Since its launch in 2012, the kids' TV show "Doc McStuffins" has been celebrated for the portrayal of its protagonist: a little black girl who is a doctor for toys and stuffed animals.
While the show premise shouldn’t seem revolutionary, the fact that it features a non-white kid living a regular life and doing regular things has resonated with parents across the globe.
So, when it recently became public that Disney Jr. hasn’t confirmed that the show will be renewed for a fifth season, the show's fans mobilized. Socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell, author Roxanne Gay and singer Audra MacDonald were just some of the prominent people who took to Twitter to let the world — and Disney Jr. — know why they love the show and how important it is to their families.
This concern has re-ignited a conversation about diversity in children’s television and its impact. Angie Nixon says the lack of media featuring children of color as a central character has had an impact on her daughter’s self-esteem: "She hated her skin complexion. And that’s very sad, as a mom. Being a black mom, knowing that your child hates the way she looks, and she looks just like you."
Which is why the existence of a show like "Doc McStuffins" is so important to her. But Angie wanted to do more, so she encouraged her daughter to explore her feelings about her looks by writing. The result? They created a comic book called ‘The Adventures of Moxie McGriff." It’s about a girl who discovers her superpowers after her fairy godmother gives her shampoo made of "self-love" and "moxie." Angie’s daughter, Natalie, says writing the comic taught her that everyone should love themselves, "love the way you are and have confidence" in themselves.
For Angie and Natalie, taking matters into their own hands was one way of trying to change the representation of children of color in entertainment. But not everyone can do that. Most of us are passive recipients of what’s out there. According to Susan Soldwisch, a retired family therapist, representation on TV and in the media generally helps answer key questions, like, Who values me? and What is my value?:
…from infancy, the first developmental task is trust or mistrust. So [for a child to see him] or herself reflected in the people around her and in the media, that has a subliminal message.
Soldwisch adds that watching shows with diverse casts doesn’t just benefit children of color – it benefits all kids: "It’s very important that [children] also have exposure to others of different colors, or else they’ll feel isolated and they won’t have the ability to form bonds with other people.”
But racial diversity isn’t skin deep. Isabel Cueva, the mother of a pre-school aged girl in L.A., would love to see children’s shows celebrate different cultures. “We need to expose our kids to outside of just this bubble," Cueva says. "So, what is it like living somewhere else? What are some of the cultural impacts that are gonna shape the children and shape these cartoon characters?”
Cueva wants children’s TV shows to challenge stereotypes, not create them. She wants to see shows that reflect "how people really live. To have it be what the culture’s about, and not just what other think the culture’s about."
Nancy Kanter, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, agrees that there needs to be more diversity in children’s entertainment. But she’s proud of her company’s approach: “The notion of how we can continue to look more inclusive and look more diverse is a conversation we have day-in and day-out on every single project we’re thinking about.”
Which brings us to Disney’s latest offering: "Elena of Avalor."
Elena is Disney’s first Latina princess. Kanter says the network was serious about how best to represent this character’s heritage:
Very early on, we brought in consultants to work with us; people who had expertise, whether it was in art or music or mythology, to work and give us information that we could then go back and include in each and every episode.
As a result, they created the fictional world of Avalor, what Disney calls an "enchanted fairytale kingdom, inspired by diverse Latin cultures and folklore."
Between "Doc McStuffins" and "Elena of Avalor," it looks like a commitment to diversity is afoot in preschool TV — or at Disney Jr. at least.
That said, if Angie Nixon’s experience is anything to go by, Disney could be the exception, not the rule. Nixon says she’s in the process of turning the adventures of "Moxie McGriff" into an animated series, but entertainment agents have suggested they “rethink the concept, because, you know, having an African-American in the lead role just may not work. People aren’t used to that.”
It seems the success of "Doc McStuffins," despite being broadcast in 30 different languages and in 158 countries, hasn’t changed the way some decision makers think about diversity in entertainment. But neither Angie Nixon or her daughter Natalie are deterred. They’re still moving forward with their plans. They’re still writing their comics, too.
Meanwhile, the future of "Doc McStuffins" doesn’t seem as clear. Nancy Kanter says that the network loves the show and everything it’s achieved, but, "we’re just not at that point of making a concrete decision."