R’s Childhood: Clarissa Explains It All

Lately I’ve been gloating with jealousy over the folks who have the kind of Nickelodeon that features ‘The 90’s Are All That’. Sadly, our kind of Nickelodeon here in our country doesn’t cater to that particular segment which took the liberty of repeating my life—my beloved 90’s cartoons and sitcoms of Nickelodeon, which were my Holy Grail of youth-oriented entertainment of the not-so-distant past. It was even trending in Twitter a few days ago and after reading all the tweets about the inevitable wave of nostalgia that hit a mass of people, you realize the 90’s was really the Golden Age.

I’m a child of the 90’s—heck I was born on 1990 and Nickelodeon then was a definitive factor of how it was an amazing time to be a child of the 90’s. We grew up in Nick’s Golden Age of clever Nickelodeon Bumpers and Shorts (anyone remember Inside Eddie Johnson and Mr. Frear’s Ears?). My 24/7 lifestyle consisted of watching T.V and playing with childish abandon of making a quick obstacle course of the living room pretending I was a contestant on Global Guts, waiting to be attacked by the Inca soldiers in Olmec’s Temple and wishing that somehow, someday, I get slimed suddenly. But of course game shows were minor compared to the real life I wanted to lead which craved adventure and cleverness. I wanted a slice of Pete Wrigley’s (both older and younger) life and but I wanted EVERYTHING of Clarissa Darling.

Now Clarissa Marie Darling—she’s was something of a different sort of girl and something new that television had to offer. Most often, girl-centric entertainment is too pink, too safe, laced with too much wooziness and confined to only a socially accepted image of a stereotypical girl who desperately wanted to fit in. But that all changed when Nickelodeon introduced Clarissa, a fictional off-the-wall girl who was edgy, funny and wore amazing looking Doc Martens and the center of her show. Along with her came the existence of smart television shows for girls.

Clarissa was the star of the Nickelodeon sitcom ‘Clarissa Explains It Allwhich was produced from 1991-1994. It focuses on the adolescent Clarissa Darling (played by a young Melissa Joan Hart) a contemporary and imaginative girl who explains all the ins and outs of life and the people in it. The show also showcases her family: the classic annoying younger brother Ferguson (Jason Zimbler); her parents who are ex-hippies—her health-nut mother Janet (Elizabeth Hess) and her environmentally aware architect father Marshall (Joe O’Connor). And course, Sam (Sean O’Neill) Clarissa’s best friend who made a habit of going in and out of Clarissa’s room via a ladder outside the Darling house.

I salute to Clarissa and she personified what I aspired to be: smart, imaginative, funny and she was comfortable to watch—she had confidence and a cool self-esteem that makes no hesitation in detailing her likes, dislikes and fantasies. Viewers got a chance to see her not just a protagonist of her own show but also as a person, not simply a flat character on TV. Nickelodeon broke many conventions in this sitcom, particularly being a show that features a female lead and a selling point was they used special video effects to highlight Clarissa’s thoughts and plans which allows us to examine with her how life is through her eyes.

Clarissa wasn’t the stereotypical feminine heroine who relied on anyone, particularly a boy, to save her from the various scrapes of contemporary teenage life. She’s garrulous and talks directly to the camera, narrating her life to the audience as one that is full of surprises, haphazard coincidences and typical teen dilemmas. Her character was also strong and highly creative: she aspires to be a journalist and she spends her time to make computer games which she also uses to detail her plots to “destroy” Ferguson, something that wasn’t cool for girls at that time to be spending time with technology and learn a thing or two about computers. Clarissa writes and speaks well, wore men’s plaid shirts instead of tight fitting brightly colored dresses, paraded around in Doc Martens and her bedroom, although pink, she decorates with hubcaps on her walls instead of posters of boy bands . And she gets to occasionally draw on them, which is sweet (my parents never let me decorate/draw on my bedroom wall when I got my own room at the age of 8 and threatened to punish me if I do, much to my ultimate dismay).

I think this is what today TV lacks is being able to give kids much strong role models. During my formative wee years, I viewed Clarissa as my golden girl. Clarissa was a teenager yes, but her issues are not too far from the issues that pre-adolescent kids like us face and the show gave kids the opportunity to be compassionate. The show’s style which allows us to her the world in Clarissa’s eyes as well as hearing her sentiments, we are like her diary and we respond to that. We get to see that we’re not alone and that there are other people who feel the way we feel. Clarissa really does explain it all and reaches us in a more personal level. An example would be that her character aspires to be a journalist and we see at several episodes how she attempts to write and exercise her clever opinions, making a social commentary of sorts and at the same asking tips from Sam’s father who’s a sports writer. This explored Clarissa’s side of growing up and this was reaching out to the audience of the idea of growing up, establishing yourself to profession.

A lot of kids’ shows and mostly all girl-centered entertainment are real bad lately, which is one of the reasons why I don’t watch TV anymore. They don’t have the kind of attitude that Clarissa and the show had; most of the now are geared towards slapstick comedy (Hannah Montanna, Saved by The Bell, Drake and Josh, iCarly, etc.) and didn’t empower kids to go beyond the ‘cool’ and you end up with the show with kids running the whole thing with befuddled adults on their antics. The magic is gone. This doesn’t give any impression for girls and kids alike to naturally assume that they can do anything they want to when they grow up.

Clarissa rose above that. This kind of thing makes me miss the show more and I miss Clarissa with her frank, open, optimistic and encouraging face talking to us, sharing confidences, dilemmas and quips and plots to best Ferguson and the way she welcomes Sam (insert guitar line) when he arrives by climbing up into a ladder into the ever open window of her bedroom (and that fact that everyone is okay about that). Each episode opens with her soliloquy with her wise cracks and sarcastic and reflective comments with the theme of today’s episode.

The whole show explored themes which most shows didn’t tackle such as teen angst and the struggle to rise above the crowd. A particular episode which stuck with me is the episode when the concerned school guidance counselor attempts to make Clarissa “fit in” which the student body and it involved an obviously ridiculous plan of making her a part of the cheerleaders group, home economics class and the school dance committee. Clarissa finds herself bored and unhappy and unable to “fit in” with the activities that involved decorating the school gym, cooking and knitting, which is a critic in the stereotyped practices of femininity expected of girls.

Although she may break down the myths of girls, boys, romance and popularity, Clarissa was still a girl and this was tackled using several episodes like on when she attempted to buy a piece of lingerie for herself, having a crush on the local weatherman, attempting to be romantic with her best friend (which ultimately failed) and exploring the dating after standing up to the school bully. She’s just the kind of girl who didn’t fiddle with make up, clothes and boys. It wasn’t her priority to fit in but she was more focused on making an identity for herself, which includes being hellbent on “killing” her brother and taking care of a pet alligator Elvis. That was admirable.

Clarissa was the average girl heroine who left the impression to me that things would work out just fine, without sacrificing your integrity and staying true to yourself. She also gave good tips when you want to showcase your individuality by being still mainstream yet having the maturity to exercise control of yourself and your environment by being articulate, interesting, full of initiative, cleverness and congeniality.




Filed under Childhood

4 responses to “R’s Childhood: Clarissa Explains It All

  1. Probably because I’m a guy, but I never really saw the appeal of Clarissa until it went off the air. From the handful of episodes I remember watching with my sister, I do agree that she is one of the few strong teen characters of the ’90s I can recall off the top of my head. She didn’t have an established identity you could brand her with, and that was the point of it all. Makes me sad that they cancelled its DVD run in the states after just one season.

    And just as a side note: When I visited family in the Philippines 7 years ago, I remember them at least having the decency of airing the final season of As Told By Ginger (oddly enough, the US never got the final season aired). While Ginger was concerned with social norms, she still had a certain something about herself that set her apart from other fictional teenage girls at the time.

    • Hey there! I was lucky enough to able to get hold of some episodes of Clarissa season 1 that were uploaded in the net . I share the same sentiment about the cancellation of the DVD productions. Most of the good episodes (and my favorite ones) were from season 2 beyond.

      It’s true that Nickelodeon Philippines was able to show all of ATBG episodes and I was one of the happy viewers who did get to watch the season finale and I’m definitely grateful about that one 🙂 It’s surprising though that the season finale didn’t get airtime over there. The show was really good too and I’m also fond of Ginger’s character. She’s a regular kid and although she’s more reflective than most, she’s still trying to figure out who she is. I enjoyed watching her grow up in the series. I’ll probably do an entry about sometime in the future 😛

  2. Pingback: R’s Childhood: The Adventures of Pete and Pete | ♔ ARISFAEL ♔

  3. Pingback: R’s Childhood: The Adventures of Pete and Pete | arisfael

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