Alternative lifestyles. Varying belief systems. Same-sex relationships. As time goes on, and people become more open minded, the list of subjects deemed appropriate to cover in children's TV shows grows larger.
Shows like Adventure Time, Regular Show, and The Loud House are being celebrated for embracing these changes. We must also celebrate the shows that paved the way for this change.
Rugrats was one of those shows. And no, it wasn't just because it slipped a few adult jokes under the radar; nearly all cartoons do that. I am talking about how, hiding behind the innocence of its infant main characters, Rugrats presented young minds with ideas and situations slightly outside of society's norms, while never portraying them as abnormal. This was done so subtly, that many hardly noticed it.
Here are some of the reasons why Rugrats was way more progressive than you remember:
1. It Was Always Flexible With Gender Roles
Few of the parents in Rugrats conform to the usual expected gender roles of the time. Early in the series we learn that Tommy's father, Stu, is a toy inventor, working from home and yet to make his big break in the industry. His wife Didi, a part-time school teacher, appears to be the main breadwinner of the family.
A similar situation is seen with Angelica's parents, Drew and Charlotte. Both work, but Drew appears to have an average office job, while Charlotte is a high-flying CEO. She makes far more money than Drew as implied by this quote from The Rugrats Movie:
Drew also defies gender stereotypes by acting as Angelica's main caregiver. Charlotte isn't even seen in the series until the Christmas special, "The Santa Experience," midway through Season 2.
As for the Devilles? Betty appears to be a stay-at-home mother for the duration of Rugrats, while also carrying on an active social life and participating in hobbies generally scene as masculine, such as weightlifting, and 10k marathons. In spin-off series All Grown Up, she takes the boys whitewater rafting.
Betty's husband Howard is her opposite, with a sensitive, more feminine energy about him. He works from home and appears to be the one responsible for most of the housework.
Another example of Rugrats bucking gender norms is seen in the episode "Clan Of The Duck." Chuckie and Phil openly wonder why girls can wear pants, but boys can't wear dresses. Not accepting "just because" as an answer, the pair decide to try on some dresses, and are accidentally taken to the park while wearing them.
After first being mistaken for girls, they soon find themselves chased through the park buy bullies. Throughout this escapade, Chuckie and Phil are never portrayed as the ones in the wrong. The lesson of the episode is not that the boys shouldn't have worn dresses. The true lesson is that they should not have been judged so harshly for it.
Rugrats was quite unique for its time in these non-binary gender portrayals. Others may have come close, but they just didn't teach the same lessons.
A Friendly Portrayal Of Other Religions
Another area in which Rugrats appeared well before its time is in its portrayal of other religions. What other cartoon boasts Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover and Kwanzaa specials among its episodes? I don't believe there is one.
The Pickles are shown early on as having a mixed marriage. Didi comes from a Jewish background while Stu follows some branch of Christianity. Neither, however, is ever seen as overtly religious, and neither side's Holidays are deemed more important than the others. The Pickles are never seen visiting church, and only once visit a synagogue, not for prayer, but to see Tommy's grandpa Boris in a play in the Hanukkah special.
The two Jewish-themed holiday specials — "A Rugrats Hanukah," and "A Rugrats Passover" — didn't try to be preachy, or push the religion on the show's young viewers. They simply told the stories behind the holidays in the funny, innocent way that Rugrats did so well. Both are among the series' highest-rated episodes, remaining popular with fans to this day.
Today's cartoons should follow Rugrats' example, and not be afraid to base specials around a holiday other than Christmas. Kids will most likely love it, and they'll learn a few things along the way.
The Show Was Ethnically And Culturally Diverse, Without Falling Back On Stereotypes
From the very beginning, Rugrats made sure to present cultural diversity among both its major and minor characters. Where the show particularly thrives in this area is in never letting a character's racial or cultural background completely define who they are.
Susie Carmichael and her family, recurring characters from Season 2 onward, are African-American. Kimi Finster, introduced in Rugrats In Paris: The Movie before joining the main cast of characters at the beginning of Season 7, is Japanese.
The way the characters are drawn, with Susie's darker skin, and Kimi's slightly slanted eyes, it is clear what ethnicity they are each supposed to be. The other characters, however, never comment on this. At no point are Susie, Kimi, or any one-shot character of a different race treated as "different" or "other." While this may be meant as a portrayal of the innocent color blindness of children, it is still an important lesson.
Exploration of the differences in culture for these characters does not come until much later in the series, after their identities are already well established to young viewers. For Susie, this came in Season 7's Kwanzaa special. Kimi's cultural heritage does not come into play until All Grown Up, in the episodes "Memoirs Of A Finster" and "Trading Places."
When Kimi does decide to embrace her Japanese background, it does not change the other characters' views of her in the slightest. They are all as supportive as they know how.
Always Follow Your Dreams
In today's society, people are too often pushed to give up on dreams that are too difficult or have too little a chance of being achieved. They are encouraged to settle into a stable job as soon as possible.
Rugrats teaches a different lesson. No matter how old you are or how difficult it may be, it is always OK to follow your dreams. Throughout the series, despite insults from his older brother, Stu Pickles works from home, hoping to make his mark as a toy inventor. His wife, Didi, never discourages him from his dream. When Stu finally finds true success in Season 8, he is able to return the favor and support Didi's dream of returning to school to study early childhood development.
The Finster family provides another example. For the majority of the series, Chaz Finster is unhappily stuck in his job as a bureaucrat. In the Season 8 episode "Sweet Dreams," his new wife Kira encourages him to leave his unhappy job, allowing them to follow a shared dream of opening a small coffee shop. After a few bumps in the road, The Java Lava is shown to be a success, still open in All Grown Up, which is set 10 years later.
The theme of following your dreams is also carried into All Grown Up, with the adults now encouraging the creative pursuits of their children. Tommy harbors desires to be a great filmmaker, and is shown to have the full support of his parents in his endeavors.
The teenage Susie wishes to become a famous singer. While her parents encourage her to have a back up plan, they never fully discourage her musical pursuits. Her mother, Lucy, more openly supports Susie's dream after performing a duet with her daughter in the episode "Runaround Susie." By the time of hour-long special "RV Having Fun Yet?," Lucy leads the charge in planning to get Susie to a special performance on the other side of the country.
Rugrats Paved The Way For TV
Rugrats was definitely a trailblazer in children's television, and while other shows have now begun presenting similar ideas, a great many more could stand to follow its example.
I have great hope that, should the rumored Rugrats reboot come to pass, the show will remain as relevant now as it was in the '90s, teaching its lessons to a new generation of children.
Jump way back to the '90s and watch the intro to this fantastic show in the video below: