’s through some manipulation that she knows cannot be maintained. The two biggest examples are “Arnold’s Valentine” and “Beaned.”

In “Arnold’s Valentine,” Helga pretends to be Arnold’s French pen-pal Cecile in order to be his Valentine and spend time with her crush without giving herself away. However, due to a Shakespearean level of comedic errors, the plan goes awry, and the real Cecile ends up showing up. Arnold ends up having two dates at once, and it’s a mess.

In “Beaned,” Helga gets hit over the head and gets amnesia, which allows her to be nice, and Arnold stays with her throughout the day to take care of her. The next day, Helga recovers but fakes continued amnesia in order to spend more time with Arnold. She ultimately realizes this is a bad move and “recovers” by hitting her head intentionally.

What both of these episodes really illustrate is that, when it comes to her crush with Arnold, sadly, Helga is her own worst enemy. If she were actually nice and didn’t feel the need to be hide things with antagonism, then it’s possible that Arnold would like her back. Until then, the show, rightfully, understands that Helga is not entitled to Arnold just because she likes him.

More so, in one of the show’s best episodes, the writers explore why Helga is the way she is. “Helga on the Couch” is one of Hey Arnold!’s best episodes.

A child psychiatrist named Dr. Bliss is brought in to shadow students at PS 118. Quickly, she notices Helga’s aggressive behavior, especially towards Arnold. After punching Brainy in the face—we’ll get to Brainy in a bit—Helga is sent to Dr. Bliss’s office for an appointment. It’s there that we finally, after four seasons, get some insight into Helga’s emotional state and home life from a non-comedic perspective.

Her parents are neglectful and spend all of their emotional energy on older sister Olga being their “perfect” child. Bob Pataki is emotionally abusive, and Miriam is an alcoholic. Because of her parents, Helga is unable to really connect or bond with her older sister, Olga. That neglect is what leads Helga to be deeply insecure, despite being gifted for a nine-year-old.

The reason she likes Arnold is that he was the first person who was ever kind to her and treated her like a person. However, quickly realizing that being emotionally vulnerable is seen as a weakness, Helga decided to act with aggression, much like her father, rather than finding healthy ways to cope with her insecurities. She pushes away the people she has the potential to be closest to: Phoebe, Olga, and especially Arnold.

In many ways, Helga is framed with a lot of the same tropes that are usually put on aggressive male bullies: broken home, acting out in anger, and emotionally stunted. The difference is, with a few exceptions, the story understands that Helga cannot be truly happy until she changes.

Arnold is not viewed as her savior, nor are her romantic feelings towards him painted as a “good thing” unless she truly acts selflessly (e.g. selling her shoes to help Arnold find Mr. Hyunh’s daughter). Helga often does these good things without Arnold knowing it, but out of an honest desire to make him happy. It is in those moments that Helga’s affections are treated as healthy or positive.

Now, it’s important to note that Helga’s upbringing is not an excuse for her behavior and that, even though it is comedic and played for laughs, she does cross the line. Plus, she has her own “stalker” in Brainy, who she constantly punches in the face for invading her personal space, when she herself has invaded Arnold’s personal space. It’s still not cool.

But the show doesn’t frame it as cool. Helga’s obsession and insecurity are painful to watch because of the lengths she goes to in order to keep them from being exposed. She is so afraid of being rejected that she keeps everyone at arm’s length, which is unsurprising when her father can’t even be bothered to remember her name half the time. Yet, the show lets us know that, for Helga to get the things she wants, to truly be loved, she needs to change.

Plus she’s 9.

That’s what makes the Arnold / Helga relationship rootable, even now. The show knows that even if there is potential for them to be a couple (and spoiler alert they do end up together in The Jungle Movie), in order for that to happen, Helga needs to be a healthier person and actually be kind to her crush, rather than aggressive and weird. It shows the difference between genuine romantic kindness and manipulative kindness and rewards the former.

What do you think of the Arnold/Helga relationship in Hey Arnold? Any couples you used to love that you have turned against as adults?

Hey Arnold Cuties

(image: Nick)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.