We have to give credit where credit is due.
Today's New York Times contains a lengthy profile of a relatively new Disney animated TV show called "Doc McStuffins," where the main character is an African-American child, six years of age, who wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a physician.
The NYT article begins, as it should, by relating Disney's checkered history when it comes to race, going back to the depictions of black characters in "Dumbo" and other early films that make parents today cringe. It also discusses "Doc McStuffins" as part of a more recent Disney trend, seen in the introduction of Tiana, the first black "Princess," in 2009's "The Princess and the Frog," toward greater inclusion.
The backstory behind "Doc McStuffins" and the racial composition of its lead family is quite interesting as well. The show was conceived and created by Chris Nee, a white woman (photographed in the article around the kitchen table with her young son and partner, Lisa Udelson) who pitched the show with the little girl as white. Disney executives decided to make "Doc" black.
Of course, Disney is a for-profit corporation and that decision was made almost wholly as a business decision. The article notes that Disney recognized a "hole in the market," as there wasn't a current animated show aimed at small children with a lead black character appearing on a major channel (recent shows with black lead characters include "Little Bill" and "The Proud Family," but there hadn't been one on the air in five years).
I'm certainly not here to tell you that Disney is doing anything other than catering to the marketplace. The positive story is that Disney IS responding to the marketplace, a marketplace that includes a) black families who want to see a show with a black lead character, and b) large numbers of white, Asian, Latino, American Indian, and families of every other non-black ancestry who are in no way turned off by a show with a black lead character, and may even be drawn to such shows as a way of teaching their own children egalitarian, inclusive values.
The show appears to be a bit of a take-off on Dr. Doolittle, or at least the Eddie Murphy version I remember. Dottie "Doc" McStuffins likes to pretend being a doctor, and when she dons her stethoscope she's able to talk to her stuffed animals, who have suddenly come to life. The show premiered this March and, of note to me as I child of 80's sitcoms, one of the characters, "Lambie" (A gorilla. Just kidding), is voiced by Lara Jill Miller, who I'm sure you all know was the youngest sister Sam on the classic show "Gimme a Break," which starred the multitalented Nell Carter.
"Doc McStuffins," of course, has a Facebook page where parents have written all kinds of positive comments. The NYT article included a couple of quotes from parents as well, which are worth reprinting here:
“It truly warmed my heart and almost brought tears to my eyes when my 8-year-old, Mikaela, saw ‘Doc McStuffins’ for the first time and said, ‘Wow, mommy — she’s brown,’ ” Kia Morgan Smith, an Atlanta mother of five, wrote on her blog Cincomom.com. Myiesha Taylor, a Dallas doctor who blogs at CoilyEmbrace.com, took her praise a step further, writing, “This program featuring a little African-American girl and her family is crucial to changing the future of this nation.”I'm not personally a connoisseur of current trends in kids' TV, my kids mostly watch movies or, in my younger daughter's case, home movies featuring herself (we breed narcissists from an early age in my family). Growing up when I did, in the era where tens of millions of Americans watched sitcoms featuring black doctors and lawyers like the Huxtables, or black businessmen like George Jefferson, as well as diverse dramas featuring professionals of many races, I just didn't think all that much about this topic when it comes to kids and today's TV shows.
But, especially given Disney's history, it is important for us to recognize that they are doing something good here, even as they make a profit doing it. They are filling a need in the marketplace, but they are also filling a need in our culture and in our self-image as a society.
That's a story I'm happy to read in the newspaper.
6:49 AM PT: UPDATE:
It's not a coincidence that this positive story appears on the same day as another post, one that discusses an apparent horrific hate crime in Florida. Both kinds of stories represent today's America. We live in a country that can elect a black President and where an unarmed black teenager can be targeted as a threat because of how he looked and then end up shot dead. Both of these things are true simultaneously. We need to understand both how far we've come and how far we still have to go.