Flashback: Arthur was a gift we didn't deserve
Hey 90’s kids, remember PBS? Remember Arthur? Based on a book series of the same name, the show centered around an anthropomorphic aardvark and his friends. Despite it’s after school special nature, the show managed to avoid a condescending tone and featured an entertaining and relatable cast of characters.
For a show that often came down to messages of “reading is fun” and “don’t lie to your parents about getting cut on a rusty can at the dump” Arthur was highly meme-able, which is perhaps is what led to the show’s renaissance on Twitter.
The most recognizable meme to come out of Arthur is easily the “Arthur fist clench meme” which gained the attention of the show’s production who said that while they appreciated the memes, they were “disappointed by the few that are outside of good taste.” They are a kid’s show after all.
But there is so much more to Arthur than meme-ability. While that certainly adds to the show’s appeal, there’s much within the content of the show itself that we all should stop and appreciate for a moment.
Arthur is more than memes
Okay, so technically everyone is anthropomorphic animals. Aardvarks, rabbits, moose, and whatever the hell Nadine is. Ignoring that--and that like with Disney, some dogs are people and some dogs are pets--there is racial coding to each of the characters.
Image from Playrific
While Alan “The Brain” Powers is a bear, he is also coded as African American. This is mentioned throughout the show, most prominently during the Christmas special wherein The Brain talks about celebrating Kwanzaa. Being the smartest character in the show, and being on a show unafraid of diversity, viewers actually learn about the holiday from him.
Image from Playrific
Even more prominently featured was Francine Frensky’s Jewish heritage. There was an entire episode entitled “Is That Kosher?” wherein the Frensky family celebrates Yom Kippur. Francine’s grandmother who she calls “Bubby” (grandmother in Yiddish) as voiced by one of many celebrity guests, Joan Rivers, comes to celebrate too.
During the episode, various Yom Kippur traditions such as fasting are mentioned, along with the fact that Francine’s Turkish penpal Adil Akyuz was celebrating Ramadan. It should be noted that this was the episode after the one in which Binky and his family adopt a baby girl named Mei Lin from China.
Throughout the series, Arthur explores the cultural, racial, and physical differences that kids might encounter in their everyday lives. A season 13 episode called “When Carl Met George” gained widespread praise when it featured a new character named Carl, who had Aspergers. The autism spectrum is something adults have a hard time explaining to other adults, but Arthur managed to encapsulate why Carl saw the world differently in about two minutes.
As previously mentioned, Arthur keeps consistent in featuring these characters and explores their issues, rather than the issues the main cast might have with them. Like when Prunella (who is a dog… I think) was found guilty of the crime of reading ahead in the final Henry Skreever book that she was supposed to wait to read with her blind friend Marina.
This episode came out during the same time the final Harry Potter book was released. Arthur would often comment and parody the latest pop cultural phenomenons.
During the episode "The Contest" several different shows like South Park, Dexter's Laboratory, and Beevis and Butthead were parodied.
But Arthur also has a particular penchant for literary callbacks that children might not be familiar with. During one of many Halloween specials, The Brain makes a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart. Several episodes are puns on various films like “Citizen Frensky” or “The Good, the Bad, and the Binky.”
And then you have references that are clearly meant to go over kid’s heads:
Arthur is also a kid’s show that doesn’t pull punches. Early on it tackles issues like death, plagiarism, and income inequality. All this while featuring numerous cultural figures like musician Yo-Yo Ma, poet Jack Prelutsky, and that one weird time with Matt Damon.
Arthur is still ongoing, and although I’m not as big a fan of the obvious Flash animation, it’s core characters and values are still there. Arthur is definitely worth remembering, fellow 90’s kids, if not worth a rewatch. Just listen to the theme song, and you’ll find yourself back on the couch after a tough day of 4th grade:
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