Spending much of the past week on the couch watching kids TV with my very sick almost-two-year-old daughter, I watched a lot of Disney Junior. (And yes, let’s get it out in the open: “almost-two” means she’s too young to be watching TV according to the American Psychological Association of Technological Determinists. So if you’re shocked at my appalling parenting, look away now before it gets worse). I wish there was a Media and Cultural Studies Center for Reviews of Kids’ Media, to save me the horrors of watching some things, but towards the aim of offering a few of my own reviews, I thought I’d take the chance to discuss Disney Junior’s three female-centered original series.
Sofia the First bugs me. The premise is that young Sofia recently became a princess when her mother married the King of Enchancia. She also has a magical amulet that summons other Disney princesses to aid her. But ironically, those princesses’ aid is mostly required to help her not be such a, well, princess. Sofia is a poster child for white privilege. She regularly does inconsiderate things, but since she realizes at the eleventh hour, apologizes, and tries to make things alright in some nominal way, that’s meant to make her a good kid. Or she’ll decide to care about one of Enchancia’s underclass, but only for a few minutes, before they’re once more unimportant to her. Take one episode, for instance, in which she is chosen to sing the Enchancia anthem at some big event, even though we’ve already learned that her ethnic friends (one is black, one Asian, since she’s a walking college admissions catalogue) sing it way better. She lets this honor get to her head, forgets about her “friends from the village,” and so her amulet gives her a frog in her throat, which is only cured when she gets up on the stage and invites her friends to sing instead of her. Everyone is impressed with her selflessness. But her friends know their place in Enchancia’s racial hierarchy and soon invite her back on the stage, where she assumes her place at the center again. Or another episode sees her butler (voiced by Tim Gunn) given a rare day off, until she and her siblings ensure he actually doesn’t get one, instead making him catch butterflies for them (I envision that this would help the butler title his tell-all Marxist autobiog of later years: Catching Butterflies: The Diary of a Working Stiff).
So very much better is Doc McStuffins. Training to be a doctor not a princess puts Doc on firmer ground with me. Doc is African-American, and she clearly wants to be just like her mom, who is also a doctor (her dad is a stay-at-home dad). She administers check-ups and cures “boo-boos” for toys, who magically come alive in her presence (or is this a projection of her psyche? I just blogged about this here). And though the show never frames her as such, this in effect makes her as much an engineer as a doctor, since toys don’t bleed (“will it hurt?” one toy asks her once. “No, you’re a toy,” she responds). A well-meaning show designed to take the fear out of doctor’s visits, Doc McStuffins has a lot of impressive and noble messaging, with black female authority, men who acknowledge it, and the über-practical Doc. The supporting cast can hurt that messaging, though, at times a lot: Doc’s nurse, for instance, is a cringe-worthy mammy hippo, and just when you thought Doc was offering a different image of juvenile femininity, her frilly-dress-wearing toy lamb with high pitched voice reminds you of the stereotype you thought the show was disposing of. So, it ain’t superb. Indeed, I have a feeling that the “submit to medical authority” narrative might not jibe with a fan of Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic. But she ain’t Sofia. Or Ariel. And because of it, my daughter likes to use her toy stethoscope and otoscope with authority, so I like Doc.
The newest addition to the lineup is Sheriff Callie’s Wild West. The premise suggests more Doc than Sofia, with a Western setting full of odd animals, talking cacti, and so forth, held together by Callie, the cat sheriff whose lasso is every episode’s deus ex machina. I appreciate that again we have a show whose female lead isn’t simply learning how to preen: like all good sheriffs, Callie rides in to save the day frequently, and enjoys the confidence of someone who knows she’s as good at telling people how to be nice to each other as she is at riding, lassoing, and laying down the law. (Of course, it’s a pretty tepid West, though: Deadwood it is not). What’s disappointing about the show is that Callie gets relatively little screen time, at least in the episodes I’ve seen. Her deputy and his talking cactus friend, both men/boys, often center the plot, as do the comings and goings of many of the town’s other (mostly male) inhabitants. Callie therefore takes on the role of Ward in Leave it to Beaver, there to save the day with wisdom and action, but the show is often as much about the town’s boys as Beaver was about that town’s boys. On one hand, I like that a female is able to play that grand authority figure blessed with almost mystical power; certainly, I struggle to think of many other popular filmic or televisual narratives in which a woman is allowed to play this role. On the other hand, though, it relegates her to a lesser role, a Disney version of the sensible woman in a Judd Apatow film who has to clean up the goofy, dumb, yet central male characters’ mess, and as in those Apatowian analogues, she can at times be hard to like as a result. It’s okay, in short, but could be better.