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Gay Marriage in Arthur Pushes the Limits of Social Realism in Children’s TV

Declan Leary

Though largely overshadowed by the ongoing abortion battle, a quieter controversy came about in Alabama last week: Alabama Public Television (APT), one of the state’s PBS affiliates, declined to air the premiere for the 22nd season of the popular children’s cartoon Arthur. The episode, titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” depicts the marriage of elementary-school teacher Mr. Ratburn, a long-time recurring character, to another man. Justifying the refusal to air in a statement to local news site AL.com, APT programming director Mike McKenzie argued that “parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision.” Many parents, he said, would not consider the topic addressed in the episode appropriate for unsupervised viewing by young children.

This type of controversy is nothing new for the Arthur franchise. In 2005, spinoff series Postcards from Buster produced an episode in which its traveling title character visited multiple Vermont families, two of which were headed by same-sex couples. Prior to its intended release, the episode drew sharp criticism from Margaret Spellings, then the U.S. secretary of education, who expressed concerns similar to McKenzie’s. Spellings also questioned the propriety of using government funds to produce the content. In the end, PBS decided not to distribute the episode for national airing, but WGBH — a Boston-based PBS affiliate and the originator of both series — aired it independently and provided it to a handful of other affiliate stations that did the same.

In 2005, the issue of same-sex marriage was hot. Vermont, where the episode took place, had just recently recognized civil unions for same-sex couples, one of the first states to do so. But the debate on legal recognition has now largely faded into the background of, if not completely evaporated from, most Americans’ political consciousnesses. In post-Obergefell America, where same-sex couples are a common part of our social fabric, does it make sense to represent such a marriage in a program intended for young children? After all, these shows are meant to introduce kids to the real world and prepare them to engage with it.

Many who have criticized the inclusion of same-sex couples in the storylines of children’s shows have argued that, while educational programs should prepare children for real-world challenges, there is still a line between acceptable and unacceptable subjects. No reasonable person would deny that this line exists, though some hardcore social libertarians might recognize only the most absurd extremities as actually being over the line. The question regarding Arthur, then, is whether sexuality — which, while only implicit in the premier episode, is the source of the outrage here — falls on the wrong side of that line. The show’s critics will almost certainly say yes. The nature of marriage and its foundation in sexuality are better left to parents to teach, they might say, not government-funded television.

But would these same critics object to a heterosexual marriage being depicted in the same medium? Obviously not. Arthur’s parents (heterosexual and married) appear in every single episode. No parents have ever complained that the presentation of this sexual union is putting ideas in their children’s heads. This is a clear double standard. Why should we forgive it? The answer is: Because it exists.

While the strictly legal equality of heterosexual and homosexual marriages has been firmly established in recent years, the larger question — namely, whether the two types of union are identical in fact or merely in law — is far from settled in the minds of many Americans. This is especially true in Alabama, which a 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showed to be the only state where a majority of citizens remain opposed to same-sex marriage. (Its neighbor Mississippi demonstrated a plurality of 48 percent who oppose same-sex marriage.) McKenzie is right that parents should be able to trust that public television will present nothing objectionable to their children. The fact that parents would not typically object to the presentation of a heterosexual marriage is itself vindication that it is appropriate material for public children’s television. The obverse is also true: That a majority of Alabamans and a significant minority of Americans do object to homosexual marriage is evidence enough that public broadcasters should not be using taxpayer dollars to present it to their children, who have limited faculties for critical analysis of the material, as educational programming.

Of course, this standard has to be applied very carefully. Programs should not be cancelled or altered at the first sign of outrage, nor should objections on trivial matters be taken too seriously. But something like “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” which is bound to offend the convictions of a sizable group of citizens, is both imprudent and improper for release by a public, educational, children’s network.

There is a fine line between depicting the world as it is for realism’s sake and normalizing the current state of affairs. For Arthur’s target audience, who are all under the age of ten, that line is virtually indistinguishable. This leaves the show’s creators, who are funded by the taxpayers and answerable to them, with an obligation not to push that line, to teach kids the things that most people should know and agree on — basic respect and arithmetic, mostly — and leave the unanswered questions unanswered for now, or at least unanswered by PBS.

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