Before I get into the various themes of Hey Arnold, I just want to say that I’m planning an article series. This article series would be an analysis of each episode of Hey Arnold to be hopefully updated at least once a week. I’m even thinking about doing a vlog to go along with it, time permitting of course! So keep your eyes out for that! Pretty psyched to do it! Now on to the topic of this posting.
Themes of Hey Arnold!
Throughout the show’s run, there have been a multitude of life lessons and morals imparted to the viewers. These have been learned through the mistakes of various characters or simply through different life experiences. In thinking over these lessons learned, several themes appear that show that while the lessons themselves were individual, the overall ideas of Hey Arnold were quite broad and powerful.
This is arguably the biggest theme of the show as we are exposed to all kinds of love during the various episodes and it is practically present in some form in all the episodes. These kinds of love include unrequited, first love, familial love, platonic love, and unwanted love.
In the category of unrequited love, it is fairly obvious that Helga is the main character that is demonstrative of this theme. Throughout the six years of her crush/obsession over Arnold, he has never once returned the same sentiments of love to her. She has had to deal with the pain of unrequited love for the majority of her life and has to live with the wonder of whether or not it will ever be fulfilled or if she will ultimately be rejected. It’s a fear that many of us share, naively as children and more so as teens and adults. Even though she finally does reveal her feelings to Arnold, she never does receive an answer from him on where he stands regarding his feelings about her. Arnold manages to avoid the answer of how he feels by wisely giving the Helga the opportunity to take her confession back, which she quickly does so. Too bad The Jungle Movie never got made, or else we could have seen the resolution of this conversation and seen Helga’s unrequited love be fulfilled much to our gleeful little hearts. Others on the show with unrequited love include Brainy, who clearly has a thing for Helga even though she has never returned his sentiments, Curly and his psychotic crush on Rhonda, and even Arnold for a time when he was dealing with his feelings for Lila, who constantly rejected him on the basis that she only liked him platonically. The show makes it clear though that unrequited love can drive one crazy and that the best way to figure out how the object of your desire feels is to just lay it all on the table, even if it may lead to a painful discovery and a chick flick marathon with a tub of espresso flavored ice cream.
Unrequited love can be painful, as demonstrated by Helga.
First love is another major theme on this show, also viewable through the various actions of Helga as Arnold is her first and only love of her thus short life. However, in order to not sound repetitive and too focused on Helga (as much as I’d like to be because she is amazing), we’ll look at this theme through other characters. Most notably is Arnold’s crush on Ruth. This can be considered the first serious crush of Arnold’s childhood as he goes all goofy whenever he sees her and is unable to formulate a cohesive sentence. Another example of first love is Phoebe and Gerald. While Gerald has been known to check out other girls and did go out with Connie to a school dance (even though she was using him to make her boyfriend jealous), Gerald and Phoebe can be considered each other’s first loves. Definitely for Phoebe as it is never mentioned that she liked another person before. Through these characters actions we see that first love makes you feel silly, learn important life lessons, and more times than not will leave you with a broken heart. This is especially seen with Arnold when he learns how vapid Ruth really is and is broken up with by Lila. Poor guy has had to deal with enough heart break in his nine years! Other characters besides the aforementioned deal with their first love too, including Harold who seemingly falls for Patty, Stinky who becomes broken hearted over Helga for a brief time, and Curly with his wild obsession over Rhonda.
First love on the show is generally depicted as inflicting feelings of goofiness, whimsy, and inability to speak coherently. While the majority ends in heart break, Gerald and Phoebe are able to avoid a painful end entirely.
Familial love and platonic love falls into two coming categories of themes that I’ll later cover, so on to the last sublevel of love covered in the show, unwanted love. This is primarily shown by Brainy and Curly with their obsessions over Helga and Rhonda respectively. Neither of these two girls wants either of the guys, yet they have to deal with it day in and day out. While Helga deals with Brainy through violence, Rhonda deals with Curly by exuding her disgust at the very idea of a relationship with him. In “Curly’s Girl” however, Rhonda unwillingly enters into a relationship with Curly for one week in exchange for him cleaning her mother’s new fur coat that she had just ruined. Even though Rhonda cannot wait to be free of this horrifying situation, Curly blurs the line between his own fantasy and reality by showers his beloved with gifts and love, believing that in some way she is returning his sentiments, or at least will soon. Once the week is up though, Rhonda breaks up with him, leaving him incredibly heart broken and morose. They end up getting back together so Rhonda can reclaim her popular status, but Curly breaks up with her in order to ensure that she doesn’t lose her status again. The main thing learned through this theme is to never lead someone on that you don’t feel anything for as it will only lead to major emotional pain for them.
Although much of the love seen in Hey Arnold leads to painful outcomes, there are joyous things seen of love such as Phil and Gertie’s happy and crazy marriage, Harold and Patty’s calmness and peace, and the fact that it can make one feel so many different amazing emotions that you feel as though you are floating on air. Furthermore it can be seen that love does indeed conquer all. It was nice to see though that Hey Arnold depicted the toughness and reality of love. Love isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, there’s work involved and unfortunately it doesn’t work out all the time. It’s a rough lesson for these kids to learn, but learn it they do and so do we right along with them.
One thing I mentioned in the area of love is familial love. This is a huge thing covered in the show. Firstly, we see that family isn’t necessarily who you are born with, but also the other people you love. Through Arnold, we see that he has quite a dysfunctional family comprising of his grandparents, wacky boarders, and of course, Gerald, his best friend. These are the people that Arnold loves the most and relies on during his difficult times and trials. In “The Journal”, it’s Gerald out of all of his friends who attempts to comfort Arnold on the anniversary of his parents’ disappearance. Even though Arnold’s parents are missing, they are still a part of his family even though they are not present. He keeps them close by constantly wearing the blue hat his father gave him as a baby. This shows that no matter where your family is, they’re still a part of you and who you are.
Family doesn't just include those you're born with, but also those that love, support, and care for you.
Another thing learned through the theme of family is that your family always loves you, even when it may not seem like they do. In “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, tired of being constantly looked over and ignored by her own family, especially on the holiday, Helga disappears from the house and traipses about the city. She has a heart to heart with Arnold and ends up returning home, arriving to her parents and sister in a sheer panic over her disappearance. Seeing this, she’s able to realize that even though they may not always show it, they all do really care and love her and would do anything to ensure her safety. Through this we see that even the most dysfunctional family can and do have love for each other. We also learn that we should show our family that we love them more often before it’s too late. Sadly, Helga’s family never fully learns this lesson as they return to their routine of ignoring Helga in subsequent episodes.
After returning from her several hour disappearance, Helga sees how worried her parents and sister were about her safety and realizes that her family does indeed love her, even though they don't always show it.
This same theme is demonstrated in the more normal family of Gerald Johanssen. When Gerald moves to the Sunset Arms boarding house in order to be rid of his annoying family in “Gerald Moves Out”, he learns just how much he really loves all of them despite how much they can peeve him sometimes. He tries to hide this from his family when they come visit, but eventually breaks down, runs home, and requests to come back home. Through this his family expresses how much they love him and welcome him back with a giant family hug. Gerald learns in a painful way that your family is there for you when you need them and that they are a part of you. As his mother says in response to his question of if they even care about him, “We will always care about you.”
Gerald learns just how strong a family's love is after he returns from a brief stint of living on his own.
The best example of the strength of family has to be Mr. Hyunh in “Arnold’s Christmas”. In order to give his daughter, Mai, a better chance at life during the Vietnam War, he hands her off to an American soldier before the soldier helicopters off. Mr. Hyunh has spent over twenty years searching for his daughter in Hillwood, and becomes incandescently happy when she arrives in the living room of the boarding house on Christmas morning courtesy of Helga’s secret good deed. Mr. Hyunh’s and Mai’s emotional reuniting shows that the bond of family never dies and that it is just about the strongest bond out there. By giving her up to the soldier, Mr. Hyunh ensured Mai’s survival even though he suffered the loss for many years. That’s family right there, sacrificing a huge amount in order to ensure your family’s safety, happiness, and well being, especially in a time of danger.
The best example on the show of the strength of family love. The only thing that would have been better than this would have to be Arnold reunited with his parents in The Jungle Movie.
Family is an important part of life, but it doesn’t always have to necessarily comprise of those you were born with. Family is made up of the ones who care and love you for who you are and are the ones you can depend on when you’ve lost your way or are just feeling down. This is demonstrated repeatedly on the show and can be considered a core theme.
There are many friendships explored throughout the series. However the main ones focused on are Gerald/Arnold, Phoebe/Helga, Rhonda/Nadine, and Sid/Stinky/Harold. Through their friendships we see just how much friendship is worth fighting for. Each pair endures their own set of conflicts, reconcile, and become stronger and better friends.
Take for instance Gerald and Arnold. They’re best friends from day one in preschool with their super awesome thumb handshake and their love of music and funky things. Gerald’s a great wingman to Arnold and Arnold helps keep Gerald’s big ideas down to earth. Their biggest conflict was in “Part Time Friends” where they both worked together in Mrs. Vitello’s Flower Shop. Arnold is excellent with flower arrangements and Gerald is great with money handling and the business end of things. When Mrs. Vitello injures her back, she gives Gerald the responsibility of keeping the business running. This leads to an abuse of power by Gerald and pangs of jealousy within Arnold. The two end up having a huge argument, leading to several days of silent treatment between the two. Eventually, the two make up realizing how petty it is for them to end their friendship over a stupid argument.
Even though they have what can be considered their biggest argument ever, Arnold and Gerald make up and develop an even stronger bond of friendship.
Helga and Phoebe are another friendship the show tends to explore. While in the beginning of the show’s run, Phoebe was shown more as an assistant to Helga, it was later revealed that the two truly do care for one another and regard each other as their best friend. This is especially seen in “Phoebe Skips”, where the two experience their own huge conflict. When Phoebe is promoted to the sixth grade as she is a super genius, Helga tries to warn her (in her own Helga manner) that she will probably be hurt by the other sixth graders. Helga is also fearful that she will be unable to replace Phoebe and tries unsuccessfully to do so. Phoebe on the other hand is taken advantage of by the sixth grade girls and ends up emotionally hurt. In the end, the two have an emotional heart to heart in the girls’ bathroom after a tearful Phoebe overhears Helga’s soliloquy about her regret over not supporting her best friend. Through this conversation, Helga finally admits that Phoebe is her best friend and Phoebe admits the same. It’s actually one of my all time favorite scenes of the show.
Phoebe and Helga realize just how much their friendship means to them when Phoebe is emotionally hurt by the sixth grade girls and Helga has to learn how to go through daily life without Phoebe. Each admits that they consider the other to be their best friend in a rare heart to heart conversation.
While many of the friends on Hey Arnold experience their own turbulent times and personal differences, for the most part they are able to reconcile and realize just how important the other is to them. The show imparts the lesson that a great friendship is worth fighting for and does take work to maintain. There are both good and bad times, but if you’re willing to overcome the bad then your bond with your friend will become even stronger. As Arnold puts it when Gerald asks him if they’re still friends, “Friends ’till the very end.”
It’s no secret that Arnold constantly looks on the bright side of things. He’s always trying to find the good in people and the positive aspects of a seemingly terrible situation. In the film, Gerald asks Arnold, “Why do you always have to look on the bright side?” to which Arnold responds with, “Somebody has to.” That in itself is a huge theme and lesson the show imparts. Someone always needs to be able to look on the bright side of a situation, because if one is unable to find the bright side in anything, then the world can be quite dark and cold.
A great instance where Arnold tries to find the bright side in everything is when he converses with Helga in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”. Helga is always looking at the negative in things as that is all she has ever known. It is especially difficult for her to see the good in the world when all she tends to see and experience is the bad. I find the following to really sum up how they each view the world:
Arnold: Maybe we should at least try to be optimistic. Maybe we should look on the bright side.
Helga: What bright side football head?
Arnold: We have this beautiful view. *cut to sewage filled harbor*
Helga: Keep trying Arnold.
Arnold: There’s no school today.
Helga: Skip on down.
Arnold: Hey look it’s the Mayflower! The symbol of the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving! It…it must be some kind of sign Helga!
Helga: Maybe you’re right. *sits down and watches ship crash* Yea, it’s a sign all right. It’s a sign that this is possibly the worst Thanksgiving ever. Oh brother.
Arnold constantly tries to find the bright side of things while Helga tends to only see the bad. By the end of the episode, they are both able to see that Thanksgiving with their families isn't so bad after all.
This exchange between the two really demonstrates their differing world views. Although both of them have dysfunctional families and practically nonexistent parents (Arnold’s actually being nonexistent in his life and Helga’s being nonexistent emotionally), their world views are incredibly different. Helga is unable to look on the bright side, but eventually Arnold gets her to do so after they go to Mr. Simmons’ home and see how terrible his Thanksgiving is, realizing that if he can put up with his own selfish family, they can each put up with their crazy ones too.
Arnold constantly finds the good in people and brings out everyone’s optimism, whether it’s showing Stinky that he is actually good at something in “Stinky’s Pumpkin” or helping Harold achieve his goal of losing his excess weight in “Weighing Harold”. Sometimes though, even Arnold himself is unable to look on the bright side. In “The List”, after Arnold is unsuccessful in every task towards a perfect Saturday, he goes to the roof of the boarding house and looks out on the city in a depressed mood. Gertie then appears and successfully cheers him up with my favorite song of the entire show, “Look Up”. Honestly, if you ever need a pick me up, just listen to this song. It’ll seriously put the biggest smile on your face as it did with Arnold and will make you look up. The lyrics of the song basically sum up this entire theme of the bright side. The following are the lyrics to “Look Up”:
When skies are gone gray, things gone astray, don't hide away! Look up!
When life gets you down, wearing a frown, don’t look away, look up,
‘Cause memories true come of the blue; you know the way – look up!
When skies are gone gray, things gone astray, don’t look away, look up;
Arnold: I had a bad day; nothing went right; I hate my dumb life; I’m down.
When you’re feeling under the weather, and the dark clouds are getting to you,
Keep your troubles light as a feather, and soon you’ll be seeing a bright patch of blue;
Gotta look up, you gotta be strong, you gotta take things as they come,
‘Cause everything new that happens to you is better when you…look up!
Now sing it with Gertie!😀
The main things through this theme is that it is important to always look for the good in people and to look on the bright side of life. In doing so, one leads a happier, more fulfilling life. However, it’s all right to actually be down sometimes as it’s all part of life and growing up.
One thing can be said for certain about the show, and it’s that none of the characters are 100% perfect. They each have their own flaws. Helga is unable to show her true self, Gerald keeps falling for his own get rich quick schemes, Phoebe greatly fears failure, Arnold can sometimes go too far with trying to make wrongs right, and even little Ms. Perfect herself has flaws. Lila is way too perky and can actually be manipulative when she wants to. Although her manipulation is rarely demonstrated, it is seen pretty clearly in “School Play” as shown in Helga and Lila’s exchange below:
Helga: Look, Lila, I have to play Juliet.
Lila: Why, Helga?
Helga: Because I just do, okay?!
Lila: Well, if you don’t have a reason…
Helga: I have a reason, I just…can’t tell you what it is!
Lila: This isn’t by any chance because you like Arnold, is it?
Helga: *shocked then angrily* Are you crazy?!
Lila: *looking innocent* Oh because if that was the reason, if you wanted to play Juliet because you really like Arnold and you wanted to kiss him or something, well I sure could understand that! I guess I’d think it was ever so sweet and I wouldn’t mind giving up the part so you could do it.
Helga: Y-you mean if I said I liked Arnold, then you’d let me play Juliet?
Lila: Sure Helga, but you don’t…
Helga: W-w-wait a minute.
Lila: *slyly* Yes, Helga?
Helga: U-uh strictly hypothetically if I said I liked Arnold, *laughs nervously* talk about a crazy idea, would you swear never to tell a soul about it?
Lila: I suppose so if it was a secret or something.
Helga: And would you also understand that, and this is still hypothetical, that if I told you I liked Arnold and you spilled the beans to anybody that I would strangle you with my bare hands?
Lila: W-well I’m sure I would never tell.
Helga: *whispers* I like Arnold.
Lila: Pardon? I couldn’t hear you.
Helga: *quickly mumbling* I like Arnold.
Lila: I’m sorry Helga you’re mumbling.
Helga: I LIKE ARNOLD! I’m head over heels, hook line and sinker, over the moon, loop-de-loop, wa wa doot in love with the boy! Happy now?! Happy?!
Lila: *slyly* I kind of had a funny feeling you liked him.
Lila can be a sly, manipulative little girl when she wants to be. Clever Lila. Verrry clever.
So little Ms. Perfect isn’t perfect after all, she’s a sly little girl when she wants to be and manages to wrangle Helga into confessing her deepest secret to her. Skill. Now while this may not be considered a character flaw in all characters, it can be considered a flaw of Lila’s as she is always exuding perfection and innocence, and slyness and manipulation are typically not traits associated with the aforementioned.
It’s not just the kids who are flawed in the show, it’s the adults too! Oskar is a lazy bum, Miriam is an alcoholic, Bob is overly competitive, Olga is overly perfectionistic, Mr. Wartz is too rash in his decisions, and Mr. Potts has a quick temper. Through this show we learn that everyone is flawed and no one is perfect. However, it’s okay to be flawed because it’s what makes us “special”, as Mr. Simmons would so kindly put. You should embrace people for who they are, flaws and all, and learn to love your own flaws as they’re what set you apart from the crowd.
Sacrifice plays a huge role in the stories of Hey Arnold, and many characters learn the real meaning of it. As I mentioned before in this article, the biggest sacrifice of all was arguably Mr. Hyunh giving up Mai to the American soldier in order to guarantee her safety during the Vietnam War. Other characters make sacrifices on the show too, and through them learn what it means to care for someone more than yourself.
The other biggest sacrifice made on the show was Helga’s. Throughout the show’s course, she makes two large sacrifices which are when she gives up the one thing she wanted for Christmas, the Nancy Spumoni snow boots, in order to give Arnold a Christmas miracle, and when she goes against her father’s wishes behind his back and helps Arnold save the neighborhood, even though it means the loss of a massive amount of wealth for her family and success for her father. Through her first sacrifice, Helga learns what it truly means to love someone. She actually puts Arnold’s needs and wants before her own, and in doing so experiences a level of peace and calm that is never seen in her again except as Cecile in “Arnold’s Valentine”. Through the second sacrifice, she proves her love for Arnold even further by again putting him ahead of the wants and needs of her own family. She also proves that she’s a pretty amazing person, as she says so herself in retort to Arnold’s, “That’s a pretty amazing thing to do for someone you claim to hate.”
Arnold: That's a pretty amazing thing to do for someone you claim to hate. Helga: Yea well I'm a pretty amazing person!
Hey Arnold shows that in life, it is necessary for one to make sacrifices in order to keep on moving. It also shows that if someone loves another, they are able to do things for them at a great cost to themselves. If one is unable to sacrifice for the greater good of others, then how are they able to fully live and experience the humanity of the world?
The final major theme of the show is morality. Arnold walks a very tight moral line and upholds good morals for himself and all of his friends. Whenever he feels that something isn’t right, he tends to be the first to point it out. As much of a do gooder as Arnold is, he is susceptible to doing the wrong thing too.
In “Cool Jerk” Arnold becomes friends with a bad crowd of guys and begins to act immorally, including skipping school, disregarding his true friends, and sneaking out at night, because he likes being considered cool by the other kids. When he realizes that the guys only wanted him to help them with a break in, he tries to leave, but gets left behind when the guys disperse as a police siren approaches. Gerald ends up being the one behind the police siren sound, saving Arnold and being there for him, even when Arnold had disregarded his warnings about the guys earlier. Arnold realized that he did the wrong thing and almost suffered real life consequences for his actions. If it wasn’t for his best friend Gerald, he probably would have.
If Gerald hadn't come to Arnold's rescue, he probably would have faced some heavy consequences for his immoral deeds.
Another time when someone goes against good is when Curly takes the dodgeballs hostage in the principal’s office in “Curly Snaps”. Rather than giving up, he takes Arnold hostage when he brings him his requested food. This leads to a tense negotiation between Arnold, Mr. Simmons, and Sid leading to a peaceful conclusion. Curly thinks that he’s getting away with all of his demands and no consequences for his actions, however Mr. Wartz ends up giving him a load of detention for endangering the other students and insubordination. Curly went about the problem of not being ball monitor the wrong way and tried to solve it with violence. This ended up hurting him in the end, because even though he got what he wanted, he still ended up receiving a fair punishment for his wrongful actions.
Finally, when Sid tries to pass off Arnold’s room as his own in order to impress Lorenzo in “Arnold’s Room”, he eventually gets caught in his lie. Sid almost loses both Arnold and Lorenzo as friends, however both ultimately decide to forgive him for his ruse. In doing this, Sid learns that it’s better to be honest, as he almost loses two really good friends, and that if Lorenzo hadn’t been able to accept him for who he really is, then he wouldn’t have really been a worthwhile friend anyways.
Overall, a good moral center is an important thing to have. Without one, a person can lead a life of misery and major consequences. Traipsing away from good morality also leads to consequences. So lesson learned here? Always do the right thing, even when you don’t want to. You’ll be better off for it.
Hey Arnold imparts many different themes to it’s viewers that stay with them for a lifetime. I myself constantly try to look on the bright side, follow good morals, and support my friends and loved ones through everything. Other lesser themes not explored in this article include miracles being real, first impressions not always being right, the harshness of reality, and that without anything to live for, one can feel emotionless and alone. I feel that many people who grew up with Hey Arnold went on to apply these themes to their real life and grew into mature, wise, and caring individuals. This is definitely a show my future children will watch so as to impart its lessons to them. Continue living by the lessons of Hey Arnold, and you’re sure to live a fulfilling and amazing life.
One final note! If you like Arnold and Helga, be sure to check out Moira’s (aka HAFanForever) essay on the pair. It’s an incredibly well written, well researched, and insightful essay on the pair and should be a must read for any fan of the pairing. Heck any fan of the show should read it! You can find it here. Be forewarned, it is quite a long essay, but is well worth the read.