The Season 22 premiere of the PBS children’s show Arthur features some potentially controversial behavior by an elementary-school teacher. In “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” Mr. Ratburn, teacher of the titular anthropomorphic school-age aardvark, answers his cellphone during class.
It’s a disruptive act that incites mass distraction. Mr. Ratburn’s students overhear him talking flusteredly on the phone to someone who seems to be quite pushy about the flower arrangements for Mr. Ratburn’s upcoming wedding. Concerned for their teacher’s happiness, the students spend the bulk of the episode following him around to meetings with the woman they believe to be his very controlling fiancée and plotting to stop him from marrying her. Then, the episode delivers a surprise twist happy ending, in which the pushy woman planning the wedding is revealed to be Mr. Ratburn’s sister, his wedding is revealed to be to another man (a kindly one, who owns a chocolate shop!), and the kids have had no real reason to worry about their teacher’s personal life. (They do, however, worry about the overenthusiastic dance moves Mr. Ratburn shows off at the reception.)
The Arthur premiere made headlines on Tuesday, and most of the attention focused on its positive, normalizing portrayal of same-sex marriage. Portrayals of LGBTQ characters and same-sex relationships haven’t always been so welcome on TV programs for kids. But the 2019 Arthur premiere marks a poignant moment in children’s TV history: In an episode where a male teacher gets married to another man, the behavior that the other characters consider most worrisome is his dorky dancing, and the apparent moral of the episode is that kids needn’t meddle in the affairs of the adults in their lives, because the adults have it under control. That Mr. Ratburn is marrying a person (an aardvark?) of the same sex feels, for all intents and purposes, unremarkable. It attracts no quizzical glances from the other characters, nor is it used as an opportunity for a proverbial Very Special Episode that teaches viewers about same-sex relationships.
Children’s shows, especially those on public-access TV, still don’t often have LGBTQ characters on them, despite portrayals becoming more common in recent years. According to a report released by GLAAD earlier this year, the representation of LGBTQ characters on daytime children’s television “continues to grow in leaps and bounds,” though the report does not provide exact numbers. Still, it’s possible to count on your fingers the number of kids’ shows that have depicted gay characters. (They include Adventure Time, Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra, Gravity Falls, Clarence, and The Loud House.)
PBS, notably, has depicted same-sex couples on a children’s television program before, to significantly less positive reception. In 2005, the Arthur spin-off Postcards From Buster featured a pair of lesbian moms in Vermont, where same-sex civil unions were legal at the time. Postcards From Buster was produced with help from a U.S. Department of Education grant, and Margaret Spellings, then the secretary of education, sent PBS a letter airing her “very serious concerns.” Many parents “would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode,” she wrote, despite the fact that the president of PBS had signed off on the episode after the network consulted with Education Department officials. As a result, PBS did not send out the episode for affiliate stations to air (though the Boston-based member station WGBH, which produced Postcards, offered to send it to “any station willing to defy the Education Department”). PBS did not pursue Education Department funding for the second season of Postcards, and the Congress-controlled Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled out as a sponsor, as did other corporate sponsors. The show took a longer-than-normal break between seasons, and returned in 2006 for a significantly shorter second season funded by PBS and a smattering of other media and LGBTQ foundations. It went on to air two more seasons, in 2008 and 2012.
That PBS’s latest portrayal of a same-sex couple on children’s programming has inspired such a wildly different response than the one it received 14 years ago is indicative of how much mainstream attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed. Of course, in the years since Postcards From Buster, same-sex marriage has been legalized at the federal level. As with all changes in how people are represented on-screen, a chicken-or-egg scenario is at play: Perhaps the real-life normalization of same-sex relationships has led to better onscreen representation, or perhaps better onscreen representation has contributed to real-life normalization. Or perhaps both are true.
An oft-discussed benefit of representation is that it’s important and empowering for LGBTQ people and families of LGBTQ people, as well as members of other marginalized populations, to see characters like themselves on-screen. But the other benefit of showing LGBTQ characters on TV is that these portrayals normalize the presence of LGBTQ individuals in everyday life for the rest of the population. The marriage of Arthur’s Mr. Ratburn to Patrick the chocolate-shop owner was arguably the best-case scenario when it comes to representation of same-sex marriage on television, and it illustrates just how far both TV and TV audiences have come: The show treated it as a joyous celebration of a happy relationship, and so did viewers.