'As Told By Ginger' Was a Feminist Masterpiece About the Trials of Girlhood

Writer and producer Emily Kapnek explains how she created a cartoon that was grounded in the reality of pre-teens everywhere.

by Ayoola Solarin
Sep 20 2018, 1:33pm

As Told By Ginger. Still by Nickelodeon

The opening theme song of As Told By Ginger begins with Macy Gray’s trademark rasp: “Someone once told me / The grass is much greener / On the other side.” As the “I Try” musician sings on, the titular character of the Nickelodeon cartoon—12-year-old Ginger—stands outside Lucky Jr. High, looking around nervously until she spots her best friends Macie, Dodie and Darren, breaking into a smile once she finds them. “From where I’m standing / My grass is green,” Gray sings.

As a kid, I navigated the uncomfortable trials of pubescence with the help of Ginger and the characters of this three-time Emmy nominated show. Ginger was a free-thinking maverick who wrote poetry, became student body president, started a rock band, and survived appendicitis while going through a brutal breakup. While I only ever did one of those things (yes, poetry), I recognized Ginger’s independent spirit in myself and used her as my guide as I muddled my way through puberty.

“I think that Ginger, as a character, and possibly the show itself, told girls that it was okay to express themselves,” says Emily Kapnek, the writer and creator of the show. “Ginger stood up for what she believed in, spoke up when she saw injustice. Ginger was pretty fierce for a cartoon character!”

As Told By Ginger was made by Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys studio Klasky Csupo and ran on Nickelodeon between 2000 and 2004, but it targeted a different audience to Klasky Csupo’s usual viewership. In the wake of shows like Daria and Pepper-Ann, which were vital in the push for more considered and complex portrayals of teenage girls in animation, As Told By Ginger was aimed directly at adolescent girls.

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“It was the year that Welcome to the Dollhouse came out,” Kapnek tells me via email about the creation of the show. “I very much wanted to do a dark comedy that focused on how traumatic middle school can be, particularly for girls. The social drama that your parents might dismiss as unimportant, that truly felt like life or death in the moment that you were going through them. I started thinking about why animation didn’t tell any stories that felt more grounded and true to life.”

Ginger was the primary focus of the show, along with the usual struggles with family, school, and boys. What made As Told By Ginger unique was its continuity. It was one of the first cartoons where characters grew older and changed their appearance, following its protagonists from middle school to high school. Episodes weren't merely self-contained one-offs. You got to grow up with the pre-teens you were watching.

Ginger with her best friends Dodie and Macie. Still by Nickelodeon via As Told By Ginger Reviewed

When I was ten, it was one of the first animated shows I watched that specifically targeted young girls but didn’t caricature or belittle them. The pre-teens of As Told By Ginger weren’t menacing, love-obsessed lunatics (Helga, Hey Arnold!), superficial clones (The Ashleys, Recess), or literal morons (Dee-Dee, Dexter’s Laboratory). Instead, As Told By Ginger storylines were plucked straight from real life. Characters navigated parental divorce, negotiated the role of class and money in a small community, and even dealt with teen suicide.

“Middle school is a difficult time for everyone, and even in adult life I think everyone feels isolated or lost at some point,” says Casey Reed, co-creator of As Told By Ginger podcast We’re In Between. “ As Told by Ginger helped me connect with the feeling of fierce independence and not caring what other people think. It also advocates for loving the things you love without regret or hesitation.”

In an episode titled “Come Back Little Seal Girl”, Ginger and Dodie refuse to partake in their traditional talent show performance dedicated to their childhood hero, Little Seal Girl. Macie performs alone—in full costume—to a sniggering crowd. In a twist that Mean Girls pilfered years later, the pre-recorded backing cassette breaks and she sweetly sings the song to the entire student body, winning everyone over in the process.

"There's an underlying message of not cracking under pressure of doing or not doing things because it's not cool."

“There's an underlying message of not cracking under pressure of doing or not doing things because it's not cool,” explains Patricia Miranda, the other co-creator of We’re In Between. “Don't worry about what people say about you. Be yourself. That's what makes you cool.”

But what As Told By Ginger truly stood out for was for its characterization of people who might play the villains in a less well-executed show. Popular girl Courtney Griffin ticked all the rich, blonde, and ditzy boxes of the 2000s Queen Bee stereotype, but the show allowed her to develop as a character. Always wanting to prove that she wasn’t just a dumb rich kid, Courtney grew to cherish her friendship with Ginger.

“I think Ginger and Courtney had a lot in common,” says Kapnek about the girls’ friendship, “much more than it would seem at first glance. They both idolized and idealized each other for different reasons. Courtney felt Ginger’s life and friendships were so much more authentic than her own... She was envious of that. And of course to Ginger, it seemed like Courtney had it all.”

Ginger’s mother Lois—who might otherwise be consigned to a shallow supporting role—is also allowed her time to shine. In fact, Ginger’s ability to take responsibility for her actions (even when they lead to disastrous consequences) is a trait inherited from Lois.

Some argue that the single mom is the greatest character in As Told By Ginger. “Many of the best lessons in the show come from her,” Reed points out. Miranda agrees: “She's not only my favorite mom character in Nickelodeon, but one of the best moms in media history.”

Hard-working and independent Lois was also a great representation of single motherhood. In the episode “The Nurses Strike,” Lois takes a job as a cleaner to support the family while she and her fellow nurses go on strike. When Ginger is embarrassed by the prospect of Lois cleaning Courtney’s mansion, Lois replies: “They can’t make me feel bad about it because I don’t feel bad about it!”

“Lois is a great character because she knows who her children are and she accepts them wholeheartedly, no judgement,” Kapnek says. “And her own life—work, dating—is also a priority. She’s not just propped up in the kitchen waiting with cookies when the kids come home... [I wanted to] offer a version of a mom that felt authentic to me and unlike any cartoon mom that I had seen.”

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There are a multitude of kids’ shows I’ve left in the past, but I still rewatch As Told By Ginger as an adult. That’s down to the show’s success in its understanding of girlhood—not just as a prelude to womanhood, but an ongoing process of trying to figure yourself out. The show took the opportunity to present not just one relatable titular character but an array of different, complex kids. The characters consistently learnt and grew from their mistakes and I got to learn along with them.

Like Ginger, I dealt with growing up in a often financially unstable home; like Macie, I was desperate to hold onto the vestiges of childhood as puberty loomed; like mean girl Miranda, I sometimes lashed out as a result of my own insecurities. These are all things that in some form, I still deal with as an adult: Financial insecurity, concerns with body image, and mental health issues. When I watch As Told By Ginger now I remember working through those childhood difficulties. I know that if I did it then, I can do it again.

Broadly Culture