In a new episode of Arthur, a children’s cartoon on PBS that recently kicked off its 22nd season, third-graders do something they’ve never done before: Attend a teacher’s wedding. The fact that the teacher, a rat named Mr. Ratburn, is marrying another man is less remarkable to Arthur and his classmates than the newlyweds’ embarrassing dance moves.
The wedding of two gay characters on the show, says Tracy Robinson-Wood, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University, provides a jumping off point for children and their guardians to explore complex topics such as race, sexuality, and love.
“It’s important for children to be exposed to the realities of life,” says Robinson-Wood, who is also the associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and equity at Northeastern. “In this case, the message is that not everybody is heterosexual, but the conversation you have is still about love and a celebration of that love.”
Mass media has always played a big role in shaping public opinion and exposing people to new ideas and perspectives, says Robinson-Wood, who studies the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. For children, that education may start with a TV show, but should continue with a conversation, she says.
If Robinson-Wood watched this episode with her two young daughters, she’d “want them to know that diversity across race, ethnicity, skin color, and who you love are part of who we are as human beings.”
She says she’d also guide the conversation toward topics that people generally avoid, such as discrimination.
“The key message is that these two people in the show found each other, they like each other and love each other, and they have someone to talk to and laugh with,” Robinson-Wood says. “But I don’t think adults should be silent about helping children to navigate this terrain of resistance to people who don’t fit into the accepted norms.”
While Robinson-Wood described “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone” as a “visionary” episode of Arthur, she says mass media can also serve to “reinforce dominant gender and racial stereotypes.”
Movies that conflate a woman’s worth with her physical appearance or feature black characters who exist to serve white characters can enforce those stereotypes, particularly in children, Robinson-Wood says.
And the problem, she adds, is not limited to film. One cartoon her children watch features a female rabbit that, she says, appears subservient to a male rabbit.
Robinson-Wood says she points out these nuanced messages to her daughters. “If I didn’t,” she wonders, “would they just inhale these messages in lock-step?”
Shows that incorporate characters with different interests and backgrounds can help viewers overcome the stereotypical beliefs that have been ingrained in them, Robinson-Wood says. But it’s just as important that the producers of those shows provide parents with the tools to have difficult conversations with their children, she says.
Earlier this month, PBS published a guide to help parents talk to their kids about families in which children are cared for by people other than their biological moms and dads.
Robinson-Wood says Arthur, and shows like it, have improved children’s programming by including stories that buck stereotypes. “But,” she adds, “I still think we have a long way to go when it comes to media sending a message of inclusion.”