According to Erin L. Ryan, an assistant professor of telecommunications and film at the University of Georgia, children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to often subliminal messages directed toward them by the mass media, particularly on television in relation to cartoons which frequently depict characters and situations that are stereotypical and often racially, ethnically, and gender biased. In effect, children tend to bring “less experience and real-world knowledge than adults to their mediated” or mass media experiences which can lead to a failure to place mediated messages into their proper context (2010, p. 55).
Ryan also discusses at-length the theories of Jean Piaget, particularly his Stages of Cognitive Development which do have some bearing on how children are affected by mediated messages through cartoons. As Ryan explains it, children under the age of five experience what is known as the pre-operational stage of development in which their “social understanding is limited to overt descriptive features,” such as a character in a cartoon, without possessing “any understanding of underlying motives and perspectives that differ from their own” (2010, p. 55).
Elizabeth D. Hutchinson in Dimensions of Human Behavior: The Changing Life Course also explores Piaget’s theory via the development of symbolic representation via deferred imitation which “refers to the child’s ability to view an image and then significantly later, recall and imitate the image.” A prime example is three year-old Ella who “watches the Dora the Explorer cartoon on TV, fills her backpack with a pretend map and other items she might need. . . puts it on, creates a pretend monkey companion named Boots, and sets off on an adventure” while pretending that her kitchen is a barn and the area beneath the dining room table is a forest, all the while “keeping her eyes open. . .for the mean Swiper the Fox” (2011, p. 143).
Dora the Explorer:
Apparent and Implied Messages
As a popular cartoon character, Dora the Explorer, a seven year-old girl of Hispanic/Latino heritage, exhibits numerous positive messages that help pre-school children to understand the multicultural world in which many of them presently live. As to race and ethnicity, Dora is a Latino who is bilingual, meaning that she speaks both Spanish and English. As Ryan relates, the executives at Nickelodeon, the cable TV station that popularized Dora the Explorer, wished to create “a character with a multicultural bent, someone who would resonate with kids who grew up in bilingual households.” These executives also thought that by making the character of Dora Latin-American or Hispanic, it would expand her appeal to children as a “Latino heroine,” rather than making her a stereotyped white American girl (2010, p. 56).
In addition, Valerie Walsh, one of the co-creators of Dora the Explorer, once remarked that Dora was meant to be an “alternative to Barbie and the blond princess myth” which has so often been “hammered into young girls” (Ryan, 2010, p. 56). Therefore, due to the decision to make Dora a Latin-American/Hispanic equipped with the ability to speak Spanish and English fluently, the message that is picked up by young children who watch Dora the Explorer is that Latino girls like Dora, much like her white American female counterparts, are equally intelligent and curious to explore the wonders of the world in which she lives. Also, as a Hispanic girl, Dora demonstrates to especially Latino girls of pre-school age that they too can excel as human beings in a society that tends to under-rate them when compared to white American girls of the same age. The only negative aspect of Dora the Explorer is her current pop culture status as a symbol for American consumerism, meaning that some of the commercials that are shown during the program were created to appeal especially to young children, thus forcing their parents to capitulate and purchase some of the products, particularly a whole range of toys associated with Dora the Explorer.
As to gender, Dora the Explorer is obviously a girl of Hispanic ancestry via her light-toned skin, brown eyes, and brown hair. Therefore as a character, Dora appeals mostly to young female children who, more often than not in today’s multicultural society, either knows or associates with children from a Hispanic/Latino background or culture, particularly in the American Southwest. For boys, they too can relate to Dora, due to either knowing or associating with a female Latino that physically resembles Dora. Certainly, due to the fact that pre-school children, both male and female, are far less biased when it comes to race and ethnicity, Dora represents a positive gender symbol. As Ryan puts it, “children of all races want to see people on television who look like them,” and as noted in a recent Gallup poll, children expressed two very valid reasons why they wish to see cartoon characters like Dora–1), she exemplifies the idea that it is important “to see people of their own race (and gender) on television; and 2), she makes children of all races feel as if they are important and included in the world (Ryan, 2010, p. 57).
In essence, Dora the Explorer as a highly popular TV program exhibits many positive aspects related to race, ethnicity, and gender, and for young pre-school children (not only Hispanic/Latino children), Dora as a character serves as an empowering role model who teaches children (especially girls) that adventure and exploration is not limited to the adult world, and that even a small seven year-old Hispanic girl can make a difference in society and her community.
Hutchinson, E.D. (2011). Dimensions of human behavior: The changing life course. 4th. ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Ryan, E.L. (2010). Dora the Explorer: Empowering preschoolers, girls, and Latinas. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, (54)1, 54-68. Retrieved from http://huma4142.blog.yorku.ca/files/2010/12/Dora-the-Explorer-Empowering-Preschoolers-Girls-and-Latinas.pdf