FEMININE ARMOR: Helga Pataki as Brünhilde and Carmen in “What’s Opera, Arnold?” from Hey Arnold!

TJ Laws-Nicola


Helga Pataki is both a bully to, and the love interest of, the titular character in the animated series Hey Arnold! (1996–2004). In the episode “What’s Opera, Arnold?,” both Helga and Arnold fall asleep at a production of Bizet’s Carmen and their shared dream borrows material from both Carmen and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Each character’s dream allows for the appearance of an ideal self. For Helga, her incarnations as Brünnhilde and Carmen are audacious self-representations parodying both her own character and the operas. Helga makes a dramatic entrance to “Ride of the Valkyries” but later morphs into “CarmHelga” and sings “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.” In this fantasy, Helga desires Arnold, who is initially in awe of her and is eventually willing to fight for her affections. Carmen, as a confident, alluring woman represents Helga’s private personality, while Brünnhilde is the brash realization of Helga’s violent public-facing personality. Rather than suggesting that Helga enacts these characters, I argue that she dons their tropes to augment her personality. The intertextual meanings of the musical and dramatic representations of Carmen and Brünnhilde thus become Helga’s feminine armor. This armor empowers her to project her dualistic nature in a safe environment—a shared dream with her unrequited love, Arnold.

The Hey Arnold! (Nickelodeon; 1996–2004) episode “What’s Opera, Arnold?” is one of the few centering the show’s antagonist, Helga Pataki. Helga is both a bully to, and the love interest of, the titular character in the animated series. “What’s Opera, Arnold?” is also one of the few musical episodes in the show’s almost 10-year run. The series revolves around Arnold, easily recognizable by his football-shaped head, and his classmates and chosen family as they navigate various situations. It is essentially a slice-of-life show.Slice-of-life denotes a non-linear narrative that focuses on the characters’ day-to-day activities, rather than an overarching dramatic plot. However non-linear the narrative, there are always two general constants in the show: Arnold usually solves whatever issue is present in the narrative, and Helga Pataki, also easily recognizable by her signature scowl, publicly bullies Arnold while secretly pining for him. Her dichotomous attitudes are often used for humor or plot fodder. Helga presents as a complex amalgamation of feminine narrative tropes, both pre-dating the series, and subject to the cultural context of the time when the series aired in the 1990s. In “What’s Opera, Arnold?,” Helga uses operatic characters Carmen and Brünnhilde as feminine armor to realize her own doubly coded personality. Rather than succumbing to the pre-existing narratives presented in the episode, Helga changes the text to fit her needs, as opposed to escaping into another narrative completely. 

Example 1:
Screen capture from “What’s Opera, Arnold?” Helga can be seen scowling on the right side of the frame, and Arnold is in the middle of the other classmates, his football-shaped head sporting his usual blue baseball cap.

In the episode, both Helga and Arnold fall asleep at a production of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838–75). Their shared dream borrows material from both Carmen and Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. While Arnold and Helga fall asleep, their dreams overlap into a single mise en abyme.A mise en abyme is a term for nested narratives, also commonly referred to as a play within a play. Lucien Dällenbach gives the following parameters for a mise en abyme: “…the work turns back on itself, appears to be a kind of reflexion [sic]… it brings out the meaning and form of the work… it is a structural device that is not the prerogative either of the literary narrative…” For more information on the term’s history and its varied implication see: Lucien Dällenbach, The Mirror in the Text, trans. Jeremy Whiteley and Emma Hughes (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 8. The layers in this mise en abyme enforce the narrative in the show overall, reflect operatic tropes, and imply a metanarrative of popular feminism (this term is often used interchangeably with neoliberal feminism).I refer to Sarah Banet-Weiser’s term “popular feminism” from her 2018 monograph Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny in which she states, “popular feminism reimagines and redirects what ‘empowerment’ means for girls and women, and thus is restructuring feminist politics within neoliberal culture… Within popular feminism, empowerment is the central logic; with little to no specification as to what we want to empower women to do, popular feminism often restructures the politics of feminism to focus on the individual empowered woman.” Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 17. Both dreams center their respective love interests, both of which are unrequited. The episode is primarily sung with limited spoken dialogue. Each character’s dream allows for the appearance of an ideal self. 

For Helga, her incarnations as Brünhilde and Carmen are audacious self-representations parodying both her own character and the operas. Helga makes a dramatic entrance to “Ride of the Valkyries” and later morphs into “CarmHelga” and sings “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.”These two arias live in particular multimedia infamy. They are often spoofed and referenced outside of their original operatic contexts. Famous for its stormy sound and powerful connotations, the “Ride of the Valkyries” takes place in the third act of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Eight Valkyries (deceased women warriors who lead fallen warriors to the afterlife; think of them like warrior versions of the grim reaper who specialize in soldier/fighter deaths) wait for another Valkyrie, Brünhilde, at the top of a mountain. Brünhilde meets her comrades only to be sent away for disobedience and she is ultimately exiled and placed in a ring of perpetual fire and magical slumber. The iconic music and character’s infamous original costume—with horned or winged helmet, armor, and a horse—are often spoofed or recalled in various multimedia. “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” is commonly referred to as “Habanera” and serves as the entrance aria for Carmen in which she emphasizes her free nature and establishes herself as a romantic lead and sexually-charged exotic Other.   In this sense, “What’s Opera, Arnold?” is the crystallization of Helga’s role as fickle antagonist in the series as a whole. In this fantasy, Helga desires Arnold, who is initially in awe of her and is eventually willing to fight for her affections. The premise of Carmen as a confident, alluring woman represents Helga’s private personality, while Brünhilde is the brash realization of Helga’s violent public-facing personality. Rather than suggesting that Helga enacts these characters, I argue that she dons their tropes to augment her personality.

Example 2:
Left: Screen capture of Helga entering the stage on a white horse fully armored.
Right: Screen capture of CarmHelga oozing confidence, unafraid to embrace her romantic desires (namely, the desire to be desired).

Drawing on Carolyn Abbate’s 1993 article “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women,” I engage with the multiple voices and textualities present in the episode. Abbate examines the relations of representations as upholding the patriarchy and an extension of the authorial voice. Specifically, she asks, “What happens when we watch and hear a female performer? We are observing her, yet we are also doing something for which there’s no word: the aural version of staring. And looking and listening are not simply equivalent activities in different sensory realms.”Carolyn Abbate, “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women,” in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 254. When Helga performs on stage, she is doubly looked-at through the lenses of her fellow show characters and consumers of the show beyond Hey Arnold’s diegesis.“Looking relations” is a feminist film theory term denoting a wide array of gazes, looks, and exchanges.  Connecting music to feminist epistemologies and film studies requires further explanation. In Feminine Endings (1991), Susan McClary states that “music does not just passively reflect society; it also serves as a public forum within which various models of gender organization (along with many other aspects of social life) are asserted, adopted, contested, and negotiated.”Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, & Sexuality, With a New Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 65. She further stresses that pieces written by men create fantasies when they are constructing women characters.McClary, Feminine Endings, 65. Helga’s embrace of her dream-self subverts the power dynamics present in feminine performance.

The episode starts with the characters arriving for their field trip to the opera. In this clip, their teacher introduces the class to multiple operas, which will be referenced later on during Arnold’s and Helga’s dreams. Initially scoffing at opera as the stuff of “La-de-da-froo-froo ladies in wigs singing a lotta 2-dollar words about nothing,”“What’s Opera, Arnold?/Transcript,” Hey Arnold Wiki, accessed May 29, 2021, https://heyarnold.fandom.com/wiki/What%27s_Opera,_Arnold%3F/Transcript. Helga is convinced Carmen is worth seeing after learning of the titular character’s criminal history and role in a tempestuous love triangle. Public-facing Helga uses sarcasm and oftentimes physical threats (which she occasionally follows up on) as a shield, hiding her hopeless romantic interior. Helga readily casts away the shield upon her dream entrance as CarmHelga, a fitting development as her time spent as this brash Valkyrie persona is short. As Arnold confesses his love to his unrequited crush (Ruth), à la Don José, the orchestra betrays BrünHelga’s entrance as “Ride of the Valkyries” takes over Bizet’s score. Surrounded by lightning and a red stormy background, BrünHelga flies in on a large white horse, her golden armor and warrior-like visage taking center stage.This section is an obvious nod to Bugs Bunny episode 147 “What’s Opera, Doc?” However, I find that this animated citation of a previous well-known operatic spoof is not as important for this presentation as how Helga uses her time as BrünHelga. BrünHelga makes short work of Arnold’s would-be romance with another, causing a stage door to open and forcing her rival Ruth’s timely exit from Arnold’s dream. BrünHelga’s violent will done, the Wagnerian music ends and there is a brief transition from one operatic reference to the next. 

The connection between animation and our own “real” representations is parallel, in which animation is imagination made tangible. Or, animation presents as our nature and mediations filtered through lines and screens.Esther Leslie, “Animation and History,” in Animating Film Theory, Karen Beckman, ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 30. The mediations within “What’s Opera, Arnold?” cloud the mise en abyme, creating a multi-layered reflection and necessitating multiple epistemologies to critically analyze Helga’s performance. Both animation and opera contain an overlapping concept—performance. Broadly speaking, for something to be animated, a sense of will (or intent) needs to be filtered through a medium (or body).My understanding of animation is couched in a variety of theories and experiences. If lines are the visible residue of action (as implied by Roland Barthes and further expanded in “Signatures of Motion” by Andrew Johnston from Animating Film Theory, 167), and fiction is the undeniable action of imagination (as suggested by Christopher Norris in The Contest of Faculties, 112), then animation is active imagination made tangible. Therefore, animation is intent embodied into a filmic medium. Gender,Butler describes gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender.” Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2007), 45. performance,Suzanne G. Cusick, “On Musical Performances of Gender and Sex,” in Audible Traces: Gender, Identity, and Music, ed. Elaine Barkin and Lydia Hamessley (Los Angeles: Carciofoli Verlagshaus, 1999), 25–48. and my interpretation of animation merge with the action of filtering texts (or experiences) through a body to create a holistic,The common denominator between Cusick and Butler’s reading is the concept of performance. The word nears a similar meaning, but takes on different contextual baggage, thus my bringing up the application of hermeneutics. In this sense, performance becomes the medium in which Cusick paints a shared picture (with hermeneutics being her brush, and narrative the resultant painting). To borrow Cusick’s hermeneutic move, I would also like to re-interpret narrative in this context to mean the theoretical text in which this paper sits within a broader meta-text of musicology. Cusick states “musical performance, too, is partly (but not entirely) the culturally intelligible performance of bodies… Musical performances, then, are often the accompaniment of ideas performed through bodies by the performance of bodies.” Cusick, “On Musical Performances,” 27. Furthermore, Butler explains, “As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperienceing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation… There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public character is no inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame– an aim that cannot be attributed to a subject, but, rather, must be understood to found and consolidate the subject.” Butler, Gender Trouble, 191. yet plastic concept.Here I use “plastic” to invoke two meanings: 1) the idea that plastic is a human-made good that can take a variety of shapes and 2) as pseudo-cognate for the concept of Eisenstein’s “plasmaticness” in which something is “evoked in order to stress the originary [sic] shape-shifting potential of the animated, the way in which an object or image, drawn or modeled, strains beyond itself, and can potentially adopt any form, thereby proposing an expansion beyond current constraints… forc[ing] transition, a difference in quality.” Esther Leslie, “Animation and History,” 31.

All of this to say Helga’s representation involves multiple ways of looking and consuming. The idea of connecting narrative screens, contexts, and multimedia to the political ramifications of the (animated) products, is a long-standing tradition. Karen Beckman explains further, “[a]nimated practices loosen the link between the physical site of an image’s production and the spaces depicted in that image. In doing so they allow us to reflect upon the ways in which that link has become the locationally determined foundation for one dominant approach to theorizing the political charge of moving images…”Karen Beckman, “Film Theory’s Animated Map,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 56, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 475. This idea of “political charge” connects seamlessly with feminist rhetoric in which all interactions are affected by larger structures and hierarchies.My understanding of feminism is couched in Black feminist epistemologies for the ability to view multiple oppressive structures at once. This is a conscious choice to be in solidarity with all those that make and desire a counter-narrative as resistance to the stripping of humanity within capitalism that forces descendants of chattel slavery to construct a history or knowledge that is outside of the dominant hegemony. If you accept that multiple oppressions can exist simultaneously, then feminist frameworks can be used in conjunction with film theory and here in this paper. It is telling that Helga, even animated (and arguably not “real”), is only able to exercise agency in a dream as she generally exhibits defective action throughout the series. I define agency in similar terms to Christine Korsgaard, from her 2009 book Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity in that, “the essential characteristics of an agent [as one who completes actions] are efficacy and autonomy.”Christine M. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 82. To be efficacious means the result of an action is as intended, and autonomy is determined when an agent moves with clear sense of Self.Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, 83.

Helga’s time spent as BrünHelga is short, but effective—a tool to get what she wants, even if it means damaging others. She changes the scenery and even cast members, as additionally evidenced by the chorus of classmates succumbing to Helga’s whims with commentary related to her entrance in Wagnerian parody. Claire Johnston writes in the chapter “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” 

a desire for change can only come about by drawing on fantasy… Any revolutionary strategy must challenge the depiction of reality; it is not enough to discuss the oppression of women within the text of the film; the language of the cinema/the depiction of reality must also be interrogated, so that a break between ideology and text is effected.Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” Feminism and Film, E. Ann Kaplan, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 30. 

For this reason, i.e., revolution must be on some level fantastic, animation is an ideal medium to facilitate that break. Animation is both within and without reality, both cinema and not cinema. Helga’s reclamation of the dream-narrative, although rooted in fantasy, comes from a desire for change. However, this act is quickly complicated by several factors, namely that Helga does not exist as a corporal form in our reality, Hey Arnold! is a commodity meant for consumption, and while Helga (as a product of 1990s “girl power”) subverts expectations, she also represents them. E. Ann Kaplan states, “representations… are mediations, embedded through the art form in the dominant ideology.”Kaplan, Feminism and Film, 119. It makes sense that Helga, as a representation of girls in the 1990s, only gains agency through Brünnhilde. After all, Brünnhilde, although a strong Valkyrie, is undone by her own love at the hands of the protagonist (and they both in turn given musico-narrative life by Wagner). 

The operatic references also complicate Helga’s screen time. While the Brünhilde of yore is derived from tales of Valkyries, honorable warriors and duty-bound guides, Wagner’s Brünhilde adds a supportive-yet-doomed love interest to the character’s connotation. Not violent per se, but Brünhilde’s fierce warrior spirit has become the main point of parody in the recent decades. Characterizations usually default to a blonde woman in golden armor and horned helmet. BrünHelga draws strength from Brünhilde’s confidence, turning the negative defensive anger of Helga’s bullying into a constructive force. Until BrünHelga’s entrance, the stage was a reflection of Arnold’s dream (a Carmen-inspired love story with his crush). With Wagnerian aplomb, BrünHelga cuts through the sky and takes the narrative into her own hands. Her control of the narrative is another example of Helga eschewing Brünhilde’s original operatic role, as Brünhilde essentially exists to propel Siegfried’s plot forward. Helga takes center stage, refusing to play second fiddle to her love interest. 

Again, we are met with layers of meaning. Helga acts with agency, but also as an animated representation and market product. Brünnhilde’s narrative is tied to Siegfried, while also being musically animated and made into a consumable product. Like Brünnhilde, Helga is doomed to clash with her love interest, but avoids Brünnhilde’s final act of self-immolation. Instead, Helga chooses to toss aside Brünnhilde’s golden armor for romantic garb. Helga quickly supplants the previous iteration of Carmen to become CarmHelga. Here we see a fusion of her will to love as well as the agency to act on those feelings. Once again, the cast and music change to meet Helga’s needs. Romantic as Helga’s dream is, her characters are also marketable symbols within serialized television. The dream grants Helga a type of ironic agency that is burdened by connotations of the various layers of intertextuality present in “What’s Opera, Arnold?” The Bitch is Back (2001) by Sarah Appleton Aguiar deconstructs popular narrative tropes directed at women presenting characters. Aguiar complicates women antagonists by suggesting critical readings through a revisionist-Lacanian lens, thoroughly flipping the script on antagonists in an attempt to create holistic characters.Sarah Appleton Aguiar, The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature (Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001). Helga’s role within Hey Arnold! is undoubtedly antagonistic. However, she is a whole character, and her relationships with other characters and herself are complicated. Her dualistic behavior is summarized neatly (and flamboyantly) within the narrative of “What’s Opera, Arnold?”

Helga begins her adaptation of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” with a condemnation of Arnold’s love interest and self-introduction, “Why not forget her? I’m so much better! My name’s CarmHelga and I’m awfully sweet!”“What’s Opera, Arnold?/Transcript.” CarmHelga and Arnold begin to dance, but their time is interrupted by a rival looking to sweep Helga off her feet. The two boys then duel, with Arnold emerging victorious. CarmHelga and (Don) Arnold reestablish their love and just as they are about to kiss… the dream is shattered, the opera is over and the field trip ends. Helga watches as Arnold leaves and sighs that her dream “just ended too soon.” 

Helga’s dream once again subverts the narrative of its origin opera. By avoiding the gruesome murder of Carmen in favor of romance, which is thwarted not by a jealous lover but by pesky reality, Helga confidently sidesteps the tropes set up by Bizet for femme fatales. It is important to note that this sort of confidence is often displayed elsewhere in the series—such as in a private shrine Helga has to Arnold, in which she enacts similar fantasies on an Arnold shaped idol of sorts. Finally, CarmHelga is on the cusp of realizing her love, only to be ripped away from her dream. Of course, this sort of drama is fitting of both Helga’s romantic obsessions throughout the series as well as operatic flair. The episode ends with Helga waking up, mourning her lost dream-love as the class leaves the opera venue. 

In this abridged version of Bizet’s opera, Helga chooses to postpone the dream-realization of her fantasy, and in so doing, robs herself of confirmation. Helga’s character within the show’s narrative is one that struggles to communicate or make healthy love life choices. Regardless, Helga eschews Carmen’s source narrative, overriding Bizet’s death sentence via stabbing and instead going for a realized romance. Among all of the wild tropes enacted by this episode (taking place in a dream), only Helga was able to change the environment.

Example 3:
This magpie shrine is entirely made from cast away objects scavenged from Arnold. Like her love, Helga hides this creation from public view (it is hidden in her closet). Screenshot by the author from season 1, episode 3 “Stoop Kid.”

She was the only one able to exert agency, an agency powerful enough to tear down the proverbial stage walls and re-write her character. Of course, her agency is a ruse, only strong enough to bend dream-will, but not strong enough to tie her disparate character traits together and perform autonomously outside the mise en abyme

Not only does Helga have influence over the characters and storyline of the dream, so too does she hold sway over the music, a factor that Matt BaileyShea discusses in his 2007 19th-Century Music article, specifically the significance of characters exerting influence on the music/orchestra. Helga controls the orchestra by deploying multiple operatic scores to fit her dreams. Using Edward Cone’s 1974 text The Composer’s Voice as a cornerstone, Baileyshea calls for a “fully diegetic” perspective.Matt Baileyshea, “The Stuggle for Orchestral Control: Power, Dialogue, and the Role of the Orchestra in Wagner’s Ring,” 19th-Century Music 31, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 3–27.

The way we interpret the role of the orchestra—the way we imagine it—profoundly affects our reception of operatic works. What we strive for, then, are ways of imagining the orchestra that offer compelling and powerful experiences of a given piece. In that spirit, I offer the following “fully diegetic” perspective, a way of imagining the orchestra that could potentially be applied to all aspects of Wagner’s Ring, but is best applied specifically in situations where characters appear to exhibit distinct control over the orchestra… Though typically existing as an independent flow of sound, passively reacting to the various aspects of a given scene, it is also an energy that can be harnessed and controlled. Since characters live within this continuous tissue of sound—since they are capable of feeling and hearing its presence—they are also aware of its power to create a certain aura, its power of persuasion. In short, it is a medium through which they can exert their will.Baileyshea, “The Struggle of Orchestral Control,” 8.

In this respect, Helga’s performance merges the concepts of fully diegetic and performance. Finally, we have reached a point in which Helga’s voice, even in a dream, carries agential power. Binding these seemingly disparate aspects—animation, feminism, opera, music—together brings to mind Kaja Silverman’s “acoustic mirror” in which the voice can be both internal and external, affecting the Subject/Object divide, and therefore acting as a transition from Self to Screen.Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, Theories of Representation and Difference (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), 80. Here we are again, discussing the voice, layers of representation, and complicated interlocking ideas. 

There are a number of interesting nuances in “What’s Opera, Arnold?” Rather than taking the twists and turns of animation for granted, I would like to return to Beckman’s ideas on the importance of animation. Helga is able to interrupt a dream that is not of her making. She enters Arnold’s dream as he is waking, keeping the episode’s narrative relatively intact. Helga’s dream agency is an example of an animated view of the filmic and multimedia world. A view which “reveals the extent to which graphic images have played a neglected role in shaping the way we think about both space and movement, which in turn shapes the evolution of theoretical speculation about film.”Beckman, “Film Theory’s Animated Map,” 480. This episode embraces intertextuality while still remaining a shining example of Nickelodeon’s branding. It presents a wonderful storm of tropes focused around a single character, creating a distillation of feminine narrative agency as it was understood in the 1990s “girl power” era. Nickelodeon played an important part in the shaping of children’s entertainment, and in many ways their branding model carries through to current animated shows in the United States.Sarah Banet-Weiser, “Girls Rule! Gender, Feminism, and Nickelodeon” in Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 142–76. The creators of the show maximize the episode’s representation of empowered feminine characters in a narrative two-for-one special. Helga is a single, powerful example of girl power representation, taken to the extreme in this particular episode—one of the few Helga-centered episodes of the series. As Banet-Wiser states, “girl power (represented in postfeminism) is profoundly, indeed necessarily ambivalent…Nickelodeon “empowers” its audience…by addressing girls as powerful players in brand-dominated consumer culture.”Banet-Weiser, Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship, 106. Once the dream is over, Helga reverts to her old destructive habits, her “girl power” stripped of its dream truths and replaced with a tough façade. 

Here, we find that Helga does not meet the standard for self-constitution, as defined by Korsgaard.Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, 180. While she is able to fuse multiple aspects of herself in the dream realm, she is not able to do so as a fully autonomous action. Her agency is also limited. Ironically, she is fully a realized agent within this dream, able to perform autonomous actions, but these very actions are what seals her fate. As she is unable to perform these actions in reality, or have those actions attributed to her, the actions lack the depth denoted with agency. Essentially, Helga’s dream actions in “What’s Opera, Arnold?” are examples of defective action, or actions that are self-serving and lacking in some degree of self-reflection, representing internal conflict. In this sense, it is fitting that Helga’s actions are defective, as it is this internal conflict which fuels her character’s narrative throughout the series. Likewise, it is appropriate Helga chooses to enact her dream agency through two popular operatic feminine character tropes: Brünnhilde and Carmen. By abridging the most arguably well-known aspects of both operas, Helga’s character is able to augment her personality with those character and sonic tropes. However flawed Helga’s attempts at agency are, her struggles throughout the series make her character human— a clumsy, torn, teenager struggling to act in her best interests while haphazardly making emotional connections. I mentioned earlier that Helga’s internal struggles are often the source of humor or plot fodder, but Helga is also necessary for a show like Hey Arnold! to maintain narrative velocity. Helga, as a holistic character, neither expressly good or bad, fuels the show, and with it our sense of attachment to the characters therein. 

This episode is an excellent crash course in Helga as a complete character, no more ironic than each of us as we struggle to act and feel responsibly while staying true to ourselves. Helga’s ironic agency, amplified by the intertextual layers of the mise en abyme, harken to our own struggles between desire and responsibility, public and private facing selves, reality and absurdity—the play within a play highlights life’s farce and makes parody through the overdramatic machinations of opera. In this way Helga, a character brought to life through animation, parallels our own identities as people, humans brought into being from forces outside of our control. What could be more powerful than attempting autonomous agential action, asserting your own identity, even if it is only a dream?


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Appleton Aguiar, Sarah. The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Baileyshea, Matt. “The Struggle for Orchestral Control: Power, Dialogue, and the Role of the Orchestra in Wagner’s Ring.” 19th-Century Music 31, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 3–27.

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———. “Film Theory’s Animated Map.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 56, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 472–91.

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