She’s the Boss
By W. Kamau BellOctober 10, 2015
Doc McStuffins is a children’s show on Disney Jr. And Disney Jr. is ethering the game right now. (That’s probably not a sentence that’s written that often.) From Doc McStuffins to Sheriff Callie to Octonauts, they are dominating the two-to-five-year-old demographic. And they are doing it with music and good times, while also dropping knowledge on those preschool noggins. These shows are the kids’ show equivalent of Shonda Rhimes’s Thursday night three-hour block, and Doc McStuffins is the Olivia Pope of children’s television. My family and I have been down with this show since the beginning. I feel like all those annoying Mad Men fans who’ve been clogging up my Twitter for the last five years. Like those fans, whenever I run into parents with preschoolers who aren’t down with Doc McStuffins, I look at them dismissively, as if to say, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you. Is it that you just don’t like joy?” Think I’m overselling the greatness of Doc McStuffins? Well, the FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama, was a guest this week, on Monday, October 5th. Take that Don Draper . . . and Dora.
Here are the reasons why Doc McStuffins is the most important children’s show since Jim Henson and the gang laced them up.
First of all, Doc McStuffins is about a seven-year-old black girl. That basically makes the title character the Diahann Carroll of children’s TV. How many other children’s TV shows have a black female lead character? Hint: The answer is “not nearly enough.”
Second of all, Doc McStuffins is a doctor for her stuffed animals and toys. And that may sound merely adorable to you, but I’m raising a pair of black girls who will one day be powerful black women. And Doc McStuffins is the reason that my four year old could say the words “stethoscope,” “otoscope,” and “sphygmomanometer” when she was two years old. I had to use Google just to figure out how to spell “sphygmomanometer.” Being a doctor is Doc’s job. Doc diagnoses, fills out a chart (The Big Book of Boo Boos), and heals. She does everything from replacing dirty bandages to full on surgery. Doc also encourages her patients to brush their teeth, wear helmets on bicycles, and be good friends. And she makes house calls. By any measure, Doc McStuffins is a more reliable and trustworthy TV doctor than Doctor Oz. And she’s not even real.
Doc’s mom is an actual doctor on the show, which means young kids don’t have to wait until they grow up enough to watch season 19 of Grey’s Anatomy before they see a black female doctor on television. And it means that for my daughters, a black female doctor is no big deal, as it shouldn’t be. The show even has interstitials with actual black female doctors to show that the idea of a black female doctor isn’t just for cartoons.
Doc’s dad’s job . . . well, I’m not sure exactly what he does. I’m pretty sure he’s a stay at home dad, which is also revolutionary for multiple reasons. But what he mostly does is hang out in the kitchen chopping vegetables, and offering them to Doc and her friends — vegetables that he seems to grow in his garden. Did I just blow your mind?
The toys that Doc attends to are her friends as well. They all come to life and talk with the help of Doc’s magic stethoscope. Yup, I said magic stethoscope. We don’t know where Doc got the stethoscope. We don’t know the extent of its powers — although, like any good mystical amulet, its powers seem to be growing. (In the third season it suddenly became a time machine and took Doc and the gang back to 19th century London to meet a young Florence Nightingale.) In fact, all we really know for sure about the mystery stethoscope is that when Doc walks into a room and presses the bell, it emits a melody that is as ubiquitous in my house as the whirring noise of the red light on KITT was in my mom’s house when I was a kid. And when that noise rings out, every toy in the room comes to life. And I mean every toy: stuffed animals, dolls, action figures, remote control cars, soccer balls, xylophones. But this isn’t Toy Story. Doc can interact with her toy friends. Each toy serves a role helping teach kids how to communicate. Among Doc’s dozens of toy friends, there’s a toy with asthma, a toy in a wheelchair, and even a toy who Doc teaches how to respond to inappropriate touching. Yes, that happens in a kids’ cartoon. And it happens with a song.
If you’re a parent, you hate the songs from kids’ shows on their face. For every awesome grown-up friendly Backyardigans jam there seems to be 100 kids’ songs like Dora The Explorer’s map song. A song that literally disintegrates at the end into, “I’m a map. I’m a map. I’m a map. I’m a map. I’m a maaaaaaaaaaap!” And look, no disrespect to my kids’ show creatives out there. I get it. You need kids’ songs to be on point, catchy, and easy to understand. And you also probably need them to be done in 30 seconds or less. So I feel for you. But somehow at Doc HQ, they have cracked the kids’ song code. And I think it’s because they brought in a couple of ringers. One of the songwriters, Michelle Lewis, came to the show after writing songs that grown-ups sing. Grown-ups like Cher, Shawn Colvin, and Lisa Loeb, among others. And the other main songwriter, Kay Hanley, joined Team McStuffins after leading the band Letters to Cleo. Clearly, these two sit down to write songs they want to hear again and again (and, if you’re in my household, again and again and again and…). These two have created some of the greatest hits of my daughter’s life. Songs like, “She’s Not Bossy, She’s the Boss” “Stars, Stars, Planets and Stars,” “Made in the Shade,” and the number one stunner “Tell Me What’s Wrong.” Honestly, the songs may be the greatest thing about a show packed like a seven-layer bean dip with greatness.
The show’s objective is clearly to get kids more comfortable to speak up for themselves and not to be afraid to get help when they need it. But wait, there’s more! There was the episode about a scary storm that was coming just as some of the toys were separated from the others. (I swear I wasn’t crying. I just had bad allergies that day.) And at the beginning of the episode Professor Hootsburg just happens to mention in passing, “As the Earth gets warmer and warmer, big storms get bigger and bigger.” Yup. Doc McStuffins just told kids about climate change. Many, many, many episodes are about inclusion. There’s an episode that is basically about people with curly hair accepting that it won’t ever be long and flowing. In my house of mixed daughters that hit us right where we live. (I swear I wasn’t crying that time either. Again, these damn allergies!) Recently the show has released some episodes about taking care of pets, and in the process it’s gotten meta, which is to say that some of the characters now occasionally seem aware of the show’s conceits (the songs, the magic stethoscope). Which means my kids will appreciate meta-humor years before I did. And another episode about the parents of a friend of Doc’s contains the takeaway that the parents are two moms. BOOM!
On October 5th the First Lady herself, Michelle Obama, stopped by to bless the show. In my house this was way bigger than a visit from the Pope. And it meant that my four year old daughter got to have her first encounter with a first lady brought to her by one of her favorite (and IMHO, one of the most revolutionary) TV shows of all time, period.
I’m not crying . . . okay, maybe a little.
W. Kamau Bell is a socio-political comedian based in The People’s Republic of Berkeley, CA.
Kamau Bell is a socio-political comedian based in The People’s Republic of Berkeley, CA. He is the host of CNN’s upcoming travel show The United Shades of America and the cohost of the podcast Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period.
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