Sometimes you can measure progress by what didn’t happen.
When Season 22 of the PBS cartoon “Arthur” kicked off with a same-sex wedding for Arthur’s teacher, Mr. Ratburn, the secretary of education didn’t send PBS a letter outlining her “strong and very serious concerns.”
“Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” in which Arthur and his friends attend their beloved teacher’s nuptials, first aired Monday. The students remark upon the wedding cake, their teacher’s dance moves and the festive decorations — but never the fact that Mr. Ratburn and his spouse are both male.
Notably, the episode was met mostly with either applause or a shrug.
“I think the biggest surprise about Mr. Ratburn from ‘Arthur’ being gay is that I’m just now finding out that ‘Arthur’ is still coming out with new episodes,” voice actress Erika Mendez tweeted. (The official Twitter account of “Arthur” liked her tweet.)
In 2005, a same-sex character on a PBS kids’ show inspired a far different reaction.
That year, “Arthur” spinoff “Postcards From Buster” created an episode called “Sugartime!” that included a Vermont family with two moms. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, whose department helped fund the program, was having none of it.
“Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode,” Spellings wrote in a letter to Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS. “Congress’ and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television.”
I hope her fainting couch was nearby as she typed.
Spellings requested that PBS remove the U.S. Department of Education seal from the episode, warn station affiliates about the content before they aired the episode and (and!) consider refunding the education grants used to create the episode.
“Finally,” she wrote in closing, “you can be assured that in the future the Department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds.”
PBS didn’t send “Sugartime!” around to its affiliates.
In 2005! Calendar-wise, not so long ago. Culturally speaking, eons ago.
A mere 14 years ago, you may recall, a lot of progressives were still ducking and dodging on marriage equality and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It wasn’t until 2010 that then-President Barack Obama, a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage, started to evolve on the topic. Then-President Bill Clinton was the one to sign the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act into law, allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally established in other states. (The law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2015.)
Television wasn’t devoid of openly gay characters or hosts in 2005 — “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was 2 years old by then and “Will and Grace” was going strong — but a gay couple on a children’s show, apparently, still seemed a bridge too far.
I’m glad we’ve crossed that bridge.
Of course children’s shows should include gay characters.
Of course weddings on children’s shows should, on occasion, be between members of the same sex.
Of course parents on children’s shows should, on occasion, be members of the same sex.
Children’s shows should look like the world children are growing up in. Kids should be able to see themselves, their families, their neighbors, their classmates and their communities in the characters and the stories they love and lean on for guidance and understanding.
Ideally, children’s shows also should look a little different from the tiny part of the world children are growing up in. So if they don’t personally know a kid in a wheelchair, maybe a show can introduce them to one. If they don’t know a lot of kids whose skin is a different color than theirs, whose faith traditions are different than theirs, whose parents are the same sex, maybe a show can introduce them to some.
Children’s shows, like children’s books, should be both mirrors and windows.
There are, no doubt, families out there who aren’t happy about Mr. Ratburn’s union. Let’s not pretend marriage equality is universally embraced.