Dirt: Imperfect role models
For big kids and little.
Until recently, I never watched cartoons. I wasn’t allowed to watch much as a child due to my Montessori-ish hippy-yuppie upbringing. In college, I watched Home Movies over and over, but if you had asked me, I would have said I “hated” animation. It wasn’t for me, I thought. But then I had a baby and that changed.
In the past two years, I’ve watched hundreds (maybe even thousands) of hours of animated movies, cartoon television shows, whimsical shorts, and Disney musicals. I’m familiar with the carousel of content on every streaming platform. It’s been a strange crash course in figuring out my taste, and I’ve come to measure everything against one newish show: Hilda.
Produced by Silvergate Media and Mercury Filmworks and based on the comic books by Luke Pearson, this Netflix show is about a little girl growing up in some alternate universe North America in what appears to be the 1980s. For most of the series, she lives in the tiny, but incredibly diverse, city of Trollberg with her single “mum” (a father is never mentioned). The houses are all vaguely Scandinavian-looking, the cops are all completely incompetent, the holidays are all pagan-adjacent, the monsters are all misunderstood, and the adventures are legendary. It’s no utopia, but it’s better than any real world place I’ve ever lived.
I’m not sure why my toddler likes it—I know she likes Hilda’s pet, a small white fox with antlers and hooves and I know she likes watching “big kids” be friends and fight. She probably likes it because I like it so much. I find it incredibly soothing, partially because of its muted sunset color palette, rich with purple, indigo, teal, gold, and red. The intro music is by Grimes and the soundtrack has some decent folksy tracks. It’s mellow, aged hipster fare, made to appeal directly to people like me.
Hilda is not a great role model for a toddler. The blue-haired elementary school student is a wild child who constantly disobeys her mother and frequently puts herself in the path of trolls, lindworms, draugen, and witches. She experiments with enchanting “tide mice” to give her friend a leg up in the choir and to help her mom land a job, but the witchcraft backfires. Her intentions are usually pretty good but her execution is rarely sensible; Hilda’s two biggest traits are open-mindedness and impulsiveness. She’s not special or fated or particularly remarkable. She’s not the smartest, not the sweetest, not the cutest, and she’s not the savior. She’s kind of a little jerk, which I like. My husband is fond of telling people I’m still, at 34, a “teenage dirtbag,” which I believe he means as a compliment. I’m kind of a little jerk, too, especially when it comes to following rules that seem arbitrary or dealing with authority figures. I guess I relate to this children’s show a bit too much.
But that’s the thing: sometimes art for kids is genuinely better. Some children’s books are masterpieces of art and storytelling and some movies made for young viewers are smarter than so much adult fare. Lately, I’ve come to think that maybe good children’s shows and books are superior to the majority of “young adult” or soapy adult content. There’s less moralizing, for one. While Hilda hates the cops, it’s not a political show. Its moral lessons are pretty low-key. Apologize when you fuck up, don’t lie too much, be loyal to your friends, accept change when you must, and give every situation the benefit of the doubt. It’s refreshingly simple—no overwrought Rooney-style self-flagellation or Rowling-esque rewrites necessary. Watching it doesn’t make me feel like a better person, but it does something better. It makes me feel like myself.