Helga G. Pataki

by Alaina Brokaw
external image Helga_Pataki.jpg


Helga Pataki is a nine-year-old girl who attends middle school at P.S. 118. She is characterized by her blonde hair, pink dress, and monobrow. Helga harbors a secret, obsessive crush on one of her classmates, Arnold. She builds shrines to him, writes books of poetry about him, and frequently slips into soliloquies about her intense feelings for him. Her crush is a carefully guarded secret that she rarely reveals to others.

Despite her strong amorous feelings, she is known to be quite aggressive, especially with Arnold. She shoots spitballs at Arnold, calls him “football head,” and plays many practical jokes on him. Regardless of Helga’s teasing, Arnold is almost always nice to her and rarely retaliates.

Humanistic Perspective

Erich Fromm described love as a way for people to overcome their isolation while still maintaining their individual integrity. Helga’s obsessive crush with Arnold reflects her desire to overcome her isolation. She receives very little attention from her parents, is often teased by her classmates, and has only one close friend whom she seldom confides in. In the episode, “Helga on the Couch,” her loneliness becomes apparent from her descriptions of her family life and her statement that, “No one notices me.” (1999)

Throughout the series, it is hinted at that her mother is analcoholic by the references to her neglectful behavior, frequent desire for “smoothies”, and impromptu naps behind the sofa. Helga’s mother continuously disappoints her by making mistakes like forgetting to pick her up from soccer practice, forgetting to pick up her coat from the dry cleaner’s in the middle of winter, and packing lunches consisting of moist towlettes, plastic silver ware, and no sandwich. In the episode, “Road Trip,” Helga puts very little effort into her mother’s day card and tells her classmates about how her mother frequently doesn’t do the things she said she’d do (1998). At one point in the episode, she exclaims to her mother, “You’re the parent; you’re supposed to take care of me!”

Helga’s father also pays very little attention to her. He frequently mistakes Helga for her older sister, Olga, whom he clearly favors. In the episode, “Quanity Time,” he refers to Helga as “my other daughter” and when he is forced to spend time with her he admits that he doesn’t know what she likes or even how old she is (1997). During their “quality” time together, he takes her to his barber, a belt-shop, and a hardware store, much to Helga’s frustration. Toward the end of the episode, he looks through a photo album and notices how miserable Helga appears in every picture. Throughout the series, Helga’s parents contribute to her loneliness by continuously ignoring and neglecting her.

Helga also lacks close relationships with her peers. She treats her friend, Phoebe, as a slave and although they are best friends, Helga has never told Phoebe about her crush on Arnold. In the episode, “Helga’s Love Potion,” Helga asks Phoebe how to overcome her obsession with “ice-cream,” because she can’t bring herself to admit that she’s really obsessed with Arnold (1997). Helga’s reluctance to tell Phoebe about her crush on Arnold is significant because it represents the depth of their relationship. Although they may be friends, Helga feels uncomfortable revealing her vulnerability to Phoebe, which demonstrates a lack of intimacy in their friendship.

Helga’s other classmates often tease her or are intimidated by her aggression. On a few occasions, Rhonda refers to Helga as pathetic and chides her for her lack of fashion sense. Gerald often asks Arnold why he bothers to be nice to Helga, and Helga’s relationship with Harold mostly consists of trading insults.

Because Helga’s family often ignores her, and she does not have close relationships with her peers, she experiences a devastating loneliness. Helga’s intense crush stems from a desire to be loved. The intensity of her romantic feelings for Arnold is matched by her feelings of isolation, and she immerses herself in these romantic feelings as a way of coping with her loneliness.

Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud posited that the unconscious mind consists of three parts; the ego, the superego, and id. The id consists of the mind’s primitive desires for pleasure. The superego consists of the mind’s desire to conform to society’s standards. The ego tries to balance the needs of the id and the superego in a realistic way. Freud suggested that the ego uses defense mechanisms as a means of reducing anxiety and protecting the individual from the id’s threatening desires. He outlined eight different defense mechanisms; repression, reaction formation, denial, projection, displacement, sublimation, regression, and rationalization.

Helga often uses defense mechanisms as a means of coping with her feelings for Arnold. Helga’s id desires Arnold, but the possibility of his rejection is so terrifying that she cannot risk expressing her love for him. As previously mentioned, Helga uses her crush on Arnold as a way to cope with her isolation. If he rejected her, she would be forced to confront this reality and let go of her only means of dealing with isolation. Helga’s fear of rejection causes anxiety, so she uses these defense mechanisms to protect herself from her id’s desire for Arnold. Four defense mechanisms that Helga uses are reaction formation, sublimation, rationalization, and projection.

The defense mechanism Helga uses most often is reaction formation. Reaction formation occurs when an individual hides unacceptable desires by overemphasizing their opposite. Helga hides her love for Arnold by bullying him. In the episode, “Helga on the Couch,” the psychologist notes that Helga threw 57 spitballs at Arnold in one day (1999). Throughout the series, Helga refers to Arnold as “football head” and continuously teases and belittles him. Her use of reaction formation is particularly obvious in the episode, “April Fool’s Day,” (2002). In that episode, Arnold plays a prank on Helga by offering her a gift on April Fool’s Day which he claims is a belated birthday present. Helga, flattered that Arnold would remember her birthday, falls for the prank. The box releases a bright light that temporarily blinds her. In retaliation, Helga pretends to be permanently blind and torments Arnold by guilting him into becoming her personal slave. She repeatedly “accidentally” smacks Arnold with her cane, demands that he do her homework, and frequently tries to make him feel bad for blinding her. Helga’s increased hostility in this episode can be attributed to her use of reaction formation. When Arnold gave Helga the gift, she saw it as a sign of affection, but when it turned out to be a prank, she felt like a fool for thinking that Arnold might like her. She realizes that Arnold might not like her at all, and this fear propels her to act aggressively toward him so that her true feelings can still remain hidden. Throughout the series, Helga uses reaction formation to hide her crush on Arnold by teasing him. In some ways, it is easier for her to act with hostility than kindness, because regardless of how badly she treats Arnold, he is almost always nice to her and rarely retaliates. His consistent kindness toward her reinforces her love for him, and eases her fears of rejection. She is comforted by the fact that no matter what she does, she cannot make Arnold hate her.

Helga also uses the defense mechanisms, projection in the episode, “Arnold and Lila.” Projection occurs when an individual attributes his or her threatening desires to someone else (1998). In this episode, Helga feels a strong urge to tell Arnold how she feels. She writes on the wall, “Arnold loves Helga,” in the hopes that he might see it, and realize her feelings. However, when she hears her classmates coming, she quickly erases her name and writes, “Arnold loves Lila,” instead. By changing the message, she projects her desire for Arnold unto Lila. Although her id strongly desires that she reveal her feelings for Arnold, she is too afraid that he might reject her. Instead, she changes the message at the last minute, and projects her feelings onto Lila.

Another defense mechanism Helga often uses is sublimation. Sublimation occurs when an individual channels threatening impulses into meaningful actions. Helga’s use of sublimation is apparent in the volumes of poetry she writes about Arnold. In the episode, “Helga’s Love Potion,” Helga makes a reference to the fourteen books that she has filled with Arnold-inspired poetry (1997). She also hands in her poetry for class assignments and much to her chagrin, her teacher frequently reads her poems aloud to the class as an example of excellent writing (he never mentions her name). Her advanced writing skills are evident in her rich vocabulary and vivid imagery. Helga writes poetry as a way of expressing her love for Arnold without risking his rejection. She uses sublimation to channel her desire for him into poetry. Poetry is a safer, more productive activity, and her strong desire for Arnold is visible in the high quality and excessive quantity of her work.

Another defense mechanism Helga uses is rationalization. Rationalization occurs when a person gives a logical, socially acceptable explanation for behavior that is actually driven by threatening impulses. Helga often uses rationalization to hide her feelings for Arnold. In the episode, “School Play,” Helga acts as Juliet in the play, Romeo and Juliet, and kisses Arnold for a whole minute (1999). Arnold later asks Helga why she kissed him for so long. Her response was that she was being professional and that it was all acting. In Hey Arnold !: The Movie, Helga confesses her love to Arnold and kisses him (2002). Later, when he asks her about the confession, she claims that she was just acting in the heat of the moment. Helga often uses rationalization to hide her feelings for Arnold. Whenever her crush on Arnold causes her to be caught acting odd, she always has an excuse ready. In the episode, “Arnold and Lila,” when Arnold catches her hiding in a tree so that she can watch him, she claims that she just loves to climb trees (1998). Helga frequently uses rationalization because she is too afraid to admit her feelings for Arnold. Instead she gives socially acceptable explanations to Arnold and her peers whenever she is questioned about her behavior.


As Erich Fromm stated, love allows us to overcome our isolation. Because Helga does not have close relationships with her peers or her parents, she feels a great deal of loneliness. Her loneliness has caused her to develop an obsessive crush on Arnold. Helga uses this crush to cope with her isolation by immersing herself in her feelings of love for Arnold. She hopes that one day Arnold may return her feelings and she can feel loved.

However, because Helga uses this crush to cope with her isolation, she is terrified of Arnold’s rejection. If she was rejected by Arnold, her hopes and dreams would be dashed and she would have no means of dealing with her loneliness. This paradox causes Helga to use defense mechanisms to manage her feelings for Arnold. While her id strongly desires for her to express her feelings for Arnold, her fear of rejection makes this expression impossible. Instead, Helga uses reaction formation, projection, and rationalization to hide her feelings for Arnold, and sublimation to allow herself to express her desire in a socially acceptable outlet. Erich Fromm’s view of love and Sigmund Freud’s defense mechanisms can provide insight into the obsessive crush that consumes Helga’s life.


“April Fool’s Day” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 5 April 2002. Television.
“Arnold and Lila.” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 14 Nov. 1998. Television.
Friedman, H.S., & Schustack, M. W. (2009). Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research, 4th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon
“Helga on the Couch.” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 4 Dec. 1999. Television.
“Helga’s Love Potion.” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 28 Sept. 1997. Television.
Hey Arnold!: The Movie, Dir. Tuck Tucker. Paramount Pictures, 2002. Film
“Quantity Time” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 6 Dec. 1997. Television.
“Road Trip.” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 26 Sept. 1998. Television.
“School Play.” Hey Arnold. Nickelodeon. 12 March 1999. Television.