The Inner World of Doc McStuffins

Jonathan Gray's picture

doc-mcstuffins1“It’s just a kids show. Why do you have to read so much into it?”

With that preemptive objection behind us, and with the answer “because I’m having fun,” let’s talk about Doc McStuffins’ mental wellbeing.

For those who don’t know, Doc McStuffins is a pretty excellent original show on Disney Junior. Doc is a young girl who clearly admires her mother, a doctor, and thus she too has become a doctor, of toys. She has a magical stethoscope that brings toys to life when nobody else is around. Or does it? I can’t help but wonder, as I watch this show with my daughter, whether this is Doc’s imagination, whether she is indeed magical, or whether she’s delusional.

The episode that led to this post is one in which Doc herself must go in for a check-up, since she’s sick. At her mother’s clinic, the nurse is voiced by Loretta Devine … who viewers/listeners would recognize as the voice of Doc’s own nurse, Hallie the Hippo. This was a fun choice, since it’s the first suggestion I’ve seen in the series that Doc is actually making all of this toy doctor stuff up: Hallie speaks like Doc’s mom’s nurse since that’s her referent for how nurses speak. And yet in another episode, Doc’s mom comes into her room and says she could’ve sworn she heard another voice in there; Doc defuses the comment by explaining that it was just a talking toy phone (which, this time, it was), but dramatically the snippet of dialogue plays with the idea that her toys are indeed talking to her, and that her mom almost walked in on this. So the show is inviting me to play along. I will, after the fold …

Hypothesis #1 is boring: Doc can indeed talk to toys. Ho hum. Nothing to say here. But either the writing or something else is problematic here, since the rules of the toys’ existence changes. In some episodes, they’re clearly able to feel pain, whereas in others Doc amusingly reminds them that they can’t feel pain because they’re toys. Either the writers can’t get it straight which is the case, or (and for the purposes of play, this is where I’m going), this is a “tell” that Doc’s imagination isn’t consistent. Thus, we need to dispose of this hypothesis.

Lambie_is_awesomeHypothesis #2 is that this is all a figment of Doc’s active yet healthy imagination. Unless other humans are projections of hers too, we know that she is a skilled toy-fixer: granted, some episodes focus on her and her toys alone, but many introduce other kids, who bring their ailing toys to her. That much is true. But she’s convinced herself she’s a doctor, not simply an engineer.

If this is the case, there’s a lot of fun to be had in examining each of her toys as projections of her imagination, not as independent characters. In particular, the series then becomes more centrally about a young girl struggling with gender roles. Her plush lamb is dainty, wears frills, gives everyone cuddles, talks in a high pitched cutsey voice, and is obsessed with female toys’ appearances and dress. One episode finds a Japanese (girl) action toy arriving as a gift. Another focuses on a girly-girl mermaid. Perhaps all of these represent modes of femininity that she’s playing with, but especially ones that she’s Othered and projected out from her own preferred model of rational, not-extremely-gendered Doc. They signal the degree to which her gender performance is very aware of the roads not taken, and they might similarly signal the desire and longing for some of those roads not taken: she seems literally unable to let go of Lambie and that version of femininity. 4691116Many of her toys or patients are male, too, though, and they’re quite often starkly male in coding, as with the stunt driver toy full of bravado, her pet plush dragon Stuffy who is the goofy little boy from any older family sitcom, or the big lumbering brontosaurus. So she’s also navigating what she is as a young girl in opposition to these “male” toys too, and similarly displays clear desire for some of their performances and behaviors. We’ll come back to this in Hypothesis #3, but there’s something very United States of Tara about this, as we’re invited to see her bouncing around between various gendered expectations.

HallieThey’re also raced expectations. Indeed, though her hippo Hallie often makes me cringe, given what a mammy caricature she can be, if we see her not as an independent character but instead as a projection, maybe she’s then something like Dave Chappelle’s pixie. Hallie might be a repressed representation of racial stereotyping and expectation that Doc can never truly escape. Perhaps it’s relevant, too, that Hallie is her nurse, and thus always wants to help her, and to manage things for her: she has a larger claim over Doc, in other words, than do almost all of her other toys/projections. We might also consider an episode in which Hallie becomes incorrigible because she sees herself on television as famous and lets it get to her head; perhaps here Doc is wrestling with the pervasiveness of poor representations of African-Americans on television, and with their popularity?

Hypothesis #3: Doc is delusional. I think here of “Normal Again,” a late episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that introduces the suggestion that Buffy has imagined everything and is actually very sick. As I note the close parallel to United States of Tara, therefore, perhaps we could take this more seriously, and contemplate whether Doc has a form of dissociative identity disorder. All of my thoughts in Hypothesis #2 might still apply, but on one hand, her struggles are now less playful, more painful. USoTOn the other hand, the story now becomes more centrally about “check-ups” and healthcare than is already obvious. I don’t know if I should be enjoying the show now, as Doc is desperately wrangling with the need to be healthy, aware at some level of her own sickness, yet recouping that through projecting onto herself the role of doctor, not patient. As many parents know, one of the best ways to get kids to deal with hard times is to help them project their concerns onto a toy: one of my friends’ kids, for instance, ended every day by telling her beloved doll not to worry when her Mum turned off the light, and that everything would be alright. This young girl made herself the composed mother, not the scared child, in a way that we might be seeing echoed in Doc’s imagining of herself as doctor, not patient.

I’m not one to ever think a kid’s show is devoid of deeper meaning, but this exercise allows me to find yet more in a show I already enjoy. And maybe my daughter knows all this already, which is why, as much as she loves the show, she seems very studious and concerned while watching the tale of a young girl wrestling with identity, gender, race, and health.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Wed, 05 Feb 2014 08:00:20 +0000