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The Pataki Files: The Beeper Queen

(I started this series over a year ago! It’s been a sluggish trek but I have not abandoned this series! For any newcomers, read the intro here!)

“The Beeper Queen” opens with Miriam reaching into a wine-stocked cabinet for her Tabasco sauce, the key ingredient of her obviously alcoholic smoothies. Helga sits at the kitchen table making herself a lunch for school the next day, frustration at her mother simmering just below an impassive surface. These first 30 seconds sets the stage for what is, in my opinion, the most tragic Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold!

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Helga mothers herself while Miriam’s priorities are elsewhere

After Miriam breaks a shelf, Bob steps up to do a “man’s job” and pulls out his back, laying him up for the next few weeks. Miriam volunteers to substitute for him at meetings and in the office, an offer that her husband and daughter originally meet with derision. It’s easy to feel bad for Miriam because her family thinks she’s incompetent, but in reality she’s never given them a reason to believe otherwise. Against his better judgment, Bob allows Miriam to go to an important meeting, and it turns out that she’s a powerhouse  of executive decision-making and wooing clients.

Suddenly Miriam is super-mom: working diligently, making Helga nutritious lunches, taking her to school, and spending the evenings with her while she does her homework. And therein lies the tragedy of “The Beeper Queen.” During this brief hope spot, we see the mother that Helga needs—and desperately wants—but just as quickly, through the power of montage, it all falls apart. Miriam’s newfound energy goes from being evenly distributed between daughter and job to one-track and work-centered. She essentially becomes a gender-reversed Big Bob Pataki: absorbed in work with little interest in her kid.  Once again, Helga is left with an emotionally unavailable parent who doesn’t see her sadness or her yearning for love and attention.

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam's maternal skills

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam’s maternal skills

As Miriam discovers that she thrives in a high-energy, high-responsibility executive position, we’re shown that she’s no better a mother than she was before. Eventually, Miriam sees the error of her ways and quits her job. This seems like a sweet, motherly gesture until you realize that it means that things will return to how they were at the beginning of the episode. It’s doubly troubling because, although throwing herself into work saves Miriam from depression and alcoholism, it’s more damaging for Helga—at least her depressed, alcoholic mother was there.

The episode seems to end on a happy note, but due to the power of status quo we know that Miriam’s behavior won’t change for good. She’s incapable of being a good mother regardless of her personal circumstances—unreliable alcoholic or responsible businesswoman—and ultimately Helga is the one who suffers.

Previous editions of The Pataki Files:

Olga Comes Home

Helga and the Nanny

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The Pataki Files: Olga Comes Home

As promised, the first entry in my new series about dysfunction in the Pataki family from Hey Arnold!

While “The Little Pink Book” was the first Helga-centric episode (and showed us how deep her love/obsession with Arnold runs), “Olga Comes Home” is one of the first episodes that really sheds light on Helga’s home life. When her older, perfect sister Olga comes home from prestigious Wellington College for spring break, Helga’s jealousy and resentment get the better of her. So to exact “sweet, black revenge,” she changes one of Olga’s grades to a B+, effectively destroying her sister’s flawless academic performance and sending her into a downward spiral of depression, tears and Mozart’s Lacrimosa. For a while Helga reaps the benefits of her sister’s depression, but eventually her guilt gets the better of her (aided by a Salvador Dalí-inspired dream). She reveals the truth which leads to her and Olga having a rare, bittersweet sister-to-sister moment.

This episode marks an important moment for the Patakis: there had been many references to Olga, the mythical older sister whose shadow is constantly cast over Helga—her father constantly calls her “Olga” (hell, “Helga” is just another version of that name) and both parents are always rhapsodizing about how wonderful Olga is. This episode is devoted to unveiling (and deconstructing) the legend of Olga Pataki and revealing how she and the image she has had projected onto her is the nexus of the entire family’s behavior. Olga’s presence is the only thing that takes Miriam out of her slurred, drunken stupor and makes Bob express interest in his family.

When we first see Olga, as opposed to just hearing about her secondhand, all of Helga’s negative feelings seem validated: she is a peppy Stepford Smiler who is completely committed to the role of flawless overachiever and totally oblivious to Helga’s suffering. Helga’s method of revenge may seem over the top and unnecessary until we really stop to think about how Helga has endured this her entire life. For her, Olga is the root of all her family problems. If it weren’t for Olga being so perfect and sucking up all of Bob and Miriam’s attention/energy, Helga wouldn’t have unrealistic expectations to live up to and then her parents could just appreciate her for who she is; instead she is either ignored or encouraged to be more like Olga. And Helga’s revenge is ultimately futile—even though at first things seem better, her parents are still too absorbed in worrying about Olga to pay Helga any attention.

And it’s when Helga tells Olga the truth that we’re really given a glimpse into the abusive nature of the household: Olga admits that she thinks Helga is lucky because their parents pay no attention to her, that she feels like a wind-up doll who has to perform constantly. The facade is broken and we see Olga for who she is—someone who suffers just as much as Helga does because of the expectations of her parents. But where Helga throws up defensive walls and blatantly refuses to meet their standards, Olga bends over backwards to try and meet them, to the point where something as silly as getting a B+ instead of an A sends her into a deep depression.

In this moment of sisterly bonding, it becomes apparent that both Helga and Olga have suffered from their parents’ impossible, abusive expectations. It is not that Helga is inherently vindictive and jealous or that Olga is naturally an overly cheerful perfectionist. They have both been given a set of expectations to meet by parents who don’t know any other way to raise their children. Olga chose to meet them and found out early that it was a (or possibly the only) way to get positive attention from her emotionally incapable parents. Helga, born 10-11 years later, didn’t have a chance. As a result, both sisters crave what the other has: Olga wants them to just forget she exists and Helga, just once, would like for her parents to give her unconditional love and affection without the expectations.

Please leave any comments below and come back next week for more Pataki analysis!

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The Pataki Files: An Intro to Family Dysfunction in Hey Arnold

Hey Arnold was one of—if not the—coolest animated kids’ show on TV during the mid-’90s. With a diverse cast of street smart kids and quirky adults in a thriving city that was just as much a character as its citizens, it was like the smooth jazz of animated children’s shows. It was a calmer show; no bright, flashy colors, frenetic soundtracks, or hyperactive main characters. It isn’t necessarily realistic, but it does feel more grounded in reality and down to earth than a lot of other children’s shows.

The show overall really started to grow when it left behind Arnold’s Cloud Cuckoo Lander personality and concentrated on seriously fleshing out the various characters in the city of Hillwood. Even adult characters like Grandpa, Oskar Kokoshka, and Mr. Hyunh got their time in the limelight and, especially in the case of the Mr. Hyunh-centered Christmas special, it led to some of the most poignant moments in the entire series (or really in animated kids’ television period). One of the characters who often had entire episodes and story arcs devoted to her was the resident bully and passionate secret admirer of Arnold, Helga Pataki.

Most people with even a cursory familiarity with the show can see that the behavior of Helga’s parents are G-rated codes for abuse and alcoholism. I had a vague awareness of this when I was younger; it was easy for me (with two alcoholic parents) to recognize that her mother Miriam’s slurred speech, proclivity for sleeping in random places, and Tabasco “smoothies” indicated more than just her being a wacky eccentric. And since I had a deep and abiding passion for consuming books about domestic violence from the time I was 10, I recognized the abuse in her dad, successful beeper salesman Big Bob, and his habit of yelling; he and Miriam’s constant favoritism towards perfect, repressed older sister Olga; and their neglect of Helga.

But watching as an adult, I’m able to really see just how profound some of these moments in the show were. It’s really important that this children’s show handled the subject of abusive parents—not horribly, call-child-protective-services abusive because that would be too much for a kids’ network—so well, especially because it was placed right along side more normal, non-abusive families like Arnold’s and Gerald’s.

Helga is one of the most interesting characters on the show: bright, insecure, passionately artistic, clever, cunning, equal-parts self-serving and selfless, fearful, apathetic at times, and violent, her character arc is one of the most impressive and nuanced developments in any animated children’s show. As we get to know Helga more, and become more familiar with not just her specific tics and personality traits but also her family life, we see that she is more than just a schoolyard bully with a crush. We see, bit by bit, how Helga struggles with simultaneously craving the love and acceptance of her peers and family while putting up the defensive walls that push everyone away.

In an effort to really understand and share the ins and outs of Helga’s progression to a fully fleshed out and richly idiosyncratic character, I’ve decided to start up a series, à la TTAACMATHPS, focusing on Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! So stay tuned for the first entry this Wednesday where I’ll start things off with “Olga Comes Home”!

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