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Rugrats 30th Anniversary Appreciation Essay
Susie Carmichael was the smartest girl I knew in kindergarten—smarter than Lindsay or Tyler or Megan or any of the other kids who were learning to read around me.
Despite being three years old, as opposed to my own five, she seemed remarkably well-adjusted. Friendly beyond her years and surprisingly judicious; she was the kind of kid that other parents would want their kid to grow up around. She wore a yellow dress with bright purple zig zags on it.
She was also just one of two Black kids that I knew until I went to middle school, and she only existed on television.
Susie Carmichael first appeared in season two of Rugrats on Nickelodeon.
My area of the town I grew up in was very, very white. It was, as far as I remember, quite Protestant, too. We lived in a homogenous place where people didn’t often look different, nor did their identifiers deviate too far from one another. For me, the girl who existed only on TV was so important because at the age I met her, I was absorbing everything. I was curious, and thus, I found myself drawn to people and things that weren’t like me.
Susie was introduced in season two of Rugrats, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. The show doesn’t particularly scream “inspired” from a distance, but as an adult, I’ve found myself feeling grateful for it, because Rugrats raised me in a way that the people around me couldn’t.
It wasn’t just Susie, either. These days, one of my adult holiday traditions is watching “A Rugrats Chanukah” every year. I’m not Jewish. I actually didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was well into college, and even then, it was a professor, not a peer. But I have this vivid memory of seeing the Hanukkah episode for the first time and getting transfixed by the story. There was a certain level of gravitas to it all that suggested how important it was, and shockingly enough, it was all (mostly!) true. But even more than its validity, I clocked as a kid that there were families that looked a lot like mine who sat down and believed things in the same way my family had faith. We weren’t the same, but both of our traditions held importance. Over the years, as I caught reruns, it inspired me to research Judaism for class projects and book reports. An episode of Rugrats yet again fueled my curiosity about people that weren’t like me.
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Now, at 31 years old, when I think about (looks around) all this happening in the world, I wish Rugrats had landed in front of more little kids like me. If you look into, even just on the surface, how Black people are largely depicted on television, it’s bleak. A study from the Howard Journal of Communications suggests that most Black characters, until late, fall into these same types of buckets. They get blue collar jobs. They’re often uneducated and depicted as dishonest.
Susie Carmichael was none of those things. She was wicked smart, kind, and a perfect foil to Angelica, the blonde pigtailed villain of the series. Susie’s mom was a doctor whose spare time goes into restoring Tiffany lamps (the specificity on this children’s show is wild.) Her father was a TV show writer. They weren’t just status quo—they were the aspirational family on the block. I think those first touches matter. I remembered all of those things well into adulthood, like they were details about a friend’s family. It’s like they’re filed away in the same section as my childhood phone number and the dish I used to eat off of as a kid (Still looking for a set of those 1993 collectors plates from McDonalds).
If it mattered to me—stuck with me like that—then I know it probably mattered even more to a lot of other kids.
For me, a white kid growing up in the South in a sea of other white kids from working class families, having this serve as my first introduction to a Black family on TV, one that is prosperous and charming and clever, was a game changer. I can’t imagine how important it might have been for the one Black kid at our school, who waded into a swarm of children who didn’t look like him. If it mattered to me—stuck with me like that—then I know it probably mattered even more to a lot of other kids.
I wouldn’t go as far to suggest that Rugrats can cure the world, or even all the misgivings inside of me, but it did make a meaningful dent in how I viewed society. When people say “representation matters,” we immediately think of the power of seeing yourself depicted in pop culture. But when it comes to Rugrats and series that take the time to tell stories from a smattering of cultures, I think of some kid out there who, for all intents and purposes, is still a blank canvas. And it’s so much easier to create good art when the first stroke of paint is a good one.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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