Television shows have become very unintellectual in recent days, especially children’s shows. When I was growing up, shows like “Sesame Street,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Full House,” and “Growing Pains” were screened. These shows demonstrated good morals and values such as caring for others, being kind, and exploring real life daily trials for children. Today’s shows are mindless repeat-after-me shows that ask the most obvious questions. On a more positive note, average laymen take these texts and do something with them like creating spoofs for enjoyment and more intellectual engagement. The television show “Dora the Explorer” exemplifies the dumbing down of society and the selling of culture; however, YouTube demonstrates how that particular show, among other cultural media, can be used for a different kind of enjoyment forming a more participatory culture.
“Dora the Explorer” is a show that exemplifies the dumbing down of U.S. society and culture. The main characters in the show, Dora and Boots, both speak loudly and slowly as if the children watching and listening cannot understand them. The characters also stare at the screen with large rarely-blinking eyes which portrays cluelessness and zoning out. Furthermore, Dora constantly asks “Can you see (blank)?” and “Where is (blank)?” while Dora or the camera deliberately and obviously passes over the needed object. Dora and Boots describe the situation but do not do anything about it, instructing viewers to “help us (do this)!” when they do not help themselves. For example, when a bridge over a river starts bouncing, they do not grab the ropes, but they say something like “Oh no! The bridge is bouncy. What do we do?” until the object they are trying to deliver falls. At this point, they cry “Oh no! Puppy’s gift fell! Can you help us get Puppy’s gift out of the river?” while still flailing and not even attempting to grab hold of the ropes. In addition, Dora instructs children to do things that they cannot realistically or virtually do. The viewers cannot help Dora do anything. She instructs kids to find items and places, and to do the things that she needs to do, yet, they are only copying an animation; they do not and cannot actually help her. Popular television shows push children to “help” their favorite characters, but they do not instruct children to help in constructive ways, like helping their parents.
The show also uses long pauses and repetitions teaching children not to listen or to think. Children answer very quickly when they know the answer, and repetition is easily completed in a very short period of time. The pauses are unnecessarily long. This show teaches children not to think, and not think quickly, because it gives them an excessive amount of time to answer. Boots even says at times “Louder,” or repeats instructions multiple times in succession as if expecting that the child did not obey him the first time. His and Dora’s repetition of instructions teaches selective hearing in the child. Children also learn some words like “map” and “river” very well, but not much other vocabulary. Shows of old did not employ such mindless repetition, but taught children lessons and taught them to problem solve, not “repeat after me.” Like “Dora the Explorer” much of popular culture is simply something to occupy people and make them happy, not something to make them think.
The Nickelodeon show is very predictable, like much of children’s television and films today. For example, when talking about the day’s adventure, Boots always likes one of the challenges from the day while Dora usually likes the reward; Swiper tries to steal something from Dora and Boots but never succeeds; and there are always three map directions to remember. Much of television is predictable these days. Part of the problem is the overuse of genre –producers play it safe. Another problem is producers themselves. Shows are cranked out like a product exiting a piece of machinery. Shows are not created for quality but for money, therefore predictability and replication reign. In fact, of the four “Dora the Explorer” shows that I watched in one day, two shows had the same exact format and nearly the same exact script. The show embodies the predictability commonly seen in popular culture generally, but popular children’s television shows specifically.
“Dora the Explorer” shows some redeeming qualities, such as an effort by Americans to accept new cultures and to learn new languages. According to Erynn Masi de Casanova of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, several children’s TV shows include the Spanish language and Hispanic characters as the main characters, a
phenomenon [which] corresponds to the growth of the Latino population; these programs act as agents of socialization for the next generation, a generation that will have more Latino/Latina members than ever before (455).
Like other current children’s shows, Dora teaches viewers how to say words in Spanish, and some of the dialogue is spoken wholly in this language. However, again, the teaching aspect is based on mindless repetition, and while repetition is good for learning, viewers lose focus easily. Dora appears to be Hispanic, but she speaks with an American accent (unless she speaks in Spanish). De Casanova writes that ethnicity is not connected the language, while speaking Spanish is underpinned as a skill (456). Supporting this argument, in the episodes I viewed, no references were made to Dora’s ethnicity or cultural heritage, only the new words, whether Spanish or English, that she taught the audience. Popular television shows are trying more and more to reflect current population demographics. Over the years they have added blacks, gays, and now Hispanics. Effort to better reflect the ethnicities of Americans is one positive attribute shared by both popular culture and “Dora the Explorer.”
Dutiful Dora faithfully teaches good morals to children, such as sharing, giving, and helping. Dora’s goal is always to either help someone or something, or to give something. In the shows that I watched, Dora gave her puppy a gift and her sick grandmother some treats, and she helped save Diego with a baby parrot and helped a frog get back home. She is always happy to help. Like many older children’s shows and shows screened on PBS (an educational channel), Dora displays good moral attitudes and values, following some of the more positive qualities of today’s popular culture, though the show is far from quality or high culture. This attempt by producers to teach children is an example of popular culture being used for good, as a learning tool. In this way, it somewhat reflects high culture which helps to further thought.
Consistent with the convergence culture of America, Dora’s show merges with other media. There are Dora videogames, movies, and other products such as clothing. Televisions shows are now the basis for external income from objects instead of the original focus, the show. Once something becomes suddenly popular, Hollywood dumbs it down to reach a wider audience, or the original loses its innovation and consequently the show becomes dumbed down, all for the sake of selling products other than what the show was originally designed for. Shows become secondary to the products sold, causing the quality of the shows to suffer. I have heard children talking about Dora and have seen them carrying book bags, lunchboxes, pencils, and many other school supplies. Shirts and pajamas are present for purchase in stores. While school needs to be fun, focus can easily be shifted from actual learning to conversations and competition about unimportant television shows.
More positively, John Fiske’s idea of participatory culture is evident in “Dora the Explorer.” Fiske correctly believes that people take a cultural text and transform it to suit their personal cultural needs. One such avenue of this participation, and one which is relevant to this case study, is YouTube. On YouTube, the Greenstorm Films channel boasts a spoof on “Dora the Explorer.” It takes the idea of Dora the Explorer and constructs a real life version, complete with the long, unrealistic pauses that the show is known for, demonstrating the lack of realism and the mindlessness of the show. It mainly illustrates the idiocracy of saying “Swiper, no swiping!” three times, as is normally done by Dora and Boots. The spoof uses the word and image of a sniper to poke fun at the show. If a child is in front of a sniper, he/she will get shot in the 10 seconds required to say the magic phrase three times, like Boots did in the YouTube video. Similarly, Dora would not have had time to say “Count with me” while in range and plain view of many snipers, yet in the spoof she never gets shot. Relating it to the show, realistically there is not time to say “Swiper, no swiping!” three times, and Swiper would not move that slow, thus, Dora and Boots would (realistically) be swiped. Elizabeth G. Traube, author of “‘The Popular’ in American Culture,” notes that “The phrase popular culture was coined by Herder to represent the expressive forms preserved among rural people as comprising an integrated, organic whole” (130). In a way, the spoof-makers of YouTube form this people that reuse the original “Dora the Explorer” to compromise the original, forming this whole of participatory culture. People realize how the show is unrealistic and unintellectual, and they make fun of it. They create content of their own to reflect their own ideas. They are not participating as the show-makers probably would want them to, but they are creating conversation about the show.
Actually, the show even promotes child cultural participation. As mentioned before, Dora tells viewers to do certain things (like what she is doing). Yet, it uses the cartooned picture of a computer mouse arrow to click on the objects that the children are supposed to be finding, even though the children themselves are not moving the arrow. The simulated virtual interaction inspired by a mouse arrow inspires children to log into the computer and find Dora games as are available on the Nickelodeon website. Interestingly enough, this part of the show is advancing participatory culture. Children may not be creating their own content, but they are using their resources to achieve what gives them pleasure: coloring printable pages of Dora, playing games with Dora’s character, among more options. They are not relying solely on the television show but make use of other media for their enjoyment.
Popular culture nowadays is nothing short of accommodating the masses, just as Adorno described it with his concept of culture industry. Traube affirms this idea when she says that popular culture has moved “from the ‘high-cultural’ preferences of elites to the tastes of ‘ordinary people’” (128). Popular culture is being sold to us, as “Dora the Explorer” shows. “Dora” is just one of many children’s television shows that is dumbing down America’s kids by not requiring much thought from today’s children. Like many cartoons and TV shows, “Dora the Explorer” has turned into a product to be sold, whether as pencils, t-shirts, or boxed DVD sets of television episodes. On the other hand, such materials enhance people’s happiness, because consuming and using popular culture brings them enjoyment.
The popular television show, “Dora the Explorer,” represents modern television and popular culture in more ways than one, though the main theme of the dumbing down of America is readily brought to mind. The show uses repetition, unrealistic pauses, and predictability commonly found in modern TV shows today, yet it also shows some redeeming qualities such as better representing the American population, teaching cultural awareness, and good moral values, such as sharing. The show is also evidence of the participatory culture that America has become, namely through YouTube, which reveals the critical and creative minds of its users. While popular culture seems to be going downhill, the participatory culture somewhat redeems it.
Traube, Elizabeth G. “‘The Popular’ in American Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1996): 127-151. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
De Casanova, Erynn Masi. “Spanish Language and Latino Ethnicity in Children’s Television Programs.” Latino Studies 5.4 (Winter 2007): 455-477. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.