Nickelodeon Heroines (2/3) Clarissa Darling

I’ve gone on and on about what an excellent character Clarissa Darling is to anyone who will listen, and I’m gonna reiterate some of those points now.

The Voice of a Generation

I love how she’s artistic and free-spirited which is demonstrated by her clothes, the fact that she codes her own computer games, the decorations in her room, creative solutions to real-life problems and her insightful monologues. There was never a character like that on TV back then, at least none on kids channels. Most tween leads were either essentially vehicles to spout endless one-liners, or they were made to be average and slightly awkward to the point they had no distinguishing features at all besides being a generic stand-in for the audience. Clarissa, in stark contrast, feels like she was made to be as eccentric as possible without crossing the line into self-parody. She didn’t have a pet dog, she had a pet alligator. She had a teddy bear…whom she imagined to be a deep thinker trapped in an inanimate body. She wore vests with dresses and dinosaur earrings. She gets a crush…on a weatherman…and actively tries to overcome it rather than languish in it and make a big thing about getting her first kiss. You get the idea.

Nowadays, it seems to me that if there is an artistic individualist main character on a kids show, they’re of the loud and obnoxious variety. They’re the kind who are overly glamorous, famous, flawless and as a result, don’t feel real anymore. Through my own youth, and my little sister watching Disney channel long after I’d grown out of tween shows…well, I’ve seen a lot of tween shows. And in all the ones I’ve seen, Clarissa is the lone live action character to actually feel like a real person while still serving as a role model for young viewers to aspire to, as opposed to an uncomfortable reminder of our own awkward stages.

It speaks to how successful Mitchell Kriegman was in creating her that, coming back to the show after many years, it felt almost like seeing an old friend again. Maybe, being the odd one out a lot of the time in my friend groups, just having someone talk to me so openly (if even just through a screen) was a supportive connection I deeply needed but rarely got. That was the signature stylistic choice of Clarissa, the fourth wall breaking conversations with the camera. It was actually an inspiration from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Kriegman supposedly loved the idea of a cool kid making you feel like their equal, along for the ride, as well as the potential to get inside a character’s head using that narrative device. This unique dynamic of the show is what makes it so personally meaningful to me, and iconic to the world at large. For a little kid, it’s a very comforting thing to be addressed openly, kinda like Mr. Rogers. In hindsight, she was the original vlogger.

When I rediscovered the show, I realized that I could relate to Clarissa in a lot of ways now that I couldn’t have as a kid. She wanted to be a writer/journalist…as I know did. She decorated her room in an unconventional way (black car paint on pink floral wallpaper and hubcaps on the walls) as I was also in the process of doing that same summer. She liked to mix and match outfits in unusual combos, while I began wearing colorful flannels with corresponding shirts (or dresses!) in college. She’d monologue about random things, referencing a vast array of historical figures and philosophers in offbeat contexts. Well, in this blog, you see by now I do all that too. I could go on but you get the point. It was just really strange though how similar to her I ended up; I wondered if it was the coincidence of a lifetime or if watching the show had somehow subconsciously influenced my development.

Clarissa’s Parents

I was awed by the fact that Clarissa had great parents who encouraged her to be herself. It was one of the most endearing parts of the show for me, the way she could openly confide in and be respectfully advised by them. Or how she would bring them soup when they got sick. I love the way her parents were ex-hippies and were therefore encouraging towards her off-beat tendencies. They were even fans of Strawberry Alarm Clock, a relatively obscure band which proves the writers knew their stuff. (They easily could’ve just made the parents Beatlemaniacs or Dead-heads.)

Two of my favorite episodes of the whole show were when the parents defended Clarissa’s unique personality to her overbearing guidance counselor, and then the role-reversal three seasons later when Clarissa helped her dad find the strength to leave a firm which was draining his own creativity. Yet, even in that episode where the dad goes corporate, he still told Clarissa she could wear whatever she wanted to the corporate luncheon. Marshall Darling defended his daughter’s identity even as he was losing his own, which I found to be a beautiful insight into how much he loves her. 💙 Their bond was so adorable that even just a quick moment from another episode managed to make me extremely upset. The mom’s old boyfriend Joey visits and has the audacity to call Clarissa “sport” (knowing it’s the dad’s nickname for her) which was just so over the line I wanted to punch him. Like, how dare anyone come between Clarissa and Marshall Darling!

Clarissa’s Brother

Siblings fighting is a staple of children’s shows, but I also loved how they made her little brother Ferguson a young Republican diametrically opposed to his sister ideologically. It felt like their conflict actually had a deeper purpose rather than just sibling rivalry. Ferguson’s idol was Dan Quayle, a reference I didn’t get at the time, but after researching political history in earnest three years later, I found hilarious. (I’ll go into that more later in this blog when I get around to talking about politics.) And speaking of which, Clarissa itself had a great episode parodying the more unsavory aspects of the electoral process when Ferguson runs for class president.

Ferguson was a stickler for the rules, a joyless stick in the mud, a sycophantic social climber and an authoritarian personality type. But he wasn’t without his occasional redeeming moment either, few as they may have been. His crush on Fiona was pretty sweet, and I love how Clarissa helped him reestablish his confidence with girls after temporarily sabotaging their relationship. She would also stand up to the bully, Clifford on her brothers behalf, showing that they did have an understanding. (Even if their moments of cooperation were few and far between.)

Clarissa and Sam’s Enduring Friendship

The only boy characters Clarissa’s age on the show were Sam (a platonic friend) and Clifford (her on again, off again boyfriend.) Clifford was an extremely minor character, I think he appears in 3 or 4 episodes. However brief his screen-time, I love the way he fell for Clarissa once she stood up to him–Clifford was attracted to the strength of her character, not just her appearance or popularity in school. The friendship between Sam and Clarissa is even more adorable, I’d go as far as call it one of the top 5 most touching bonds in any kids show. What we see (some genuine, understanding conversations between them) and what’s implied (via the ladder) earns it that distinction.

The platonic character of their relationship was also an important thing to introduce to kids. You can like a girl without “like liking” her and it being weird. We’re not so different, we can just be friends without all this weird pressure or teasing.* My two favorite standalone scenes of the show are when, after a fight/misunderstanding, Clarissa and Sam immediately stop and communicate their honest feelings to each other, remember they’re on the same side, reconcile and solve their problem together. Communication is the key to lasting friendship or romantic partnership, and demonstrating this principle is another great lesson to kids.

*(ASIDE: I always hated it when my parents teased me for talking to members of the opposite sex when I was in school. It made me feel like either I shouldn’t hang with them, or that I was “supposed to” take it into romantic territory even when I didn’t want to. It may have been meant as playful teasing but it made me really uncomfortable. Sadly for both of our sakes, it also meant I wasn’t willing to talk to my parents about relationships or my feelings growing up. So, personally I’d recommend not doing that to kids, as in my experience it has the opposite effect of bonding with them.)

It’s revealed later in the show that Sam’s parents divorced and things got messy. As a result, the Darlings often treat him like a son presumably because they know what he’s been through. So with that in mind, I like to imagine a young, lonely, scared young-Sam wanting to talk to his best friend in the middle of the night (maybe after a particularly loud and nasty fight between his parents) without waking up her parents and getting sent home. Hence, he climbed directly up to her room via the ladder at her window, and it just became an endearing tradition between the two after that. That’s my “head-canon” and I’m sticking to it. (The ladder also completes an understated Peter Pan motif going on in the show as well, where Clarissa has the same last name as Wendy, she has a pet alligator, a boy comes in from her window and in one episode her school performs a musical about pirates, The Pirates of Penzance.) 

In actuality, the ladder was created by Mitchell Kriegman as a plot device so Sam could enter a scene whenever it was needed without having to be announced by the parents (“Clarissa, Sam’s here!”) and wasting time going through the front door and walking up to her room. After Clarissa, several other tween/teen shows would copy the ladder, but without the originality, charm or plausible (and adorable) origin. I think the reason it worked here and not in later iterations is due to the fact that there’s just something so delightfully offbeat about Clarissa herself and the world she inhabited, as demonstrated by some of the examples above. Because of that, the ladder just…works. It doesn’t feel out of place since everything about the show is intentionally out of place to begin with. In turn, the show’s quirkiness is part of its charm.

Conclusion

Anyway, not sure what else I can say about Clarissa. As a kid, I wished I had a cute, smart, individualistic girl next door to talk to in real life. As an adult, I’d love it if my kids were like Clarissa or knew someone like that to be a good influence on them. As a woman, I see her as one of my role models, strange as that may sound to some people. I want to embody that same carefree yet stylish fashion sense. I want to be as open about my thoughts and feelings, as creative with interior decorating, and carry myself with the same poise. I can tell you with confidence that Clarissa Darling is my all-time favorite fictional character in any medium. Perhaps more importantly, she was also a massive influence for the style in which I write today, as well as my openness to talk about myself in such a forthcoming manner. This blog probably wouldn’t exist without her.

I love how proud and reverent of this program Mitchell Kriegman seems to be in interviews; he doesn’t just write it off as some dumb thing he did for a paycheck years ago. A lot of care went into the production, from putting his foot down on Clarissa remaining a woman [the network chickened out and tried to get him to rewrite her as a guy for fear boys wouldn’t watch a “girl show”] to repainting the set himself in that black and pink checkered pattern. He cared enough about Clarissa as a character to get back into her voice 20 years later and give fans some closure. He seems like a chill as ice guy from all the interviews I’ve seen. It’s just such a nice rarity to have a beloved show that isn’t tarnished by the star/creator being a tool or predator behind the scenes.




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