Being a male, who’s racially white, I never had any trouble with finding representation on TV. This hasn’t always been the case for everyone, although it’s only recently (last 5ish years or so) that folks have begun to speak out on how important representation is. When you rarely see yourself in media, I’ve been told, you feel left out by the culture. Disney started rectifying this in its Disney Junior line; first with Doc McStuffins.
Doc McStuffins involves a small African-American girl who is a doctor to her stuffed animals that she can bring to life. The show is pretty awesome on quite a few levels. First of all, when most young kids’ TV shows involved male protagonists (this is changing as you’ll see with this blog post), Doc McStuffins was pushing the boundaries by having a female protagonist. Second, Doc’s mother is a doctor. Third, her father is a stay-at-home dad, a trend more families are following and providing an example for children of color. The story lines emphasize using logic to solve problems as well as a general theme of reducing doctor anxiety – somethings kids of all backgrounds can appreciate.
Next, Disney released Elena of Avalor. It’s for a slightly older kid set, but what’s most groundbreaking about the show is that it’s an action show with not one, but three female main characters. For the longest time, the Hollywood consensus was that girls were not interested in action shows and that boys wouldn’t watch shows with female protagonists. Elena lives in a fictional country, Avalor, but it’s clearly modeled after a mix of MesoAmerican and Mexican cultures. There’s even an episode that has this MesoAmerican game that’s kind of like basketball meets soccer:
It also has an equivalent to The Day of the Dead and Christmas-like celebrations that incorporate Mexican themes. The show also excels at the female relationships – both Elena and her little sister and Elena and her best friend. In fact, in most of the episodes I’ve watched with the kids, there tends to be a role-reversal with the two male leads competing for Elena’s affections.
This brings us to the most recent cartoon in this progression, Mira, Royal Detective. This has quickly become a favorite of youngest because of the addictive music in the show. This show is targeted towards the Indian-American (as in your parents are from the Asian subcontinent) kids. The opening theme song has a Bollywood-style opening:
And every episode as Mira goes on the search for a clue, she does a Bhangra-ish little dance with her moongooses.
I’m much less familiar with Indian culture, so I can’t speak as authoritatively to how faithful it is, but there are definitely mentions of food like samosas, there’s Indian architecture, and Disney has done a great job on the casting. There are a good amount of South Asians in Hollywood, so there was no reason not to cast them for the voice acting. Mira, Royal Detective features Feida Pinto, Kal Penn, Jameela Jamil, and Aasif Mandvi as well as some other names I don’t recognize.
Given how important it is for kids to see themselves in TV characters to feel like they’re part of the culture, I think it’s pretty awesome of Disney to be doing this. Of course, it also exposes other kids to these cultures, which hopefully makes them seem a little less weird and different. (And, in the part of Maryland where I live – the South Asian population is pretty large so it’s good to have preschool kids exposed to these differences before they get to school) And, just because Disney probably did it to attract more spending dollars from wider sections of the American public doesn’t make it bad. Sometimes the results matter more than the incentives.