If you're an old soul like me, you likely remember those simple days when, after school, you'd be parked in front of the television, engrossed in the adventures of Arthur Read, the main character of the beloved animated show, "Arthur." Aardvark or not, Arthur was as real as they come, navigating life in Elwood City with a kind of innocent charm that still warms the heart. Over its prodigious run, "Arthur" was celebrated for its deft touch on various subjects—friendship, empathy, patience, and more complicated issues like Alzheimer's and cancer.
But there was a moment in the show's history that felt revolutionary, and it happened rather recently—in its 22nd season, no less.
"Arthur" Got it Right with Mr. Ratburn
This particular episode titled "Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone," brought us into the heartwarming union of Arthur's beloved teacher, Mr. Ratburn, and his partner, Patrick. Now, what's so significant about this? For starters, this storyline presented one of the first instances of gay representation in children's television. And it wasn't just the existence of a gay character, it was how their story was told that marked a refreshing departure from the norm.
What "Arthur" managed to do was portray Mr. Ratburn and Patrick as just another couple. Their relationship wasn't utilized as a tool for political grandstanding or forced empowerment narratives. It wasn't dramatic or shocking—it was just... there. It was real. It was normal. It was everyday life, just like the myriad other everyday life moments that "Arthur" has so masterfully captured over its 20+ years of runtime. It's this approach—this simple, honest representation—that sets "Arthur" apart from the rest.
Too often, shows aimed at a younger audience shy away from or, worse, distort the portrayal of gay characters. In such cases, the narrative can take on a polarizing, "us-vs-them" tone, resulting in caricatures that do more harm than good. "Arthur" has proved that it's possible to do otherwise. Just as straight characters are straight, gay characters can just be gay—living their lives, navigating their struggles, and finding their joys.
Creator Marc Brown didn't just break the internet with this move; he demonstrated a maturity in storytelling that other children's shows could stand to learn from. By treating Mr. Ratburn's wedding as just another day in Elwood City, he presented the perfect model for normalizing gay relationships.
It's not a new concept for "Arthur" to be a frist at something, though. This show has always been one step ahead in terms of representation and tackling tough issues. It's dealt with bullying, dyslexia, cross-cultural understanding, and even Asperger's syndrome—all while keeping things real and accessible. Its approach to gay representation was no different.
The power of "Arthur" lies in its simplicity. Its ability to portray life as is, without sugar-coating or unnecessary dramatization, is something to be lauded. If more shows took this route—featuring gay relationships as a normal part of life, not a spectacle or a token—we might find a more accepting, understanding generation growing up in front of our screens. Let's remember: kids will emulate what they see. So, let them see love, in all its forms, in its simple ways.
Imagine a series where these characters' relationship takes center stage, where being gay isn't a dramatic twist but just a part of their reality. If Arthur and Mr. Ratburn have shown us anything, it's that this kind of representation can exist, and it's about time we saw more of it.
In my experience as a beta reader and editor for All Ages of Geek's and Stec Studio's "I Married a Monster on a Hill," which primarily explores gay relationships, I've learned that simplicity can often yield the most profound impact. The focus of the story isn't on being dramatic or showcasing an "us vs them" narrative but about portraying gay men and gay characters as integral, normalized parts of contemporary life.
Here's how to take a page from Arthur's playbook when creating your own characters and storylines:
Making Characters More Than Their Labels
First, create your characters as people, not labels. Take Mr. Ratburn from "Arthur" or the characters in "I Married a Monster on a Hill." They're known for their unique personalities, not their sexuality. Make your characters interesting and multi-dimensional. Their sexuality is only a part of who they are.
Make Gay Relationships a Normal Part of Life
"Arthur" made history by showing a same-sex wedding just like any other wedding. It was simple and joyful. In your storytelling, represent gay relationships as part of everyday life, without excessive drama.
Avoid the Stereotypes
Mr. Ratburn's character doesn't fit into the common clichés often seen in media when portraying gay characters. He's just himself - a beloved character who happens to be gay. Your characters should feel real and relatable, not built on stereotypes.
Weave it into the Story
Mr. Ratburn's wedding was part of the overall plot of "Arthur" but didn't take over the story. In the same way, a character's sexuality doesn't have to be their whole story. It's part of their life, but there are many other aspects to explore.
Show Real Life
"Arthur" reflects the diverse world kids grow up in today. Show this in your storytelling. Teach kids that love comes in many forms, and that's normal and okay.
In short, when you're writing, take cues from "Arthur." Show gay characters and relationships as a normal part of life. Focus on the beauty of everyday life and love in all its forms. This is the approach that will create authentic, relatable stories.
"Arthur" has set the bar high, but it's a goal worth striving for. In the meantime, I'll keep my fingers crossed and my eyes on the screen, waiting for the day when love—no matter what form it takes—is just another part of the story. Because isn't that what it should be? Just a part of life, pure, simple, and beautifully ordinary.