Online is a funny place to be. There I was, earlier this week, mindlessly watching videos of bars of soap being placed under a hydraulic press. I looked away for a second and learned that a beloved cartoon rat had just come out.
Arthur, the show about anthropomorphic animal school children, was one of a handful of American 90s children’s cartoons featuring fully three-dimensional 2D characters. Programmes like Hey Arnold, Doug, and The Wild Thornberrys all dealt with Real Issues; adoption, environmentalism and bullying, to name a few. This trend for smarter cartoons was possibly started by the Simpsons which – when it debuted in 1989 – was revolutionary. This was the beginning of an age of cartoons that could make you laugh and cry. So while I was slightly surprised – having just turned 30 – that a show from my childhood is still running, it made a lot of sense for Arthur to be one of the forerunners in gay visibility in kids’ TV. To put it bluntly: those 90s cartoons were (and apparently still are) woke.
The gay rat in question is the title character Arthur’s teacher, Mr Ratburn. If we can ignore, for a moment, the overkill of a rat being named “Ratburn” (a bit like a man being named Humanstein), this is actually a momentous occasion. Not only did Mr Ratburn come out in one of the show’s recent episodes, he got married in it, to another man (or male animal/human hybrid, whatever). And this sort of representation is priceless. Because, ask nearly any queer person and they’ll tell you that their feelings of otherness began in childhood. And ask nearly any homophobe and – I strongly suspect – they’ll tell you that their hatred of gays began… in childhood (in which the absence of any LGBTQ characters in children’s pop culture confirmed that those people aren’t normal).
The emergence of gay characters (let alone bi or trans ones) in children’s films/programmes has been painfully slow. In 2016, there was an inordinate amount of hype over Pixar deigning to depict an unnamed, background lesbian couple in Finding Dory. So the full on gay wedding in Arthur is arguably a much, much bigger deal. Mr Ratburn is a recurring character rather than a trivial one-off. He’s officially gay now and – for as long as Arthur runs – the writers are presumably going to keep him that way. In spite of the inevitable religious backlash.
It seems odd that, in spite of same-sex marriage being legalised in the UK six years ago, depicting it in a children’s show still seems radical. Unlike similarly gay friendly gestures by multinationals like Barclays (sponsorsip of Pride, etc.) it’s hard to be cynical about US TV network PBS’s decision to lead the way in queer kids’ programmes. While the likes of Barclays are often accused of pinkwashing (superficially supporting LGBTQ rights in an attempt to draw attention away from any corporate terribleness), the makers of Arthur have nothing to gain from diversifying their characters, other than being on the right side of history. Which, ultimately, is quite a substantial gain.
So happy Coming Out, Mr Ratburn. And congrats on being (most likely) the world’s first anthropomorphic homosexual rat.