13 Reasons 'Rugrats' Was The Most Feminist, Socially Conscious Cartoon Ever
If you grew up in the 1990s, you may remember an awesome, animated show on Nickelodeon about a group of babies who always got into crazy adventures. If you had any sense at all, you knew that Rugrats was the best cartoon of the '90s, and possible of all time. Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, Lil, Susie, and Angelica were the coolest babies on the block. It was quite possibly the first time a cartoon came completely from the (potential) perspective of kids 3 and under. As viewers, we were often placed at eye-level with the children, seeing the grownups as giants who constantly misunderstood them.
As a kid, a lot of what was on the show did resonate, even if I wasn't quite a toddler anymore by the time I was watching. I recall watching episode after episode as a kid, wondering where the hell I could find a Reptar bar that would turn my tongue green (or better yet, where I could see Reptar On Ice). I also often wondered how the hell Tommy always managed to hide a screwdriver in his diaper.
One thing I didn’t realize as a kid, thought, was how incredibly feminist this program was. In retrospect, it’s pretty phenomenal. So much so that I’ve compiled a list of some of the most feminist aspects of the show (you know, just in case you needed some convincing to watch it with your own rugrats).
There Were Just As Many Girls As There Were Boys
Although Tommy Pickles was technically the “ringleader” of the group, the show itself had about as many roles for girls as there were for boys. Insofar as the babies go, the boys were Tommy, Chuckie, and Phil (and later, Dill) and the girl characters included Lil and Angelica (plus Susie and Kimi in later seasons). When you think of other cartoons of the time (Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck), you realize this wasn’t as common.
And More Importantly, The Girls All Had Distinct, Well-Written Personalities
Angelica and Susie are kind of the antithesis of one another. Angelica was commanding as hell and let’s face it, a bit of a spoiled brat (but then again, can we blame her since her mom basically imbued her with the kind of self-esteem she felt her daughter needed in order to “make it in a male-dominated power structure,” aka, the patriarchy?) Susie, on the other hand, had a thirst for justice and a never-ending streak of kindness in her (although even she had her tipping points). She was basically the wisest of the Rugrats, with a constant flow of wisdom pouring out of her.
…Not To Mention The Variety Of Badass Feminist Moms
And then there are the adult female characters: Betty was an out and out sports-loving feminist (I mean, she wore a sweater with a female symbol on it as her uniform). Charlotte was basically just leaning all the way in, and is probably what we’d call a “boss bitch” these days. Didi was more of a home-maker, sharing responsibilities with her husband Stu, working part-time as a teacher; very sweet but also sharp. Let's also not forget Dr. Lucy Carmichael, a Harvard grad who is Didi's physician and whose hobbies include flying planes and cooking gourmet meals. All of these moms were so amazing.
They Proved That There’s More Than One Way To Be A Family
Most of the Rugrats come from two-parent households. Tommy, for example, has a mother and father, both of whom work, though his grandfather is a constant presence as well and definitely helped raise him. Chuckie, however, comes from a single-parent household, raised by his widower father, Chas, who does an excellent job of raising his adorable toddler on his own.
...And Prominently Featured An Interracial Family
Eventually, Chuckie gets a mom when Chas marries a Japanese woman named Kira Watanabe, who he meets in the Rugrats In Paris film. They are the sweetest family ever and provide a positive example of a blended and interracial family.
Speaking Of Which, An Adoption Also Takes Place
Although it may not be at the forefront of most feminist conversations, adoption is very much a feminist issue. While Kira is Chuckie’s step-mom (and Kimi is Chuckie’s step-sister) at first, in the episode Finsterella, Kira ends up adopting Chuckie as her own (and Chas adopts Kimi as well). How awesome is that?
The Watanabes Weren’t The Only POC On 'Rugrats'
Rugrats began with an all-white cast, but Susie Carmichael and her family quickly joined the gang in the second season, with Susie becoming a regular, positive fixture in the group.
The Babies Were All About Breaking Gender Roles
There are a few instances of gender bending, like when Stu and Grandpa Lou dress up Tommy “as a girl” for a beauty contest, but none compare to what happens in the episode "Clan of the Duck." In this one, the boys on Rugrats are confused as to why boys don’t also get to wear skirts. “Boys wear pants and girls wear dressies!” Lil says at one point, to which Tommy asks, “Why do we gotta wear different stuff?” (Good question, Tommy! There’s actually no reason!) But Lil responds with a jaw-dropping line of BS that is surprising to hear from the girl with the uber-feminist mom: “Cause girls are good and boys are bad, naughty babies!” Unsatisfied by this response, Phil later exclaims, “If girls can wear anything they want, so can we!” Right on, little dude.
Even The Parents Did Some Gender Bending Of Their Own
The prime examples of this are Betty and Howard DeVille. Betty is frequently seen displaying what would traditionally be seen as more “male” personality characteristics, like being an avid sports fan and fixing things with tools, whereas soft-spoken Howard tends to act more “feminine.” And then, of course, there’s Charlotte Pickles, who is certainly the head of the family while her husband Drew is the much more nurturing parent to Angelica. Not to mention Chuckie’s father, the emotionally driven Chas, who is probably the most feminine character in the group. These are a bunch of people being their most authentic selves, and I'm here for all of it.
Sexual Harassment And Transphobia Were Also Visible Within Rugrats
Also in "Clan of the Duck," Chuckie and Phil walk outside wearing dresses and encounter two boys, who take it upon themselves to fight over “the girls” (Chuckie and Phil wearing dresses), giving them candy worms and then literally pulling Chuckie between the two of them, much to his horror. Here we are given a classic case of men (or in this case, little boys) feeling entitled over women and their bodies (Chuckie’s body, to be precise). Later, the two boys find out Chuckie and Phil are actually boys and, angry at being fooled, decide to run after them to beat them up. This seemingly innocent scene is really reflective of a problem many trans folk experience when others discover that they are trans, like in the case of Gwen Araujo who was murdered by a group of men after they discovered she was didn't have female genitalia, or when Brandon Teena was raped and murdered for the same reason.
Topics Involving Reproduction Come Up On More Than One Occasion
Reproductive health and reproductive rights are some of the most pressing matters when it comes to feminism. Not only is a woman’s right to choose of utmost concern to many feminists, access to reproductive health services (gynecological and obstetrical) and proper sexual health education are key to this struggle. In the episode "Mother’s Day," Tommy’s premature birth was mentioned when he discussed the first time he saw his mommy from his “tank” in the NICU.
Then there was the time Susie learned about where babies come from (hint: It’s not the Stork, though that is the name of this episode). On a somewhat related note, we also see a brief scene where Phil and Lil are breastfeeding. And then of course there’s the episode where Charlotte Pickles thought/said she was pregnant but then wasn’t. We were never given a clear reason why Charlotte ends up telling Angelica she won’t be having another baby after all — miscarriage? abortion? — but still, it's something that a cartoon for kids even addressed the idea that sometimes pregnancy doesn't result in a baby.
Cultural Diversity Is Often Celebrated, Especially Around The Holidays
Intersectional feminism is big on inclusion and celebrating diversity. Rugrats was on point with this, and features three Christmas episodes, plus a Chanukah special as well as a Passover special, due to Didi’s Jewish heritage. Additionally, Rugrats aired a Kwanzaa special during season seven, making this one of the few cartoons to ever do so.
And Finally, The Show Touches How The Revolution Has To Come Directly From The People (Seriously!)
I can’t really put this last point any better than it was written in this article in Persephone Magazine about the episode “Angelica’s Last Stand”, so i’ll just let you read it:
...Susie helps the babies to revolt against Angelica’s tyrannical rule as the lemonade “boss.” My mind was just blown when Susie told the babies that they had to choose a leader to go speak with Angelica, and then refused to allow them to elect her because she said, “it has to be one of you.” This is a concept that goes beyond feminism-101 (obviously, since plenty of of activists don’t get it) but it’s something that has made innate sense to me since I started calling myself an activist “¦ the revolution has to come from the group of people in question. Allies can play an important role (like Susie did, when she helped the babies to organize a protest), but the true power of any revolution comes from voices that were once silenced being free to speak out.