January 19, 2020

Mr. Ratburn and TV's New Normal

“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.”

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