Pepper-Ann - The birth of the G-Rated Middle School cartoon


As an aspiring writer, I've always been fascinated by Middle School as a setting. Sure, actual middle school is a hellhole that nobody likes to remember, but when used in fiction, it could be a unique and refreshing change of pace from the usual "High School" setting. When done right, it can let you tell Teenage-level stories, with a sense of child-like wonder, creating a nice middle ground. After all, there's just something about being 11-14 years old that can feel murky, unclear, and janky at times. You wanna be grown up, but don't exactly know how, and unlike in High School, you can't drive, or hold a job, so you have to navigate coming of age blind. There are many shows and movies out there that can use the setting effectively, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were shows such as The Wonder Years, Degrassi Junior High, and The Secret World of Alex Mack, that explored the awkwardness of junior high.

But there was a particular cartoon I think, that took the Middle School setting, removed it of anything negative or serious, and created a template that many other cartoons borrowed extensively. Disney's Pepper-Ann.

Premiering in 1997 as part of ABC's One Saturday Morning block, Pepper-Ann was one of Disney's first animated TV series to come from an independent cartoonist, rather than an in-house animator. In this case Sue Rose. The show is actually loosely based on a comic strip written in a Teen Magazine. ABC saw this and asked if Rose could develop a pitch for a full series for Kids. To do this, a few things needed to happen. the title character needed to be aged down to 12, and the show had to follow the newly established E/I guidelines mandated by the FCC. Rose drew inspiration from her own youth, as well as interviews with actual 12-year old girls. That inspiration was then filtered through the Disney censors to create a kid-friendly, G-rated version of Middle schoolers.

Pepper-Ann Pearson is your typical 12 year old misfit. Trying fit in and be cool, while dealing with family and school. Together with her two friends Nikki and Milo, they navigate the messy half-kid, half-teen period of their lives known as 7th grade. Most episodes follow a format, Pepper-Ann is faced with a moral dilemma, she choses the wrong choice, faces the consequences, and learns a lesson, rinse, repeat. Let me start by saying Pepper-Ann is not a bad show, nowhere near it. It's funny, clever, and relatable to kids with 12 year old siblings, actual 12 year olds, and adults who have been 12.

But here's the thing, Pepper-Ann is not what Middle School is actually like. See, the show takes place in this idyllic, sanitized, parent-approved alternate dimension where 12 year olds never swear, never even contemplate trying alcohol or drugs, never see PG-13 movies (because god forbid a one year difference is too much for Disney), and only have safe, innocent feelings about the opposite sex. While the show did try to tackle actual pre-teen/teen problems (the episode "Support" for example) it still danced around those topics using euphemisms and metaphors, rather than outright stating the problem.

Pepper-Ann does for Middle School, what Archie Andrews did for High School. It provided kids this sugary, G-rated view of junior high, filled with low stakes problems and wacky hijinks. It was a show about middle schoolers, aimed at kids that are just about to hit that stage of life, and wanted to see what it was all about. That's not a bad thing mind you. If Pepper-Ann wanted to be more realistic, nobody would've watched it, and it would probably be seen as a cheap My-So-Called-Life knock of, so its easy to see why Rose and Disney thought it'd be better to take a more comedic, kid-friendly approach. And it worked. Pepper-Ann was one of the most popular shows on the One Saturday Morning block, running for 5 seasons, and arguably inspired other similar kid-friendly middle school shows such as The Weekenders, Detention, Fillmore, Lizzie McGuire, All Grown Up!, Amazing World of Gumball, and others. It showed that middle school is an ideal setting for children's media. Middle schoolers are old enough to be aspirational for kids, but still young enough to be relatable.

It also foreshadowed the "tween" formula that Disney would recreate with the Disney Channel hits like High School Musical, That's So Raven, and Hannah Montana, which also were written in a similarly squeaky-clean manner.

Pepper-Ann is a good cartoon if you want fun slice-of-life stories with likable characters. But if you grew up with the show and expected middle school to be this fun and innocent, then you may have been optimistic. Actually, come to think of it, it makes you wonder what a Riverdale-style reboot of the series would be like...
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Perpetually Tired
Staff Member
I still remember visiting my grandparents, sitting in my grandpa's den with some chocolate milk, mini donuts (or if I was lucky, home made cinnamon toast made by my grandma) and watching all these shows early in the morning.

Pepper-Ann was one of those shows that were just entertaining. The characters were fun, designs were memorable, and the theme song gets stuck in your head for decades. Now I think I am going to rewatch the series. Thanks for reminding me about some of these great memories.
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