Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms are strange, sneaky things. We like to think, “I’m not a racist! I’m not a sexist!” As though such titles are part of a specific group, and putting a in front of the word means, “Hey, don’t look at me, I’m not in that club.” Like, “I’m not a Republican!” “I’m not a Democrat!” “I’m not a tortoise!”
But the thing is, we are all raised to be racist and sexist in many ways. Even if we don’t explicitly identify as a racist or a sexist (as, sadly, many proudly do), we are all racist and sexist beneath the surface. Some of those ways vary from culture to culture. And if we’re willing to accept that, sometimes we encounter things that, for better or worse, highlight just how deeply those systems affect who we are. For me, one of those things was Doc McStuffins.
Like many other children around the world, Lavender is a serious Doc McStuffins fan. We watch it in English, and sometimes in Arabic, too. If she wakes up before Mr. Mostafa leaves for work, she becomes distraught when he leaves, and the only thing that calms her down is Doc McStuffins on the TV. (In case you’re unfamiliar with Doc, click here to get caught up on what the series is all about.)
When we were in the States last year in October, I bought Lavender a Lambie toy. Lambie is Doc’s best friend, a stuffed lamb who always gives cuddles to her fellow toys, as well as to Doc, in order to help them feel better. She always wears a tiara and a tutu, and she’s kind of presented as this sweet, girly, princessy, yet motherly figure.
I admit that it took awhile for the character of Lambie to grow on me. Mr. Mostafa didn’t like her much, either–we found her annoying and cruel. There was one episode in particular where Stuffy, Doc’s blue stuffed dragon, announced that he was very brave, and Lambie replied in a sickly sweet voice, “Real dragons are brave, Stuffy. But you’re a stuffed dragon!”
“That’s so mean, Lambie!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” Mr. Mostafa agreed. Lavender was sitting between us on the couch–he placed his hands over her ears and sadly whispered over her head to me, “Lambie’s kind of a…” He paused, then silently mouthed, “B-I-T-C-H.” Returning to the whisper, the added, “Isn’t she?”
I had to agree. I did not like Lambie.
But from then on, I paid a little more close attention to the character of Lambie. Much to my surprise, what I found is that…Lambie’s actually pretty awesome.
Lambie takes no shit. She speaks up for what she needs (in one episode, when Lambie had a rip in her fur, the other characters stood around making ridiculous propositions for how to fix the wound. When they got entirely off track, Lambie called out angrily, “Can we focus on fixing me…please?”). She calls it like she sees it, but she’s still soft and sweet and always willing to give a cuddle to anyone who needs it.
I began to realize that I could totally relate to Lambie.
Lambie stands up for herself. She says her piece. And even though if someone had described these traits to me, I would have defensively insisted, “There’s nothing wrong with that!”, I still realized that before I became aware of how I was thinking, even I had the knee-jerk instinct to think Lambie was…well, bitchy.
But aside from figuring out that Lambie is a lot like me, as I started to pay even more attention, I realized that the mean, sexist moments presented by the male characters in the show often went right over my head. They didn’t make me feel any sort of negativity about the characters saying the words. Like, at one point, after someone suggests that Lambie could help rescue Stuffy from some scrape or another, Stuffy exclaims in objection, “I don’t need to be saved by a little old lamb!”
Wow. Harsh, Stuffy. Rude.
But no one corrects Stuffy. No one insists that Lambie actually can help rescue Stuffy. And for a long time, I didn’t even notice the mean and somewhat sexist implications of Stuffy saying this–at least, I didn’t notice it until I really started paying attention to the interactions of the characters.
I began to realize that when Lambie had something to say, loudly and unapologetically, I found myself thinking she was bitchy and mean. When Stuffy did the same thing, I felt nothing about his words. I saw his observations as totally benign, even when they were sexist or just rude.
This is how the world works. This is how we all work, on some level.
If you asked me if I’m sexist (or “a sexist”), my first instinct is to say, “Hell, no!” But once I started unpacking my thoughts, it became clear that the way I viewed these two characters on a kids’ show was completely rooted in sexism and misogyny.
And this is how these ideas get perpetuated and passed on to children, even as we insist that we aren’t carrying ugly -isms forward into new generations. I’m not saying that Doc McStuffins is a bad show; on the contrary, it’s amazing. It constantly breaks down sexist (not to mention racist) stereotypes–the nickname “Doc” is usually reserved for males, but girls can be Docs, too. In another episode, the characters have to outsmart an evil king, and something about that villain felt off to me. It took me awhile to figure out that it was because I’d never heard of a villain being described as an “Evil King.” Bad royal villains are always Evil Queens.
I know this may sound ridiculous, an entire blog post about how freaking Doc McStuffins turned into a social justice epiphany for me. But I’m sharing it because I think the world might slowly turn into a better place if we all tried to pay attention to the little ways we find ourselves supporting sexist or racist systems, even when we don’t realize it. And the next time I find myself wanting to say something about how I don’t like a female character, I’m going to think back and see if there’s a parallel male character who exhibits the same behaviors and ask myself if I dislike him just as much.
And if the answer is no, then I’m going to ask myself why. That’s not so much to expect from anyone, right? Just ask yourself why.