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The Quiet Feminism of “Clarissa”

June 2, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of old Nick shows recently (thanks Amazon Prime!), and the one that has consistently surprised and impressed me is “Clarissa Explains It All.” I was totally obsessed as six-to-nine-year-old kid, but it’s only in watching it now as an adult that I am struck with how awesomely feminist it is.

Here are some reasons why Clarissa is totally a feminist icon:

She was a trailblazer. “Clarissa” was the first Nickelodeon show that featured a female lead. It was so popular that it busted the myth that boys won’t watch a show about girls (which in turn has been busted again and again by The Power Puff Girls, Dora the Explorer, and Doc McStuffins, to name a few).

She had a male best friend who wasn’t her boyfriend. This fact is almost always brought up in articles about “Clarissa,” because it’s still a rarity in, frankly, all of television. Unlike other shows with a male/female best friend duo (Lizzie McGuire springs to mind here), there was absolutely no flirtation between Sam and Clarissa, and the one episode where they attempted to be more than friends ended in disaster.

She wasn’t stuck in gender stereotypes. Clarissa was a well-rounded character who had a range of interests not specific to males or females. She obviously loved clothes and fashion, but she also programmed her own computer games, hated cheerleading, and loved rock and roll (the early-90s band name dropping on this show is INSANE – she and Sam went backstage at a Nirvana concert!!!). Above all, she wanted a chance to get behind the wheel of a car. In short, she was a real person, not a super girly-girl but not an against-the-grain tomboy either.

She had career aptitude and aspirations. Though she may not have been aware of it all the time, this girl was born to be a journalist. Her constant reports, updates, and news flashes about the seemingly mundane were all practice for her future career. Not all kids show interest or talent in the fields that they end up in as adults, but some of them do, and I can’t think of another show that showcases this like “Clarissa” does. (And as a point of comparison, Ferguson was obviously on his way to being an investment banker).

She didn’t want a boyfriend. There is an absolutely amazing episode where Clarissa thinks the guy she’s been dating, Clifford, wants to go steady, AND SHE DOESN’T WANT TO. She wants to keep her options open and see what’s out there, and not be tied to one person. And in the end, she’s relieved that Clifford doesn’t want to go steady either. This is practically unheard of in television, especially in today’s kid shows, where having a boyfriend or girlfriend is the ultimate goal (and at increasingly younger ages). It’s also probably the healthiest approach to teenage dating ever represented onscreen.

She was a non-conformist. Though this isn’t specific to feminist issues, Clarissa was artistic, creative, and proud of being different. There was an entire episode based around a guidance counselor trying to get her to be “normal” while she (and her parents) championed the virtues of being weird (with a cheer, no less). Many kids shows today are about exceptional (i.e. famous) kids who are just trying to fit in and have a normal life (Hannah Montana, etc.). “Clarissa” was a show about a pretty typical kid, but one who wasn’t afraid to break the mold and express every part of herself. For every kid who feels like an outsider (and that’s pretty much every kid, at one time or another), this makes Clarissa an icon and a hero, feminist and otherwise.

Clarissa

Clarissa

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