If there are kids running around your house, you might still be familiar with the Nickelodeon lineup, but if you’re still flying solo, you’re probably out of the loop. Just a reminder: Nick is still at the top of its game in diversity.
It’s never been hard for white kids (like me) to turn on the television and find something to relate to, some character that mirrors our lives. Where it gets trickier is for minority kids, kids from unique family situations or kids who necessarily relate to the gender roles society has assigned them.
Nick’s new(ish) show, Bella and the Bulldogs, recently caught my attention because of how wildly relatable it is. First there’s the adorable Asian-American girl in the cast, someone all girls can relate to. Then there’s Bella: while she certainly looks like the usual kids’ sitcom lead as a pretty, blonde white girl, her personality is like no other. Bella isn’t a cheerleader, she’s a football player. How’s that for breaking down gender stereotypes?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized: diversity isn’t new to Nick. Nickelodeon has practically led the way in offering programming centered on people who don’t fall into the “expected” television identities.
Late ’70s – ’80s
Nick’s reign in kids’ television began long before I was born and immediately, hints of its push for diversity were made clear. The would-be network all began with Pinwheel. Vaguely similar to Sesame Street, Pinwheel originally aired on QUBE, a Columbus station that served as a precursor to Nick. While it starred mostly puppets and costumed people, the show was led by African-American George James. Admittedly, it got a little white after that. America Goes Bananaz, Dusty’s Treehouse and Livewire all centered on white men. However, another notable casting choice during Nick’s upstart days was the narrators on What Will They Think of Next? (dubbed Science International in Canada), which cast a man and two women (Tiiu Leek and Kerrie Keane) to narrate the show and lead kids on a voyage through modern science. Women interested in science: another great job at breaking down gender stereotypes.
The wild ’90s
Nick’s popularity, its budget and viewership spiked considerably in the ’90s, particularly in the latter half. The white male dominance of the ’80s quickly became speckled with color and a stronger female presence. Nick’s first original series was Hey Dude (you know you remember it), made up of mostly white people, but it did have a token Native American (as all Western-themed shows tend to do), Danny Lightfoot (Joe Torres). Soon after came the very white Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Clarissa Explains It All. Once again, though, Nick tested gender stereotypes by creating in Clarissa a sassy, funky girl with a pet alligator and a penchant for talking back to her parents, even if she did it with the best of intentions. Practically overnight, Clarissa has girls ditching their matching Limited Too outfits, cutting up their brothers’ jeans and mixing patterns, much to their mothers’ dismay.
Nick’s biggest example of diversity came in 1994, though, with the premiere of All That. The kid version of SNL, All That featured a collection of young, funny kids from all sorts of backgrounds and stylings. You may even remember that it was All That that served as our introduction to Kenan and Kel. And let’s not forget the hysterical Lori Beth Denberg. She not only helped young girls develop their sense of sarcasm but also set an awesome example that even girls with curves could be famous if they worked hard and delivered the lines.
Nick continues to lead the way with diversity. Two of its biggest stars, Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice (Victorious), are of Italian and Puerto Rican decent. And while iCarly wasn’t exactly racially diverse, it featured a relatable but entirely non-traditional family where Carly’s dad was deployed with the Navy and she was taken care of by her big brother. Her best friend, Sam, only had a mother (and a crazy one at that), and when the show spun off into Sam & Cat, Cat (played by Ariana Grande) was raised by her grandmother. And, while it’s not exactly the same thing, it’s important to give props to Nick for giving Avatar: The Last Airbender a try instead of sticking to cartoons about monsters, fairies and white kids.
So, I’m absolutely in love with Bella and the Bulldogs for the mix of diversity and gender stereotype breaking it brings to the network. But, I also recognize that it’s hardly a new push from the network. Looking back at its history, it’s easy to see why my generation is more loving and accepting of “difference” than the ones that came before us. We had Nickelodeon showing us that “normal” covered a wider spectrum of identities than what lived inside our homes.