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 do it again here and now for my readers!

The Voice of a Generation

I’ll just say it upfront; Clarissa Darling is my all-time favorite fictional character. There are certainly others out there with more compelling arcs or backstories, but in terms of relatability and a likable personality, Clarissa has no peer.

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. What other 13-17 year old girl would regularly reference philosophers, conquering warlords and literature in her everyday conversation? There was never a character like that on TV back then, at least none on the kids channels. Most tween protagonists then and now are limited to living out the usual cliches (offered drugs, first kiss, etc) and spouting inane one-liners. 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–named Roquefort of all things–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 because she values her rationality over unproductive romanticism. You get the idea: Clarissa was one of a kind.

What especially deserves praise is that, for all these quirks, Clarissa never stopped feeling like a real person who could conceivably exist. She wasn’t a bland every-man stand-in like Ginger Foutley or Doug Funnie, she was a deep thinker with her own voice and by God was she outspoken. She wasn’t an impossibly glamorized fantasy to sell to kids, telling them that the most important thing in the world was to be famous (looking at you, Hannah Montana and Taina.) She didn’t talk down to people she considered beneath her, nor did she strive for popularity above all else (looking at you, Disney Channel). Clarissa was just a chill person who did her own thing and made no apologies for it. She showed kids that the way to be cool was to be yourself and take in the world around you. As a result, I can think of no better role model that Nickelodeon ever offered children.

It speaks to how successful Mitchell Kriegman was in creating her that, coming back to the show after many years, it felt almost like revisiting an old friend. Maybe I feel that way because, as 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. That was the signature stylistic choice of Clarissa, the fourth wall breaking monologues with the camera. It was actually inspired by 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 narrative device is what makes Clarissa Explains It All so personally meaningful to me, and so iconic to the world at large. For a little kid, it’s a very comforting thing to be addressed openly, kinda like Mr. Rogers. Without the monologues, it also would have been impossible to ascertain how well-read Clarissa really was. In hindsight, she was the original vlogger.

When I rediscovered the show, I realized that I could now relate to Clarissa in a lot of ways that I couldn’t have as a kid. She wanted to be a writer/journalist…as I now 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 discuss random things, referencing a vast array of historical figures and ideologues in offbeat contexts. Well, in this blog you see by now I do all of that too. I could go on but you get the point. It was just really strange how similar to her I ended up becoming; 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 love the fact that Clarissa had great parents who encouraged her to be herself. It was one of the most endearing parts of the series 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. It’s really touching how her parents were ex-hippies and were encouraging towards her off-beat tendencies as a result. They were even fans of Strawberry Alarm Clock, a relatively obscure band which proves the writers knew their stuff. (They easily could’ve just written the parents as Beatlemaniacs or Dead-heads.)

Two of my favorite episodes of the whole show involved Clarissa’s relationship to her parents. They defended her irreplaceable personality to an overbearing guidance counselor. Then three seasons later, there was a role-reversal when Clarissa helped her dad find the strength to leave a firm which was draining his own creativity. Yet, it’s worth noting that even when the dad goes corporate, he still told Clarissa she could wear whatever she wanted to the company 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 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 in this case, I appreciated 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 plain sibling rivalry, it was a microcosm of society’s philosophical struggle. 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. Little Brother is Watching!

Ferguson was a narc, 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 like how Clarissa helped him reestablish his confidence with girls after temporarily sabotaging their relationship. She would also stand up to a bully named Clifford on her brothers behalf, showing that they did have an understanding. (Even if their moments of cooperation were few and far between.) In the final episode, it’s revealed that Ferguson would miss his sister as she left for her internship, providing a fitting cap to their story.

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 only 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 the most touching bond in any kids show. (The only two which come close are Tommy + Chuckie as well as Ginger + Darren, and the latter of which was clearly inspired by Clarissa.) 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 concept 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 stupid 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. They immediately remember that at the end of the day 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 young viewers.

*(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 goading but it made me really uncomfortable and made me not want to talk to my parents about my feelings growing up.)

It’s revealed later in the series 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 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 like the one that ate Captain Hook’s hand, 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 shows would copy the ladder technique 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 off beat about Clarissa herself and the world she inhabited, as demonstrated by some of the qualities I’ve described earlier. 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.

I think this is my favorite episode. It may be because it’s the first of Season 2 and therefore I had to wait a very long time to see it, with the anticipation driving me crazy. (Season 1 was officially released on DVD so it’s easily found on the internet while the other 4 were very difficult to track down.) So, when I finally got to see this episode after all that effort, it was very cathartic.

Conclusion

As a kid, I wished I had a cute, smart, individualistic girl next door like Clarissa to talk to in real life. As an adult, I’d love it if my kids were like Clarissa or knew someone like her 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 adorable fashion sense. I want to be as open about my thoughts and feelings, as creative with interior decorating, and carry myself with the same precocious poise. 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 almost certainly wouldn’t exist without her.

I love how proud 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, nor does he underplay it because it was made for kids. A lot of care went into the production, from putting his foot down on Clarissa remaining a woman [since the network chickened out at the eleventh hour for fear boys wouldn’t watch a “girl show”] to repainting the set himself in that black and pink checkered pattern. [Since the set designer initially created the room to be floral and pink like a typical young girl without consulting with him.] Mitchell Kriegman cared enough about Clarissa as a character to get back into her voice 20 years later and give fans some closure via the novel Things I Can’t Explain. He seems like a chill as fuck 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 mess or a predator behind the scenes. (And I pray that never turns out to be the case, because if I found out this series was tainted by some #MeToo-level scandal I don’t know if I could take it.)




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