Sam Rutledge dives into Arthur, the 90s animated classic making headlines for a recent gay rat wedding, because of course it is.
Remember that absolutely delightful kids TV show Arthur? Chances are, if you’ve spent any time on the internet in recent weeks, you have. The 90s classic has jumped back into the cultural conversation due to a controversial little rat wedding, and I decided to sit down and revisit it to find out what all the fuss was about. Roughly 50 episodes on YouTube later, I know more about Arthur than I ever bargained for.
The titular character Arthur Read is a young noseless aardvark – the classic animal to base a TV show around – and his defining feature is that he wears glasses, which means he’s a nerd. Don’t get mad at me about saying that either, it’s literally the plot of the first episode. A perpetual 8 year old, Arthur doesn’t worry about the fact that even though he has no nose and his ears are on top of his head, he still manages to keep his nerdy glasses on his face.
He’s busy on other things, spending most of his time screaming in his sister D.W.’s face and hanging out with his small group of difficult-to-identify animal friends. Their shenanigans are mostly wholesome and educational — every episode has a moral, with the kids learning (often reluctantly) about sharing, hard work, and high cholesterol, as well as heavier topics like grief and Alzheimer’s. As a 28-year-old woman who should have learned all these lessons by now (especially the cholesterol one), I love it.
The series is based on the Arthur children’s books written and illustrated by Marc Brown, who also created the television show. The books number in the thirties now, and were born from a bedtime story Brown told his son growing up. Still no explanation for the aardvark thing but according to Brown, the character looks nothing like an aardvark because the animal’s long nose made it impossible to properly show Arthur’s mouth.
Mystifying. I guess at least the show isn’t owned by Disney and we don’t have to anticipate a “live action” version of Arthur any time soon, because I think it would haunt my nightmares. Have you seen a real life aardvark? Imagine watching him trying to wear pants.
After watching so many episodes of the show, I have to ask: why is Arthur still so relevant and memeable? It might be because it’s still airing. It surprised me to learn this – I thought it had ended a fair few years ago – but then, it also surprised me to learn that it recently became June, so.
It may also be that the show has managed to walk the line between timeless and progressive really, really well. Arthur recently made headlines for its 22nd season premiere, which featured a heartwarming queer story that delighted anyone with a brain and made some other losers very mad.
The episode where the teacher Mr Ratburn (a rat, like the Titirangi vermin) marries his husband Patrick was banned from airing on Alabama’s public television network, citing some homophobic nonsense that is for whatever reason still acceptable in 2019. I watched the episode myself, and it was effing adorable. It also had some really great burns on teachers, including Mr Ratburn hulking out because of a misplaced comma.
It’s not the only example of Arthur keeping up with the times. There have also been episodes centered around technology and the way Arthur and his friends interact with it, which may seem a small, but to me is an indicator that the people behind the show want it to have relevance to as many generations as possible. In one episode, Arthur’s friend Muffy starts blogging obsessively and has to learn that not everything in her life should be put online or she might face consequences in her friendships. In the same episode, Mr Ratburn also has to learn that you shouldn’t believe anything you read in a spam email.
Is Arthur’s ability to span generations a reason why bizarre (and occasionally horny) Arthur memes have sprung up roughly 20 years since the show first started airing? There doesn’t really appear to be one reason, but there are full results pages on Google for “the funniest Arthur memes of 2019”, which makes me feel crazy. Is it just that the kids who grew up watching Arthur in 1996 are now the internet’s most prolific purveyors of memes and it is a natural extension of the way they express themselves? Or has Arthur somehow permeated our collective subconscious and we can now only express ourselves through his clenched fist, the image burned into our brains and surrounded by his iconic blue and yellow outfit?
I don’t know, but I still see the Arthur fist meme on my Twitter timeline semi-regularly, even though objectively the D.W ‘that sign can’t stop me because I can’t read!’ meme is way funnier.
D.W. was always my favourite Arthur character growing up because she was very dramatic and also a sore loser, which resonated with me, a child who refused to run or play Monopoly because I could never win either. She is by far the most brutal character, on purpose, and totally a reason why the show is so funny.
And it really is funny. Not in a raunchy, over-kids-heads way (there are a couple of jokes that could fall into that category, but), just in a way where you know the people writing the show have to know a lot of kids, because sometimes the characters are absolutely ruthless in a way only kids can be. Like when Francine says D.W. can ask her anything, so D.W. asks “why don’t you go back to your own house and stop bothering us?” Kids!
It’s also surprisingly mature. ‘Grandpa Dave’s Memory Album’ is an episode that uses the show’s great sense of humour to full advantage even as it portrays a very heavy subject. In it, Arthur’s grandpa has to explain to Arthur and D.W that he is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease after he upsets Arthur by forgetting his name. The episode doesn’t lose any of its heart or levity, but it gives kids a really palatable way to understand how even though someone we love might forget who we are, it doesn’t mean they love us any less.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the theme song. Much like Pepper Ann’s, the Arthur theme song will not leave your head if you hear it. You must sacrifice several goats to a witch on a full moon and bathe in the blood of your worst enemy if you want to be rid of it.
If you ever wanted to know anything, literally at all, about Arthur, there is a whole Wiki about it, and the people who have contributed to it are thorough to the point that it’s concerning. But if you, like me, just want to brush up on some childhood lessons and have a good time, there are tons of episodes on YouTube where you can do just that.
The show definitely captures a nostalgia for those of us who grew up watching it, but it’s also easy to see how the topics in its episodes – from embracing technology to two men getting married without facing prejudice – have made it something wholesome and progressive for generations of new audiences too.