Dora the Explorer is about to undergo a tweenage transformation and Dr. Toon looks at the mash up of animation, marketing and culture.
Since American animation and culture intersect in so many fascinating vertices, there never seems to be a dearth of subjects to explore. The latest specimen to go under the cultural microscope is one almond-eyed, bowl-haired moppet of the species Doradem Explorica Nickelodeous, more commonly known as Dora the Explorer. You have no doubt seen this spunky, charming little adventurer, or at least her voluminous merchandise. In the company of her B.F.F. Diego or simian sidekick Boots, Dora has packed more adventure into her short life than most girls do before sorority pledge night. In the best tradition of certain regal entities in Pantone Pink, she's even been the princess of some unnamed Mesoamerican kingdom (at least in the local Toys 'R Us). Dora rarely found herself in peril during her explorations, but she recently had to face a terror so primal that parents across the nation were left screaming in heartfelt terror.
She grew up.
Well, aged a couple of years is more like it, but that didn't stop adults from fearing the worst. The news broke, appropriately enough, on Friday, Feb. 13th. Nickelodeon/Viacom spokesperson Leigh Anne Brodsky and Mattel VP of marketing Gina Sirard announced the arrival of "tweenage" Dora, a doll aimed at the five-years-and over-set. Dora 2.0 would be more fashion-conscious, attend middle school, and hang out with a new set of gal pals. The "new" Dora was not to be revealed until October of 2009, but the merchandising folks couldn't resist giving potential consumers a sneak peek. A silhouette of Dora the Mature-er was released to create an alluring sense of mystery and whet young appetites for the Grand Debut in the fall.
What happened was a tremendous smash-up at the intersections of animation, marketing and culture. The silhouette appeared to depict a long-haired, miniskirted flirt that bore little resemblance to Doradem Explorica. Parents whose daughters had spent years watching the original Dora were outraged, writing to Mattel, Nick and Viacom when they weren't busy writing outraged blogs: "Dora the Streetwalker!" "Dora the Tramp!" "Sexed up Dora! A terrible role model for our girls!" Oh, the names piled upon the erstwhile little adventurer, months before she would ever hit the shelves.
Mattel and Nick/Viacom were quick to react. Nine months before the unveiling, the marketing team decided to release the drawing from which Dora's silhouette was taken. What the public saw was an appealing, innocent-looking young girl with nary a smidge of makeup, who was actually clad in a flowery tunic and leggings. The Mattel crew did a fine job of accelerating her growth; one is reminded of the technique of in which police use computer simulations to depict how a long-missing child might look as a teenager. There is little, if anything, that suggests a decadent tramp. The drawing seemed to mollify moms everywhere. With considerable understatement Sirard told the media, "I think there was a misconception in terms of where we were going with this." She went on to say that "Pretty much the moms who are petitioning aging Dora…are going to be pleasantly happy once this is available in October, and once they understand that this certainly isn't what they are conjuring up."
How did things get that far in the first place? Why the nearly universal leap to conclusion that an older Dora would be a sexed-up libertine? In a short but insightful article for The Huffington Post, Mike Alvear and Paul Wolski laid the blame at the high-heeled feet of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, as well as their pop culture "grandmother," Madonna. According to the article, this triumvirate (among others) was responsible for the onset of precocious sexual awareness in young girls. The authors have a good point, but may not be accounting for everything that collided in this particular train wreck.
Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan are not anyone today's girls would want to emulate. They are self-destructive, shattered souls who tear bleeding pieces from themselves and toss them to the media. What these celebrities and others like them really did was to launch a highly sexualized style of clothing, accessories, and cultural signifiers to girls who wanted to be hip, popular, and cool. If that meant push-up bras and bare midriffs on twelve year-olds, well, that's what the market produced. To be among the unhip, unlovely, and undated is perhaps more devastating than it ever was at any time in our culture. Cool is the rule. Girls don't really want to be Britney Spears; they want to live their own version of what they think Britney is about.
And parents? There is no standing against the media and merchandising tsunami, especially if everyone in class has "the look" and no one wants to ding a child's (allegedly) fragile self-esteem. This sets up a vicious cycle in which the media and the markets up the ante until young girls really do look like Lolitas, leaving parents caught between insane marketing trends and a child's demands. When parents perceive that even little Dora has been swept up in the tide, they howl in outrage and disgust. Behind that outrage is the growing fear that nothing is safe. Besieged by media stories of middle school kids having oral sex and seeing their daughters exposed to ever-raunchier forms of entertainment, Mom and Dad feel helpless – and then faithful little Dora appears to betray them, too.
It wasn't too long ago that the doll universe was invaded by the audacious Bratz, who visually embodied the high school hottie with the bad rep. Although the grrls with the Passion for Fashion have been crushed in a legal battle with Mattel, they were clearly the trailblazers on the wrong side of the tracks. For many parents they were representative of the girl you didn't want your daughter to become, and the addition of little sisters and pets did not seem to soften the Bratz' seductive personae. When viewing the suggestive silhouette of Dora 2.0, how many parents moaned, "Here we go again?" Worse, the Bratz made it to the retail DVD sales as animated characters, just like Dora. Would this be another betrayal of children by the cartoons they loved? Conservative pundits trying to rebound from the embarrassment of "outing" SpongeBob SquarePants would certainly love to think it was.
The transformation of Dora is something of an anomaly in animation, as well. Toons generally don't grow up. If anything, they retreat into more infantile and desexualized versions; witness the many series in which toons become baby versions of themselves. The only toons I can remember that bucked this trend were Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, who matured into teenagers and then got married as young adults. The Flintstones were precursors to the Simpsons and the Griffins but bore no cultural resemblance to them. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm belonged to a different cultural era; one could safely assume that the newlyweds played Scrabble on their wedding night. There was always the danger that a maturing toon in the 2000s, however, could become promiscuous, since there seems to be nothing stopping the increasing sexualization of both entertainment and children. If Dora grew up, Diego would too, and what then, in a culture where seemingly anything goes? Say it ain't so, Dora!
Never fear. According to Mattel, Diego isn't making the trip. Neither are Boots or Map, or anyone else who might have followed along with the younger Dora. Dora 2.0 is going to have new adventures with her four friends, and not the type that keeps Dad peering out the window with his shotgun at 3:00 a.m. The only reason for maturing Dora, according to Brodsky, was to keep Dora in the lives of the kids that enjoyed her; they could grow up together with their animated pal. On second thought, perhaps it's also true that spreading Dora's appeal over a second demographic of young female consumers would be a cash cow for Mattel and Nick/Viacom.
Dora 2.0 will grow up into a nice, clean young woman. So will most of the girls who will buy her doll and enjoy her new explorations. Parents can relax. Dora 3.0 will go to college as archaeology major, and Dora 3.5 will meet her dashing Diego at a sexually appropriate age before settling down as the 4.0 version professor. It is sad to see that a simple silhouette threw so many parents into livid outrage, but such are their expectations following Britney, Bratz, and modern marketing tactics that turn 10 year-olds into 18 year-olds without any thought to normal psychosexual development. With that thought, it's only fitting to paraphrase the words of the world's most famous shrink: "Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon."
BTW: It looks like the upcoming Jonny Quest live-action movie will go forward, but without the name "Jonny Quest". According to the Los Angeles Times, Warner Bros. apparently feared that audiences might associate Jonny Quest with Speed Racer due to the fact that they are both animated series from bygone days, and we all know what happened to the live-action Speed Racer movie. This decision came soon after my previous column lambasting live-action animated features (LAAFs). Is Hollywood finally listening to the sage advice of Dr. Toon? If so, hear this: No name change, however conceived, will change the fact that the J---- Q---- movie is a bad, stupid idea foredoomed to failure. Do as you please, WB; as Muhammad Ali said, "You can run but you can't hide."
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.