“Wow, Mommy – she’s brown.”
Eight year-old Mikaela was referring to the star of the new Disney Channel cartoon Doc McStuffins, a 6-year-old African-American girl whose professional aspirations inspire her to run a clinic for broken toys in her playhouse. Given that the last major preschool cartoon to center on a Black character was Nick Jr.’s Little Bill, which ended in 2004, Mikaela had reason to be surprised.
“It truly warmed my heart and almost brought tears to my eye,” wrote Mikaela's mother Kia Morgan Smith on her blog Cincomom.com.
In a world when most of the positive role models on TV, having a Black female main character who comes from a stable family is a very good thing, said Kevin Clark, founder and director of George Mason University's Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity, told the Associated Press.
"Because children of color (African-American and Latino) spend the most time viewing television, it is important to have programming that represents them, their surroundings, as well as their dreams and aspirations," Clark told AP.
Considered a breath of fresh air by bloggers and cultural critics alike, the show places a confident McStuffins directly in the spotlight, not as a sidekick or token friend of color. With an actual doctor for a mother and a stay-at-home gardener for a father, the McStuffin family structure is one not often seen on television shows, regardless of race.
During a radio interview with KCRW, Aletha Maybank, a pediatrician and assistant commissioner at the New York City Department of Health, linked Doc McStuffins to another revolutionary television show.
“I grew up in the Huxtable era,” she said. “And Dr. Huxtable was one of the only Black physicians that we saw on TV at that time and how inspiring and encouraging and normalizing that really became for us. I think Doc McStuffins does the same thing for children today.”
The pig-tailed protagonist’s voluntary interest in modern, imaginary medicine also stands in stark contrast to the entertainment and style industries often prescribed to young female characters and viewers. Her accessory of choice is a pink stethoscope.
There were 18,533 Black female physicians in 2010, or less than 2 percent of a total of 985,375 U.S. doctors, including nearly 300,000 female physicians, according to the American Medical Association's Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., 2012 Edition. McStuffins challenges this number by making the profession much more accessible to Black girl viewers, including those who have never encountered a Black female doctor.
A fan of both the diverse casting and topical focus, Dr. Myiesha Taylor watches the show with her 4-year-old daughter. The series even prompted Taylor to create a side-project celebrating Black female doctors.
"It's so nice to see this child of color in a starring role, not just in the supporting cast. It's all about her," Taylor told the Associated Press. "And she's an aspiring intellectual professional, not a singer or dancer or athlete."
Disney has produced more multicultural characters in recent years, as seen in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Handy Manny and Shake It Up, however the 89-year-old film company has earned a negative reputation amongst many African-American audiences for racial stereotyping and homogenous content. Disney's princess franchise has also repeatedly come under fire for reinforcing traditional gender-roles and promoting European standards of beauty.
Yet a desire to reach a previously untapped market and positive feedback from the network's diverse casting in its live action shows inspired Disney to take a risk. In fact, creator Chris Nee had originally envisioned a white female lead for Doc McStuffins and credits Disney for suggesting that the character be African-American instead.
While Gary Marsh, the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channel Worldwide, told The New York Times that Doc McStuffins has the potential to shape the budding social ideologies of young viewers through its diverse images, Nancy Kanter of Disney Junior expressed genuine surprise about the show’s immediate success with adult Black viewers.
“We knew that we’d created obviously an African-American character,” Kanter told KCRW. “We were thrilled, because there’s not a whole lot of them on air, especially in our demographic of preschoolers, and honestly we didn’t think it would touch that powerful a chord when it came to African-American women doctors. I will freely admit, it hadn’t occurred to us.”
Doc McStuffin debuted in March on the Disney Channel and Disney Junior. The series has been renewed for a second season.
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