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by Karina Havrilla, ASA Minority Affairs Program
For almost 10 years, "Dora the Explorer" has been entering homes across the country ready to teach children about adventures, bilingualism, and diversity. Dora is a seven-year-old Latina cartoon character who is known for her goal-oriented excursions, which include exploring jungles, forests, mountains, and even oceans with help from her friends Boots the Monkey, Backpack, Map, and others. She also involves her audience by asking them to help her along the way by shouting commands to her (sometimes in Spanish) and giving her advice on the right path or option to choose. Dora made her debut in 1999 on the Nickelodeon cable network, and in 2000, the network made the show a regular in their daily lineup. Since then, the show has become a worldwide education and marketing hit that has been translated into 22 different languages. What makes Dora so special? Why has she been so popular with children and parents for a decade? Perhaps it is that sociological perspective that has contributed to this success.
Based on her research on racial/ethnic classifications, the media, and Latinos, as well as her analysis on the representation of Latinos on prime-time television, Clara Rodriguez, Fordham University, was asked to serve as a consultant for Dora the Explorer and the public television children’s program Sesame Street. Rodriguez has taught courses on Images of Latinos in the Media, Hispanics in the United States, Diversity in American Society and Race and Ethnicity in the Media. She is the author of 10 books, including Heroes, Lovers and Others and Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. She has received the ASA Latina/o Section Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Research in the Field of Latina/o Studies, and Fordham University’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in the Social Sciences in 2003. She was also selected as one of the "100 Most Influential Hispanics in the Nation" by Hispanic Business magazine. How is she involved with Dora?
The role of a sociologist consultant on a show like Dora the Explorer is to provide expert input on the cultural aspects of a show but to also ensure that the social implications are what the larger society reflects and should want children to see. As a consultant, Rodriguez is asked to provide strong input on a number of areas. In addition to the small details such as the music that is used, she is consulted regarding "language, character development, background contexts, colors, story lines, addition of new characters, and research in the field." Using her sociological perspective, her role is to provide the creators of the program with a greater "understanding of the historical and structural contexts that influence events, movements, and change," she said. This is particularly important because producers generally do not focus on the small details of the background of any one show, but focus instead on the final product that is shown to viewers.
Whether Dora’s legions of fans realize it or not, this seven-year-old girl represents more than meets the eye. She represents a demographic that is not frequently seen on prime-time television. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latino communities are not only the fastest growing population in the nation, but they also have the highest population of infant-to-preschool age children. However, television characters, both in children’s programming and in prime time, Latinos are underrepresented. A recent UCLA study found that approximately 4% of characters on television in 2004 were Latino, and very few of these characters and shows were for children. By introducing Dora (and later Dora’s cousin Diego, a slightly older boy who is a dedicated animal rescuer), Latino children have the opportunity to see someone who not only looks like them, but who also represents their culture, language, and other aspects of their heritage. Everything from Dora’s looks, to her family and her terminology was carefully crafted to make sure the show accurately portrayed Latinos. To add to the educational aspect of the show, experts such as Rodriguez urged producers to integrate more linguistic and cultural elements. This meant making the music featured in the show more aligned to the diverse music of Latino culture, as well as adding Spanish vocabulary to the dialogue to teach basic phrases and terminology.
Besides being one of the first Latina cartoon characters in television, Dora is also unique because she is also a young female heroine. She is not reinforcing female stereotypes that children are often exposed to on television. Dora is socializing children, particularly other young females, to see that they can be independent, problem-solving adventurers. She is wholesome, bilingual, friendly, and as Rodriguez says, "a ‘can-do’ kind of girl." She is also supportive and upbeat, something that children can relate to and aspire to be like. She also teaches that it is certainly OK to ask for help when needed and encourages her audience to help her during her adventures.
What’s next for Dora? She will continue to go on adventures and teach children around the world how to be bilingual problem solvers. However, in order to keep her growing audience interested, Mattel and Nickelodeon have decided she will "grow up" into a ‘tween’ (someone between a pre-teen and teen) so young girls might continue to identify with the character as they themselves grow up. The new tween Dora was first announced in February 2009, and her creators teased audiences with a silhouette of what this new character would look like. However, the image of a young girl with long flowing hair and what appeared to be a mini-skirt had parents up in arms. They felt that the wholesome Dora their kids loved to watch was now being sexualized and would set a terrible example. Representatives at Mattel and Nickelodeon insisted that what ‘tween’ Dora represents would remain true to what young Dora has always represented. To ease parents’ concerns, the two companies decided to release the actual image of the new Dora soon after the announcement. ‘Tween’ Dora is now wearing leggings and a tunic with ballerina flats, not a mini-skirt. She will also take on issues that are relevant to socializing teenagers into becoming responsible young adults. They will include volunteering, conserving water, and being environmentally friendly overall.