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Move It, Football Head! - A Helga/Arnold Manifesto (Hey Arnold!)

Title: Move It, Football Head!
Author: poisonivory
Fandom: Hey Arnold!
Spoilers: The entire show and the movie, but considering it ended five years ago, that shouldn’t really ruin anyone’s day.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to mizzmarvel and leskuh for the betaing and encouragement! And to my grandmother, for dragging me to see Harriet the Spy when I was 12 and getting me hooked on this ridiculous, amazing show.

1. The Football Head
2. The Hell Girl
3. Helga Loves Arnold
4. Arnold Loves Helga?
5. The Future
6. The Fandom

Hey Arnold! was an animated show about life in the big city in the eyes of Arnold, an average nine-year-old boy with a football-shaped head. It aired on Nickelodeon, with production running from 1996 to 2001 (although new episodes were aired as late as 2004), and consisted of five production seasons and one theatrically-released movie. The half-hour episodes generally consisted of two “shorts,” save for certain specials, usually holiday-focused (“Arnold’s Christmas,” “Arnold’s Valentine,” “Arnold’s National Boss Appreciation Day” (okay, I made that last one up)).

Hey Arnold! had three major themes: the importance of doing the right thing, the quirkiness of urban life, and – and this is the big one, folks – unrequited love.

The Football Head

“Well…he’s a boy. A weird, kind of quiet, kind of stupid, amazing boy, with a big heart and no sense of reality. Oh, and a football-shaped head.”
- Helga, “Helga’s Love Potion”

Arnold lives in a boarding house run by his eccentric paternal grandparents, with a handful of equally-eccentric boarders, and his pet pig, Abner. In what’s probably a combination of nature and nurture, Arnold himself is a fairly eccentric kid. He plays the harmonica, loves jazz music far more than most kids his age, and has souped up his ridiculously cool room with, among other things, a remote control couch that flips out of the wall, and an extremely elaborate sound system. In the first couple of seasons he was also an avid daydreamer, with a tendency to drift off into fantasy worlds where he’s a surfer, a hunter on safari, flying through space, you name it.

His predominant characteristic, however, is his compassion. Arnold is always helping the unhelpable: geeky kids, creepy neighborhood eccentrics, terrifying bullies, washed-up celebrities…and one particular girl in his class who hates him (or so he thinks!). His peers, and later even the adults, come to him for advice, which is generally sound. He goes to ridiculous extremes to do what he believes is right, whether it’s making up for a mistake or preserving a neighborhood antiquity.

This has been Flanderized a bit over the years, with Arnold changing from a kid who could sometimes deliberately make a wrong choice (ditching his school play in the first season episode “Downtown as Fruits,” for example) to a moral beacon incapable of error. (This severely restricted the stories that could be told about him, which is why in later seasons the emotional focus of the show shifts much more strongly onto supporting characters, particularly Helga.) However, regardless of whether it’s an early or a late episode, Arnold is at heart a sweet, compassionate kid who wants to make sure that everyone gets treated decently.

And before you ask:

1. He doesn’t live with his parents because his anthropologist/doctor/archaeologist parents (canon is inconsistent) Miles and Stella flew off when Arnold was a baby to help the mysterious “green-eyed people” of the fictional Latin American country of San Lorenzo, and were never seen again. The tiny blue hat Arnold always wears is a memento of them, as his father (voiced by Craig Bartlett, Arnold’s creator, which is about the cutest thing ever) gave it to him just before that ill-fated flight.

2. Arnold’s last name was never mentioned on the show; in a chat after the show ended, Bartlett said that it had been mentioned many times on the show by Arnold’s grandfather, leading most fans to believe Arnold’s last name is “Shortman,” Grandpa’s nickname for him. However, this isn’t officially confirmed, nor is it strictly canon, which is good, because it’s dumb.

A few more important facts: Arnold lives in an unnamed big city, which visually is a combination of Brooklyn, Seattle, and Portland; later episodes strongly suggest that the city is named Hillwood. He’s in fourth grade at P.S. 118; his teacher is Ms. Slovak in the first season, and, after Ms. Slovak retires from teaching to become a professional golfer, Mr. Simmons, which is an upgrade for pretty much everyone. His best friend is Gerald Johanssen, super cool teller of tall tales, who occasionally expresses his admiration of Arnold’s noble ways by calling him “a bold kid.”

Finally, since Hey Arnold! used actual kids to voice the kid characters (a rarity in animation), Arnold was voiced by a number of actors. Toran Caudell, Phillip Van Dyke, Spencer Klein, and Alex Linz were the “regular” Arnolds, plus Rusty Flood as young Arnold in and J.D. Daniels in the pilot.

The Hell Girl

“Well, there’s this one girl, named Helga? …She kind of, I dunno…she bugs me sometimes.”
“…Perhaps there’s a reason why this one certain girl bugs you. Perhaps deep, deep down you really like her?”
“No, deep, deep down I’d have to say…she really bugs me.”
- Arnold and “Cecile,” “Arnold’s Valentine”

Helga G. Pataki is a mean, nasty bully. She subjects her classmates, particularly Arnold, to constant verbal abuse and threats of physical violence. She’s nicknamed her fists “Old Betsy” and “The Five Avengers” (even though Helga, like all the characters, only has four fingers on each hand). Despite her omnipresent pink dress and bow, she’s barely considered a girl by her peers: she swaggers and spits and scowls; she loves wrestling and hates makeovers; she’s one of the best athletes in the class and the other bullies her age are terrified of her. No one who knows her would ever expect Helga to have a softer side.

And yet Helga has a secret: she is madly, deeply, head-over-heels in love with Arnold. She herself says it best:

“If I ever get my hands on that Arnold, I’ll…I’ll...soothe his fevered brow. Oh, my poor lost sweetheart. How I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you! And yet I hate you! And yet I love you!”
- “Downtown as Fruits”

Helga has a pretty rotten home life. Her father, Bob, is an oafish bully, concerned mainly with the running of Big Bob’s Beepers, his beeper empire (I told you the show started in 1996!). He constantly calls Helga by her older sister Olga’s name, which in his case is not a sign of confusion, but of complete disregard for his younger daughter. Helga’s mother, Miriam, is a thinly-veiled alcoholic: she’s constantly making “smoothies” (and what kind of smoothie contains Tabasco sauce?) and can often be found asleep behind the couch. Regardless of the contents of her smoothies, she’s clearly a deeply depressed woman, squashed by her marriage to an overbearing blowhard, and spends most of her time in her own world, unable or unwilling to care for her nine-year-old daughter, who is just as likely to find a can of shaving cream in her lunchbox as an actual meal.

Helga has no illusions about either of her parents, and usually calls them by their first names in a tone of complete disdain. Heartbreakingly, in “Magic Show,” she dreams that she disappears and that her parents are subsequently happy and functional, making it pretty explicit that, deep down, she blames herself for the unhappiness in her home life – an unfounded belief, but an understandable thing for a nine-year-old to assume.

Both Bob and Miriam dote on their older daughter Olga, who is usually off at college but visits occasionally, and is a powerful emotional presence even when she’s not at home. Olga is dainty, pretty, and popular – everything Helga isn’t – as well as a brilliant student and talented musician. She’s won countless awards, to the point that there’s an enormous trophy room filled with evidence of her accomplishments, to which Helga is sent when she’s being upbraided for some misdeed. Naturally Helga resents her, since she knows she can never measure up. Olga seems to fall in with her parents’ take on the family’s deep emotional problems: “Some things are best swept under the rug” (“Helga on the Couch”). At any rate, she’s not much help to Helga.

A few more facts about Helga: she’s extremely bright, although she doesn’t seem to care much about school. Mr. Simmons constantly gushes about her poetry, which has won contests; she ties with Arnold in their school spelling bee (and throws the citywide one so he can win); she’s often shown to have a better grasp of historical and geographical facts than her peers, and can identify and critique the work of Edward Hopper at a glance. In “The Aptitude Test” we learn that she can take her pick of future careers as diverse as international business affairs, political science, and Elizabethan poetry (don’t ask me how that last one works). Her best friend is Phoebe Hyerdahl, she’s afraid of rats and allergic to strawberries, and her birthday is during the last week in March, making her a very typical Aries. The “G” in her name stands for Geraldine, although it was never mentioned on the show. And she was voiced by the brilliant Francesca Marie Smith, in an absolutely peerless performance.

Helga Loves Arnold

“H is for the head I’d like to punt
E is for every time I see the little runt
L is for longing for our firstest kiss [sic]
G is for how good that longing is
And A is for Arnold, of course.
- Helga, “The Little Pink Book”

The late-fourth-season episode “Helga on the Couch” is a fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. Half an hour long instead of the usual fifteen minutes, it’s an in-depth exploration of Helga’s character and motivations, as related by Helga to the school psychologist, Dr. Bliss, who’s noted her “antisocial tendencies.” After some initial reluctance to open up, Helga rails about her “lame mom, blowhard dad, and perfect sister,” none of whom notice her – to the extent that, as we see in a flashback, she was forced to walk to preschool by herself, in the rain. She’s splashed with mud and has her lunch stolen by a vicious dog, and seems on the verge of tears…when a little boy with a football-shaped head holds his umbrella over her.

“Nice bow,” he says.

Helga stares at him. “Huh?”

“I like your bow ‘cause it’s pink like your pants.” And he walks into preschool, leaving Helga to gaze besottedly after him.

The episode goes on to show Arnold’s continued compassion for Helga, and the emergence of Helga’s bully persona as a defense mechanism, but that moment under the umbrella is the key. That’s when Helga fell in love (and, of course, the origin of her omnipresent pink bow).

Since then there have been countless stolen glances and spitballs and heartfelt soliloquies on empty streets. Helga’s built at least 15 shrines to Arnold (as of the tie-in book, Arnold for President), including one in his likeness made entirely out of his used gum. She carries a locket (well, it’s actually more of a heart-shaped picture frame, but let’s not quibble) with a picture of him, engraved with: “Arnold my soul, you are always in my heart. Love, Helga G. Pataki.” And she’s written at least 14 books of poetry (according to the Season 2 episode “Helga’s Love Potion,” which means that there may well have been 14 more since then). Here, have a sampling:

To Arnold, with the red-hot lips:
Your football head
Your awesome face
Your grungy chic
Your catlike grace
Whose red-hot lips do I want to taste?
Three guesses, stupid!
Arnold, Arnold, Arnold!
- “The Little Pink Book”

All the days of my week
I write the name I dare not speak
The boy with the cornflower hair
My beloved and my despair
- “Phoebe Cheats”

Each morn I see you bend to drink
From love’s own crystal pool
I tremble near you, try to think
Will I forever say “you stink”?
Am I bound by this tragic rule?
- “Helga’s Love Potion”

Arnold, my love, my sultry preteen
Why must I hold you only whilst I dream?
Will I be forever enslaved by your spell?
Why must I worship you and never, ever tell?
Oh Arnold! You make my girlhood tremble
My senses all go wacky
Someday I’ll tell the world, my love
Or my name’s not Helga G. Pataki
- “Helga’s Parrot”

But Helga’s love for Arnold doesn’t just take the form of obsessive stalking; she is capable of deeper expressions of love. In “Arnold’s Christmas,” she agonizes over the perfect flashy, impressive present to give Arnold, but winds up giving up the one present she wants more than anything – a pair of Nancy Spumoni snow boots – because, through a convoluted series of circumstances, they will enable Arnold to get what he wants more than anything – the reunion of boarding house resident Mr. Hyunh with his long-lost daughter. Several times, most notably in the movie, she goes against her father’s wishes and her own material gain in order to help Arnold on his crusades. And she’s capable of biting back her aggression in order to offer comfort (with, admittedly, irregular success) when Arnold needs it, whether he’s just been dumped (“Arnold and Lila”), is mourning his missing parents (“Parents Day”), or is questioning his place in their class’s social structure (“Deconstructing Arnold”). She doesn’t always succeed, but for Arnold, she tries.

Perhaps most importantly, Helga defines herself in the context of her love for Arnold. This is not to say that she totally subsumes her own larger-than-life personality to him, as we’ll see in the next section. It’s just that her passion for Arnold gives Helga her drive. In “Helga’s Love Potion,” after taking a potion to rid herself of her love for Arnold, Helga is bland, uninspired, depressed. She can’t write poetry anymore, she doesn’t bother to bully anyone; in her own words: “Well, this is okay, I guess. I don’t feel anything.” Once she discovers that her so-called un-love potion was a sham, her usual fire is restored. Psychosomatic emotions aside, it’s clear that Arnold is the inspiration Helga needs to take joy in her life; the violent emotions he engenders in her help to define and complete her. This is naturally problematic from a feminist standpoint, and in terms of a healthy future relationship (again, discussed more in depth in a later section), but it’s important to understanding just what Arnold means to Helga.

Arnold Loves Helga?

“Okay, so he doesn’t like me like me, but he does like me. And that means I’m halfway there.”
- Helga, “Helga’s Masquerade”

Arnold loves Helga? Well, no, probably not. But he is aware of her in a way that no one else is. As mentioned in the previous section, he’s the only one, according to Helga, who ever noticed her; when the adults around her ignored and neglected her, Arnold was there sharing his umbrella. When Helga and Harold get left behind on a school field trip in “Buses, Bikes, and Subways,” Arnold’s the one who realizes they’re gone, because “I just got this strange feeling, like something was…missing. …Where’s Helga?” When Helga takes her un-love potion and loses interest in picking on Arnold, he’s concerned: “I noticed that you didn’t torture me today, and I was just wondering if you’re sick or something.” And there’s a running gag throughout the series where Helga screams and Arnold, halfway across town, stops and asks Gerald “Did you hear something?” (Gerald, notably, never does.)

But Arnold is also the one who notices when Helga’s upset, or even when she’s particularly happy. When she’s having trouble at home he invariably pops up to check in on her and offer advice, sometimes to the point of ludicrousness – in “Big Sis,” he literally appears from behind the bushes to weigh in on her behavior, as if he’s giving her a taste of her own medicine by following her for a bit. (His presence there is never explained, either.) He’s in touch with her family life enough to know that her mother had her driver’s license revoked, and as we see in “Married,” he’s perfectly aware of the dysfunction in her household.

And he sticks up for her, too. In “Helga vs. Big Patty,” Arnold begs and pleads with the titular Patty not to give Helga the beating she kind of pretty much deserves: “Look, Patty, I know Helga said some really mean things about you. She’s always saying mean things about me, too. But I don’t think she really meant to hurt you. I think Helga just does things like that sometimes because she’s just sort of covering up for her own insecurities. She’s not really that bad, deep down.” Eventually, Patty decides not to pound Helga, thanks to Arnold’s coaxing. “It was your friend Arnold who changed my mind,” she tells Helga. “You guys got some kind of thing for each other or something?” Helga hastily denies it, although Patty’s expression makes it clear that Helga’s not fooling anyone, but it’s noteworthy that Patty interprets Helga and Arnold’s relationship as a mutual “thing.”

So does Arnold have a thing for Helga? Actually, yes – when she’s not Helga. Arnold tends to have a thing for sweet, intelligent, uncomplicated girls, particularly (and hilariously) older ones. His big crush in the first two seasons is on Ruth McDougall, a lofty sixth grader. Mostly he thinks she’s beautiful, but he also likes her because he once saw her give up her seat on the bus for an old lady with a watermelon. When he finally actually talks to her and discovers that she can barely string together a coherent sentence, his crush vanishes.

His other major crush, in Seasons 4 and 5, is on Lila Sawyer, the sweet, country-bred newcomer to Mr. Simmons’s class. He likes her because she’s pretty, smart, nice, “sophisticated” and “feminine” (the show’s definitions of both terms leave something to be desired, but let’s take Arnold at his word for now). Aside from the fact that they’re both whip-smart and excellent actresses, Lila is pretty much the anti-Helga. (Arnold’s other crushes in the series – their substitute teacher Ms. Felter, a beach bunny named Summer, a sixth-grader named Maria, and arguably Helga’s sister Olga and her nanny Inge – are all quite a bit older than Arnold, and most fall into the daintily nice category, or at least seem to.)

So any time Helga’s able to step outside of her bully persona – any time she can let go of being an aggressive blowhard and stop calling him names – Arnold likes Helga. In “It Girl,” Helga becomes a fashion model whose shtick is her grumpiness; when she wants to get out of her contract, Arnold suggests that she act nice instead. One runway walk of smiles and curtseys, and Helga’s designer tears up her contract. “It’s funny that people could hate you so much just for being nice,” Arnold says. “Personally, I thought you were great out there. It’s the first time I ever saw you. Well, being nice. I liked it.”

In “Helga’s Masquerade,” Helga hits upon what she thinks is the key to making Arnold like her: act like Lila. When she takes this to its logical (if insane, Single White Female-y) conclusion by attending a costume party as Lila, Arnold cheerfully spends the entire night tête-à-tête with her. Once Helga realizes the folly of this particular scheme after Arnold calls her “Lila,” she takes the costume off and Arnold pretty much bolts, but he tells the real Lila: “…sometimes Helga can be really mean. But then other times, like tonight, she can be pretty okay. When she is, well, then I actually kind of like her.”

When he doesn’t realize it’s Helga, Arnold goes beyond just liking her. In “Arnold’s Valentine,” Helga poses as Arnold’s French pen pal Cecile in a particularly transparent disguise; despite deranged attempts at French, Helga vomiting up her entire meal, and the real Cecile popping up out of the blue to expose Helga as a fraud, Arnold is still enchanted. “Will I see you again?” he asks his mystery girl. “Oh, probably,” she replies with a sad, secret smile. “Well, we’ll always have Chez Paris,” he says, and kisses her hand.

Once we venture into the realm of Arnold’s subconscious, his feelings for her get even more complex. In “Arnold Visits Arnie,” our hero heads off to visit his bizarre, Uncanny Valley cousin Arnie. Arnie’s friends are all inversions of Arnold’s: cool Gerald has been replaced with neurotic Gerard, brainy Phoebe has been replaced with dopey Fifi, and demure Lila has been replaced with the quite frankly trampy Lulu, who falls for the disinterested Arnold just as quickly as Lila fell for the disinterested Arnie when he visited the city.

Then Arnold meets Hilda, a polite and friendly romantic who’s reciting poetry to the luminous full moon when Arnold trips over her. Arnold is instantly captivated, and struck with a sense of familiarity, asking “Have we met?” But Hilda only has eyes for Arnie. The whole thing turns out to be a dream that quickly descends into a nightmarish freak show, but it tells us two very important things. First, since the country relationships exactly parallel the city ones (Arnie fell for Helga while in the city, too), Hilda’s crush on Arnie means that Arnold is aware on some level of Helga’s crush on him. And second, Arnold is completely smitten with, essentially, a Helga who never needed to develop a bullying demeanor as a defense mechanism.

Unfortunately, that’s not the Helga that exists. The real Helga is more complicated than Ruth or Lila, and the mean, pushy part of her personality isn’t just an act. It’s as much her as the part that recites poetry to the full moon. As she herself says when Arnold asks her why she can’t always act nice, in “It Girl”: “Oh, Arnold, Arnold, Arnold. I can’t do that. I’m mean and nasty and insensitive. That’s just who I am. That’s what makes me special.”

It’s possible that Arnold knows this and values it, because when he wakes up from his nightmare in “Arnold Visits Arnie” and finds the real Helga playing baseball with the gang, he throws his arms around her: “Wow, Helga. It really is you!” And when Helga alienates their friends in “Helga’s Show” by doing stand-up comedy poking fun at them, only to get booed off the stage when Phoebe convinces her to recite a sickeningly sweet poem about them instead, it’s Arnold who encourages Helga to go back to her style of comedy – to be herself. He’s even able to laugh at himself when she spends half her act ragging on his head and clothes and do-gooder attitude.

Let’s return to Arnold’s subconscious for a minute. In “Married,” a prediction that they will someday get hitched leads both Arnold and Helga to dream of what life together would be like. Helga’s is a gloriously over-the-top romp through dreamland where, among other things, she becomes president and saves Arnold from a deranged Lila by wearing a catsuit and fighting ninjas.

But Arnold’s is the important one. It starts out like a nightmare, with Helga tricking him into saying “I do” and the two of them moving in with her parents, who force Arnold to work at the Beeper Empire all day and care for his and Helga’s grotesquely ugly children all night. Finally, Arnold has had enough. He grabs Helga and demands to know why she’s acting so cruelly to him.

Arnold: Why are you doing this? Look, I know you’re not this lazy and cold and uncaring! You may act like that, but deep down I know you’re smart and you have feelings, and if we have to be married to each other, then I want you to start showing it!
Helga: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Arnold: Yes, you do, Helga! Why can’t you just admit it? You’re not this mean!
Helga: Yes, I am!
Arnold: No, you’re not! You’re not!
Helga: Okay, okay, you’re right. I can’t hide it anymore. You’ve seen through my tough, blustery exterior and into my soft, mushy good-hearted center. It’s true I’m not this bad. I guess I was just afraid to show my real feelings. But you knew it all along, didn’t you? I may be rough around the edges, but deep down I’m a good person and I don’t hate you. In fact, I sort of like you. I mean, actually, I sort of…more than like you. I…I really like you. I really, really like you. And, well…I like you so much that you might say that I actually lo…that I actually love…

That’s when Arnold’s alarm goes off and he wakes up. But it’s pretty obvious that, subconsciously at least, he knows how she feels. And the next morning, while recounting the dream to Gerald, he says: “But the funny thing is, in a weird way, the nightmare turned out to kind of be okay…I mean, I know it’s crazy, but in the end of the dream, she actually turned out kind of nice…After all, I’m only nine. I’ve got plenty of time to think about who I’m going to marry. But I guess even if I wound up marrying Helga, it wouldn’t be so bad.”

It’s not just that he knows that Helga loves him. It’s that he takes comfort in it, pursues the knowledge and groups it, with Helga’s intelligence and good heart, among the things he likes about her.

(Of course, post-movie, Arnold consciously knows that Helga loves him. When he realizes that the shadowy figure who’s been giving him anonymous tips is Helga, he demands to know why she’s helping him. Trapped, she confesses everything before planting a huge kiss on him. Arnold is stunned, to say the least, but he remembers their mission – to save their neighborhood from being torn down by developers – and they race back into the action. They don’t talk again until the neighborhood has been saved and the crowd has dispersed. Then Arnold, with a significant look in his eye, asks Helga if her confession was just a result of getting carried away in all the excitement: “You didn’t really mean all that, did you? You don’t really love me, right?...You were just caught up in the heat of the moment, right?...You actually hate me, don’t you?” Helga, relieved, agrees that she hates him, and skips off, Arnold smiling after her. It’s a way for them both to pretend that it didn’t just happen, and fair enough – they’re nine, and this is heavy stuff. But Arnold’s not freaked out, once he has time to think about it, and he’s willing to play her game. It’s more than most nine-year-olds could do.)

And heck, sometimes Arnold just flat-out flirts with Helga. I mean, if you can interpret him telling her she’s sophisticated, spraying her with water, and winking at the end of “Dinner for Four,” or the bizarrely sexual tango in “April Fool’s Day,” as anything but flirting, I’ll…well, I’ll be impressed.

The Future

“Arnold, uh…wait a sec…Um, I just, um, well, I wanted to tell you that, well, I…I think you’re…okay. I…I mean, you’re an…okay guy, and I just think you’re…okay.”
“Thanks, Helga. You’re okay, too.”
- Helga and Arnold, “Monkey Business”

So Helga loves Arnold, and Arnold has feelings for Helga that may someday blossom into love as well. But would they work?

Actually, they’re pretty effective as a team. A couple of episodes have focused on the two of them being paired up on class projects, and though they always fight, they also always come through for each other. In “Biosquare,” they spend 24 hours in a greenhouse, with Arnold trying his damnedest to conduct scientific experiences and Helga trying her damnedest to ignore him while reading comic books, but when the greenhouse floods, she saves his life by pulling him onto a makeshift raft. In “Egg Story,” they’re supposed to take care of an egg like a baby over the weekend. They promptly lose it and spend the entire episode fighting about it, but once they make up, they finally find the egg…just as it hatches into a chick. (Ignore the general unfeasibility of that one, please.) As Romeo and Juliet in their school play, they bring the entire audience to tears. And though it’s not a school project, they do win a sand castle contest together in “Summer Love” (and the guest appearances on Babewatch that go with it). Once they stop fighting, they can accomplish great things.

Moreover, they can relate to each other in a way that the other kids sort of can’t. In “Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” they’re both having rotten holidays, Helga because her family is obsessing over Olga and treating her like a slave, and Arnold because his grandmother thinks it’s the Fourth of July, and just once he’d like to have a traditional Thanksgiving. They both ditch their families and wind up meeting up and wandering aimlessly together for a while. Arnold keeps trying to look on the bright side, but Helga isn’t buying it: “Where’s Thanksgiving, Arnold? I’ve never had a real one. You’ve never had a real one.” There’s a melancholy and a seriousness to both of them that the other kids on the show (and, let’s face it, the adults) can’t relate to.

In “The Vacant Lot,” the kids turn a nearby vacant lot into a baseball field, only to have it taken from them by the adults, leaving them to play stickball in an alley. When the batter breaks a window, the kids scatter – except for Arnold and Helga. “This wouldn’t’ve happened if we still had our field,” he says. “Welcome to reality, bucko,” she replied. “That’s what happens when grownups rule the world.” Then Arnold notices the dumpster next to them and smiles at Helga, who quickly catches on, and with the rest of the kids they dump the garbage onto the field. This is noteworthy because Helga is the one that Arnold can commiserate with and plan with, but also because it highlights their very different ways of looking at the world.

Because Helga and Arnold have enough in common to get each other, but they’re total opposites in a completely complementary way. They’re both uncommonly bright children, resourceful and self-reliant, and older than their years (although Arnold is more wise and Helga is more canny). They’re both dreamers and hopeless romantics with a taste for adventure. They’re both artistic – Helga writes poetry, of course, and Arnold both plays the harmonica and dabbles in visual arts (he designs their class float for the city parade and dabbles in painting). And they both understand grief and loneliness in a way children their age shouldn’t have to – Helga with her unhappiness at home, and Arnold with his missing parents.

But their differences complement each other, too. Arnold needs someone practical, a realist who can help him keep his feet on the ground, and who can be aggressive and pushy when necessary. And Helga needs an idealist, someone who can keep her from getting too surly and pessimistic and miserable. Arnold gives Helga kindness and hope, precisely the things she doesn’t get from her harsh father and emotionally-numb mother; Helga can give Arnold stability and adventure, contradictory though those two things may sound.

Of course, they’re only nine, and they’ve obviously got a lot of growing up to do. Helga needs to get enough distance from Arnold to be able to take him off his pedestal, to realize that there are other boys in the world, and that she can still be Helga without Arnold to help her define herself. And Arnold needs to mature a lot, and to learn that there is more to liking a girl than thinking she’s nice and pretty – that passion and compatibility matter, too. (Also, they need to grow up because they’re nine, and nine-year-olds shouldn’t date, no matter how much they’re meant for each other. Because that would be crazy.)

But when they do grow up, when Helga does take Arnold off that pedestal and Arnold does open his eyes…well, that’s when the happily ever after comes in.

The Fandom

“Extra, extra, read all about it! Arnold in love with a tree!”
- Helga, “The Big Scoop”

As you might expect, 99% of Hey Arnold! fic is Arnold/Helga. Most of it can be found in the Hey Arnold! section at FanFiction.Net; unfortunately, it’s not really a LiveJournal-based fandom yet. There is a fic community, though: heyarnoldfanfic. General discussion can be found over at hey_arnold.

There is tons and tons and tons of fic out there; these are just a few of my very favorites.

A Letter For Helga by Otter: Years after they’ve parted, Arnold writes to Helga. The end of this fic makes my heart skip every time (and I’ve read it a lot).

Christmas in Brooklyn by Heidi Patacki: Dragged back to the old neighborhood as her life falls to pieces, Helga finds herself swept up in Arnold again. The first fic I read in this fandom and still one of my favorites, in any fandom. It will break your heart into a million tiny pink pieces and then put it back together again.

Stalling by Heidi Patacki: Arnold and Helga say goodbye after high school. Bittersweet, but lovely.

Ribbons/Hair/Never/There by Heidi Patacki: Arnold and Helga reconnect ten years after a tragedy, but an unexpected secret may tear them apart again. This story will wreck you completely, but it’s worth it.

Gerald Speaks by Pyrus Japonica: Gerald muses on the nature of love. This one’s a bit borderline, but the Helga/Arnold is there, and I had to include something by Pyrus Japonica, because her work is simply phenomenal.

Between the Lines by kiss_bythefire: 50 sentences about Arnold and Helga. Absolutely enchanting.

Nine Things You Never Knew About Her (And One You Finally Did) by kiss_bythefire: A future Helga, from an outsider’s perspective. You will cry and cry and cry. (In a good way! Sort of.)

Searching the Hills for Sex and Gold by cecilegrey: What if Arnold had been raised by his parents in San Lorenzo? A really interesting look at the way his relationship with Helga might have unfolded.

Trying by leskuh: Helga’s nearly given up on life – until Arnold collapses on her doorstep. This one isn’t nearly finished yet, but it’s shaping up to be the kind of awesome swashbuckling adventure story this fandom needs. Awesome!


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Thank you! Glad you liked it.
What a fantastic essay! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this pairing.
Thanks! Glad you liked it!
Gaaah this brings back memories. I used to watch Hey Arnold all the time and wanted Helga and Arnold to get together so bad when they were older. "The Future" section kind of broke my heart a little. Overall, a great manifesto! I love, love it and it's so well written. ♥
Thank you! Glad you liked!
God, I knew you'd do fabulous. This is brilliantly done. And Arnold TOTALLY loves Helga. Or, he will. And they WILL get married. <3
Aw, thank you! And yes, he totally does/will love her!

I've loved this pairing since I first watched this show when I was... um... I don't know how old I was but I was young. Probably somewhere between 7 and 10. (Well if it came out in '96, I was 7 I guess. But I believe I watched it up until the show stopped.)

I started watching it again recently, actually, due to my memory of the episode where they reenact Bizet's opera Carmen. As a music major, I have seen a DVD of the opera (and loved it), and I wanted to see the episode again, since it would make a lot more sense to me now than when I was a kid... and well I got hooked into watching all the episodes again, especially the ones that involved Helga. "Helga on the Couch" was a particularly touching one, although some of the therapist's techniques aren't used in general psychotherapy that much (i.e. inkblots).

ANYWAY. My point is: this was a wonderful essay. You captured their characters really well, and showed the subtle nuances of their affection for each other.

One thing you might want to consider, though, is that Bartlett was considering doing a spin-off called "The Patakis", featuring a teenage Helga and her dysfunctional family. I believe in that canon, Helga and Arnold had dated previously or something, and each episode was Helga writing a letter to Arnold.

Also, Helga has STUCK AROUND and has more dimension to her than Arnold's other crushes. Lila is very... one-dimensional and quite annoying, especially with her pattern of speech ("ever so much!"). Sure, Arnold may like Lila, but I think the show makes it quite clear that Helga has more dimension than she does, and frankly I believe that Arnold realizes that. (Also I hate Lila so much. God, she won't even go see a fucking movie with Arnold because it's too much like "a date"? I see movies with guys all the time. Gawd. Okay fine they're nine years old, but still.)

The episode where Arnold went to the beach was a really touching one for me. When Helga finally showed Arnold what a bitch Summer was, and how they worked together to build that sandcastle... I dunno, I just really liked it.

Okay I'm sorry for babbling... I don't know why I am. But this is a great essay, and I'm glad that the love for this show is still alive.

I will definitely check out those fics later.
Yeah, the inkblots are pretty much debunked now, but the gag with them is so good I'm glad they used them. Inkblot Arnold's little wink and finger gun is classic.

I thought about including the spinoffs, like The Patakis and The Jungle Movie (where they go to find Arnold's parents, and Arnold kisses Helga), as well as the fact that Craig Bartlett has said that Arnold and Helga are meant for each other, but I decided to stick with strict canon and not include Word of God stuff, just because it was already getting pretty long and I didn't want to come off like too much of a wild-eyed zealot. ;) But yeah, all the future stuff that was proposed is pretty strong H/A as well.

Glad you liked the essay!
i loved this.

i use to watch the show with baited breath, waiting for the moment arnold would find out about helgas feelings.

great essay.
Thank you! Glad you liked!
Horrible. And by that I mean HORRIBLY AWESOME.
It's all thanks to your TERRIBLE BETAING.
(claps) Bravo! This was a joy to read, and really brought me back to my younger days. I totally shipped these two before I even knew of the term "shipping". :D
Oh man, me too. They were my first fandom. Glad you liked!
Aw, thank you! Glad you liked it!
I was waiting for you to finish this one, since I knew it would be awesome! I have to admit, I teared up a little bit whenever you talked about Helga's home life- I forgot how dark and depressing this show could be sometimes (of course, everything had a happy ending, which made this show so amazing), and you described it so well. And the way you went into Arnold's subconsious! And all the details! Total love, to you for writing this, and for Arnold/Helga. I forgot how awesome this show/pairing is! <<<<3333
N'aw, thank you! Yeah, Helga's home life isn't quite as awful as the fandom sometimes makes it out to be (I remember a few years ago everyone was convinced Bob beat her, which...no), but it's pretty bleak.
I've been waiting for someone to do this! \o/ Wonderful essay, I love your analysis of the characters. And now I have fic to read, yay! Thanks so much for writing this, it's lovely.
Thanks! Glad you liked!
put it in your memories!
Yeah, this pairing totally owns my heart. Thanks for commenting!
I love this. I absolutely love this. There is some great insight in here. I could never find the right words to describe Arnold and Helga's realtionship, and here you have it in one beautifully written piece. Just when I think you have hit the nail on the head, you keep nailing it in further. Awesome. Never have I seen someone go into Arnold and Helga's relationship in this much depth, and I'm very glad you did. You have even reference quotes into your essay to make it into a very stylistic piece of writing. I could not do a better job myself.

Thought that I would also let you know that I have added you to the list of recommended fanfics on tendraheyarnold.wordpress.com. This is a definite must-read!

Thanks for posting this!

- Tendra
(I thought I would also let you know that I made your essay this week's featured "fanfic" on another HA! fansite: tendraheyarnold.wordpress.com
Just thought I'd spread the word of your lovely essay around.)
Great, great job! And this brings back memories! Helga and Arnold were one of my first OTPs (along with Becca and Tucker from Flash Forward), way back before I knew what an OTP was.
Thanks! They were one of my earliest ones too.
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January 2018



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