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Children of the '90s were born into a time when the world was just beginning to settle into the big changes that had happened in previous decades. It was a time where it was becoming more common for women to return to the workforce soon after having children. To be a Tomboy was slightly more accepted, though still thought strange by older generations. 'Boy' things were still said to be meant for boys, and 'girl' things meant for girls.
Enter Rugrats, a seemingly average cartoon about babies that ended up subtly teaching children about changing gender roles.
Women Can Be The Main Breadwinners
At the time when the show first aired, it was becoming more common to see families with two working parents, but still generally accepted that the father was the main breadwinner of the household. This was not the situation that #Rugrats presented. Stu, the father of series' protagonist, Tommy Pickles, works from home as a toy Inventor. While he has a few successes throughout the series, any income he generates is far from stable. This makes his wife Didi, a high school teacher, the family's main source of income. While Didi is rarely shown to be at work, when she is, Stu and his retired Father, Grandpa Lou, assume the usually female responsibility of caring for Tommy.
Tommy's cousin, Angelica, is growing up in similar circumstances, with a few minor differences. In Angelica's case, both parents have stable employment, but while her father, Drew, is an average office worker, her mother, Charlotte, is a high-flying CEO, presumably making much more money than Drew. When Drew is not working, it is he who is presented as Angelica's main caretaker, even when both parents are present.
At no point during the series are either of these scenarios referred to as unusual. It was simply the way things were.
Nothing Is Just 'For Boys' Or 'For Girls'
Even now, most toy stores or departments are divided into 'boys' and 'girls' sections, but this was never a problem in Rugrats. All of the babies, male or female, love Reptar, even though as a dinosaur, he would be firmly placed in the 'boy' section of any toy store. In the episode "Mega Diaper Babies," they are all seen playing with action figures. When Kimi joins the group, her favorite toy is revealed to be a plush superhero. At no point is the fact that the girls love Reptar, action figures, and superheroes shown as anything other than normal.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have "Clan Of The Duck," an episode where Chuckie and Phil wonder why boys can't wear dresses. They end up wearing dresses to the park, and while they are chased by bullies, at no point is it implied that they were wrong to wear the dresses. Instead, the bullies are made to believe they were wrong when a gang of Scottish babies in kilts come to the boys' aid.
The lessons continue in the Rugrats spin-off series All Grown Up!, particularly in the episode "The Big Score." The episode has Lil taking up soccer, a long time hobby of Phil's, and of course, turning out to be a more talented player than he is. This could have very easily turned into yet another story about a boy struggling with a girl encroaching on traditionally male territory, yet it does not. Why? Because Phil plays on a mixed team. Phil and Lil's mother, Betty, is assistant coach, and team captain, Wally, is a girl, neither of which Phil has a problem with. The issue is never that a girl was better than him, but that his sister was better than him. What would have been a "battle of the sexes" in most other shows is presented in All Grown Up! as a case of sibling rivalry. The episode would have unfolded exactly the same way if Lil was a boy.
As It Should Be
In presenting these situations through the eyes of innocent babies, Rugrats normalized them in the eyes of the children watching. It prepared them for the new normal of the future they were growing into. It was acceptable that mom could be the breadwinner, and girls could like dinosaurs. This was the way things were, and there was nothing wrong with that. There is still nothing wrong with it. Boy or girl, you can like what you want to like, and be anything you want to be.
It is a lesson that can, and should, be carried on today.