When I was younger, Nickelodeon’s Rugrats was one of my favorite TV shows – something I am sure almost every other millennial says. I watched it obsessively with my brother, sister, and friends, so it’s safe to say I’ve seen every episode that aired. It’s been many years since I last watched an episode of the show, but when ’90s nostalgia hit the internet hard, it was impossible to escape from Rugrats gifs, videos, photos, and quotes. And, at some point, we all slowly began to realize that Rugrats was not only fun, silly, creative, and colorful (a great mix for kids!), it was also progressive and smart AF.
You may have noticed this Rugrats discourse recently – I myself was reminded of the importance of the show after seeing this Tumblr post and then reading this article from Bustle. Intrigued, I did some more in-depth “research” and came up with so many awesome reasons why Rugrats was such an important show. As kids, most of us didn’t consciously pick up on the fact that Rugrats was trying to teach us acceptance and open-mindedness disguised as a story about talking babies, but that’s the beauty of it! Even the premise is smart: babies might seem simple, but there’s a lot more going on there than we realize.
Now, of course, not everyone who loved Rugrats grew up to be inclusive feminists or even people who are open to things they don’t understand. But looking back at a time where a lot of shows and movies taught, uh, bad lessons, it’s nice to see that this extremely popular kids show was actually super progressive. Need proof? Here are a few examples of how Rugrats just might have been the smartest cartoon on TV:
1. The show encouraged strong female characters.
This quote is gold, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how often Rugrats gave us strong female characters. First of all, there were just as many female characters as there were males, which is great. Second, the mom characters are all strong AF. Most of them work successful jobs while taking care of their families, and they actually have personalities aside from just being a mom. Oh, and Angelica and Susie Carmichael? Perfection.
2. It delivered real life advice that can actually touch your heart.
Rugrats wasn’t all fun and games all the time. Some of the stories were sad and a little scary, and every once in a while, the babies said something that was wise beyond their years. A lot of kids shows focus on the positive all the time, so it’s nice to see one that offered realistic comments.
3. It predicted the future.
I mean, Rugrats is basically a prophet.
4. It gave kids a strong black female character at a time when there weren’t very many on TV or in movies.
One of the best things about Rugrats is that it was about a diverse group of people. Susie Carmichael, in particular, stands out because there were so few black female characters who had great stories on TV. And she was smart AF!
5. It challenged gender norms.
Today, in 2017, it doesn’t seem very strange for a woman to wear pantsuits or a man to be interested in makeup or dresses. But back in the ’90s, gender norms were very much a thing, and challenging them was not. Rugrats did that, though. This episode, where Chuckie wants to wear a dress, taught kids that it’s okay for boys to wear whatever they want. And it’s not the only example – you can also see this in the role of the parents (more on that in a minute) and other subtle jokes.
6. It showed kids that life could be hard.
Remember how Chuckie was always nervous and freaking out about something? There was even one episode that focused on his grief about his mom dying, something that I’m sure a lot of kids could relate to. He was a character everyone loved who was riddled with anxiety and sometimes what even seemed like depression. That’s pretty important for kids to see!
7. It was full of inappropriate jokes so that adults could enjoy the show too.
A lot of kids shows and movies are full of inappropriate jokes that go over most kid’s heads, but give the parents something to giggle about, and Rugrats was no exception.
8. It didn’t fixate on gender rules.
Again, Rugrats wasn’t a show that strictly separated boys and girls. Phil and Lil’s mom had more traditionally masculine traits – she taught her kids about sports and was never seen in dresses and makeup. Their dad, Howard, was more sensitive. Chuckie’s dad, Chaz, is a single father who pulls it off wonderfully. Tommy’s mom, Didi, was the breadwinner of the family while his dad worked at home. And the kids did whatever they wanted without worrying about whether it was gender appropriate or not.
9. It showed a mom breastfeeding.
In one episode, Phil and Lil’s mom is shown breastfeeding the twins as babies. You obviously don’t see any naked boob and it’s very quick, but that’s still a big deal for a show in the ’90s, especially a cartoon.
10. It referenced gay people sometimes:
— Mitch Pump (@MitchPump69420) February 22, 2015
This little comment might not seem like a big deal now, but back in the ’90s, it was. The best thing about it is that it was just a casual remark that no one made a big deal about – because no one should be!
11. It gave a spotlight to working moms.
We’ve already established that Rugrats was great when it came to subverting gender norms and stereotypes. But seriously, can we focus on how great it was that Angelica’s mom was a total boss lady? She worked hard, she was the breadwinner in the family, and she encouraged the same attitude out of her daughter.
12. It gave kids diverse religious storylines.
Most kids shows, especially back in the ’90s, focused mainly on Christian holidays and celebrations, like Christmas. If they did mention other religions, it was quick. But Rugrats offered stories about all different religions, like their episodes about Passover and even Kwanzaa.
13. It gave us funny jokes like this one:
Really driving the point home!
14. It had an adoption storyline.
At one point, Chuckie’s dad Chaz marries Kira Watanabe, who is Japanese. Not only does this show off a multiracial family (and one that wasn’t just black and white, but white and Asian, a group that doesn’t get enough representation on the TV), but it shows adoption from a kid’s point of view.
15. It dealt with serious kid issues.
The show tackled other kid issues besides grief. Remember when Tommy’s little brother was born and he struggled with the fact that he was no longer an only child? Remember how Phil and Lil were always trying to prove they were different even though they were twins? Remember how Susie had to lead the babies to revolt against Angelica? These are just a few examples of how the show represented the issues kids face that feel really serious to them, but might not be taken seriously by others.
16. It showed us all the different ways there is to have a family.
Again, let’s talk about how awesome Rugrats was when it came to showing different kinds of families. Tommy was half-Jewish, with a dad who was kind of weird and a mom who made more money. Angelica had a strong working mom. Chuckie had a single dad and then a multiracial family with an Asian stepmother and stepsister. Phil and Lil had a feminist mom. Tommy’s grandfather lived with them. The show gave examples of all different kinds of families, not just the cookie cutter family we so often saw on TV at that time.