Let us now praise Arthur character D.W.: dreamer, schemer, roast master general in a four-year-old aardvark’s body. After 25 years, the classic PBS kids show Arthur aired its final episode this week. And in more than 250 episodes, little-sister character Dora Winifred Read was a blissfully unwholesome role model: smart, funny, and unlikable.
Our illiterate queen! Lover of unicorns, hater of spinach; a true original in a world of basics. D.W. rocked e-girl short bangs before e-girls existed. She humbled men, sweet-talked parents, and knew her rights. Arthur creator Marc Brown had three sisters, and he has said that he based D.W. on all three of them, making her “triply lethal.” This comes across—D.W.’s great charm is that she gives off main character energy while literally not being the main character. In the early Arthur era, ’90s girls were used to stories in which women played smart, complex supporting characters—Hermione, Amidala, Helga, Lisa Simpson. As an Arthur character, D.W. was a variation of this proud tradition. First, she never, ever accepted a role as the sidekick. And second, she was apologetically annoying.
That famous meme of Arthur’s balled-up fist? He is about to punch D.W. A distant cousin of Junie B. Jones and Pippie Longstocking, D.W. is never passive, or quiet, or accommodating, or even polite. She is a sore loser and a frequent liar. She talks constantly and takes up space. She is not a nice little girl—it is more accurate to say that she has the skills to rile up a mob into violence. There has been meaningful pushback in the past few years against labeling smart little girls as “bossy.” It’s an important cultural change, but D.W. really is bossy. “When D.W. really, really wants something, there’s no telling what she’ll do to get it,” Arthur says. She has the combined energy of a maiden aunt, a screaming newborn, and a high school debate champion. She throws out casually devastating insults. (Arthur’s head looks like “a football with glasses.”) Under her reign, PBS could have stood for Pretty Brutal Sass.
While Arthur and other characters tended to be sweetly relatable, D.W. delivered well-crafted jokes with impeccable timing. Arthur is a classic Harry Potter–type, Francine’s a Hermione, Buster is a Ron-Neville, and Muffy is Malfoy. D.W. stands apart—she is not heroic, or malevolent, or a follower. She is just a highly verbal four-year-old who is prone to gently encouraging her parents to disown or abandon her brother. D.W. has a stellar imagination—she creates an imaginary friend named Nadine Flumberghast. She experiences theft of snowball via alien. She is not afraid to self-perform dental surgery in the hopes of rinsing the tooth fairy for cash. She occasionally resorts to blackmail. She gets cast as a tree in her school play, but she rallies. She is a patron of libraries (though she cannot, in fact, read.)
Through Arthur‘s quarter-century run, the character of D.W. was voiced by eight actors. All of them were boys. On a podcast in 2021, Debra Toffan, a casting director for Arthur, explained the decision: “D.W. is a rough-and-tumble little girl,” she said. “She’s a little brat.” When little girls auditioned for the show, they were “just too sweet.” It seems like there’s something there about how early girls can be coded as “little brats” for having characteristics that are more acceptable in boys. D.W. would probably see the injustice in that. She would either respond with a devastating zinger, or by playing “Crazy Bus” 532 times in one week.
The word icon is overused, but it fits D.W. like a pair of Mary Janes. Happy trails, D.W. Read. May you ride your trusty tricycle in our hearts, forever.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.