Saturday, August 14, 2010

Feliz cumpleaños, Dora, You've Grown on Me, Kid

Ten years ago, Dora the Explorer hit the scene as the first Latina character to have her own children’s show in the United States. She lives in a cartoon world with no specific landmarks aside from friendly forests and mountains with chocolate rivers. Still, we know where she’s from: Viacom.

And, that is why, for many years, I didn’t invite her over to play. A children’s icon could be born in a classic book and work her way up to TV star. But, I was suspicious of a star created by commercial television who then appeared in children’s books, and generated 11 billion in merchandizing revenue. Could she still have our kids’ best interests at heart?

As Nickelodeon celebrates Dora’s 10th anniversary this Sunday night at 8pm EST with an hour long “Dora’s Big Birthday Adventure” followed by a 12 minute documentary on the cultural and educational impact of the show, I’m as surprised as anyone to be setting my DVR and practicing my Spanish.

“Feliz cumpleaños, Dora.” 

You’ve grown on me, kid.

In fact, just yesterday, I wrote a guest post on Slate’s Double X blog, called How I Learned to Love Dora. And, I did learn to love her, for a few reasons I mentioned in that piece:

“First, she’s a girl of action. Her mom’s having a baby? Great. She’ll visit the newborn, or (spoiler alert) newborns, but first she needs to get through a spooky forest, a nut farm, and help Benny the Bull put new tires on his car. None of the self-doubt or whininess that might come from another animated TV character with his own show, Caillou. Second, Dora is also practical. Going camping in the Friendly Forest? Fancy Nancy would need at least two footlockers. Dora grabs a map, a backpack with provisions, and her simian sidekick. And when Swiper threatens to swipe the tent poles she stops him cold.”

But, there is another thing Dora’s got going for her. She is kind, even if she is, as some readers have mentioned, a bit loud.

Her goodness is what University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Barbara J. Wilson calls in her 2008 article in The Future of Children, prosocial behavior. That’s jargon for: doing the right thing. Or, in Dora’s case, rescuing that rascal Swiper the fox when a mean dancing elf traps him in a bottle. It’s voluntary behavior that benefits another person (or fox). Look at any episode or Dora book, and you’ll see an example: altruism, sharing, cooperation, friendliness, sympathy, or acceptance of others from another group.

Wilson cites one study that shows how television with proscoial messages, along with a little help from the rest of us, can teach kids some good behaviors, in addition to the documented negative ones.

“.... Kindergartners were assigned to watch either Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or neutral programming that did not feature prosocial behavior, over the course of four sessions. In addition, some of the children watching the prosocial Mister Rogers received puppet role-play training that re-enacted the main events and dialogue in each episode they had seen. Two to three days later, all the children were given the opportunity either to work on an art project or to help another child who was struggling with the project. The children who had viewed the prosocial programs were more helpful than those who had seen the neutral programs, especially if the prosocial programming had been reinforced by role-playing.”

Dora, more than many shows, puts the philosophy of kindness into action. I read a review on Amazon of the book Big Sister Dora that faulted it because it did not prepare a young reader for the emotional changes that come with accepting a younger sibling. But, that’s the point. Dora steps up and does what is needed. If she let emotion or anxiety get in her way, I don't think she could have a talking backpack. And, poor Boots would never get past a gang of Rosy Red Crabs and make it to Rainbow Rock on Valentine’s Day.

Even Dora's network, Nickelodeon, has been looking pretty prosocial lately.

The network's superstar, SpongeBob SquarePants, inspired a twelve year old Long Island girl to perform the Heimlich on her choking best friend, and an eight year old boy in New Jersey to save his drowning buddy. Now Dora themed backpacks designed by Jessica Alba, Drew Brees, LeBron James, Salma Hayek Pinault and eight other celebrities are being displayed at Macy’s in Herald Square and auctioned on Charitybuzz . The proceeds will help the Children’s Defense Fund, which partners with Nickelodeon’s “Beyond the Backpack” campaign.

And that campaign, publicized in public service announcements and on a website  does what those of us raised on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street thought was the exclusive domain of public television: make readiness for school a top priority.

In ten years, Dora has won a Peabody, NAACP, Alma, Latino Spirit, Gracie Allen and many Parents’ Choice Awards. She is strongly connected to her family’s culture and language, which she’s shared with her young viewers. And, although I’ve met Dora’s fictional family many times in episodes and books, I’m eager to meet her television creators in the documentary on Sunday night. After all this time having Dora in our house, I feel like I am finally going to meet her parents.

Photo 1: Dora the Explorer 10the Anniversary Credit: Nickelodeon © 2010 Viacom International, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo 2: Dora The Explorer--Dora, Backpack, Map and Boots. Photo: Nickelodeon. ©2010Viacom, International, Inc. All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Ann Warner Ault said...

"If she let emotion or anxiety get in her way, I don't think she could have a talking backpack." Too funny!