Revisiting my favorite TV 90s shows—Pete and Pete, or Boy Meets World—helps me understand how the entertainment I enjoyed as a kid shaped me as a person. What we watched growing up informs our beliefs and shapes our perceptions of gender, race, class, and religion. But when it comes to representing women and girls on our screens, the situation can be bleak: with female characters stuck in stereotypical roles such as uptight moms (like Vivian Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), boy-obsessed high schoolers (like Harmony in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or crazy ex-girlfriends (like Emily Valentine in Beverley Hills 90210.)
One 90s show that bucked these depressing trends in female representation was Pepper Ann. Pepper Ann Pearson was the 12-year-old girl whose true-to-life adventures ranged from attending retreats with her single mom, feeling pressure to shop for a training bra, regretfully appropriating her Native American heritage, contemplating the teachings of Noam Chomsky, and experiencing the uncertainty of whether you should celebrate Christmas or Chanukah.
Created by cartoonist and writer Sue Rose, the series grew out of her Pepper Ann comic for Young Miss magazine. It debuted in 1997, making it Disney’s first animated show to be created by a woman (17 years later, they would have their second female created show with Daron Nefcy’s Star vs. The Forces of Evil). The show focused on Pepper Ann, her single mom Lydia, her two best friends Milo, a moody artist, and Nikki, an overachieving violin-playing genius, and Pepper’s tomboy little sister, Moose.
“I didn't set out to create a TV show,” Rose tells me over the phone. “I set out to create a story about a girl. And a funny girl who makes mistakes and then has an opportunity to learn from them.”
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Pepper Ann and her peers were part of a trend that bucked stereotypical characters and joined other cartoons of the 90s in subverting the singular idea of what a female hero could and should be. Where cartoon characters before had been man-pleasing (like Betty Cooper in the Archie series), or typically "good" and feminine (Snow White), female characters in shows like Daria, Hey Arnold!, The Simpsons, and Rugrats showed that girls could be cynical, intelligent, and independent—with interests that ranged from martial arts to poetry. And after the success of Pepper Ann, we continued to see more nuanced girl protagonists in shows such as As Told by Ginger, The Proud Family, and The Wild Thornberrys.
Pepper Ann ended in 2000, but the show's legacy has lived on. In 2017, singer-songwriter SZA sampled the Pepper Ann theme tune in her song, “Go Gina.” And longtime fans now in adulthood are revisiting the show, highlighting its feminist message. “The show really did teach me a lot of feminism when I was tiny and ugly,” says writer Alex Firer. “While every show was emphasizing the importance of love vis a vis obsession, Pepper Ann was about three weird characters trying to maintain healthy relationships with the world.”
“I loved the silliness of Pepper Ann and how far she went with her awkward approach to life,” says illustrator Kati Prescott. “I loved that her two best friends were an artist and honors student, her sister was a cool skateboarder chick, and her mom and aunt were these strong yet funny female role models.”
“I would define her as a feminist, absolutely, in as much as a feminist to me is a strong woman who believes that women are just as equal to men in all aspects,” Pepper Ann executive producer and writer Nahnatchka Khan agrees. “I don’t think Pepper Ann would ever take a backseat or feel inferior to anybody.”
Rose, however, was never focused on Pepper Ann being an overtly feminist show. Reflecting on the show’s impact, and how it helped diversify the roles of female characters we see on screen, she says, “I wasn’t [thinking], what kind of characters are needed on TV? Or, is this going to be tough because it’s different? It wasn’t anything that entered into my mind other than this is the story I would like to tell.”
“Pepper Ann was based on me as a nerdy 12-year-old, but really, Pepper Ann’s sort of larger-than-life imagination,” she continues. Rose originally created the show for Nickelodeon with executive Linda Simensky. But when Simensky left Nickelodeon to work at Cartoon Network, “any project of hers at Nickelodeon that smelled like her died,” Pepper Ann’s lead character designer, Tom Warburton, says in a phone interview. With new executives at Nick rejecting the show, Pepper Ann moved to Disney, giving writer Khan the opportunity to become a writer and executive producer on the show.
“I got to hire my friends [as writers], who had also just graduated from film school and they were temping and giving tram tours at Universal Studios,” Khan says. The writing staff cleverly snuck in feminist musings and sprinkled heartfelt messages, cultural critiques, and self-referential quips in every episode. “If today’s woman can be so active, why is perspiration so taboo?” says character Nikki Little to her fellow classmates. “Shut out from yet another gender-specific assembly,” Milo Kamalani says when rejected from a viewing of a female puberty video.
Meanwhile, no-one escaped Pepper Ann’s social commentary—not even its writers. “The Harvard Lampoon asked me to join but I turned them down because, well, honestly, who wants to end up writing for television?” says Becky Little, Nikki’s over-achieving big sister.
The writers created stories which led to discussions on social consciousness, feminism, and class discrimination. In the episode “The Sisterhood,” Pepper Ann’s mom forces her to attend a women’s retreat called Adamant Eve. As Pepper Ann’s aunt tells her, “Celebrating sisterhood is every woman’s thing!”
In subsequent episodes, Pepper Ann is described by Moose’s friend as “a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.” She takes a part-time job to support her single mom, becomes a lawyer during her school’s mock-trial, and runs for student president. And she’s recruited to join the football team in episode “One of the Guys”—which ultimately leads her to question her role as “macho mama” and the fact that she’ll never be the Fresno Grape Queen, the feminine beauty pageant winner who is showcased at football games. When she asks her friends if she looks like a feminine girl, Nikki tells her, “People like you for who you are. Not how you wear your hair, or how you smell, or how well you’ve mastered the art of coquetry.”
Other episodes challenge the rigid gender expectations we place upon teens. Pepper Ann’s best friend Milo struggles with his identity, as many of his interests are girl-associated activities. He is labeled by his peers as feminine, due to interests in art and his disinterest in pumping iron. But Milo gains confidence in being himself, realizing he can’t pretend to be macho because it’s what’s expected of him by society—and that his ability to talk to women and express his feelings is something his male peers value.
Rose says that it doesn’t surprise her that, 21 years later, fans regards Pepper Ann as a feminist TV show. “[Pepper Ann was] trying to be appreciated for herself and her own ideals,” Rose explains, highlighting how Pepper Ann's love for her family and friends was demonstrated through her grand schemes. “She certainly had her crushes and things like that. But it was more than just focusing on boys and makeup and hair,” Rose says.
And Pepper Ann’s sister—the deep-voiced skateboard-loving Moose—had socially relevant storylines in her own right. “The thing about Moose was not so much her ambiguous gender but the fact that she was way more confident in herself: what she looked like, how she talked, whatever she did,” Rose says. “She was a little sister that didn’t idolize her older sister. So Pepper Ann was like, 'I don’t even have a little sister who worships me?'”
In the episode “Girl Power,” Moose is outraged when her favorite action hero, Tundra Woman, is presented in a cartoon as shopping and boy-obsessed. Moose and her family protest the network, with Moose eventually making an impassioned defence of Tundra Woman to assembled executives. “Tundra Woman isn’t my hero because she’s a woman," Moose argues. "She’s my hero because she’s courageous and selfless—that’s all anyone needs to be a hero. It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman.”
The show also tackled sensitive themes like cultural appropriation, resulting in Rose’s favorite episode, “Dances with Ignorance.” Pepper Ann finds out she is 1/16th Native American, and subsequently builds a teepee in her backyard and wears a headdress. "Why must the pale ones disrespect our good earth?” she intones solemnly, when witnessing a white man dropping litter. But when Pepper Ann’s Navajo family members pay her a visit to teach her about their culture, they are appalled by her disrespectful behavior, and inform her that her hair braid is actually from a different tribe.
“It pushed the writing and it pushed her character so far,” Rose says. “But she had a chance to redeem herself and I love that so much.” By the end of the episode, Pepper Ann realizes her gross mistakes. As her Navajo relative tells her, “the best way to learn about any people is to drop your preconceived notions and approach them with an open mind and heart.”
For Rose, her fundamental hope was to create a character that felt different: showing kids that we’re all a little weird—and that’s okay.
“My biggest hope was that girls would respond to it favorably and let themselves be a little less self-conscious or less hard on themselves.”