Children watching the 22nd season premiere of the PBS Kids program Arthur on Monday witnessed something parents who once consumed the long-running cartoon never did: a same-sex wedding.
In the episode titled “Mr. Ratburn and His Special Friend,” Arthur the anthropomorphic aardvark and his friends have a hard time believing their beloved third-grade teacher, who is a rat, is getting married. But they are seemingly unfazed when they learn Mr. Ratburn’s betrothed is a male character, an aardvark and local chocolatier named Patrick. After the wedding, Arthur says, “I still can’t believe it,” and his friend Francine responds, “It’s a brand-new world.”
Indeed it is, and the Arthur episode drew barely a shrug from some parents witnessing the steady normalization of same-sex marriage in children’s content. “It wasn’t even surprising. Nor should it have been,” wrote G. Shane Morris for BreakPoint.
PBS, which is taxpayer-funded, has portrayed same-sex couples in its children’s programming before. In 2005, PBS pulled an episode from an Arthur spin-off, Postcards from Buster, that featured a lesbian couple in Vermont, where same-sex civil unions were legal at the time, after Margaret Spellings, then–U.S. secretary of education, cited “very serious concern.”
This week, a petition to remove the new Arthur episode by One Million Moms, a division of the American Family Association, has already garnered nearly 16,000 signatures.
But Christians should not expect much reaction from PBS, according to Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member. “We are experiencing massive moral change in the United States, and Arthur just becomes the latest cartoon … that makes that clear,” he said on his podcast The Briefing on Thursday.
Maria Vera Whelan, senior director of marketing, communications, and social media for children’s media and education at PBS, said the network’s children’s programs are “designed to reflect the diversity of communities across the nation.” In a statement obtained by The New York Times, she said, “We believe it’s important to represent the wide array of adults in the lives of children who look to PBS Kids every day.”
Now that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, efforts to normalize it increasingly reach preschool-aged children, whom the culture expects to express the same indifference Arthur and his friends do as they come across LGBT portrayals in books, TV shows, movies, and public school curricula.
“The moral messaging is not only that you should see this and declare it to be normal, but that something is wrong with you and you are badly out of step if you do not celebrate what is here being depicted,” Mohler said.
In 2017, the Disney Channel depicted a same-sex couple kissing in an episode of the animated series Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Disney series Andi Mack portrayed a 13-year-old character who comes out as gay. The 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast included an “undeniably present” gay moment between LeFou and Gaston, wrote WORLD movie reviewer Megan Basham.
A more subtle example: In March, Leo Espinosa, illustrator for beloved Christian author Sally Lloyd-Jones’ book Goldfish on Vacation, acknowledged a discreet depiction of a same-sex couple in its pages. “Expect much more,” he tweeted. (Jones, author of the bestselling The Jesus Storybook Bible, deleted a supportive tweet that caused its own stir, which she has not yet clarified.)
For parents, Morris said retreating to a “Christian ghetto” is no longer an option, but neither is letting children blithely consume once-trusted public television programs, books displayed at the library, or Disney movies.
The battle for children’s hearts and minds is waged primarily at home, and Morris depicts a “quieter kind of catechesis” happening with his own kids that entails teaching them the truth about sexuality and gender and relying on resources that reinforce those beliefs—his children prefer Adventures in Odyssey over Arthur.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Christian children’s authors are tackling gender and sexuality, offering discussion starting points. God’s Design (P&R Publishing, 2016), by Sally Michael and Gary Steward, gives a Biblical perspective on manhood and womanhood, and in September, Marty Machowski releases God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender (New Growth Press), geared for ages 3 to 8.