The internet erupted earlier this week after it was revealed that Mr. Ratburn from the children’s show Arthur had come out as gay.
Long-time fans of the show, however, know that Arthur has never shied away from dealing with progressive topics in the 22 years it’s been on the air.
It comes as no surprise that the children’s shows we grew up with had a profound impact on our development and worldview. Our favourite characters taught us everything from learning the alphabet to understanding how to forge relationships. But sometimes cartoons can go beyond the happy-go-lucky narrative of adolescence, weaving social issues into the plot.
Here are some of the most impactful moments from our favourite childhood shows that subconsciously taught us lessons about the real world.
1. Sesame Street
Throughout its 49-year run, Sesame Street has consistently championed inclusivity and tolerance in its storylines. Episodes often feature important issues ranging from bullying to racism, and reflect on real-life experiences that kids face.
In 2017, for example, Sesame Street introduced Julia, its first autistic Muppet. In the episode, the character is hesitant to meet Big Bird, and as a result he becomes worried that Julia doesn’t like him. Elmo explains to big Bird that Julia is autistic and just “does things a little differently.”
The episode was praised for its efforts to help children better understand their classmates who have autism, while giving autistic children a Muppet to relate to.
Another prominent Sesame Street episode involved Big Bird dealing with the death of Mr. Hooper. After Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, the show decided to tackle the topic of death on the show. In the episode, Big Bird has trouble coming to terms with Mr. Hooper’s death and insists that he will return. His human friends go on to remind him that while Mr.Hooper won’t come back, Big Bird will always have memories of his friend to look back on.
Although Nickelodeon’s Rugrats was told through the perspective of toddlers, it was underlined with many progressive moments that adults and children could understand. In the show’s emotional Mother’s Day special, Tommy, Phil and Lil try to help Chuckie find a mom. At the end of the episode, the babies come across a box of some of his mother’s personal belongings. Chuckie’s father, Chaz, sits down with his son and they go through the items together, finishing by reading a poem that she wrote to Chuckie while in the hospital. It’s then alluded that she died of a terminal illness.
The episode was praised for how it handled addressing the death of a parent, and the understanding of child grief.
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In other episodes, Rugrats addressed religious holidays including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The show also tackled gender norms — in one episode Chuckie and Phil question why girls can wear skirts and pants, but boys can only wear pants.
The mothers of the show were also recognized for being strong women. Phil and Lil’s mother, Betty, was vocal about women’s rights. Tommy and Dill’s mom, Didi, was seen as the breadwinner and a teacher-like figure. And Charlotte, Angelica’s mom, was a CEO, who, although may have come off as mean and manipulative, refuted the stereotype that women in business can’t be abrasive and assertive.
3. Hey Arnold!
Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! had a number of progressive moments scattered throughout various episodes. In one Christmas-themed episode, it’s revealed that Arnold’s neighbour Mr. Hyunh, while living in Vietnam, gave up his daughter to the U.S. military so she could have a better life in America. The two are separated for many years until Arnold finds a way to reunite them. The episode highlights the brutality of war, and the fear and grief it can cause those affected by it.
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In another episode, a new girl, Lila, gets bullied by the other girls in her class for being smart and pretty. The jealous classmates devise a prank that humiliates Lila, causing her to skip school, and ultimately sends her into a depression. It’s later revealed she lives below the poverty line in one of the city’s worst neighbourhoods.
In the episode Helga on the Couch, the reasoning behind Helga’s rough girl behaviour is revealed — it stems from a history of parental neglect. Her parents spent more of their time on her older sister, praising her for all of her accomplishments. This resulted in Helga’s poor self-esteem, which she masked by bullying other kids.
While most of us remember Arthur for its catchy theme song (Hey — it’s a wonderful kind of day!) and its range of fun and lovable characters, the show actually highlighted a number of real-life issues that both kids and adults could relate to.
For instance, in The Great MacGrady, the lunch lady at Arthur’s school, Mrs. MacGrady, is diagnosed with cancer. The kids all react differently to the news with Arthur and D.W. rushing to her side and showering her in presents. The episode shows that Francine has a difficult time coming to terms with Mrs. MacGrady having cancer, and she deals with nightmares and avoids her.
Eventually she realizes that the best thing she can do is help raise money for the cause, and she joins a Pedal for the Cure bike race in honour of Mrs. MacGrady. The episode deals with children coming to grips with the idea of terminal illness, and how it can affect the people they love.
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Other notable moments from the show include the time Binky Barnes, the strong-willed bully, confronted gender norms by showing that he had a soft side by teaching D.W. how to ballet dance. The Boy With His Head in the Clouds episode depicted Arthur’s friend George and his struggle with dyslexia.
5. The Proud Family
Acclaimed for being one of the only cartoons on TV that featured an-all black family, Disney Channel’s The Proud Family broke conventions in more ways than one. Whether it was an episode that focused on the feisty Penny Proud vying to join the boy’s football team, or the “I had a dream” episode that had Penny travel back in time to understand the significance of Black History month, the show used humour to deal with matters of race and equality.
One of the show’s most famous episodes features Penny interacting with a Muslim family for a week. Culture Shock involved Penny switching lives with a Pakistani girl, Radhika Zamin, from her school for a cultural exchange project. While at first Penny is reluctant to spend time with a family that is so outwardly different from hers, she soon begins to enjoy being around the Zamins as she learns more about their culture.
Not only did the episode showcase the family celebrating Ramadan, it also dealt with the issue of Islamophobia post-9/11 — a first for the Disney Channel. Penny is outraged after the Zamins’ house is vandalized with a message telling them “to go back to their country.”
After witnessing the hate crime, she puts on a presentation at her school, where she talks about how the Zamin family is really just like any family in the United States “with annoying siblings, an overprotective father, grandparents who live in front of the TV, and a mother who keeps everything together.”
6. As Told By Ginger
The story of Ginger Foutley and her friends as they navigate through middle school and the eventual transition to high school captured many of the milestones everyone goes through during that time. In a show that was praised for its continuity and character development, we saw the teens deal with school cliques, popularity, friendships, relationships, and home life as they were experiencing it. Although the aforementioned themes were a little more tame in comparison to other shows that dove deeper, As Told By Ginger still had its progressive moments.
In one notable episode, Ginger writes a poem for a creative writing contest that is considered dark and disturbing by her teacher. She is concerned Ginger might be suffering from depression or is suicidal, and encourages her to see the school’s psychologist. More teachers and the rest of her peers are concerned for her well-being, despite Ginger insisting that the poem is a work of fiction and not a reflection of herself.
The show also tackled single-parenthood as Ginger’s mom raises her and her younger brother, Carl. It’s believed that her dad, Jonas, left shortly after the birth of Carl, and Ginger maintains no memories of him. Although the two eventually meet, Jonas only filters in and out of sporadic episodes in the series. The two develop a small relationship, but Carl still resents Jonas for walking out on the family.