What Does “Arthur” Have to Teach Us About Bullying?
(Don’t worry– this will be my last post about TV for the foreseeable future.)
I’ve taken on Sesame Street, so now it’s time for another beloved childhood favorite: Arthur.
For background, I hate Arthur. I hate everything about Arthur from its style* to its subject matter. The biggest crime of all is that it is so goddamned boooooooooring.
There was one episode that made me swear of the entire series forever. Season 14, episode 9 has a segment titled D.W., Queen of the Comeback. I urge you to watch the segment, but if you can’t (or don’t want to subject yourself to twelve and a half minutes of low res blarg with no transcript) here’s the quick and dirty: Arthur’s sister (DW) gets a haircut. The class bullies tease her for it. DW wants to come up with a snappy comeback, but instead decides to ignore the teasing. Her teacher sees what she does and rewards her maturity with a brownie. YAY LESSON LEARNED! BE THE “BIGGER PERSON” AND ALL WILL BE WELL ::confetti!::
Notice that something is missing? Oh yes, the bullies are never held accountable for their actions. The teacher doesn’t intervene while they’re making fun of DW, nor does anyone at any point in time suggest that DW talk to an adult about the shit she’s enduring. When she does bring her problem up with an adult, she is told to ignore the teasing.
Really? That’s where we’re going with this? In an age where kids are literally being bullied to death, we’re going to reinforce the lesson that silence is the key to stop bullies’ behavior? We’re going to put the onus on the victim to stop being a victim? I understand the impulse to a certain extent: we want to give kids power over their situations. All bullies want, the show writers seem to be arguing, is attention. Be that as it may (and I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning), this just allows the bullies to pick a different victim. Nothing is truly resolved.
The episode could have been so much better. DW could have gone to her teacher and found out that there’s an anti-bullying program at her school. The bullies could have been taught a lesson (from the adults) as to why their behavior is unacceptable. Hell, the writers could have deus ex machina-ed that shit and in a stroke of clarity, the bullies could realize that hurting people is not cool. These solutions are far from perfect, but just about anything is preferable to the “just be quiet and eventually the bullies will stop” approach.
So, in conclusion: Arthur sucks and no one should watch it. Ever.
*Where the fuck did Arthur’s nose go? Dude is an aardvark, after all.
I’ve always wondered what kind of animal he is.
I hate the “ignore the bullies” advice… Got that advice constantly when I was a kid, it never worked. Unfortunately, I was too scrawny and friend-less to do anything about my bullies.
Aurthur has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never knew why. But that feeling has been enough to steer my son away from it.
It’s strange how some kids’ shows list page after page of experts in the credits, professionals carefully crafting the messages of the show. And others seem to be thrown together by writers/animators who should really take a few courses in child development. And, as parents, it’s hard to know which is which. And sometimes we learn the hard way and expose our kids to some truly troublesome ideas.
I’m not a big fan of Arthur either. And I absolutely hate the “just ignore them” advice. I was never bullied in school, but I saw kids who were, and frankly, that is too big of a burden to be putting on a 6-year-old. It’s also completely unfair to the bullies, who need to learn how to interact better.
(I know there’s this myth that bullies always make it to the top. It’s not really true, from what I can see. Sure, everyone at the top might be a bully, but not every bully makes it there. A lot just end up lonely, pathetic, socially inept rejects.)
Oh, and as a teacher, we do our best to let kids work things out amongst themselves. It develops problem-solving skills.
But that does not extend to problems that are outside of the child’s reach to solve, and I think bullying, by definition, is one of those problems. Sending kids the message that adults won’t help you and that silence is rewarded is really hurtful in so many ways.
There was a study some years back now that showed that watching Arthur (I think Franklin was the other one they used) increased interpersonal violence in children more than either Tom & Jerry type cartoons or more stereotypically violent Transformers type cartoons.
So while we read an Arthur book now and again, we street clear of the show and others like it. Give me Little Bear or 321 Contact any day.
Holy moly, really?
I’ll have to keep an eye out for that– obviously I have no love for the show, but wowza.
The study was done by Dr. Jamie Ostrov and Dr. Douglas Gentile. It was reported on in chapter 9 “Plays Well With Others” in the book “NurtureShock” by Bronson and Merryman. In the study, they were trying to see if certain shows promoted aggressive behavior in children and other shows promoted pro-social behavior. The result was that the shows the researchers thought would make kids aggressive (“Power Rangers” and “Star Wars” are mentioned) didn’t make kids more aggressive at all. And shows that researchers thought would make kids more pro-social (“Arthur” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” were mentioned) resulted in kids exhibiting more anti-social behaviors.
Looking at all the research and also going with my own instincts on this, I’ve just concluded that television is mostly bad for kids, so I only let my kids watch it in strict moderation as a purely recreational activity.
Also, I totally agree about the horrible aesthetic in modern day Arthur books and cartoons! The style changed completely from the earliest books to the newest ones. The original style was much more unique and the characters actually looked like animals, not freaky humans with some animal features stuck on.
Arthur has weirded me out from the start — the first book was about him learning to accept how he looks with his freaky long aardvark nose, wasn’t it? He was embarrassed, because everyone else had smooth flat faces, so he went to a specialist to see if he could get his nose fixed, but in the end he decided to keep his long nose. And then it just … sort of went away until he had a “normal” face. What a great lesson!