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Hey Arnold! may really have been Helga’s story

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No one can stop thinking about the unibrowed bully, 13 years later

helga pataki from hey arnold! Nickelodeon

Even though Nickelodeon’s classic slice-of-life of cartoon Hey Arnold! ostensibly follows its titular, football-headed hero, its creator thinks of the show as belonging to another character entirely.

“People have a feeling that [the show] is about Arnold, but you could also argue that it’s about Helga,” said creator Craig Bartlett during a New York Comic Con panel today.

Helga Pataki, a brash and lovelorn blonde with a dark unibrow and dramatic pigtails, came up often during the panel discussion. She’s easily the show’s most memorable co-star, not just because of her unique look, but because she was the rare girl on television who was unafraid to be both brutal and brutally honest.

Her secret crush on Arnold stood in stark contrast to her tumultuous home life: Her older sister was the straight-A student Helga could never be; her dad paid her little attention; her mom was, as Bartlett and other voice actors admitted, a thinly veiled alcoholic. Her inner turmoil was often the subject of her storylines; we knew more about her as a person than we did any other character. That arguably even includes the far more straitlaced Arnold, who Helga relentlessly tormented to throw him off the trail of her affection.

Seeing a female character who was so rough around the edges was reassuring to people like me and others at the panel, who grew up feeling unsure of themselves. We were “unconventional beauties,” as someone put it during the question-and-answer portion; we didn’t look like the typical women we saw on television. That is, until Helga came on the scene, replete with bad posture and a worse attitude.

“I didn’t really have a great sense of how Helga was landing, that she was meaningful to people and that she would continue to be influential,” said Francesca Marie Smith, Helga’s longtime voice actor, when asked about the character’s enduring popularity.

That’s changed in recent years, as people of my generation grew up and talked back to her on social media about how much Helga resonated.

“A lot of the things that Helga does aren’t things you want to do in real life, but there was definitely something about her character at the time that tapped into an unspoken truth for a lot of people,” Smith added.

Seeing the trailer for The Jungle Movie, the TV reunion special that reunites the Hey Arnold! cast for the first time in over a decade, brought that unspoken truth back to the forefront of our minds. Although that film is far more about Arnold — it’s about him finding his long-lost parents, after all — Helga’s troubled life are a worthy B-plot. That’s a compelling sell for most of us fans, even as we grow older. It’s Helga, not Arnold, whom we continue to relate to, with her cynicism and misanthropy and insecurities.