Life

By Censoring Arthur’s Same-Sex Wedding, Alabama Public Television Betrayed Mr. Rogers’ Legacy

Mr. Ratburn marrying his partner on Arthur and Fred Rogers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PBS and Family Communications Inc./Getty Images.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On May 13, Alabama Public Television censored an episode of Arthur, a popular, long-running animated children’s program broadcast nationally on PBS television stations. The reason? The show featured a beloved schoolteacher’s same-sex wedding. In the banned episode, titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” Mr. Ratburn marries his same-sex partner.

Unfortunately, this is an instance of history repeating itself. In 2005, APT made an identical decision—involving an episode of the Arthur spinoff Postcards From Buster, which featured a same-sex family headed by two women.* Buster the Bunny’s visit to a friend’s home was too much for the programmers at APT. APT’s then-programming director explained that “Our feeling is that we basically have a trust with parents about our programming. This program doesn’t fit into that.” Fifteen years later, and notwithstanding the Supreme Court landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage, not much has changed in Alabama.

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It’s now 2019, but APT is sticking to its guns. Even in a post-Obergefell world, APT still believes that a cartoon character’s same-sex wedding requires NC-17 treatment. Mike McKenzie, the current director of programming for APT, explained that “[p]arents have trusted Alabama Public Television for more than 50 years to provide children’s programs that entertain, educate and inspire.” Evidently, a schoolteacher’s same-sex wedding flunks this metric because broadcasting such content would scar young viewers. The decision to censor the episode reflects APT’s commitment to ensuring “parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision.”

Children’s television programming is meant to educate kids about the world in which they live—and in 2019, in the United States, that world includes same-sex couples, some of whom exercise their constitutional right to marry. Public television has not always pandered to the worst prejudices of some viewers. In 1969, in Episode 1,065 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers made a point of integrating his backyard plastic swimming pool at a time when cities like Jackson, Mississippi, were busy closing public pools in order to avoid racially integrating them.

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To view the depiction of a same-sex marriage as a legitimate basis for censoring an episode of Arthur is akin to killing Episode 1,065 because presenting a racially integrated pool would anger or upset some viewers. Would APT also refuse to air an episode of Arthur that presents an interracial couple’s nuptials because it might upset some viewers? Or a wedding that featured an interfaith couple?

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In 1968, in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Fred Rogers aired an episode on assassinations. “What does assassination mean?” asked Daniel, the tiger voiced by Rogers. Fred Rogers also devoted shows to other challenging contemporary social issues that can and do affect children’s lives—including death and war. In fact, Rogers came back from retirement to host a show that explained 9/11 to kids.

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Fred Rogers, a lifelong member of the Republican Party, believed that educational television had to deal with difficult subjects that children were certain to face in their ordinary lives. His show bravely tackled subjects that, for most parents, are gulp-inducing. A same-sex wedding in Arthur pales in comparison to a candid discussion of political assassination in the wake of the tragic deaths of King and RFK. However, if we want children to be able to thrive in a complicated and diverse world, we need to ensure that they have the tools necessary to understand and appreciate the cultural jambalaya that is the contemporary United States.

Pretending that same-sex couples do not exist, or do not get married, is to entrap children in a veil of cultural ignorance. And ignorance can often breed intolerance and hate. Given Alabama’s fraught history with bigotry and race, one would think that APT would be particularly careful to avoid endorsing, rather than challenging, irrational prejudices against people who are perceived to be different in some material respect.

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Sadly, however, APT’s homophobic views are fully consistent with the state’s prescribed sex-ed curriculum. Under current Alabama state law, public school districts offering sex education must teach that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” Moreover, despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas declaring state sodomy laws to be unconstitutional, Alabama public schoolteachers must also teach their students that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Thus, state law mandates the inculcation of intolerance, if not hate.

LGBTQ youth have a depressingly high rate of attempted suicide. The Trevor Project reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for LGBTQ young people. What’s more, LGBTQ youth are three times as likely to have attempted suicide as straight kids, and five times as likely to have considered suicide. Erasing same-sex couples from public television, coupled with a sex-education curriculum that falsely teaches that LGBTQ people are invariably social pariahs and potential felons, exacerbates, rather than reduces, risk to these youth. This is a crisis, both nationally and in Alabama. Kids are literally dying because they fear rejection—by their parents and families, by their peers, by their communities. APT should be at the vanguard of addressing this crisis rather than contributing to its continuation.

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Educational television constitutes a public good—that is, a service that benefits everyone but that requires public and private subsidies in order to exist. First-rate children’s programming is expensive to produce and does not generate sufficient advertising support to make it viable for commercial television stations to broadcast. That is why, decades ago, CBS abandoned Captain Kangaroo for more profitable news and entertainment programming aimed at an adult audience. (After CBS canceled the program in 1984, it migrated to PBS, where it ran from 1986 to 1993.) Public television plays a crucial role in our society by making available to everyone, free of charge, via over-the-air broadcasting, educational, informational, and cultural programming that commercial television and cable stations simply will not provide.

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It is both ironic and tragic that APT has decided to pander to local prejudices against same-sex couples. Presenting a same-sex wedding isn’t obscene or pornographic; it’s a fact of life in the contemporary United States, even in Alabama. APT should reverse its lamentable decision and embrace the spirit of Mr. Rogers in 1968 and 1969. Fred Rogers worked to help children understand and relate to the world in which they live, rather than hide social and cultural facts that some parents might find upsetting or objectionable. APT should be doing the same today.

Correction, May 23, 2019: This post originally misstated that Alabama Public Television censored an episode of Arthur in 2005. It censored an episode of the Arthur spinoff Postcards From Buster

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