Helga Pataki would be roughly 28 years old today. I hope future Helga is happy. I hope she's accomplished and confident and a badass power woman. I hope she's in love. I hope she laughs. I hope she has friends. Mostly, I hope for Helga everything I hope for myself. Because Helga was me. And you. Helga was all of us. Helga was every preteen girl who felt awkward and sidelined. She had bad hair that would never lie flat. She had spunk but came off as standoffish and mean because she couldn't express it. She was sarcastic and smart and made to feel ashamed of it. She was in love with a nerdy boy and didn't know how to say it. She had a unibrow. Of course, I didn't actually identify with Helga when I was in the Hey Arnold-watching demographic: It was too painful to see a version of myself reflected back like that. (It's kind of also how I felt about watching Girls, to be honest. If you're living it, do you need to watch it on a screen?) It's only now, looking back, that I realize that Helga was a stand-in for so many female tween ailments. In a particularly poignant episode called "Helga's Makeover," Helga is sad that her so-called friends haven't invited her to their slumber party. She's not one of the boys (they're having their own boys-only ball game), but she's no girly-girl either.
Outraged about being snubbed, Helga walks down the street, ranting to herself: "I am too a girl, I'm pretty, I'm feminine, I'm delicate —" She suddenly crashes into someone who dismisses her with an "Excuse me, young man." It's the last straw. Like so many of us before her, Helga heads home to give herself the makeover that she hopes will solve all of her problems. She stops in at corner store to pick up magazines for tips, which leads to a horrifying encounter with a cashier who yells to ask if anyone knows the price of Teen Miss: "You know, the one with the feature about how to make ugly girls pretty?" Who among us, ladies? Helga's transformation is horrible to behold. First because she's so clearly uncomfortable in those shiny, black heels. But also because, as she reminds the other girls, they're 9 years old.
In the span of 30 minutes, Helga Pataki goes from insecure schoolgirl to destroyer of the patriarchy.
Being Helga, however, she comes to her senses. She tells Rhonda, a popular girl sporting a very green face mask, to stuff it. ("But Helga, this mask will help reduce wrinkles, and signs of aging!" LOL.) Rhonda threatens banishment from the clique, sneering that Helga isn't like the rest of her squad. And here's the line that gives me hope: "You're right, Rhonda," Helga says. "I'm not like the rest of you. I'm not wearing a mask. I mean, look at us. Tinfoil in our hair, glop on our faces, high-heeled shoes? Why are we wearing these?" Who hasn't dreamed of saying that to her own personal Regina George? Because what makes Helga great isn't just her ability to stand in as the underdog so many of us used to be; she's also something to aspire to. She's what so many of us want to be. At the end of the episode, the girls band together to give one of the boys a makeover, subjecting him to the grim perils of lady-grooming. ("Burnt Copper or Coral Pink?") In the span of 30 minutes, Helga Pataki goes from insecure schoolgirl to destroyer of the patriarchy. She's interesting because she, like all of us, contains multitudes.