Maybe I'm biased because I'm a (very vocal) '90s baby, but children's and YA media in the '90s was, like... amazing. Have you ever watched Hey Arnold! or Clarissa Explains It All as an adult? Well, you should, because those writers were killing it, to be honest. They created storylines that dealt with race, sexuality, gender, divorce. It was the golden age, IMO, before the Disney machine took hold and teens were portrayed by lacquered adults. Here are some of my personal favorite '90s characters who were ahead of their time. They broke the mold. It was awesome. Let's celebrate them.
I'm still not sure why the '90s were so progressive when it came to kids' stuff, but I think it's at least in part due to the fact that the decade ushered in a new generation of kids — and parents. Parents who grew up in the 1960s and '70s. You know, cool eras or whatever. Increasingly, children were being deemed able to "handle stuff" — stuff that actually did happen in real life but was previously edited out of kid-friendly cartoons.
And you know what? Millennials get a lot of flack, but we are increasingly showing our colors as one of the most open-minded, progressive generations ever. We don't keep quiet when we see something that goes against our beliefs. We acknowledge that there is a lot that needs to be changed about the world, and we are working constantly towards achieving those goals.
We are kind of awesome, sometimes. And I think we owe it, even if it's just a little bit, to some of these characters.
1. Clarissa Darling, Clarissa Explains It All
I mean, duh. Fashion icon and future raging feminist, Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart) was my go-to for advice of all natures when I was 7 years old... and also now. She preached individuality and girl power — hi, hello, everything I'm about.
2. Rickie Vasquez, My So-Called Life
One of Angela's best friends, Rickie (Wilson Cruz) is a kind-hearted, Latinx, gay, gender-bending 16-year-old. Rickie dealt with ordeal after ordeal — we watched him struggle with homelessness, physical and emotional abuse, and bullying, yet he never lost sight of who he was, and never ceased being an amazing friend. Rickie For President, is basically what I'm saying.
3. Amy Andrews, Freaks And Geeks
Amy (Jessica Campbell) was introduced as the love interest for ever-grumpy Ken (Seth Rogen), but her character quickly became more than "Tuba Girl." Not only was she headstrong, independent, self-assured, and unafraid to speak her mind, but Amy was also an intersex woman. While the episode "The Little Things" is still rightly criticized by some as problematic, it's still notable to see the character portrayed in a positive light on television, especially in a teen-oriented series.
4. Grace, Amazing Grace
OK, this one may be a bit obscure for those of you who already knew how to read when the '90s rolled around, but Amazing Grace is a children's book by Mary Hoffman that I really, truly insist everyone should read immediately. Grace is an effervescent child who, more than anything, wants to be Peter Pan in her school's production of that very famous play. Even though her classmates insist she can't play the role because she's a girl and she's black, she auditions anyway and lands the role. It's so incredibly inspirational, I re-read it every time I go home.
5. Claudia Kishi, The Baby-Sitters Club Series
Of all the members of the BSC, I wanted to be most like Claudia. She was free-spirited, creative, and just, like, really, really cool. She also broke the mold for what an Asian-American character was "supposed" to look and be like. Claudia didn't really like school. She hated math. She liked junk food and, oh yeah, boys. Claudia kicked stereotypes to the curb, while looking 1,000 percent fabulous.
6. Grandma Gertie, Hey Arnold!
Um, remember when Grandma Gertie was a former police officer, a martial arts master, and an environmental activist? Remember how she never, ever talked down to children and always made sure to validate their opinions? If ever there was someone ahead of their time, it was Grandma Gertie, who, according to the Hey Arnold Wiki page, was born in 1917.
Images: Nickelodeon; Giphy (5)