LOS ANGELES — A pig-tailed girl whose favorite accessory is a pink stethoscope has become a symbol of pride and hope for black women in medicine and the daughters they want to inspire.
Doc McStuffins, the African-American title character of an animated TV series for children, dreams of becoming an M.D. and, for now, runs a cheerful home clinic for stuffed animals and dolls.
“I haven’t lost a toy yet!” Doc exclaims as she hugs a blue dinosaur in need of attention.
“Doc McStuffins,” which is produced for children ages 2 to 7 by Ireland-based Brown Bag Films and airs on the Disney Channel and on the new 24-hour Disney Junior channel, recently was renewed for its second season. Doc is voiced by Kiara Muhammad, with Loretta Devine in the cast as a smart plush hippo named Hallie.
For Dr. Myiesha Taylor, who watches Disney Channel’s “Doc McStuffins” with her 4-year-old, Hana, the show sends a much-needed message to girls about how big their ambitions can be.
“It’s so nice to see this child of color in a starring role, not just in the supporting cast. It’s all about her,” Taylor said. “And she’s an aspiring intellectual professional, not a singer or dancer or athlete.”
So Taylor sent a message back, creating an online collage featuring an image of the buoyant Doc encircled by photos of 131 black women who are Doc’s real life-counterparts, most garbed in their scrubs or doctor’s coats.
“We are trailblazers,” Taylor proclaimed on her website. “We are women of color. We are physicians. We ARE role-models. We are Doc McStuffins all grown up!”
For black women whose own wish to practice medicine came true, the show is welcome affirmation. The doctors shown in the collage are graduates of schools including Harvard, Yale and Stanford and work in a range of specialties such as neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery and psychiatry. Taylor is a board-certified emergency room physician.
According to the American Medical Association’s “Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., 2012 Edition,” there were 18,533 black female physicians in 2010, or less than 2 percent of a total of 985,375 U.S. doctors, including nearly 300,000 female physicians. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, blacks make up 12.3 percent of the population at about 40 million, with more than half of them women.
“When we made her an African-American girl, we hoped it would be a positive role model that wasn’t really out there and would be great for little girls,” said series creator Chris Nee. “What has been surprising is the strength of the reaction and that it’s from adults.”
She hopes the series resonates with all the girls who watch it, she added, citing worrisome studies that females start to develop negative attitudes about science at a young age.
Dr. Leah Backhus, 38, appreciates Doc and more in the show. A cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Washington and mom to daughter Sydney, 7, and son Ryan, 5, Backhus values the reflection of her profession and her family, with a husband who takes a big share of responsibility for housework.
“It’s incredibly reassuring for Sydney to see that and know that her family sits into the general definition of what family can be like,” Backhus said. “It’s not so unique. It’s something really pretty cool.”
The show’s positive depiction of an African-American family, so rare for children’s TV, can have a “tremendous impact,” she added.
Diversity has blossomed in kids’ TV in recent years, with series including Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan,” Disney’s “Handy Manny” and “Shake It Up,” and PBS Kids’ “Maya & Miguel” and “Word Girl.”
The power of TV role models, even animated ones, is undeniable, said Kevin Clark, founder and director of George Mason University’s Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity.
“Because children of color (African American and Latino) spend the most time viewing television, it is important to have programming that represents them, their surroundings, as well as their dreams and aspirations,” Clark said in an email.
Taylor, 38, who works in Dallas-area suburbs as an ER specialist at Texas Regional Medical Center and as a physician supervisor at a manufacturing plant, built her career on family tradition: Her mother was a registered nurse, and Taylor’s grandmother was a vocational nurse.
“When I came along, my mom said, `You should be a doctor. That’s the next step,’“ Taylor recalled. (She was inspired to pursue ER medicine after her father, Dwight Taylor, was among the first bystanders shot in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and was taken to a hospital without a trauma center, where he died. He was 42.)
For her daughter Hana, Taylor said, “Doc McStuffins” is reinforcement of what mom has accomplished.
“I see her engage and play with her toys (like a doctor) because it’s normal,” Taylor said. “It’s even more awesome when people ask her, `What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and she says, `A doctor.’“
Taylor, whose family with her husband, William Schlitz, also includes daughter Haley, 9, and son Ian, 6, wants even more from children’s TV. She sees too few characters of color in starring roles and too many black characters who aspire to entertainment, sports or fashion industry success, not education and a career that benefits others.
Children need to see an alternate to LeBron and Beyonce, she said: “There’s not enough imagery on television to show kids and their parents there are other paths to follow.”