The '90s were a strange, wonderful time for children's cartoons. Nickelodeon shows in particular, like Hey Arnold!, CatDog, The Fairly OddParents, and Spongebob Squarepants, were funny, dark, and deeply, deeply weird (How did CatDog poop? Arnold's grandma joined a nudist beach? What was Squidward's deal?). At the time, we loved them because they were entertaining and our parents didn't understand them and were vaguely disapproving, but looking back, a lot of them were also progressive as hell, and perhaps none more so than Rugrats.
Even though it was a show about infants, Rugrats didn't treat its viewers like babies. It leveled with us, like that cool uncle who swears in front of you and lets you take over the steering wheel sometimes when he's driving. The show didn't shy away from difficult or controversial topics, like religion, gender roles, and grief, and it managed to explore them in a nuanced, subtle way that planted ideas in kids heads without making us feel like we were being lectured.
And if the past couple of years have taught us anything, its that these lessons are worth revisiting — again, and again, and again. With that being said, here are some of the many ways Rugrats was progressive AF.
It subverted gender norms...
By writing a show from a toddler's point of view, Rugrats was able to question society's basic assumptions and expectations, particularly about gender.
In one episode, Chuckie and Phil question why girls can wear both skirts and pants, but boys aren't allowed to wear skirts. They don a pair of dresses and are taken to the park where they get chased by bullies, but as Kristy Anderson at Creators.co writes:
"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."
In another episode, Angelica has a pretend "twin" named Balleena. Chuckie and Phil contemplate marrying Ballenna one day, until Lil jumps in and says she's going to marry Balleena, because they're both pretty (and what better reason to get hitched, honestly). Given that this episode aired in the '90s, when homosexuality, and women's homosexuality in particular, was becoming more visible, but remained highly controversial — Ellen DeGeneres was just coming out, and Rosie O'Donnell was a household name — even hinting at Lil having a relationship with another girl was pretty edgy.
... especially gendered parenting norms.
The babies weren't the only progressives. Most of the parents in the Rugrats have relationships that stray in one way or another from the traditional dad-provider-mom-caretaker norm. Didi, Tommy's mom, often ends up being the family breadwinner because her husband Stu's various inventions seem to have only... moderate success. Her sister-in-law Charlotte has climbed far higher up the corporate ladder than her husband, Drew, who serves as Angelica's main caregiver. The twins' mom, Betty, fulfills more traditionally masculine parenting roles than her husband, Howard, like teaching her kids to play sports, and being generally more tough and physical, while Howard is more sensitive, and is generally in charge of household chores. Chaz, Chuckie's dad, is a single father until he remarries Kira, Mimi's mom.
The fathers of Rugrats are not mocked or emasculated. Instead, their non-traditional roles are presented as a simple fact of life.
It was diverse.
Okay, not the most diverse — the show's protagonists were largely white. But what set the Rugrats apart was that they never fell into tokenism.
Susie is the babies' cool, wise neighbor who defends them against the tyranny of Angelica. When Chaz marries Kira Watanabe, who is Japanese, the Finster-Watanabes becomes a multiracial, blended family, and Kimi becomes another tough, female member of the baby gang.
Their characters of color were complex individuals whose defining personality traits were not being "the Black one" or "the Asian one," a trap that other '90s shows fell into with frequency.
It taught us about different religions.
Rugrats was one of the first and only cartoons to feature Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, and Kwanzaa specials. None of the specials were preachy, they just presented the stories behind these traditions in a straightforward, entertaining way that the babies and their fans could understand.
It portrayed strong women who were strong (in different ways).
Often, television shows have a single, narrow definition of "strong women" — someone who is loud, abrasive, and more often than not, alone.
What set the mothers of the Rugrats apart was that each of them was powerful in her own way. Charlotte, Angelica's mom, was an ambitious, high-flying CEO; Betty, Phil and Lil's mom, was a loud, athletic, proud feminist; and Didi, Tommy's mom, was a smart, gentle teacher who was also the main breadwinner of the family. All three of them had husbands who were loving and, well, a little flaky (Stu sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to make pudding and despair — dude needs some help) but who are supportive of their wives' personal and professional endeavors.
The message that every woman, and every person, can be powerful in their own way was pretty darn progressive for the '90s.
It addressed children's grief.
In one of the show's Mother's Day specials, we learned about the death of Chuckie's mom. When Chuckie finds a box of his mom's things in the attic, his dad explains her loss in simple, yet direct terms that his son (and by extension, the audience) can understand, and finishes by reading him a poem his mother wrote him in the hospital.
For children who have experiences loss, having the space to talk about their experience is essential to the grieving process. As the National Alliance for Grieving Children writes:
"Many well-meaning adults avoid talking about the deceased person in fear that doing so will exacerbate the grief children are experiencing. In doing so, children might feel as though talking about or even expressing their grief is not acceptable. [...] When children feel understood by family and friends and when they have the opportunity to express their grief in their own unique way, they feel less alone and, in turn, fare better than they would otherwise."
By presenting children and families talking openly about the loss of a loved one, the Rugrats gave their young audience permission to do the same.
It normalized breastfeeding.
In another Mother's Day episode, Phil and Lil think back fondly to the times their mom fed them "the old way". They flashback to memories of their mother breastfeeding them in tandem, and the images are not presented in an absurd or ridiculous way, but as a regular, beautiful part of motherhood.
It made accommodations for its voice actors.
Progressive messaging is important, but not nearly as important as implementing progressive policies in real life, and the Rugrats did that as well. In order to allow Dionne Quan (the actress who voiced Chuckie's step-sister, Kimi Watanabe-Finster, and who happens to be legally blind) to do her job, the producers had all of her scripts translated into Braille.
Granted, having a text translated into Braille is not difficult. In an ideal world, this wouldn't be worth mentioning, but because we are not in an ideal world, and because of all of the obstacles people living with disabilities face when it comes to simply being allowed to exist and live a regular life, this arrangement is worth noting.
In short, Rugrats was amazing. And if you're ever feeling overwhelmed by the adult world and want to regress to a simpler time, full of progressive messaging, and witty babies, and Reptar, check out all of the episodes on YouTube here.