I have written about the difficulties of raising both a girl and boy child a sexist world and how society constantly imposes gender conforming roles on my children, while at the same time elevating the male behaviours imposed on my son to those imposed on my daughter.
So within my house I am very careful about what my children read and watch, because it is very important to me that they are both exposed to a variety of black female characters and are able to move past the gender binary- the problematic division of the world into things that are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
Living in a patriarchal world, means that a number of stereotypes are consistently portrayed in the media- including children’s cartoons. This ranges from the problems with female superheroes and the sexualisation of female cartoon characters to the lack of girl protagonists and also the lack of ethnic diversity in cartoons.
Disney in particular has come under fire over the years for their unrealistic portrayal of women’s bodies and for perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes in their offerings. All these problems are particularly notable in black households, because where some of these issues are addressed,the racial element remains ignored. When cartoons feature some diversity, more often than not the main character is white or it sticks to the same old, same old gender stereotypes. One of the few exceptions that has achieved mainstream fame is Nickelodeon’s ‘Dorah the Explorer’. Disney’s exception has been ‘The Princess and the Frog’, featuring their first black princess.
While Disney does deserve credit for their attempt to challenge how princesses are usually depicted, there are still some major problems with the film which are well articulated here. For me one of the fundamental issues with it is that, it also still portrays the woman’s body in an unrealistic manner and reinforces a particular form of ‘beauty’. This is why Disney’s Doc McStuffins is such a huge deal for me. The series was launched in 2012 (although I only discovered it earlier last year) and features a black girl protagonist who wants to become a doctor like her mother. She ‘saves the day’ pretending to be a doctor, fixing toys by giving them check-ups and diagnosing their illnesses in “The Big Book of Boo Boos“. She has a ‘clinic’ in their backyard and when she puts on her stethoscope, toys come to life and she is able to communicate with them.
Apart from the fact that the show is all about her- not in a supporting role, Doc Mcstuffins is an ordinary black girl- not sexualised in any way nor are her looks ever a subject in the series so far. She has a little brother, but because their mother is a doctor, it is their father who is the primary caregiver. He is often shown preparing meals for the kids; taking them out to the park or game centre and just playing with them at home. So not only is it a positive portrayal of blackness, but it also smashes many gender stereotypes as well. So Doc McStuffins is not only great for girls, but is also good for black boys in a world that socialises them into believing that there is only one way to be a boy or a girl.
It’s easy to take for granted what it means for black children to grow up never seeing themselves positively reflected in what they watch, but it does in multiple ways. It even affects what children believe they can aspire towards, despite the structural challenges we know they’ll face by virtue of being black. Without a doubt, black children should not only be inspired through cartoons and need to be exposed to actual black human beings doing great things- but Doc McStuffins is a winner.