Forget Daria, Pepper Ann was the 90s’ greatest cartoon depiction of teenage girlhood, argues Sam Rutledge.
Somehow the beloved Pepper Ann, which ran for five seasons is – wait for it – 22 years old. I know, I don’t believe it either, but it turns out we’re all much closer to death than we thought. It started in 1997 and was created by Sue Rose, a cartoonist who originally created the show for Nickelodeon. Nahnatchka Khan, now better known for her work on shows like Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, served as an executive producer and writer. With that influence you can see why Pepper Ann struck audiences of the time (me, as a child) as not just any other show.
While it’s true that The Wild Thornberrys and As Told By Ginger also featured catchy theme songs and out-of-the-box heroines who didn’t conform, they didn’t until arrive on screen until later. Pepper Ann (and we can’t forget Daria, either, though I was less of a fan of her) paved the way for female characters who were the proprietors of their own stories – not the side piece to someone else’s.
Pepper Ann in particular had an overtly wholesome and unique approach to the “tween” years. Twelve-year-old Pepper Ann was that loud weird kid who sang to her own tune and wasn’t, by any definition, popular. In her dreams she had an alter-ego, a superhero version of herself that we only ever see in the opening credits. I’d wondered why, as a kid, we never saw Pepper Ann’s alter-ego come to life in the show, but understanding the world at least somewhat better now, I can see that she didn’t need to come to life.
Pepper Ann had plenty of struggles, plenty of moments of mortification and feeling like she didn’t belong. But she believed in herself just as she was, and carried herself without the need for anyone else to prop her up. The line “she’s her own biggest fan” in the theme song is pretty indicative of how confident Pepper Ann was in herself. She was her own superhero.
Pepper Ann learns from the best, though. Another superhero, her mum, is a single mother raising two daughters, and always tries to do her best by them even if sometimes it’s a little… heavy-handed. Also, just like all our real mothers, embarrassing. She’s just super embarrassing. We all remember the horror of our First Training Bra, right? Pepper Ann also will, forever, because of her mother.
Pepper Ann’s little sister, Moose, was considered a “tomboy” in 1997, but in 2019 would probably be better described as gender non-conforming. I believe this mostly because I’m firmly of the thought that the word tomboy should be retired as it doesn’t mean anything.
Moose rides a skateboard, doesn’t have a particularly feminine voice or wear particularly feminine clothes. She’s also very much her own person who doesn’t worship or copy her older sister because she has her own things to do. In one episode, Pepper Ann even tries to give Moose a makeover because she worries Moose isn’t feminine enough, but Moose is just fine expressing herself the way she is. She’s a champion.
As well as her family, Pepper Ann’s two friends, Milo and Nicky, are great balances to her. Nicky is a talented multilingual violinist (nerd) and Milo is a soft-spoken Native Hawaiian artist (different kind of nerd). Not only do they balance her out, but the two of them are saints. Pepper Ann is an absolute nutcase and they are perfect angels to put up with all the wild stuff she gets them into.
They also get their own struggles alongside Pepper Ann; Nicky is a perfectionist and follows the rules,so you can imagine that she gets tired of everyone calling her a “good girl”. Milo, meanwhile, worries about his place in the world as a boy given that he likes a lot of female-coded hobbies. Boys thinking about societal expectations on a kid’s show in 1997? It’s more likely than you think!
Relatedly, I don’t think one person on this show speaks in a voice I would expect to hear coming out of their mouth. I don’t have anything else to add to that, it’s just an observation that I felt I should share. All their voices are bonkers.
We’re lucky in 2019 that our kids (or yours, I sure don’t have any) have more options when it comes to shows featuring strong, unique female characters who head up their own stories. I wouldn’t want it any other way! But I’m also super grateful for what Pepper Ann gave me, specifically, which was a universe where someone a lot like me got to show her stripes in whatever way she wanted. She also got her own theme song, which young me was very into as a concept for myself.
Speaking of the theme song, I doubt that any other show’s theme song is as baller as Pepper Ann’s. Is there another TV theme song that gets stuck in my head as often as this one? No, except maybe for Pinky and the Brain.
If you thought, perhaps, that a cartoon from your childhood maybe wouldn’t connect somewhere deep inside you anymore because your problems are no longer the same and you’ve grown as a person, in the very first episode of Pepper Ann she gets a zit before picture day and without a hint of irony declares: “My life is trash”.
You’ll be fine.