My daughter loves a Disney Jr. cartoon called Doc McStuffins. She’s a freckle-faced seven-year-old girl who wants to become a doctor, like her mom. In the meantime, she practices on toys and stuffed animals in her backyard playhouse-clinic, with help from her sassy simile-slinging stuffed hippo nurse, Hallie.
Let me start off by saying that Doc’s got a heck of lot to recommend her. Some pros:
1. She’s a black protagonist for preschoolers.
The show both does and doesn’t make a big thing of this. Some plots incorporate black historical figures, like Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot, or contemporary role models, like Michelle Obama. But whatever’s going on, the story focuses first and foremost on Doc’s exquisite doctor skills and ever-abiding good will.
In classic storytelling, the protagonist serves as anchor and lens. She’s the one you identify with. My kids are white, and I don’t want mirror images to be the only perspective they can try on and ascribe agency to. What’s more, Doc’s a legit hero. She famously “never gives up,” and her professional and personal records are impeccable. (More on that later.)
2. She’s a doctor in a world of princesses.
Sure, her accessories are pink and purple. But, and here’s what’s important: they include two diagnostic manuals and a stethoscope (which doubles as a bad-ass magic talisman that brings toys to life). Doc is awesome not because she has a sparkly gown and tiara or some prince digs her, but because she is the best damn toy doctor in the known universe. Ever.
And since she’s a general practitioner/veterinarian (adept at everything from surgery to psychiatry) specializing in toy populations, she’s essentially an engineer with bedside manner. If something breaks, Doc doesn’t run to her (stay-at-home) dad, and she only rarely consults Dr. Mom. She fixes it her own self.
The doctor/vet premise allows the show to promote everything from wearing sunscreen and washing hands to managing emotions and taking care of pets.
Yet, despite this patently unoffensive content, Doc McStuffins started getting on my nerves.
What seems to be the problem?
There’s no problem! Not with Doc. Not ever. That’s the thing.
To explain, allow me to compare her for a moment to Little Bill.*
I choose this jazzy animated early-aughts series not because it’s another preschooler cartoon featuring a black family. But because it’s my fave. And because its eponymous main character serves as a perfect foil to Doc.
See, there’s Doc, who never fails to resolve not only her own (rare) problems, but also everyone else’s. She never gets mad or even frustrated, and she’s seldom (and only very briefly) confused. She gets to go to the White House, back in time (where she inspires Florence FREAKING Nightengale to found the profession of nursing), and even to the North Pole, where Santa himself offers her a job (which she turns down).
After enough of this, a person can really relate when space-bot toy Commander Crush says testily, “Does she always have to be the best toy doctor there is? Isn’t there one teensy little thing she couldn’t fix?”
Little Bill, meanwhile, has issues. Big issues. Like deliberately ruining his friend’s painting after she accidentally ruined his — and refusing to say sorry. Or like when his best friend joins his kindergarten, and Little Bill manages to make the day all about himself instead. Or when he finds out that he’ll have to fall down a bunch to learn how to skate and decides that skating is STUPID.
When Doc McStuffins builds a sand castle, it looks like Neuschwanstein. When Little Bill builds a sand castle, it looks like a sad little pile of sand with a twig sticking out of the top.
I love Little Bill.
So what is this really about?
At first I thought I didn’t like Doc because her relentless goodness makes her unrelatable to her little fans. They don’t get to see their own failings in her, and that could cause them to feel less secure in their flaws and perpetuate lifelong inferiority complexes. (Or something.)
But this week, as the Chicken Pox rages through our house, I’ve been watching more Doc McStuffins than usual. And I’ve done some soul-searching.
See, I realized failings are there for kids to relate to; they’re just played out in the characters of Doc’s toys.
Take that spacebot, Commander Crush:
Doc’s next-door-neighbor friend, Carlos (and his toys), move away. That means that Commander Crush loses his best toy-friend, Star Blazer Zero. As her lifelong playmate Carlos rides away in a moving van, Doc simply smiles and waves good-bye before comforting Commander Crush. She’s “proud of him for caring so much about his friend.”
Then it hit me: Doc is not supposed to be the kid on this show. She’s supposed to be the parent.
And at first, that pissed me off even more. I mean, what, does Disney Jr. have some covert agenda of trying to teach parents while also teaching their kids? And if so…
WHO YOU CALLIN A BAD PARENT, you smug little first-grade medical wunderkind? I don’t tell you how to do your job, Prodigy Face.
Even as I’m having this fit of childish paranoia, I can hear Doc McStuffins in the background:
“Take a deep breath for me… Gooooood. Let it out.”
Aw, geez, Hallie the Hippo’s right…
…I am acting “sadder than squished sasquatch.”
I mean. This is just a cartoon for little kids to watch. It’s not trying to teach me how to be a good parent. At least, that’s probably not the primary aim. If anything, it’s trying to teach my kid how to be a good parent.
And not because I’m not doing my job, but because, well, Doc is just much better at it than I am.
So, I hope when our kids look back on their early years, they somehow confuse their memories of me with their memories of a seven-year-old cartoon black toy-doctor, being (much like Little Bill’s impossibly good parents) ever patient and wise.
Because sometimes, like when one kid’s a mess because she’s got Chicken Pox all over her body (including her poor little tongue!) and the other kid’s trying to chase her around the house with a fork, and we’ve all been quarantined for the past four days and counting… well, sometimes I could use a little help.
So, thanks, Doc. I feel better.
*Yes, Little Bill is a Bill Cosby production. And, yes, I’m also disgusted by Bill Cosby’s behavior. But, for all his faults, Little Bill had nothing to do with any of that.