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Why Mr. Ratburn's Wedding Proves that LGBTQ+ Representation Isn't Difficult
By Rachel Rivenbark
It’s a truly rare occasion which in the hustle and bustle of everyday life fully draws one’s attention back to a book or show from childhood, often long since outgrown and brushed aside. When such occasions occur, they are usually the result of tragedy, such as the unfortunate death last year of Lazy Town actor Stefán Karl Steffánson - otherwise known as the nefarious but well-liked Robbie Rotten - after a long battle with cancer. With the grim realities of adult life and mortality ever encroaching upon us, we often find that these sudden harkenings back to our childhood pastimes rarely end in happy news… gratefully, today has proven to be an exception for the books.
Mr. Nigel Ratburn has been an imperative main character of the much-beloved children’s cartoon Arthur since his very first appearance as Arthur Read’s third-grade teacher in the 1981 book Arthur and the True Francine. Appearing in nearly every episode of the series, Mr. Ratburn is well-established as one of the primary non-parental role models for Arthur and his peers. Although they initially perceive him to be a harsh, strict teacher who gives out too much homework, the whole gang quickly comes to learn that he simply has a great deal of passion for his job, and wants to do the best he can by his students, often mentoring and aiding them even outside the classroom. He is a kind, well-meaning, well-educated, and devoted teacher and guide to all the children on the show…
...and he’s gay.
Stars above, the sheer epitome of a responsible and admirable Adult Figure™ is gay! It happened. PBS went there. In the premiere of the show’s 22nd season, “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” Arthur and his friends are aghast to learn that Mr. Ratburn is going to be married; and yet, the source of their scandal and confusion merely comes from their preconceived notion that no teachers ever have a life outside of their job, with Arthur’s friend Buster Baxter claiming that, “When [teachers] go home, they sharpen pencils, eat kale, and dream up homework assignments! They don't even sleep; they just go into low-power mode and watch documentaries!" Their dismay at the situation then forms as a result of their dislike of Mr. Ratburn’s initially presumed fiancee, who eventually turns out to merely be his overbearing older sister Patty - voiced by and modeled after, to really pile on the subtlety here, Jane Lynch. Upon their discovery that Mr. Ratburn is instead due to marry a kindly chocolatier named Patrick, the only thing they have left to complain about is their teacher’s questionable dancing with his new husband.
Interestingly enough, the educational Arthur spin-off show Postcards From Buster - which featured Buster Baxter traveling to different countries and teaching the audience about the diversity of the world - actually took the initial step to try and introduce an LGBT couple to PBS audiences. The episode “Sugartime!: Hinesburg, Vermont” featured Buster traveling to Vermont in search of a Mother’s Day gift, while visiting a Jewish photographer named Karen, her partner Gillian, and their children, so described in the episode. Although the episode featured a picturesque and perfectly child-friendly view of two happy, stable LGBT families, and the words “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” were never outright mentioned, the episode was met with backlash and protest of such enormity that it was never again aired beyond its initial premier in March of 2005. All traces of the episode were erased from public television, with the only proof of its existence remaining in a clip on YouTube, and in the episode’s presence on the eventual DVD set of the entire Postcards From Buster series. The writers of the episode expressed great sadness at the negative reaction to this episode, citing the diversity of the rest of the program as grounds for wanting to keep it in.
And finally, more than fourteen years later - pointedly enough, on Mother’s Day - it is a bold and beautiful step which the PBS producers have finally taken in creating, airing, and standing by this episode, long overdue though it may be. Although Arthur isn’t the first children’s show to feature a canonically gay main character, the number of shows which have taken the step to include LGBT representation in their casts is still abysmally low. The Legend of Korra was the first Western children’s cartoon to feature a strongly implied wlw (women loving women) romance between two main characters in 2014, with Steven Universe eventually following suit in 2016 with a blatantly stated woman-loving-woman (wlw) relationship. The concept of gay characters in children’s media is slowly gaining traction, but what makes Arthur’s inclusion of Mr. Ratburn as a now canonically gay man so remarkable is the knowledge that so many people already know him.
This is a character that is still highly memorable to the vast majority of young adults in Western society, today. This is a character that liberal and conservative, progressive and regressive, open-minded and bigoted parents alike have been presenting to their children for literal decades, held up as a morally upstanding paragon of a good and successful adult. This is a character from whom the children of America have been taking moral and social cues as an in-show authority figure since the early 1990s.
And all this time, whether viewers knew it or not, he’s been gay. The children of America were raised on the words and lessons of a theatrical gay man who likely reads the erotically-charged poetry of a former Communist (for that matter, what was Pablo Neruda doing in a third-grade library, anyway?) to his equally gay, chocolate-making, Frida Kahlo-loving male sweetheart. Is there liable to be backlash for this episode? Probably. Will there be a drop in ratings for the PBS? Hopefully not. With any luck, the oncoming onslaught of Millennials queuing up every episode we’ve missed since 2000 will help to make up for it. It’s enough to make my gay little heart sing, and I know just the song:
And I say, HEY! What a wonderful kind of day
Where you can learn to work and play
And get along with each other ~
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