Plagiarism in Pop Culture: Arthur

A fraud in Elmwood City...

Francine's Pilfered Paper Title

Arthur is a children’s TV show based on the books by Marc Brown. The show features Arthur, an 8-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark, and his animal friends as they learn life lessons and work to become better people.

Entering into its 21st season, the show puts a major focus on teaching morals and helping children deal with life’s challenges. Set in the fictional town of Elmwood City, Arthur and the other third-graders deal with a wide variety of issues, including ethical dilemmas, family issues, to illnesses and more.

However, it was in season 11, in episode 8 of the season (143 overall), entitled Francine’s Pilfered Paper, that the topic of plagiarism came to the third-grade classroom. In a Thanksgiving-themed episode, one of the students in Elmwood City, Francine, plagiarizes a paper.

Though she may have done it unwittingly, her act begins a series of events that ensures she learns the error of her ways.

The Plot


The episode begins with a dream/fantasy sequence that has the children dressed as pilgrims and living in early colonial United States. They are on their way to school and discussing the upcoming Thanksgiving celebration.

However, Buster is deeply worried for a girl languishing in the stockade. The children discuss bringing her food but the teacher, Mr. Ratburn, intercepts them saying, “She hath committed the most egregious crime known to student and schoolmaster alike. She must contemplate the error of her ways.”

The camera pans to the stockade, which has Francine in it with a scarlet “P”. She pleads to be let out, saying she didn’t know it was wrong and promises she’ll never do it again. The “it” in the sentence is not explained at this moment.

Then the show cuts back to its more familiar setting as the kids are in Mr. Ratburn’s classroom and preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, Mr. Ratburn has a “surprise” for the class in the form of a five page paper due when they return.

Internet Lessons

The children, predictably, groan and Francine seems particularly upset. Given the task of writing about pilgrim cuisine, she says she is “doomed”.

Brain and Buster bump into Francine in the library, causing her to drop her stack of books. Noting that she’s struggling to find material for her paper, Brain shows her how to use the internet (using the search engine “Woohoo”).

They then print her a list of links (because that’s somehow helpful) and Francine takes the list home. There, she reads the websites and finds ones that have everything she needs. She then copies and pastes the text into a new document, adds a title and prints it out.

Francine turns in the assignment the next day, much to the surprise of the class and Mr. Ratburn. That evening, as the other children struggle with their assignments, Francine is watching football. However, when her older sister, Catherine, tries to hand her some information she might find useful, Francine realizes that it’s “her” paper.

Francine excitedly tells Catherine what she did, but Catherine recoils in horror, explaining that it’s plagiarism. Francine says, “No it’s not, it’s called finishing your work early…” but then asks what “plagiarism” is.

Catherine says, “It’s when you take someone else’s work and claim it as your own. It’s basically stealing. Catherine then explains that Francine might not only get an “F” but could get suspended for the act.

Nightmare Sequence Image

Francine, now upset, is unable to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner and rushes on her bike to Mr. Ratburn’s house in a bid to tell him the truth. However, before she can speak up, Mr. Ratburn grades the paper in front of her and gives her an A-. He asks what her reference source was, and she makes up a book title before leaving.

Francine tries to leave the incident behind her but struggles, eventually having a nightmare of being called out for plagiarism at a book signing.

Shaken by the dream, she goes to school early to speak with Mr. Ratburn and explain how it happened. Mr. Ratburn, seemingly unfazed by the confession, explains that there are two crimes in a plagiarism, the first being the original author and the second is the person who plagiarizes is robbed of the chance to learn something.

Francine, then says she wrote another paper, a non-plagiarized paper, and, in class later that day receives a “B” on it. Francine cheers in excitement, much to the confusion of her peers, and is happy to have earned the grade for herself.

Understanding the Plagiarism

Copy and Paste Image

The plagiarism in the episode is about as straightforward as we can get. Francine copied an article from the internet, pasted it into her paper and turned it in under her name and with a new title.

What’s most interesting about it is that Francine is not a “bad kid” by any stretch, and she genuinely didn’t know it was wrong until it was explained to her.

That might seem exceptionally naive, it’s important to note that Francine and the other children in the show are 8 years old and in third grade. It’s likely that she was never taught about it at that point.

Still, studies have shown that children intrinsically understand plagiarism is wrong by age 5 or 6, so that theory may not hold much water either.

Regardless, Francine’s plagiarism and her response to it is fairly believable. She thought she had found a way to make the assignment go faster. She then learns that it’s plagiarism and tries to confess, but is so overcome with the relief of not getting caught that she doesn’t. Still, the emotions gnaw at her and she does so anyway.

Overall, the show’s portrayal of plagiarism, explanation of what plagiarism is and explanation for why it is bad are pretty on point.

As a tool to introduce young children to the idea of plagiarism, it’s not that bad. While I would have liked them to discuss how plagiarism is a lie and not focus so heavily on the “opportunity to learn”, something most young kids will not care about, it did well overall.

For the audience it is aimed at, the show covered the topic pretty well.

Bottom Line

To be clear, I don’t think the show would do well with an older audience. The plagiarism is simplistic, and the narrative following it is as well. That’s fine and even good for young children, but older kids will find it unbelievable even if it, in its own way, is very accurate.

Other elements of the show are also ripe for nitpicking, especially the use of technology. A Yahoo joke and a printed list of links might have been fine in 1996, but this episode aired in 2007. That’s one year after Google bought YouTube (and two years after the launch of this site). It was ridiculously dated the day it aired and older students will realize that.

Still, older kids have shows that can talk to them about plagiarism, including The Facts of Life and The Waltons. There’s precious little aimed at younger children who may be getting their first taste of writing.

To that end, Arthur does a pretty good job and, aside from a few nitpicks, it’s a great way to teach kids that plagiarism is wrong.

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