If you grew up in America in the 1990s or 2000s, you were either a Nickelodeon Kid, a Disney Channel Kid, or a Cartoon Network Kid. (You could have been a PBS Kid, but that just meant you didn’t have cable.) Perhaps you channel-surfed, but one network captured your attention, purchasing power, and several years’ worth of themed birthdays. With a Rugrats sleeping bag, countless franchise toys, an unnatural desire to be doused in slime, and luckily, a mom and stepdad who embraced it all, I was a bona fide Nickelodeon Kid.
At school, Nickelodeon Kids would bond over the latest episodes of Hey Arnold! or The Amanda Show, rehearsing for our future at the proverbial water cooler. A lucky few would brag about vacations at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando. A friend of mine recently admitted that he lied to his classmates about competing on Slime Time Live. Could you blame him? Any kid smart enough to grab a slice of that particular cultural capital would do it.
If you’re of a certain age, Nickelodeon evokes powerful memories of better days. Just as Disney caters to Disney Adults, Nickelodeon frequently orchestrates nostalgia fests for ’90s kids. “The ’90s Are All That” block was so successful with millennial audiences that it ran for four years in the early 2010s. But to judge from the new memoir by iCarly star Jennette McCurdy, living “the dream” was a lot less fun. Making American childhood magical meant being robbed of her own.
McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died was an instant #1 bestseller, with the first printing selling so fast that many major retailers quickly went out of stock. Nickelodeon Kids have scrambled to get their hands on this book. Whether iCarly aired during their Nickelodeon years was irrelevant. People were simply dying to know: Why did this woman hate her mother so much, and what the hell happened at Nickelodeon?
The makers of McCurdy’s personal hell were her obsessive, controlling stage mother and a man called “The Creator,” widely understood by fans and critics as code for legendary Nickelodeon showrunner Dan Schneider. Schneider orchestrated many of the network’s biggest successes as a producer on All That, and as the creator of The Amanda Show, Drake & Josh, and Zoey 101. The New York Times once dubbed him “the Norman Lear of children’s television.”
In her book, McCurdy details many instances of The Creator’s misconduct. According to the iCarly star, he would coerce kids into drinking alcohol, scream at actors over minor mistakes, and dole out back massages. He would pit iCarly’s stars against the kids on Victorious, the other Nickelodeon hit he was producing at the time, in order to manipulate their behavior. McCurdy recalled extreme discomfort with all of this, but was afraid to speak out. The Creator had promised McCurdy her own show, and she didn’t want to jeopardize that opportunity and risk the wrath of her mother.
There are many shocking revelations in the memoir, but with a little reflection, none of it should be shocking. In 2018, Schneider was ousted from Nickelodeon, reportedly for verbally abusing actors, a few years after dialogue coach Brian Peck was convicted of sexually abusing one of the network’s child stars, who chose to remain anonymous in the proceedings.
One could argue that Schneider and Peck were just two bad actors who have faced consequences for their actions, but Nickelodeon’s response illustrates the network’s inability to confront a culture of abuse. After wrapping up her final season on iCarly, McCurdy says the network offered her $300,000 in exchange for an agreement never to speak publicly about her experience with The Creator. And it wasn’t until 2018, after the #MeToo movement put Hollywood’s abuses on center stage, that he was fired.
Until now, rumors about Schneider’s behavior made the rounds online with little more than passing interest from Nickelodeon fans. Like Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct, it was an open secret. But something changed when McCurdy told her story. Fans are now reexamining allegations against Schneider under a closer lens, wondering what the network is hiding and if their other favorite stars are simply locked under NDAs. Some are even arguing that child stardom should be banned altogether.
If this blows up any more than it already has, Nickelodeon and the entire industry of child acting may finally land itself a #MeToo reckoning. But the question still stands: Why now?
The answer might have to do with the nature of McCurdy’s story. Everything and nothing was normal about it. Not many people rise to her level of fame or are so deeply abused, but McCurdy’s narrative will feel familiar to anyone who has navigated poverty and trauma. Taking advantage of the store discount at your dad’s retail job, tuning out screaming matches between parents, avoiding calls from debt collectors … this is what childhood is like for millions of Americans. Like many, I recognized myself in her words. I, too, had an unpredictable, violent, controlling birth parent, and during weekly custody visits, I spent most of that time immersed in—you guessed it!—Nickelodeon. (While visits with my father were unpleasant, he was the parent with an Internet connection, and the internet had AmandaPlease.com. There are worse coping mechanisms.) Or perhaps McCurdy’s narrative resonates simply because we’re the generation that’s ready to hear it. Young people are more likely to be open about mental health than past generations, and more likely to initiate estrangement in the face of abuse. Like McCurdy, we’re simply demanding better.
More than tarnished childhood memories, though, Nickelodeon’s legacy poses a big picture crisis: Knowing what we do now, do we really want our children to become Nickelodeon Kids? The network is counting on our natural urge to pass down our favorite media through the generations. What could be more fun than watching Are You Afraid of the Dark and Rugrats with your kids? Rebooted, of course. (With new voice actors and a 3D animation style, the new Rugrats seem like changelings to me, but this is a different point altogether.) Story that parents know + scripts updated with smartphones and Internet jokes = SUCCESS!!!
Though Nickelodeon continues to dominate the children’s TV market, fan activism and social media are shifting the power balance. Contemporary child stars are more likely to speak out online, as JoJo Siwa did against Nickelodeon’s alleged homophobia. Young fans are less likely to tolerate network abuse, and why should they? If they don’t like what a particular company is doing, they have countless other ways to enjoy, consume, and obsess over their fandoms. The qualities that make a Nickelodeon Kid are also the traits that would make us challenge Nickelodeon. We were the kids who learned about terrorism, climate change, and AIDS on Nick News. And yes, Linda Ellerbee even taught us about child abuse. We learned to ask the hard questions and challenge questionable behavior. If we can’t trust that Nickelodeon is safe and ethical, we might as well change the channel.