Pleasant Surprise: A POSITIVE Story About Disney And Racial Stereotyping

August 8th, 2012 | Categories: Uncategorized

For today’s WEblog Wednesday Ian Reifowitz author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books, 2012) shares his insights about stereotypes communicated byDdisney, a topic not unfamiliar to The communicated Stereotype.

We have to give credit where credit is due.

Last Tuesday’s New York Times contained 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 and stereotyping, 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.

“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.”

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 was happy to read in the newspaper.

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  1. Terrence
    August 16th, 2012 at 21:22

    The Magical World of Disney.

  2. jennacastle
    November 29th, 2012 at 16:23

    I was very happy to read this article. I think it is very important for big television channels like ‘Disney’ to start making more racial approaches. In many of the shows marketed towards teens, the main character is a white person. Usually they have one friend who is a different race. I think it is very important to have a show where there is a black character that is the main person. In the new show Doc Mcstuffins, I love how the characters mother is a physician. This shows viewers that not only white people are showcased on television. It also shows that African Americans are capable of having a successful job. I think it is important to show this to young viewers. Disney is making strides with this, in 2009 they released the movie The Princess and the Frog with the first black princess. Mothers have commented on this show and expressed their happiness to have their children watching a show that showcases something other than a white person. It is going against the overused stereotype.

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