Hey Arnold! introduced audiences villain Helga Pataki, but the real bullies of the series were Helga's parents, not her. Created by Craig Bartlett, Hey Arnold! aired on Nickelodeon from 1996 to 2004 with a total of five seasons and a movie released in 2002, becoming one of the most beloved Nicktoons from the 1990s and early 2000s.
The series followed the titular character who lived with his grandparents in an inner-city boarding house, as well as his best friend Gerald Johanssen, and Helga Pataki, the main antagonist who plays the part of the bully most of the time. Helga constantly bullies Arnold but is also in love with him, writing poems and building shrines dedicated to him. Although she does have aggressive behavior, Helga is not the real bully in Hey Arnold! – her parents are.
Helga is aggressive, cynical, and hides behind a mean, tomboyish front, but she has a sensitive side that not only shows in her poems but also in her interactions with other characters, such as her best friend Phoebe. Throughout Hey Arnold!, viewers learned more about her family background and it became clear why Helga acts the way she does: she was neglected by her parents since she was in preschool (and most likely way before that). Her mother, Miriam, is an alcoholic and suffers from depression, while her father, Bob, is a workaholic with a very aggressive personality. The only person they pay full attention to is Helga’s older sister, Olga. As a result, Helga rarely refers to them as mom and dad, instead calling them by their first names.
In the Hey Arnold! episode “Helga on the Couch”, Helga is sent to a child psychiatrist, with whom she discusses her social and family life, as well as her love for Arnold. It’s this episode where audiences witnessed Bob and Miriam neglecting Helga and favoriting Olga since they were very little, with Helga walking to preschool all by herself in the rain because her parents were too busy giving their attention to Olga. Her love for Arnold began when he was the only one who paid attention to her, covering her with his umbrella and complimenting her bow when she was walking in the rain, covered in mud, and all by herself.
Miriam Pataki is often seen either asleep, struggling to stay conscious, or drinking “smoothies”; when Bob is not working, he’s on the couch watching TV, and they often compare Helga’s achievements to Olga’s, who has amassed a lot of trophies. Bob often refers to Helga as Olga, and waves her off when she corrects him. In addition to all this, he bullies other kids as well – one of the best examples on this is on the episode “Parents’ Day”, where he contemptuously refers to Arnold as the “orphan boy”.
Helga’s behavior and actions are a product of the neglect she has suffered all her life from her parents, and what she’s constantly seeking through these actions is the attention and validation she can’t get at home. Bob and Miriam Pataki are the real bullies in Hey Arnold! because they have been acting as such (and worse) with their own daughter and other people around them, including kids.