LOS ANGELES — For decades, many African-Americans have voiced conflicted feelings about Disney.
Many fault this entertainment colossus for being slow to introduce a black princess as a peer to Cinderella and Snow White. (There is one now: Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog.) The racial stereotyping in early animated movies like Dumbo lives on through DVD rereleases. African-Americans also can bring up Song of the South, a 1946 film that Disney has labored to keep hidden because of its idyllic depiction of slavery.
Disney has worked overtime in recent years to leave that past behind, and a surprising groundswell of support from black viewers for a new TV cartoon called Doc McStuffins is the latest indication that its efforts may be paying off.
Aimed at preschoolers, Doc McStuffins centers on its title character, a 6-year-old black girl. Her mother is a doctor (Dad stays home and tends the garden), and the girl emulates her by opening a clinic for dolls and stuffed animals.
I havent lost a toy yet, she says sweetly to a sick dinosaur in one episode.
The series, which made its debut in March on the Disney Channel and a new cable network called Disney Junior, is a ratings hit, attracting an average of 918,000 children ages 2-5, according to Nielsen data. But Doc McStuffins also seems to have struck a cultural nerve, generating loud applause on parent blogs, Facebook and even in academia for its positive vocational message for black girls.
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 shes 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.
Taylor, who noticed Doc McStuffins while watching TV with her 4-year-old daughter, Hana, was moved enough to collect pictures of 131 doctors all black, all women and publish a collage online under the heading We Are Doc McStuffins. She also started a related Facebook group that now has 2,250 members.
For Disney to make a cartoon that stars a little brown girl as an aspiring intellectual professional, thats coming a long way, Taylor said in an interview.
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor who teaches black popular culture at Duke University, noted that Disney has sharply increased its emphasis on multicultural characters in recent years, pointing to a cartoon series called The Proud Family and The Princess and the Frog, released in 2009. But even he is impressed with Doc McStuffins.
My youngest daughter, who is 9 and still has an affinity for stuffed animals, loves the show, Neal said. Part of the appeal for her is seeing herself represented in this space of fantasy.
Minority characters seen as a risk
Despite a surge in multicultural cartoons, like Nickelodeons Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, designed to introduce Mandarin vocabulary words to preschoolers, and 40 years after Bill Cosbys Fat Albert, black cartoon characters in leading roles are still rare. Its considered an on-screen risk to make your main character a member of a minority, even in this post-Dora the Explorer age.
Networks want to attract the broadest possible audience, but the real peril is in the toy aisle. From a business perspective, Disney and its rivals ultimately make most of these shows in the hope that they spawn mass-appeal toy lines. White dolls are the proven formula.
Encouraged by the reaction to multicultural casting in its live-action shows (A.N.T. Farm), Disney figured it was a risk worth taking. The company also spotted a hole in the market. The last major preschool cartoon to have a black focus was Cosbys Little Bill, which ended five years ago on Nickelodeon.
Race may have factored into Disneys thinking in other ways. Doc McStuffins is mostly designed to entertain, a minus for parents of preschoolers, who typically want educational components (like the way Dora teaches Spanish and problem solving). A positive message about racial diversity helps fix that problem, as do messages about health and hygiene.
Chris Nee, who created Doc McStuffins, said, Disney, to its complete credit, looked at my pitch and suggested that we make the characters African-American. Her original Doc McStuffins was a little white girl.
Gary Marsh, the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, said Doc McStuffins reflects a type of hypersensitivity to the power of television on young viewers.
What we put on TV can change how kids see the world, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously, he said. By showcasing different role models and different kinds of families, we can positively influence sociological dynamics for the next 20 years.