9 Childhood Cartoon and TV Show Characters Who Still Influence My Black Feminine Identity Today

While most viewers flocked toward the suave, sensual Stefan, I felt even more drawn to the cheese-eating, snorting, high-waisted pants wearing Urkel.
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Alisha Acquaye
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While most viewers flocked toward the suave, sensual Stefan, I felt even more drawn to the cheese-eating, snorting, high-waisted pants wearing Urkel.
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I loved television as a child, almost as much as I loved music or reading books. And television from the '90s was fantastic. While I was binge-watching music videos and saving up money to buy cute pencils and books from the Scholastic book orders, I was looking forward to One Saturday Morning and TGIF on channel 7.

In my house, we could only watch television on the weekends, starting Friday night and ending promptly on Sunday night around nine. If we were lucky and had finished our homework early, we got to watch something special that was showing on TV on a weeknight. But that was an occasional and infrequent delight.

Although I loved TV, I am now aware that I didn't always find myself in it. Actually, as a child I didn't notice this so much. I was into whatever I liked, despite who was being represented. My dad often asked me why I was so drawn to Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Boy Meets World, pointing out that there wasn't much diversity in those shows. I knew he was right, but I was too young to understand or care. Sabrina is a witch, and Shawn is really hot. Who cares if they weren't black?

As I became older, I realized that the characters who stood out most to me were the ones I culturally identified with. I specifically enjoyed the black sitcoms the most. I have vivid memories of watching In the House, City Guys, and Parent 'Hood. But I still liked Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire. It's just that now, I re-watch shows like Living Single and Martin more often than Sabrina. Perhaps it's because I relate to the adult sitcoms better now that I am an adult.

Here are a few select characters from my childhood who have had an impact on the young woman I am right now.

Steve Urkel

Family Matters was a very positive sitcom, one that referenced emotional maturity and provided some cheesy comedic relief. Following the standard sitcom format, almost every episode dealt with some kind of problem that was solved before the end credits, typically involving one of the characters reaching an epiphany.

I remember appreciating the loving and nurturing quality of the Winslows, and looking forward to the melodramatic instrumentals that played during one of the character's sympathetic speeches. It was like black Full House — so many family members under one roof, learning a significant lesson during 30 minutes and between commercial breaks.

Crazy and cool like Urkel.

Crazy and cool like Urkel.

Steve Urkel was my favorite. It was difficult to watch him pine over Laura for years and see her shut him down each time. And while most viewers flocked toward the suave, sensual Stefan, I felt even more drawn to the cheese-eating, snorting, high-waisted-pants-wearing Urkel. 

Urkel taught me to be true to myself, that fighting for love is noble, that wearing knee-high socks is quite cool, and that being nerdy and intelligent are valuable qualities.

What Urkel gave me: high-waisted pants, knee-high socks, confidence about wearing prescription glasses, and acceptance of the snort that erupts from my throat sometimes when I laugh.

Ashley Banks

No doubt, The Fresh Prince is one of the most popular and idealized shows from the '90s. The characters were so eclectic and endearing; the adorable yet arrogant Carlton, the naive rich girl Hilary, the strong, physically flexible and graceful Aunt Viv, the smart-mouthed butler Jeffrey, well-respected foodie-judge Uncle Phil and of course, the down to earth, jovial Fresh Prince. However, for me, the character who took the cake was Ashley.

Ashley seemed the most level-headed and opinionated, considering that she was surrounded by so many interesting personalities. She gained the most from Will's presence in the house at such a young age, and learned a sense of culture and realness that her established but well-meaning family couldn't offer.

Ashley knew how to stand up to Will and Carlton when she had to. As she grew into her femininity, she was challenged by Will and Carlton on several occasions, many that involved her learning about her body and independence. I admired how she rose above these situations and stayed true to herself. She exhibited the earliest examples of feminism in my life, besides Claire Huxtable, of course.

What Ashley gave me: appreciation for my brown skin and confidence to challenge older male figures in my family.

Claire Huxtable

What a woman! I loved the dynamic between her and Cliff, and especially appreciated the respect between her and her children. Claire was admirable in more ways than one; she was intelligent, witty, multitalented, fashionable, and nurturing. She enjoyed a marriage that was both balanced and loving, as she and Cliff played as equal partners and teachers in the household. I swooned over Claire in every episode.

What Claire gave me: an awareness for vintage style even though I cannot pull it off myself, and a new perspective on marriage.

Static Shock

There weren't many black superheroes on television when I was growing up. Better yet, there weren't many young superheroes that I could personally identify with. I liked Teen Titans and Batman Beyond, but Static Shock represented something new and exciting.

For one, Static has locs. He isn't a sidekick or a supporting superhero for another main character. The show was about him, his father, and older sister, and how he dealt with monsters and villains disrupting his classes. The music in the show was fun, colorful hip-hop, and the villains were even multicultural. Did I mention that he has electrical superpowers and rode around on this flying hubcap thingamabob? I'm waiting for a live-action movie on this brotha. What's taking so long, DC Comics?

What Static gave me: the sense that I have electric, magnetic abilities as well when it comes to attracting other human beings. Also, a heightened love for locs.

Arthur

Many watched this show and saw a plethora of adorable animals interacting with each other in a friendly community. I watched the show and saw a plethora of adorable multicultural people interacting in a friendly community.Could you blame me? The theme song had a reggae-centric vibe. I watched this show daily (after school, before my dad came home) with wide eyes and a really big heart. The characters all had various skin colors, different hair textures, personalities, and back stories. They solved their issues civilly and compassionately, without all the extra cheese. And when they didn't solve their issues, they thought long and hard about them and learned from them.

The episodes weren't always about friendship and growing up either. Remember that episode that was filled with sing-a-long songs about books? The Brain played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a performance that I still believe should have gotten him nominated for an Emmy.

To this day, I know that having fun isn't hard because I have two library cards.


What Arthur gave me: validation that being a kid is a wondrous, awkward, challenging yet musical experience, also, an interest in aardvarks.

Angela Moore

As I stated before, I adored Boy Meets World as a child. Who didn't? It was high school drama, coming of age, and friendship all wrapped into one show. Mr. Feeny was easily the inspiring moral compass of the show, and watching Corey and Topanga grow up, break up, and make up was enough to make me heavily invested in the show. Eric, Shawn, and Corey's family were great, but the show reached a new level for me when Angela was introduced.

She had funky hairstyles, a great attitude, and was Shawn's love interest. Not only was it nice to see Shawn in a committed (and biracial!) relationship, but it was also refreshing to pay attention to a couple who wasn't Corepanga (Torey?).

Angela was new, interesting, and helped carry out the storyline of the show. I only wish she survived the series for a longer run. But I hear there's a Girl Meets World. I'm not interested in watching it, but if Angela returns (if she hasn't already) that is something to look forward to.

What Angela gave me: hope that I too may have a chance with Shawn, acceptance of my individuality.

Kenan and Kel

I don't think this list would be complete without these two adorable cats. Kenan and Kel were awesome because they balanced each other out so well -- Kenan was diabolical, witty and opportunistic, and Kel was innocent, goofy and fun-loving. There was something so powerful and positive about seeing two young black men on TV navigating their way through the marvel and mischief of teenage hood. In the moment, their show was comedic and endearing, but now I realize how significant they both are when I think of the '90s and Nickelodeon. There won't ever be a duo quite like Kenan and Kel.

What Kenan taught me: the power of persuasion, the sky is not the limit and dreams do come true -- sometimes with consequences.

What Kel taught me: the wonder of Orange soda, the power of intuition and that following someone else's lead isn't always a good idea.

Cute and loud (style-wise) like Penny Proud.

Cute and loud (style-wise) like Penny Proud.

Penny Proud 

She was cute and loud and had it going on. I would say more about the awesomeness of this character and the show, but that line pretty much sums it up.

What Penny gave me: greater pride for black culture, music, and style.

There are many more characters who have impacted the person I am today. Some are of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and age. This list simply showcases some characters who I feel don't get enough credit. Who are the characters who influenced you?