Living in a patriarchal world, means that a number of stereotypes are consistently portrayed in the media. These stereotypes often find their way – into children’s cartoons. This ranges from the problems with female superheroes and the sexualisation of female cartoon characters to the lack of girl protagonists. There is also often the problem of the lack of ethnic diversity in cartoons.
The Disney Company 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 compounded in black households, because where some of these problems are addressed – the racial element still remains lacking- meaning black girls in particular, are disproportionately under-represented.
Where 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’ which features a Latina main character. Disney’s exception has been the movie ‘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 it also still portrays an unrealistic female body and a particular form of ‘beauty’.
Now, you may be wondering why cartoons are such a huge deal to me. It’s because I am a mother of two. I have written before about the difficulties of raising both a girl and boy child in a sexist world and how the society constantly imposes gender conforming roles on my children. 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 strong black female characters.
And that 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 this 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 and because their mother is a doctor, it is their father who is the primary caregiver and 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. Doc McStuffins goes beyond being a positive role model for black girls, but is also good for black boys in a world constantly imposing gender roles upon them.
It’s easy to take for granted the effects of a lack of positive role-models on black children. The impact on black children who grow up never seeing themselves reflected in what they watch is deep. For example, it can also affects what children believe they can aspire towards, in addition to 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 which are a great, relatable start for any child. I highly recommend Doc McStuffins to parents, with similar concerns about how blackness and gender roles are portrayed to their kids.
Main photograph by Koketso Moeti.