Dearly beloved, we gather here, on Autostraddle dot com, to celebrate the queer union of a rat and an aardvark. Yesterday morning, the long-running PBS Kids show Arthur interrupted the usual slate of morning cartoons with a big ‘ole gay wedding.
We’ve celebrated queer TV weddings here before from Carol and Susan’s infamous punch line of a wedding on F.R.I.E.N.D.S to Callie and Arizona’s doomed nuptials on Grey’s Anatomy and both gay weddings on Glee. Television has come a long way in its queer representation since then. Media has moved beyond the queer wedding and into legitimate representation. There is still a ways to go in bringing queer-led shows and non-binary and trans representation to the small screen, but the gay wedding was the beginning of it all. This week, gay tv weddings reached the final frontier: children’s media. On public broadcast television, no less!
Monday’s episode of Arthur, a beloved PBS show from my own childhood and likely many of yours about an earnest young aardvark named Arthur, brought us the nuptials of Mr. Ratburn, the central gang’s much-admired third-grade teacher, and Patrick, the local chocolatier. “Mr. Ratburn & The Special Someone,wp_postsbegins when Mr. Ratburn answers his phone during class to talk about floral arrangements (he’s thinking about sunflowers, but agrees white is more elegant) and tells the class he’s getting married! Arthur and his friends speculate on Mr. Ratburn’s life outside of school and his late night plotting to assign them 4,000 word essays on the color gray, when he walks in to their regular lunch spot with a mysterious rat-lady, Patty (voiced by special guest Jane Lynch!). She requests the table with better lighting, orders “Green Tea steeped for precisely three and a half minutes, dry white toast, and some clean silverware.wp_postsTheir homework assignments will get so much harder if Mr. Ratburn marries this intense lady-rat.
So the kids hatch a plan to sabotage the wedding. First, they whip up an embarrassing video of Mr. Ratburn as a hippie, hoping Patty will call off the wedding when she sees that Mr. Ratburn isn’t who she thought he was. She just guffaws at Mr. Ratburn playing the bongos in tiny Lennon glasses, so the kids move to Plan B; setting him up with the librarian. Arthur and his sister DW head to the local chocolate shop where they meet Patrick, the kind-hearted aardvark chocolatier. They ask him for help making their teacher and the librarian become a couple. He doesn’t think that’s really possible, but he helps them out anyway.
Mr. Ratburn asks the kids to return his copy of Love Poems by Pablo Neruda to the library and they stick an earnestly-written but ineffectual love note in its pages. The librarian gives the kids some solid side-eye, red-pens their misspellings, and hands them a copy of How To Write Poetry for Dummies. Their plans thwarted, they plot to make an objection at the wedding. Patty greets everyone warmly, confusing the kids and revealing that she’s Mr. Ratburn’s older sister!
“Then who is Mr. Ratburn marrying?wp_postsThat’s when Mr. Ratburn walks arm in arm down the aisle with Patrick, the chocolatier. Cue the waterworks. DW gets it right as the kids stuff their faces with cake; “It’s a brand new world.”
I can count the number of times there has been queer representation in mainstream children’s media on one hand. And I’m talking for real, canon, actually on television queer representation. Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe and Shadi Petosky’s Danger & Eggs top the list followed by that one time there was a femme lesbian couple for a half second on The Disney Channel’s Good Luck, Charlie!, that one episode of Doc McStuffins with a queer couple voiced by Wanda Sykes and Portia de Rossi, the coming out scene on Nickelodeon’s Andi Mack. And, of course, the last second hand-holding and kissing on Legend of Korra and Adventure Time. That’s pretty much it. There might be a few others, but for the most part, the trend is a momentary acknowledgement or outing characters at ComicCon panels. Kid shows, with the exceptions of Steven Universe and Danger & Eggs, bring queerness in as an afterthought. But this is a step forward.
Mr. Ratburn has been a central, instructive character in the lives of the kids in Arthur’s class. And he has been that same figure for millions of kids across generations catching up on their morning cartoons before school. Just think of the millions of tiny humans eating their breakfast cereal and watching Mr. Ratburn’s gay wedding on their screens and that just being their run of the mill morning. Who knows if they’ll ever acknowledge Mr. Ratburn’s sexuality again. Who knows if we’ll see Patrick in future episodes. Maybe this is a one-off (I really hope not), but a gay wedding on children’s public broadcast television is no small feat. This is the beginning of a new generation of queers where boy rats and boy aardvarks can marry each other, and it’s no big thing.