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The Power of Doc McStuffins

| September 22, 2014

title
Disney Junior

When the animated children’s series Doc McStuffins debuted two years ago, series creator Chris Nee knew her title character was groundbreaking: Doc is a six-year-old African American who plans to be a doctor when she grows up. Doc’s dad is a stay-at-home parent and homemaker, and her mother is a physician. Doc spends each episode diagnosing and patching up ailing stuffed animals and baby dolls of varying skin tone and hue.

Once the cartoon starting airing on Disney Channel, those who took note of how it was pushing boundaries included an international group of female physicians of color that has deployed Doc McStuffins as part of its push to raise the profiles of doctors who are neither white nor male—and draw other women of color into the field of medicine.

Dr. Myiesha Taylor, president and co-founder of the 3,500-member group, the Artemis Medical Society, is an emergency medicine physician in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth. She has experienced first-hand how the show and the character help “normalize brown-skinned women as doctors.”

“You’d be surprised at the number of children I now hear say, ‘She looks like Doc McStuffins’ when I walk in,” said Taylor.

Those children’s responses are a far cry from reactions Taylor had gotten previously, especially early on her in 15-year medical career. “It was assumed that I was the nurse. When I went into the room and said, ‘I’m Dr. Taylor,’ even African-American patients sometimes said, ‘Oh, you’re the doctor?’ They really couldn’t comprehend it. I believe Doc McStuffins sends a message that helps us to bypass some of the shock and surprise and lets doctor and patient get down to business.”

Earlier this year, the Artemis Society partnered with Disney for its ongoing We Are Doc McStuffins project, in which the station aired short clips showing Doc with African-American women doctors talking about their jobs and lives. Disney also co-sponsored a 2013 50-city We Are Doc McStuffins mobile tour, a kind of meet-and-greet for community people and Artemis members.

This weekend, at its first annual retreat and mini-conference, in Dallas, Artemis will grant Nee its inaugural White Coat Award, for “commitment to advancing diversity in medicine.” The conferees are slated to discuss assorted aspects of doctoring, balancing work and family life, and so forth, Taylor said.

They will continue to strategize about how to get more women of color on track to medical school at a time when just 1.9 percent of physicians in the United States are females of African descent. In 2008, the latest year for which the American Medical Association tabulated the data, of the nation’s 954,224 doctors, 276,417 (28 percent) were women. And about half of those women were white.

The conferees also will consider the role media images play in advancing the goal of making non-white, non-male doctors less of a comparative rarity.

Even animated productions can play a role in how children see themselves and their possibilities for the future. Minnesota State University at Moorhead researcher Nicole Jasperson’s analysis, “She Wears Pink and He Wears Blue: A Content Analysis in Children’s Films,” released in March 2013, noted that makers of animated children’s movies generally targeted viewers as young as three years old.

“Children are malleable and learn from various agents of socialization how to think, feel, and act about gender and culturally approved gender roles,” Jasperson wrote in that study, which parsed the top three animated movies of 2010, 2011 and 2012. In those films, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and Brave, collectively, a total of 74.1 percent of characters portrayed were male.

While 12.7 percent of male characters in those films possessed what the researchers defined as feminine characteristics, 27.5 percent of female characters had male characteristics. Those male characteristics included, the researchers wrote, “any career mostly seen as masculine by society[:] police, firefighter, doctor, lawyer, race car driver, mechanic, or warrior … “

“This contributes to early gender socialization of what a boy or girl thinks they can—or have to—be in society,” Jasperson wrote.

Dustin Harp, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Arlington, teaches courses about news reporting on marginalized communities. She lauds Doc McStuffins as a groundbreaker. She added that Dora the Explorer likely paved the way for the little girl doctor.

Harp, whose research centers on “relationships of power and voice in the public sphere,” said she hopes that Doc McStuffins does not, as Dora did, in her opinion, give way to easy female stereotypes as the show grows older.

“It's really encouraging to see [Doc McStuffins’] representation in children's programming, and it will make a difference to children growing up watching. I believe you can't be what you can't see,” Harp said. “It's also quite wonderful to see these girl characters in more than supportive character roles and doing more than waiting for their Prince Charming.”

Still, she offered a caveat: “I was really disappointed to see the princess-ing of Dora. At the start, Dora was simply a little girl out exploring. But after a while, long, flowing-haired Dora hit the market, and she was transformed into a princess. She isn't only a princess, but that narrative has infiltrated episodes and marketing of Dora. We'll truly be able to celebrate when the princess narrative stays out of these characters' stories.” 

Doc McStuffins creator Nee and her image-bending doctor partners from Artemis are aware of how real an array of gender constraints can be for many growing children. In their own ways, they are angling to upend those constraints.

“I created the show for my son,” said Nee, who is white and also the show’s executive producer. She wants her now seven-year-old boy to have an expansive, gender-balanced view of the world. “I felt strongly that we had plenty of male characters who were leading the gang … I never [presumed] that my son would not watch [a female cartoon character].”

“It’s very important that children take in these models,” said Artemis member Dr. Donna Hamilton, a pediatrician and wellness consultant in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. “What’s being taught to them is that anyone can be a doctor.”

“We are excited,” Nee said, “about giving voice and a place to people who don’t see themselves on TV as often. I have no doubt that Doc McStuffins has changed the landscape.”

Said a Doc McStuffins fan and self-proclaimed aspiring doctor, physician Taylor’s 12-year-old daughter, Haley Schlitz: “It’s not like Doc McStuffins is just a little kids’ show. It is. But it has a much bigger message.”

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