Nicktoon’s Forgotten Masterpiece: As Told By Ginger (2000)

“Someone once told me the grass was much greener, on the other side/ well I paid a visit and it’s possible I missed it”

The release of ‘As Told By Ginger’ in 2000 coincided with those special formative years of my life, the years where I began to find myself and develop the habits and thought processes that made me, me. Watching this show challenged my very fragile understanding of masculinity, which at the time was defined by attaching plastic bags to my Action Man toys and throwing them off the edge of my bed to see if they would fly… I probably should have mentioned that I was 5 years old when the show came out and I only stumbled across it when I was 9, but let’s not get lost in the small details. The point is I was young, too young to fully understand what I was watching, but it was clear to me that this show was aimed at a teenage girl different demographic that I didn’t fall into. I thought about stopping watching it, because the age and gender disparity meant that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because no one I knew watched it. Instead I kept watching it and and kept it to myself (and they wonder how I became introverted).

What’s It All About (The Plot): The basic premise of the show is most accurately summed up by the lyrics of the theme song sung by the amazing Macy Gray. It centres around 12 year-old girl, Ginger Foultley (voiced by Melissa Disney) and the journey that her and friends Dodie Bishop (voiced by Aspen Miller) and Macie Lightfoot (voiced by Jackie Harris) go through as they attempt to move up through the social hierarchy at their school; all whilst dealing with the usual struggles of teenage life (boys, grades, body image, etc). However this task is made considerably easier by the fact that the most popular girl in school, the wealthy Courtney Gripling (voiced by Liz Georges) has a fascination with Ginger and what she calls her “Gingerisms”, so much so that she invites her to all of the social happenings. Courtney’s best friend, Miranda Killgallen (voiced Cree Summer) on the other hand makes no secret of her dislike of Ginger and her friends and isn’t ever shy about voicing her concerns about them encroaching into the spaces that she shouldn’t be in (e.g. the popular crowd and her friendship with Courtney).

As is the case with most teens, Ginger is still in her “awkward phase” when we meet her and still trying to find her voice. This leads to her regularly writing poems and detailing all of her trials and tribulations in her diary.

Ginger’s parents are divorced and her dad often lets her down by not showing up for key moments in her life. With that being said her family unit is still very much a strong one, consisting of her loving mother Lois, (voiced by Laraine Newman) and her eccentric 9 year-old brother, Carl (voiced by Jeannie Elias). Carl is extremely intelligent, but uses is prone to use his smarts to formulate hair-brained schemes with his sidekick “Hoodsey” Bishop, who also happens to be the younger brother Ginger’s friend Dodie.

As Told By Ginger was the natural progression for the “Klasky Csupo generation”, the group of children who grew up on the production studio’s earlier work (e.g. Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys and Rocket Power). Where it differed from those other shows was its target audience – As Told By Ginger was originally the only cartoon to be shown during the TEENick programming block alongside other coming of age shows of the time.

Like many others I was suckered into watching this show because it was a cartoon, at the time I just assumed that anything cartoon was meant for children (which is probably why I started playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City at the age of 7, but that’s another story). However, during a time when the height of dramatic tension was who would get covered in slime at the Kids’ Choice Awards, As Told By Ginger was an outlier. It didn’t feel the need to talk down to its audience and understood that many of the problems we face as adults didn’t spawn out of nowhere, but were most likely birthed in our pre-pubescence/teenage years and should therefore be addressed in the programming aimed at that audience. Throughout its three season run, As Told By Ginger covered many complex issues through the guise of a “kids’ show”; “Suicide” through a poem that Ginger wrote in the episode “And She Was Gone”; “Addiction” in the episode “Stuff Will Kill You” when Ginger develops an addiction to coffee; and the nuances of “Death” in episodes where Carl and “Hoodsey” both lose people close to them and respond in completely different ways.

The Exploration Of The Family Unit. Throughout the show we see different family dynamics at play, with varying income and structure. I think that the presentation of Ginger’s family – a single mother raising two children – was so ahead of its time and more importantly, so needed! As a child of divorce myself I know firsthand that having a single parent can in fact create a more functional household, than the instability caused by two feuding parents. I won’t go as far as to say that divorce isn’t a traumatic experience for families and doesn’t create its own sets of challenges, but the constant turmoil and disruption assumed to be of “broken families” also isn’t an all encompassing representation of this experience. Carl doesn’t spend the show forever in search of a father figure, nor does their mother fall short of providing the love and support in the house. According to the American Psychology Association, 40-50% of marriages in the US end in divorce, as sad as it is, it’s a reality that is a lot more normal than TV shows at that time would have had you believe. As Told By Ginger did an amazing job at normalising what was already normal.

The episode “The Nurse’s Strike” is a perfect example of this, as the name would suggest Ginger’s mother Lois and all of their other nurses go on strike and as a result fall on hard times financially. Lois takes on a job as a cleaner, the stigma of this causes Ginger to feel embarrassed but reluctantly helping her mother clean houses door-to-door to fund a school trip to New York. This presented an easy opportunity for the writer’s to state that a man’s presence in the home would have prevented this situation from happening, but the show doesn’t go down this route and instead explores it as an opportunity for Ginger to gain a greater respect for her mother and strengthen their relationship. As Told By Ginger always resisted the opportunity to pluck from the low hanging fruit and the show was that much better for it.

Normalising the normal extends throughout all elements of the show, especially in the diverse representation of black characters (Darren, Miranda and Miss Zorski), who aren’t all portrayed in one way but as individuals with their own unique personalities just like we are in real life.

Let’s Grow Old Together. The magic of animation is that it evokes a temporary state “arrested development”, for those fleeting moments you’re engrossed in the cartoon figures on the screen, time simply… stops. No matter what stage you are at in your life, you can revisit the show and be assured that the characters will still be exactly the same as you left them. The children in Recess will always be in the fourth grade (apart from in those TV movies of course), Phineas and Ferb will always be on Summer Vacation, Ash Ketchum will always be on a quest to catch ‘em all. “As Told By Ginger” is different to all of those shows because it recognises that the only “always” in life is change, or to be more specific, “growth”. As much as we want to believe that we’re still the same age as we were when we first discovered these shows, I’m sorry to break it to you but we’re not and neither are the characters on this show. They grow with us and us with them, and I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense, they LITERALLY grow older every season, starting the show in seventh grade progression all the way through to freshmen in high school. Ginger’s younger brother and his friend “Hoodsey” get older too, finishing the show in high.

This growth allows the show to cover a multitude of issues relating to different stages of life, meaning that unlike most other cartoons there is a definitive beginning, middle and end. The continuity of the show is more than just a gimmick and it is something that is very consistent throughout all elements of the show. There is a lot of superb character development in its three season run (e.g. Courtney seeing Ginger as more of a friend than a “fascination”) and this makes it one of the first cartoons to demand that much level of investment from its audience, as it references moments and events from previous episodes which result in moments of change for the characters.

This involves physical changes too, most notably Ginger’s next door neighbour and friend Darren Patterson (voiced by Kenny Blank) who starts the show as a bit of a social outcast due to his unsightly orthodontic gear and instantly becomes more outgoing and popular after removing it and going through puberty. The show is so particular about incorporating physical change alongside personal development because it recognises that these physical changes are a large part of what causes teenage angst. The characters even change clothes most episodes.

Side Characters With More Than One Side. In most shows it is common for side characters to just be used as plot devices to pad out their animated world and bounce jokes off of, but the shows’ creator Emily Kapnek said in a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly that this wasn’t what she was going for with As Told By Ginger, stating: “We really wanted all the characters to be really well-rounded, and have their own personalities, and their own issues, and… carry their own storylines, as they did.”

Whilst I can appreciate the interesting quirks of all of the characters better now because I’m older, the characters that I connected with the most at the time were Carl and “Hoodsey”. I always found there stories a lot more interesting and relatable than that of Ginger and her friends, because they were a lot more similar to me in personality and interests, added to the fact that I was also a younger brother to a an older sister(s). I think the appeal of watching the shows was different to for me than it was for the audience that it was audience that it was aimed at and that’s testament to the quality of the writing. I saw every episode as a chance to live vicariously through Carl and Hoodsey as they went on their cool adventures whilst keeping an eye out on Ginger and co. and gaining an insight into the teenage/female world. Carl and Hoodsey’s interests and lives on the whole are so independent from the of their siblings that they could easily be the protagonists in their own show, and I’m surprised that they didn’t take this opportunity for a spin-off – I definitely would’ve watched it!

The understated legacy of As Told By Ginger isn’t something to be sad about, in fact it’s befitting of everything that Ginger Faultley was… unassuming, nuanced and just trying to figure out its place amongst it all. 20 years after it was originally aired on Nickelodeon, As Told By Ginger continues to live on in pages like this one and in the hearts of those awkward pre-teens who watched it growing up.

‘Til further notice, I’m in between/From where I’m standing, the grass is green…

As Usual Comments Are Encouraged!