This commentary, first published in 2019, earned McNeir his first of three consecutive Society of Professional Journalists, Washington, DC Pro Chapter, Dateline Awards for Excellence in Local Journalism, as the winner in the Weekly Newspaper, Commentary & Criticism category:
My childhood began in the ’60s — an era during which children routinely relied on their imagination to create make-believe friends, communities — even alternative worlds. Tablets, iPads and cellphones were years away from becoming essential elements of everyday life. And while today’s youth may view the options available during my youth as “prehistoric,” I thought we had it pretty good.
Saturdays were particularly special and while the only day I could stay in bed as late as I wanted, I always rose early to watch the cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, the Flintstones, Yogi Bear and the Jetsons were my favorites.
After becoming a father in the early ’90s, I would be introduced to a new set of “super-friends” as my two children embraced Barney, Big Bird, Kermit the Frog and Elmo. Today, my youngest grandson, who just turned 5, lives and breathes Paw Patrol, SpongeBob SquarePants and Arthur.
Looking back, I realize that those fictional characters not only provided hours of entertainment but were also participants in stories and situations that taught us about our community, how to live, work and play with others and how to deal with adversity or disappointment. They also opened a window into places and spaces inhabited by people far different from us.
However, with time and in the real world, those people and the lands in which they live have changed both in content and in structure — whether those changes have reflected the status quo or not. Such is the case today with one of the nation’s most popular cartoons, “Arthur,” which kicked off its 22nd season earlier this year with a special wedding episode.
Children in the state of Alabama never saw the season opener which deals with the nuptials between Arthur’s teacher and his partner — two male characters. The episode, “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” was never aired in the state — a decision made by the director of programming at Alabama Public Television (APT) after one local station learned of the episode’s content prior to the season opener and informed the director.
As the story begins, Arthur and his friends are worried about Mr. Ratburn and even try to stop the wedding, suspecting that he plans to marry an uptight woman. When they get to the wedding, they learn that his betrothed is another man. Their collective response, surprisingly perhaps for some, is that of relief and happiness for their teacher who they clearly adore and for whom they only want the best. APT execs claimed that since parents trust that their kids can watch programs without adult supervision, they could not allow the episode to be aired, adding that the program “didn’t fit” within the context of a long-established but unwritten agreement between APT and the state’s parents — the same rationale used in 2005 when another “Arthur” episode showcased one of Arthur’s friends, Buster — a child with two mothers.
But are we really protecting children from dangerous elements of society or are we simply passing on our own prejudices, biases and our inability to allow others, no matter how different they may be, to live as they desire with the same kind of respect that we demand from others — even if we dislike, disagree with or are even appalled by any or all of those differences?
Cartoon figures and make-believe characters designed for children should mirror the world that our youth currently or will inevitably experience. Such encounters, “teachable moments,” make it easier for children, with our guidance, to make sense of people, places and things with which or with whom they have little or nothing in common.
As a child, my parents helped me understand differences in a world far bigger than my own. Similarly, I allowed my children and now allow my grandchildren to talk with me about concepts, beliefs or ways of life foreign to them. This is how we help children to form their own views. But I wonder, when we blackout portions of reality aren’t we telling our children that some people, because of how they live, what they believe, what they look like, how they dress, who they chose to love — even the Supreme Being whom they worship — result in their being “less than” — damaged, soiled, blasphemous and dangerous to ever be around.
Maybe I’m being naïve but isn’t this how we teach children to hate?