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Doc McStuffins: Disney’s diversity triumph

WHAT’S UP DOC?: Doc McStuffins with her team of toy helpers (from left) Chilly, Labmie and Hallie

SHE RUNS her own clinic, she inspired the launch of a new medical society and she has even rubbed shoulders with Michelle Obama, these are quite significant achievements for an animated character.

But indeed, Doc McStuffins has made waves worldwide since she first hit TV screens in 2012.

Starring in the Disney Junior cartoon of the same name, Doc McStuffins is a little girl ‘doctor’ who fixes broken toys. Inspired by her mother, a real life doctor, Doc runs her own clinic – a playhouse in her back garden – where she helps toys in need.

Whether it's replacing a stuffed toy's missing nose, healing a doll's broken leg or curing a toy dinosaur's bad breath, there's no toy problem too big for this dedicated doctor. 

The concept proved to be a hit, with the US show earning a legion of young British fans – subsequently making it one of Disney Junior UK’s most successful series premieres.

Additionally, the merchandise is endless. (I should know, I've bought much of it for my two-year-old daughter).

Cuddly toys, Doc's uniform for children to dress up in, toy medical equipment, jigsaw puzzles, slippers – the list is endless.

Is the show's creator, Chris Nee surprised that her brainchild has become such a phenomenon?

"Oh, absolutely,” says Nee, who has enjoyed an extensive career in pre-school animation.

“But it’s incredibly satisfying. Animation takes an incredibly long time to do and when you’re working together as a team, you just hope that you can create a show that you’ll be proud of and that you’ll get enough viewers to make it all worthwhile. But what it has become makes coming to work every day a real joy.”

Aside from becoming a ratings success for Disney Junior, Doc McStuffins has enjoyed recognition far beyond its pre-school target audience. Why? Because Doc is black. 

Successfully addressing the issue of racial diversity in animation, Doc has found favour amongst many black parents, who are thrilled their young children have a positive TV role model.

“The idea that she should be black was Disney’s idea, which they brought to me,” explains Nee, whose credits include the children’s animation Little Bill and the hit pre-school show Sesame Street. “But discussing that was about a 10-minute conversation. At the time we spoke, I presented the show to them without artwork so there was no image of what she’d look like.

“They said they’d been looking for a character to bring diversity, I said I thought that was a great idea and that was kind of the end of the conversation. It wasn’t a long or difficult decision to make.”

BRAINCHILD: Doc McStuffins creator Chris Nee

Earning young black and non-black fans alike, Doc's success would seem to support the theory that children are 'colour blind' and that for them, a cartoon character's race doesn't matter. But in an article carried in The Huffington Post earlier this year, writer Jennifer Harvey described colour blindness as a "dead end" ideology, adding that it is "based on the degrading assumption that there must be something ‘wrong’ with ‘colour.’ If there wasn't, why wouldn't we want to notice it? "

Does Nee want her character's ethnicity to be significant to young viewers?

"I think my hope is that you see her for who she is and that race isn’t an issue. I think race is important to talk about and it is important to see. For me, it’s not about not seeing her for who she is – it’s about seeing that and her still being the kid you want to hang out with."

One group of people for whom Doc's race didn't go unnoticed is black medical professionals. So powerful was the image of a black, female doctor – albeit an animated one – that it inspired Dr Myiesha Taylor, a black American physician, to launch the Artemis Medical Society; a group of female physicians of colour, who aim to nurture fellow black medics and increase their visibility in society.

GREAT CASTING: Loretta Devine is the voice of Hallie the nurse

Speaking to Ebony magazine last year, Dr Taylor recalled how there were no characters like Doc for her to look up to when she was growing up, adding: “In 20 years we should see the first group of medical school graduates who will say their dream of becoming a doctor began when they saw their first telecast of Doc McStuffins.” 

It’s a dream that Nee would love to come true.

“I do suspect that in 20 years, there will be a certain amount of doctors who will say that Doc had something to do with their career choice. If that did happen, I can only imagine that would be very emotional for me.”

Doc McStuffins made its way into The White House earlier this month.

To commemorate Veterans Day on November 11, US first lady Michelle Obama – accompanied on stage by a life-sized Doc – hosted a special screening of an army-themed episode for military families. Nee tweeted that the experience made her feel “so proud.”

Fun-filled, educational and brimming with great songs, the show also puts a spin on ‘traditional’ gender roles. In the McStuffins household, Doc’s father is a stay-at-home dad who looks after Doc and her little brother Donny, while her mum works as a doctor.

FAMOUS FRIENDS: Doc with First Lady Michelle Obama

In addition to Doc’s family, there is also her trusted team of toy helpers, perhaps most notably her right hand woman – well, toy hippo – Hallie.

A loveable nurse who is always on hand to assist Doc with whatever she needs, Hallie is voiced by actress Loretta Devine, famed for her roles in the hit films Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife.

“Loretta auditioning for the part was really a dream come true,” says Nee. “I saw her on Broadway in Dreamgirls when I was very young, so it’s almost hard to believe that she’s part of our show, coming in every week to perform and sing. She’s an absolute delight.”

UK fans of the show may be particularly interested to know that Doc and her toy friends will be heading to our shores soon. In an upcoming episode titled Let the Nightingale Sing, the troupe travel back in time to 19th Century England, where they meet English nurse, Florence Nightingale.

Beyond that is there any chance Doc might travel back in time to visit any key black history figures?

“I can’t really talk about things that are in production, but yes, that is very much possible, I will say that. We’re certainly interested in making sure we take full advantage of the cultural touchstones that are available to Doc.”

Doc McStuffins airs every day at 4.55pm on Disney Junior. The episode, Let the Nightingale Sing premiers on Disney Junior in December.

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