Wednesday, December 10, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments (6)

Dora the Earner

posted by Hayley Wood

 There have been times in the past year when I was grateful to Dora the Explorer. At the adult-hostile hour of 5:30 AM, I could, with eyes half shut, select an iTunes television episode on a laptop set up on a chair in front of the sofa, and half-snooze until 6:00 while my son contentedly watched its unvarying story structure unfold. The repetitious elements of each episode formed a surreal soundscape as I drifted in and out of consciousness and also kept me semi-aware of how much precious time I had left to keep my eyes closed before the episode was over. It is for this reason that my husband started calling it “Snora.” He performed the same Snora drill on days when he got up with our son.

Notice that I had iTunes shows. Yes, we own some of them. We’ve spent money on them and some other Dora items: underwear, diapers, books that I’ve since hidden because I can’t bear to read them aloud, Click the Camera (a “character” in the Go Diego, Go! spin off which features Dora’s older boy cousin Diego), a ball, mac ‘n cheese with Dora’s face on the box, and, well, that’s all I can dredge up at the moment, but I’m sure every reader knows there’s more to be had. A lot more. Enough stuff to earn Nickolodeon (and its parent company Viacom) $1 billion in 2004. While Viacom’s earnings are reportedly stagnating, one assumes that its merchandizing is still robust, even if all of the economic woes of the age finally slow the manufacturing (and purchasing) of plastic toys related to licensed television characters—you’d never know that trouble’s arrived roaming the toy aisles of Target.

It’s the absurdity of the situation and my own participation in it that makes me feel like I’m living in a culture that molds reality and my options as a parent in ways that I can’t control. Sure—I can insist that my son doesn’t watch Dora (at home). I can say “no” to toys that he badgers me for at the supermarket. But let’s see what this looks like.

I have a pre-shopping trip conversation with my son. “This is a food shopping trip. We won’t be buying toys. OK?” I seek eye contact and he nods. We get to Stop ‘n Shop, I hoist him into a shopping cart with difficulty, and we start our route through the aisles. I decide I would like a magazine for myself. Just across the aisle from the magazines for adults are large format coloring books for children: one of them has Thomas the Tank engine on it. It’s $10.99 and immense. Won’t be easy to accommodate once home. The badgering begins. “Mom, can I have that big Thomas coloring book?”

“No.” The exchange escalates. I have a cart full of food—at minimum I have another 20 minutes to endure in that store at the check-out line. I don’t want a kicking and yelling child to manage while in line. My choice is: stand firm with “no”(which seems arbitrary and a little unfair since I’ve just chosen a magazine for myself), endure the embarrassment of his uncharming behavior in the check out line, and then struggle to get him mid-fit into his car seat and home, or buckle and say “yes,” instantly calm the threatening storm, and compromise my self respect and his respect for my limits. The truth: sometimes I stand firm, and when I don’t have the energy to cope with the vehemence of his disappointment, I cave. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I’m consenting, but it’s a compromised consent, and the pervasiveness of these items and the video-culture that plants the seeds of desire in my kid create scenarios in which I’m forced to say no (or acquiesce) and cope with the inconvenient fallout repeatedly. My saying no does nothing to quell my son’s appetite for things.

Dora the Explorer isn’t the only offender, of course. Every successful children’s television show, including those aired on PBS (Sesame Street, for example, which has spawned millions of awful toys), makes good on the financial promise of merchandizing. And in fairness, I must mention that I applaud the Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go as mainstream shows for kids featuring bilingual, brown protagonists who are assertive, adventurous problem solvers. The shows aim to promote some degree of learning and active participation, although I don’t think the educational benefits come close to outweighing the negative effects of the attendant merchandizing.

Unseemly materialism, self loathing parents, homes full of plastic clutter, and a nation of kids afflicted with obesity and an appetite for junk food aren’t the only consequences of this market. The environmental impact of all the plastic is, to say the least, huge. (For a description of the types of plastics commonly manufactured and their environmental impact, see this useful article by Julie Rothschild Levi and this one by Jacki Hunt Christensen about toys.) According to Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 report, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the US,” plastics account for 12% of all landfill materials: 30.7 million tons (before recycling—6.8% of this is “recovered” through recycling, a comparatively low figure). And plastics in landfills and elsewhere leach toxins.

Some surprising good news on this front recently emerged. The Greenpeace website announced in July of this year that “President Bush signed into law national product-safety legislation that will ban certain chemicals from being used when producing toys. In an agreement announced on July 28th, Congress proposed legislation that will ban the use of six toxic chemicals, called phthalates, that are added to vinyl plastic to make it flexible.” Non-toy items made with the same chemicals were not banned in this legislation.

No purchase is an isolated act: this observation keeps hitting me. I can’t create a pure environment for my kid—no one can. Viacom Consumer Products manages the world’s third largest licensing business—when I let my son watch Dora, I’m contributing to the success of this company and the environmental hazards created by its manufacturing deals. I know I’ll be wrestling with what to permit and forbid for the rest of my son’s youth, which brings me to another element to consider when thinking about popular culture and mass marketing: not wanting to be the consistent kill-joy in a child’s life, and not wanting to be known as The Forbidder. I fear that such dynamics can affect parent-child relationships adversely for life. But ease and the convenience of letting the dominant American consumer culture dictate what we buy also come at a great cost: the health of all people. I think the least I can do is think about the big picture of my choices and consider the role of consumerism in my life.

Comments (6)
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Ouch. Sobering thoughts of the damned-if-ya-do-/-don't variety. Making calls on characters like Dora/Diego seem tough because the creators/producers appear to be thinking outside the usual cultural and gender hegemony boxes. Yet, beneath the surface, it's the same bland if not harmless pablum that the networks have been hocking for years. The fact that, as you point out, they always place Dora in some absurdly Edenic setting suggestive of unspoiled rainforests teeming with friendly wildlife - without a trace of irony, of course - is just plain sad. In a similar vein, the show that really gets under my skin, despite seeming right up my alley on the surface, is Sid the Science Kid. Sid is ethnically ambiguous (it turns out his father is white and his mother is black) and professedly eager "to know everything about everything." So why should I be so irritated by a well-meaning PBS kids' show that tries to suggest that knowledge and science are cool? I think it's because they just aren't. The mainstream, commodified American brand of "cool" that Sid the Science Kid references is at its core anti-intellectual, and the show's producers are careful not to make any of the characters seem too intimidatingly intelligent. If you doubt this, consider the following truism: In reality, the "science kid" is almost never the most popular kid in school (as Sid appears to be) and if she is, it's not because she can draw and label the parts of an onion-skin cell from memory. Sadly, the exceptional kids (the ones thinking things over instead of pushing their way to the front of the water-fountain line) usually get hazed or simply marginalized (if not ostracized) as braniac "freaks." Perhaps American pop culture cool has too many roots in rebellion against the adult establishment (a constituency that used to include using one's brain among its values). Sid's world is clearly and fundamentally the narcissistic one of mainstream pop culture. Judging by his actions and associations, he pairs a natural curiosity with enjoyment of being in the ROLE of scientist (actually nothing more than another version of celebrity) rather than actually doing anything resembling science, even a child's version of it. The latter would no doubt seem too unglamorous to the show's target audience. Instead, Sid's science consists largely of acting out grandiose roles for himself and others while providing commentary via a toy tape recorder outfitted with an interviewer's microphone. Then of course comes the moment during almost every episode when the characters summarize the episode's message in a pop song choreographed exactly like a high-production dance music video. In the end, Sid has to be seen as an example of philosophical "bad faith" - the character expresses inherently contradictory values. We know that mainstream American media culture is Sid's true element because, as WIred Magazine has pointed out, everyone on Sid the Science Kid is a star in a narcissistic self-dramatization that would be at odds with a a truly intellectual, or even a mildly thoughtful, orientation to life. As Wired understated it: "Pretty much every character on the show, including Sid's teacher, seems to be putting on some kind of performance all the time, which lends the show an air of hyperactivity that makes it less appealing to grownups." Less appealing? Try nauseating. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary and the chance to rant!
Posted by volpinator on 12.10.08 at 12:55
I think that it is also important to point out that Sesame Street and the other PBS fodder we were fed 30 years ago was not 'marketed' to 3 year olds the way it is today. Perhaps it wasn't dreadful for our parents to plop us in front of a show of movement and colors and lights that was about numbers and letters and emotions...the sentiment wasn't replicated in the grocery store or the bookstore or whathaveyou. it wasn't tied to wanting and obtaining. it was merely, gasp, diversion. Of course, in our generation it did get tied to stuffed animals, which seems to be the first onslaught. But parents today may think they can rely on the educational and cultural 'goodness' these programs seem to be about and not think through OR struggle with, as Hayley describes, the marketing implications a bit of respit condemn us to.
Posted by Ea on 12.10.08 at 20:03
A quick response to a valuable post: When I go to the store with my son or daughter (5 and 4), I sometimes mention that we're going to look, but not buy anything. Often, my son asks, "Can we look for things that we might buy next time?" This is fine. Most of the stuff he likes he'll forget about (the one or two things he remembers are guaranteed to be good birthday or Christmas presents).
Posted by Jack Cheng on 12.11.08 at 9:13
It is unfortunate that things which seem innocuous and potentially helpful have adverse affects down the road. I was appalled to read that the Consumer Products Safety Commission, while technically upholding the ban on phthalates, is allowing toys containing the toxins to remain on the shelves until they are sold. It is only new toys entering the marketplace after February 10th that are subject to the legislation. And that says nothing of the toxins we, as adults, might be ingesting. Or of lead which can still legally be put in toys until August of next year. So really we are marketing poisons to our kids, then wondering why there are huge surges in allergies, autism, ADHD and childhood cancers. I can happily say that my kids are fairly sheltered when it comes to these kinds of toys - and I do think that, knowing that the government agencies are not truly looking out for our health or safety, parents need to take on the responsibility of the health of our families. So, yes, I have taken the first steps in ridding our home of plastics. I put most of the sippy cups and plastic dishware into a big bag that sat on the porch for a couple of days (surely I might need the cute baby bjorn bowls just one more time!). When my husband donated them, I did feel some remorse and some guilt that maybe they were going to poison some other child. But I will let people make their own decisions. In the mean time, I splurged on a couple of kleen kanteens to replace the cups and will be purging the next round of toys and home goods - then off to figure out if there are poisons in yogurt containers.
Posted by Damia Stewart on 12.11.08 at 9:14
Nice write-up! I'm never quite sure how to process the coupling of marketing products and generally good television for children. And I do think Dora (and especially Diego) are good for children, in the context of television. I also don't think television is inherently bad for a child - or any of us. But commercialization is the obvious problem. For me, there's an important distinction between commercials being part of a show (scary) and products at the store related to the show (obnoxious and problematic). It does teach children that they are a market, that's for sure. For some, the answer is to cloister the child away from the television. I get that and can't really say much except do what you have to do. For me, I have tried to use the marketing aspect as an instrument. This means a couple of things. First, it forced me to develop a disciplinary vocabulary outside of "no." So, we have "just for looking" visits. That's working alright so far. Second, and most importantly, it has been how my son has learned to read and write. The books got him curious about words and language (Thomas the Tank Engine and Go Diego Go). Then he got interested in writing the names of the engines and animals. The hard part is the distinction between basic character traits and my alleged parent skills. I want to believe the latter, but the former seems a sharper take! I've tried to do the lemons-out-of-lemonade thing with marketing. But, in the end, it is a disgusting part of capitalism. In order to widen markets as far as possible, producers target everyone. Even those who can't quite distinguish between image and reality (and we all fall victim to that, no?). The waste product dimension...very depressing. Reminds me of Albert Camus' famous remark that in the present age one cannot move a finger without being complicit in the murder of thousands. And yet there is reading, language, diversity, and play. That complicated picture keeps me thinking with both positivity and pessimism.
Posted by John Drabinski on 12.11.08 at 11:01
We live in a very materialistic age. We are all a bunch of consumers and companies prey on us to make them rich. I, too, am guilty of doing the whole "We're not going to buy any toys" speech to my 5-year-old, but once we're in, I can't help but stop at the toy or video game aisle. It's habit, and I fear that I'm passing on bad habits to my son, especially when the kid knows fast food chains and restaurants by name (and he can't read yet!). We usually don't buy any toys with plastic. In fact, all the plastic toys that my son does have were given to him by family. Although I feel like an avid consumer at times, we do try to live a more "eco-conscious" lifestyle.
Posted by e cigarette on 5.25.09 at 12:06
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