Doc McStuffins is the default cartoon whenever I’m babysitting my two nieces, ages two and three. They’re enthralled with the six-year-old aspiring doctor who attempts to heal her toys with assistance from her snowman and dragon friends. I’m comfortable with their admiration for other cartoon characters, such as Caillou and Dora the Explorer; but it is especially gratifying to watch them bond with McStuffins because she, like them, is an adventurous Black girl with a gigantic imagination. Their connection to McStuffins is familiar with thousands of children of color who have propelled McStuffins to the top spot on Christmas and birthday wish lists.
Disney introduced Doc McStuffins in 2012, and the show was an instant success, due in large part to the support from children of color and their families. Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, told Bloomberg that Disney executives were immediately infatuated with the show’s premise.
“It was almost like one of those ‘duh why didn’t we think of this before’ moments,” she said.
Yet, Disney made a significant change before green-lighting the series. Executives made the McStuffins family Black instead of white. According to Kanter, changing the character’s race was a purposeful move designed to promote inclusion.
“It’s important to us that the brand and the content represents the world as kids live it and see it and that is a world that’s very diverse,” Kanter told Bloomberg. “Just the notion that for some kids this will look exactly like their families and for others it will look like what they see in their neighborhoods.”
The arrival of Doc McStuffins filled a void that’s been plaguing parents of color for decades. Not seeing their children’s unique cultural experiences reflected on television or on retail toy shelves signals to parents that their children don’t matter to toy manufacturing companies or the corporations that produce cartoons. WalMart conducted a survey in 2013 that questioned parents of color about their toy-purchasing preferences. Seventy-seven percent of African-American parents asked for toys that were culturally relevant to their children and desired toys that represent their family’s race, ethnicity and/or culture.
Karen Braithwaite, mother of six-year-old Georgia Braithwaite, realized the lack of concern for children of color when she launched a Change petition in 2013 to persuade Mattel to produce birthday themes featuring Barbies of color. Mattel declined Braithwaite’s request for a Black Barbie party line after conducting marketing research panels that concluded that the products wouldn’t generate enough profit.
The success of Doc McStuffins’ merchandise proves there’s a market for toys targeted toward children of color. The Doc McStuffins line of toys and other merchandise made almost $500 million in 2013, and is the best-selling toy line featuring an African-American character. Disney has also expanded the Doc McStuffins brand to include bedding, Band-Aids sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and a host of other accessories.
Connecting Black children to characters that resemble them and have similar lives and experiences is crucial, according to Kevin Clark, founder and director of George Mason University’s Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity.
“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 the Associated Press.
Mothers of color, like Dr. Myeisha Taylor, agree. Taylor watches the show with her four-year-old daughter, Hana.
“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.”
Taylor is also responsible for the powerful image of 131 Black female doctors all encircling Doc McStuffins to encourage Black girls to pursue careers in medicine. When Disney aired an episode of Doc McStuffins that focused on natural hair and different textures, it was also an important moment for girls of color and their families.
After two years on air, it is safe to say that Dottie “Doc” McStuffins’ pink stethoscope, wondrous spirit and Black girlhood has changed the cartoon landscape forever.