Gay Characters In Children’s Shows Still Painfully Lacking
Written by Erin Feher
Photo courtesy of Arthur/PBS
On the season premiere of Arthur, the beloved animated kids’ show on PBS about a lovable anthropomorphic aardvark, everyone is excited about the upcoming wedding of Mr. Ratburn, the elementary school teacher. Well, they are mostly excited. After the kids see Mr. Ratburn bickering with a female rat over details of the big day, the kids become concerned that their sweet-natured teacher is marrying a bully, and they set out to try and stop it.
The inclusive twist comes when the kids’ find out the female rat is actually Mr. Ratburn’s sister, and his actual betrothed is a kind man who owns a chocolate shop. The kids are relieved, and show no sign of being confused or even surprised by the fact that Mr. Ratburn is marrying a man—they are just happy he’s marrying someone nice. The biggest concern? Mr. Ratburn’s dorky dance moves at the reception.
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. The Atlantic recently tried to track them down, and found seven kids’ shows with queer characters or storylines: Adventure Time, Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra, Gravity Falls, Clarence, and The Loud House. Arthur makes it a whopping eight.
Ironically, public TV has typically lagged in representation when it comes to LGTBQ characters. That’s because it receives government dollars, so any controversy can (and usually does) pose a threat to funding. As the Atlantic reported, 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.”
Fourteen years later we seem to be a little more evolved. The gay wedding episode of Arthur was met with mostly cheers. Alabama Public Television is the sole outlier, refusing to air the episode, saying in a statement that it would “violate” their audience’s trust.
But “love is love,” even in Alabama, and so far nearly 30,000 people have signed a petition to change the Alabama state flag from it’s current design to “a glorious image of Mr Ratburn’s gay wedding, so that it may shine down on the Alabama statehouse forever as a reminder to look prejudice in the eye and say ‘hey what a wonderful kind of day.'”
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