Being born in the mid-nineties, I grew up watching beloved Nicktoons like Hey Arnold!, Doug, and my all-time favorite, Rugrats. As a lover of cartoons, I still watch Rugrats sometimes whenever I catch it on TV, refilling my nostalgia well with memories of watching the show as a little kid.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking, yes Allyson, a cartoon about talking babies is cool and all, but what on earth can it teach us about storytelling?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what we’re here to find out today. Hold on to your diapies, babies! We’re going in!
Lesson 1: Kids’ Media Should Be Meaningful
This lesson may be obvious, considering Rugrats was a popular kids show, but there’s a point I want to drive further home. Growing up, there were plenty of cartoons I enjoyed, but there were also some that I wasn’t allowed to watch, including Ed, Edd, and Eddy, CatDog, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life and Cow and Chicken. Each of these shows, my parents deemed, were not appropriate for kids. They either contained material that was too lewd or just mind-numbing in general. As far as I know, they were not known for meaningful content, but for solely laughs.
How Rugrats Broke the Mold
Rugrats, on the other hand, while still containing some adult-favored humor, included subtle yet powerful messages, as well as significant cultural lessons, that I still remember today in my mid-twenties.
While other cartoons that were on air during Rugrats were mainly there for a half-hour of laughs, crazy jokes, and at times questionable content, Rugrats included lessons about children coping with the death of a parent, dealing with the transition from being an only child to having a sibling, and how to live with anxiety (#ChuckieFinsterisMyDude). The show also taught viewers about Hanukah and Kwanzaa, holidays that, while I don’t personally celebrate them, the inclusion helped make kids more culturally aware.
In the end, Rugrats left a lasting impact on me due to its use of depth in storytelling to a young audience. Sure, I rattle off hilarious quotes from SpongeBob Squarepants daily, but while I love SpongeBob and Patrick, they didn’t teach me as much about life and growing up as Tommy and Chuckie. Rugrats reflected real life, and while I agree that kids should be sheltered from the more suggestive aspects of life until their older, I think sprinkling in life lessons at an early age helps prepare kids mentally for hardship before they experience it. It’s something I would aspire to do if I ever wrote a children’s book.
Lesson 2: Kids Should Be Portrayed Accurately According to Their Age
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think babies in every single book, TV show, and movie should be able to have full-blown conversations, because obviously that is not realistic. In the case of Rugrats, this portrayal works, as the babies only talk to each other in a way that is conveyed as garbled baby talk to the parents in the show.
Often in media, children are portrayed as ferociously wild, downright unintelligent, or babyish for their age. I cringe when watching made-for-TV films where ten-year-olds are whining and speaking as if they were two or three. I don’t blame the child actors for this, but the writers, as the poor kids are just acting out the script.
How Rugrats Got It Right
What I mean is that the babies in Rugrats are portrayed, as far as I can tell, accurately for their ages. Tommy, Phil, and Lil (age 1) still wear diapers and do not speak to adults, but can walk and crawl and get into everything. Chuckie, who is two, is learning to use the potty and gained the courage to speak minimally to adults (solely with the word “no”, introduced in Rugrats in Paris). Angelica and Suzie, who are 3-4, can have full-blown conversations with adults and babies alike.
What I’m mainly concerned with here is the representation in media of kids around Angelica and Suzie’s age. While there are preschoolers who develop vocal skills slowly in real life and need to take speech therapy to hone their ability, there are also preschoolers who indeed can talk at the same caliber of Angelica and Suzie in the show and have intelligent conversations. My fiance’s niece is the perfect example of this.
While children develop at different rates, I still think that writers for media involving kids need to do more research and observation on certain age groups to more accurately represent them in media.
Lesson 3: Kids Media Should Also Be Entertaining for Adults
One of the best things about Rugrats is that it’s a kids’ cartoon that can be enjoyed by a wide age-range of viewers. Maybe I’m biased because the show was my favorite cartoon growing up, but I find Rugrats just as funny now, if not funnier, than when I was little sitting cross-legged in front of the box TV. This, I wholeheartedly attribute, to the show’s brilliant writers who aptly balanced kid-friendly humor with plotlines adults would be interested in following.
How the Writers Made Rugrats Entertaining for Adults
I’m not saying writers of children’s shows should throw in a bunch of partly camouflaged innuendos into the script and call that adult entertainment, because, honestly, I think that’s lazy writing. Humor is more than talking about risque subjects in an inappropriate setting and gaining shock value. And, although Rugrats sometimes took this route with their writing (hey, nobody’s perfect), the most memorable, hilarious episodes to me were when the babies would provide their take on the everyday tasks their parents do through the eyes of children.
Everyone knows that toddlers tell it like it is. Ask any three or four year old if you’re ugly/fat/old, and they’ll tell you a straight answer. Toddlers are honest to the core, and often have hysterical remarks to say about things adults normally wouldn’t think are funny.
This, my friends, is why Rugrats works so well. We’re provided with a diverse cast of kids who are exploring the world and trying to make sense of it in each episode. Through the babies busting out of the playpen and going on their make-believe adventures, viewers are given creative alternative viewpoints on everyday activities from the eyes of children. In turn, adults reflect on how silly some of the things we do are and get a kick of how the babies interpret it.
Simple, right? And it was effective enough to last nine seasons and create a spin-off series that lasted five more. 😉
Rugrats has taught me the following about storytelling:
- Lesson One: Kids’ Media Should Be Meaningful
- Lesson Two: Kids Should Be Portrayed Accurately According to Their Age
- Lesson Three: Kids Media Should Also Be Entertaining for Adults
Talk to Me, Arrowheads!
What was your favorite cartoon growing up? What did it teach you about storytelling? Let me know in the comments!
Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.