At least that’s the case with Jacob Spiwak and Anthony Hanahan, two 20-year-olds who decided to start a Facebook page dedicated to Arthur memes in late 2012, while they were sophomores at an Illinois high school. The fodder in its feed is exactly what you’d expect from college-age students: scenarios that allude to Arthur and his crew as major stoners, or the deceptive quality of a girl’s Instagram photos. Though their page just recently doubled in likes over the past month, the pair said the reason they chose Arthur as a medium is because they just know the show so well.
“People oftentimes forget that Arthur has been around for 20 years now,” Hanahan added. “It had 19 seasons on TV now and they’re still making more to this day. So there’s so much material out there that you can use to make jokes and memes with.”
It’s for this reason that the origins of Arthur scenes as internet shorthand are much more scattered than, say, the easily traceable conspiracy theory that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer. The Arthur proliferation started with the Arthur Comic Creator, an interactive tool launched by PBS in 2010 that allowed users to create their own story lines using characters from the show — the closest thing fans had to a quote-and-scene generator like The Simpsons’ archive website Frinkiac. (It was, quite obviously, a bad tool to give the internet.) Tumblrs like a-a-r-d-v-a-r-k began as early as 2011, just before Spiwak and Hanahan launched their Facebook page. In 2013, 4chan users began using screen shots of Mr. Morris, Arthur’s elementary school janitor, alongside the caption “He Does It For Free” to mock moderators on the online forum. After that, the meme began splintering to various subcommunities. It made a star out of the boisterous D.W. among feminist communities and caught on with Black Twitter, with the help of a Chance the Rapper remake of the show’s theme song and Arthur’s clenched fist.
Netflix’s original content catalog is more proof that if a generation grows up with a show, it will likely be nostalgic enough to rally behind (or even Kickstart) a reboot of it. But Arthur has been on television for so long that it never got a chance to have a comeback. Twenty years after its premiere and 225 episodes later, a show about a bespectacled aardvark is now the longest-running animated children’s series in television history. Not only does its longevity cast a wide net in terms of the number of people who might immediately recognize an Arthur reference, but also for meme makers it guarantees a Library of Congress–size cache of screen grabs to caption. Finding old episodes isn’t very difficult, either. “I’ve downloaded seasons 1 to 17; you can easily find torrents lying around,” writes the owner of Arthur Out of Context, a popular Arthur meme repository. “If you don’t want to download them, though, there are some episodes on Netflix and plenty on YouTube.”
Last week, WGBH, a Boston-based public broadcast network that airs shows like America’s Ballroom Challenge and High School Quiz Show, expressed disappointment in the internet.
For anyone who has contributed to this canon — which recently reached a fever pitch with an image of Arthur’s clenched fist — WGBH’s scolding is a satisfying sign that the Arthur meme-ment has grown big enough to fluster The Olds. But the fact that a public TV station had to emerge from layers of Antiques Roadshow dust to tsk-tsk the millennials for their tomfoolery tells us a lot about how the internet has learned to communicate with itself. Alongside shows like Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and SpongeBob SquarePants, Arthur has the accessibility, nostalgia, and sheer material volume to make it a perfect model for longstanding meme-dom, a type of image-based online language that’s vast and versatile enough to frame conversations about everything from misandry to grime music. Or, as one Reddit user explaining the phenomenon to another simply put it, Arthur memes are just super “easy to recognize and produce.”
“We certainly are lucky to have a fan base that is so engaged with Arthur, especially those millennials who grew up with him,’’ station spokesperson Ellen London told the Associated Press. “Our hope is that Arthur and his friends will be depicted in a way that is respectful and appropriate for all audiences, including young Arthur fans and their families.”
How much truth does your Thanksgiving collection tell? When is the last time you evaluated each book for accuracy? Sadly, I have found I can’t reliably trust professional reviews to evaluate Thanksgiving books, or most children’s books with First Nations/Native content; I depend on the resources from Oyate and Debbie Reese’s blog to help me parse the presentation, and ask questions when I can’t tell for sure myself. I wish more reviewers would do this, and I challenge you to try it, this month. I can pretty much promise you librarians there is something in your Thanksgiving collection that is worth weeding, so this is good and easy practice.
At American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Reese gathers links to her “Posts About Thanksgiving” on the left sidebar, just scroll down.
You can buy Oyate’s full resource “Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective” as a stand alone, or within their book “A Broken Flute,” which includes many helpful articles and reviews of books you probably have in your library, but may never have really looked at through a First Nations/Native perspective. If this is the first time you are checking out Oyate, make sure to explore everything in their “Resources” section.
It is possible to have broader collections that allow for the many ways in which people approach this holiday, and tomorrow you will hear from Angie about how to develop your Thanksgiving display after your weeding. To get you started:
The story of Thanksgiving that is commonly mythologized on school stages, with “Pilgrims” and “Indians” having a friendly potluck, is just that: mythology. Oyate shares its resource “Deconstructing the Myths of the First Thanksgiving” on its website. They credit the research done by Margaret M. Bruchac in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at the Plymouth Plantation, which also underpins her book co-authored with Catherine O’Neill Grace, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. Please take a moment to read through one of these resources, now, if you haven’t before, as me summarizing the myths for you here would miss the point. The upshot is that Thanksgiving is not a happy time for everyone, it didn’t happen the way it does in the school play, and it is a time of mourning for many First Nations/Native people.
Other books don’t even try, and people still ask for books like Arthur’s Thanksgiving, where kids dress up as Pilgrims and Indians and put on a play. because that’s what some of us remember doing at Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving is about “tradition.” I’m doubtful though, that children appreciate being sold a lie. As 5th grader Taylor M. wrote to Debbie Reese, after reading the Suppressed speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James:
Many Thanksgiving books on the market now attempt to be factually correct, yet still walk a strange line. following the traditional “First Thanksgiving” narrative thread from the White colonists’ perspective, and just shifting the language so as not to be caught in an all-out lie. Robert Merrill Bartlett’s The Story of Thanksgiving was revised in 2001, the same year 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving came out, yet still traces and holds up the myth of the first Thanksgiving: “..two men name Squanto and Samoset appeared and made friends. ” “the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their harvest. they held their first thanksgiving. They invited the Wampanoags to join them” . “Today Thanksgiving is a happy time.” (This book appears to be now, thankfully, out of print.)