The other day my four-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to be Doc McStuffins, kind-hearted friend to ailing stuffed animals everywhere, for Halloween. To complete the look of the Disney Junior character, we would need to get a white doctor’s coat, a sparkly headband, and pink sneakers. “But I’ve already got a stethoscope and brown skin,” she said. So check and check on that. There was much to cheer about this conversation. 1) No request for a flimsy, sad-nightgown princess costume, the visual plague of suburban sidewalks come All Hallows’ Eve. 2) A doctuh! 3) My daughter has a pop culture hero with skin the same color as she.
There’s an expression “You can’t be what you can’t see.” As an adoptive white mother of a black child, I think of it often. I thought of it when the only choice of diapers were the ones adorned with white princesses. This morning when my husband tore off the sticker on the kids anti-cavity rinse after our daughter professed a wish to have straight hair like the white Barbie Doll mystifyingly plastered on the bottle. I think of it whenever we turn on the TV or go to the movies.
We own The Princess & the Frog DVD but my child prefers a princess in a beautiful dress, not one who spends the bulk of the story trapped in frog skin. But we both adored Brave, which I took my daughter to three times, and I did love seeing her ogle Merida’s delightfully wild curls. A pox upon the lank hair of dolls everywhere, all of it straight regardless of skin color.
On a recent playdate, a black friend was reading Ladybug Girl Dresses Up! to the kids. Afterwards she expressed to me her wish for a series like Ladybug Girl that featured a black character. Not a story with a social message, or an empowerment theme. Just some tales of a regular gal who did everyday things like dress up with her friends or ride a merry go round until her stomach hurt or get messy with paints on the sidewalk.
My friend’s frustration reminded me of a dispiriting conversation I had with the marvelous Viola Davis for a cover story about The Help. She described her many layers of identity: “I’m a black woman who is from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark skinned. I’m quirky. I’m shy. I’m strong. I’m guarded. I’m weak at times. I’m sensual. I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen. And the reason I will never see myself up on screen is because that does not translate with being black.” I wanted to cry after she said that, at the thought of my child ever looking on screen or in the pages of books for herself, and failing to see the whole of her person there, anywhere. What is good pop culture supposed to be if not a reflection of our varied selves?
My daughter’s favorite TV show isn’t Doc McStuffins because the main character is black. She just loves the Doc. And she loves wearing her stethoscope and crying out “I have a diagnosis!” a hundred times a day. And she loves the episodes where Stuffy the Dragon falls into a burr bush, or the one where Doc is sick so all the stuffed animals take care of her for a change.
It’s me who loves that my little girl wants to be a doctor for Halloween. And me who loves that being black is a part of being Doc McStuffins.
Any other Doc McStuffins fans out there? Any other characters of color your kids love? (I’ll put Little Bill and the main character from Kathryn Beaumont’s great I Like Myself book here.) What pop culture character does your child most want to be? (On different days we’ve got the Doc, Toy Story‘s Jessie, Cinderella and Peppa Pig.)