Congrats to Mr. Ratburn!
Arthur was the bread and butter of a certain generation of kids’ cartoon consumption. The story of a glasses-wearing aardvark, his many animal classmates, and their elementary school adventures was a staple of PBS’s kids programing in the mid-’90s. But the show is still on the air, and it just kicked off its 22nd season with a major milestone: the wedding of Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s longtime third grade teacher, in an episode that touchingly portrayed same-sex marriage.
On May 13, PBS premiered an episode called “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” which progressed the show’s threadbare backstory in a significant way. Mr. Ratburn, seemingly a bachelor for the past 22 years, was engaged, as Arthur and his friends discovered. But the identity of his betrothed remained a mystery.
Arthur and the gang assumed that a woman voiced by guest star Jane Lynch, who demeaned Mr. Ratburn as “soft,” was likely his fiancée, and set about trying to break up the pair. It wasn’t until the wedding itself that they learned the woman was his sister, and Mr. Ratburn was marrying a nice young man instead. (The whole episode is streaming on the PBS Kids website if you want to check it out for yourself.)
And that’s that. “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone” doesn’t draw much focus to Mr. Ratburn’s romantic relationship with a man; the episode refreshingly avoids presenting it as “different” or “non-traditional,” and simply shows that it is worthy of celebration, just like any happy marriage.
MR RATBURN IS GAY HELLO !! HE GOT MARRIED !! pic.twitter.com/T1Emc97Y0f
— EIGHTH WONDER (@WOLFNOlR) May 13, 2019
Overall, PBS’s programming slate tends to skew much younger than Arthur, which remains eminently watchable even as an adult. Part of that is due to how snarky the show’s humor can be, easily lending itself to memes; but another part of it is due to how the show’s messages are never preachy, even as they go beyond surface-level treatment. So Arthur’s willingness to cover topics like same-sex marriage is admirable, but not totally surprising.
This isn’t the first time that the Arthur universe has broached the subject of gay couples, in fact. There’s also a 2005 episode of Postcards From Buster, a spinoff that starred Arthur’s rabbit best friend, that portrays lesbian couples. Just like in “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” moms who are married to other moms are never “explained” on Postcards From Buster; they simply exist. After all, this is a world where an aardvark looks like that and has a rabbit for a best friend; why would it be so remarkable that people are gay?
The Postcards From Buster episode wasn’t received quite as warmly as “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” however. Back in 2005, PBS chose not to air the episode on more than 300 affiliates; the network’s chief operating officer said at the time that the “presence of a couple headed by two mothers would not be appropriate curricular purpose that PBS should provide.”
Fourteen years later, it’s still uncommon for children’s shows to feature gay characters — enough that it often becomes headline-making news when someone comes out, or when a show adds a nonheterosexual relationship. Until LGBTQ representation becomes less anomalous in the world of kids’ TV, moments when it does happen will likely continue to make the news. And each time a show gets those moments right, as Arthur did with Mr. Ratburn, kids’ media gets one step closer to having characters like Mr. Ratburn be the norm they should be, not the exception.