Finding Myself in 90s Kids’ TV

February 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reflection) (, )

(Crossposted to Murmur.)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences with teen television, and how I’ve never been quite able to identify with TV adolescents, due to a general lack of diversity that doesn’t reflect my own high school memories. I still stand by that statement, but at the same time I know there have been teenage characters I’ve related to on television — particularly teens on shows made for younger children who I found myself trying to emulate when I was in elementary or middle school. So when frequent Murmur.com contributor Dave Carr asked me to share some of my experiences with early 90s children’s television, I was happy to take him up on the offer and talk about two of those aspirational characters — Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains it All and Doug Funnie of Doug.

Clarissa Explains it All, which premiered in 1991, wasn’t about much of anything, really. Unlike the high-concept shows that seem to populate tween TV today (Hannah Montana is secretly a regular high school student! Zack and Cody live in a hotel!), the shows of my childhood were largely about regular kids who were only remarkable in that they had a TV show about them. There was a comfort to that, a feeling that you could BE those characters, without too much effort. Clarissa Darling, in particular, was the kind of person I wanted to be. On the surface, we had a lot in common: two parents who loved each other and their children, even if they didn’t always understand them; an exceptionally annoying younger brother; a friend who was a boy, but with whom she didn’t have any sort of romantic attachment. She wanted to be a journalist (and would have become one, had a planned spinoff/final season actually happened), and she was always a little weirder than average. I related more than a little.

However, she was also ridiculously cool. She wore the sort of insane outfits that didn’t even make total sense in the early 90s when the show was created, including those floppy denim hats with the big flowers on the front (yes, I had one). She had a pet baby alligator and hubcaps on her wall and she was unapologetic in her weirdness. Every episode she talked directly to the audience (the main gimmick of the show) and enumerated her problems, always coming up with the most creative solutions to solve them. (Half the time, the problem was her Alex P. Keaton-esque younger brother, Ferguson, and I refuse to confirm or deny whether or not I ever used one of her “solutions” to defend myself against my own annoying sibling.) And she frequently designed computer simulations to illustrate her problems, something I yearned to do myself. (It would be a few years before I even got a computer of my own, and that was an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 64 with DOS.)

But perhaps the best part about Clarissa is that the show never left the confines of the Darling house. We knew, from Clarissa’s narration and interaction with the other characters, that a world existed beyond her front door. She went to school, she went on vacations, she went shopping. But we never saw her do any of those things. We only saw her house, her family, and her best friend, Sam, who entered her house by climbing a ladder and crawling through her window (complete with window seat — how I coveted that!). If the show had a guest star, it was because someone (another friend of Clarissa’s, a relative, etc.) was visiting. And perhaps because we never saw the outside world, it was easy for me to imagine that her world was my world, that her school was my school and her other friends were my other friends. Clarissa represented an ideal that young girls could actually aspire to, filling in the blanks with their own lives and histories, and the show, which began the year I started Kindergarten, still means a lot to me to this day. Sometimes I even wonder where the characters would have ended up as adults. How quickly would Ferguson’s political career with the Republican Party have gone up in flames when his lefty journalist sister blew open a political scandal? I’d love to see the 15-years-later for those characters.

Doug, a cartoon about an everykid and his adventures in a new town, Bluffington, premiered the same year as Clarissa, and was one of the first three NickToons on Nickelodeon. (The other two being Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy.) Before the show moved to ABC (and fell drastically in quality), Doug was a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing, and I couldn’t help forming a resonant attachment with its shy, awkward hero. Sure, Doug was a boy, but otherwise he was a lot like me — stuck in his ways (he wore the same clothes every day), slightly gullible, nervous in social situations, and a thoughtful dreamer who recorded everything that happened in his diary. He had an anthropomorphic dog named Porkchop, a wacky best friend named Skeeter, a frenemy named Roger, and an idolized love interest named Patti Mayonnaise, in addition to his parents and drama nerd older sister, Judy. Unlike Clarissa, which succeeded largely because of its focused domestic setting, the best part of Doug was its placement in a very real-seeming school. I identified with Doug’s anxieties about homework assignments and evil vice principals and looking foolish in front of his crush, and with the idea of having friends who would just as soon torture you as support you. (3rd through 5th grade were tough.) And sometimes I even envisioned myself as a superhero, as Doug did — he secretly drew comics in his bedroom about the adventures of Quailman, a version of Doug with a cape, a belt around his head, and underwear over his pants. (Perhaps my eventual descent into comic book obsession was inevitable.)

Also interesting, though perhaps more thorny, was the fact that other than Doug himself, who was Caucasian, all of the characters on Doug had skin and hair of colors not found in nature and heavily exaggerated/cartoony/impossible hair and features. This meant, essentially, that race was hard to pinpoint in the Doug universe, and while this sort of post-racial world/elimination of race concerns can be problematic in itself, it was easier for me to see my non-white friends in Doug’s universe than it was in similar shows of my childhood with explicitly all-white casts. For a show about a white, male, middle class protagonist, Doug was at least a tiny bit more progressive than most.

I could go on about other shows I related to, the shows that helped to define my childhood. I could go on for pages about Boy Meets World, possibly my all-time favorite show, and the ways in which I’m essentially the lovechild of Cory and Topanga. But I think I’ve revealed enough about myself for one day, and I want to encourage others to talk about the shows that defined their childhood — particularly the shows in which they saw reflections of themselves. What do you remember?

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