Just what is it with Dora the Explorer? For those of you without children under 10, Dora the Explorer is a pandemically successful American children’s cartoon that follows the magical adventures of a seven-year-old girl called Dora and her best friend, a monkey called Boots.
It is nothing like Roobarb and Custard, the cult 1970s cartoon characters of blessed memory. It is horribly anodyne. It is soupily right-on. It is insanely repetitive. And its characters pronounce every syllable with the sort of enTHUSiASTic EMPHasis that makes the adult listener feel suicidal.
But kids go mad for it. Whether you like it or not, and whether you have kids or not, this stuff is worming its way deep into the collective unconscious of the next generation. And, as well as being annoying, Dora is really weird — in an interesting way. Here’s how it works. The structure is as tight as a sonnet: three quatrains and a two-line payoff. Dora always has some sort of mission, be it waking up a sleeping rooster, going to a boring party or returning a lost fish to its family.
That mission involves going to three locations, each of which appears on a map Dora carries around. “I’m the map, I’m the map! I’m the map, I’m the map! I’m the ma-a-a-p!” this wretched scroll yelps as it opens. You, the viewer, are asked to tell Dora which location she needs to go to next — and off she trots.
In each location she meets a friend and helps him or her overcome a problem. Her progress is soundtracked by recurring songs. Vamonos, Let’s Go! sets her off and, at the end, cartoon insects with musical instruments start jamming an equally annoying number called We Did It! Everything in Dora ends with an exclamation mark.
The wild card is Swiper the Fox. This sneaky creature will appear — wearing blue gloves and a bandido eyemask that conceals his identity from absolutely nobody — and attempt to swipe something. If he’s spotted and Dora can shout “Swiper, no swiping!” three times before he reaches his target, he will snap his fingers in frustration and exclaim: “Oh ma-a-a-n!” If he gets there before Dora’s third cry, he swipes. An object vanishes and he exclaims in horrid triumph: “You’re t-o-o-o LATE!” Ma-a-a-n, Swiper haunts my dreams. Why that incantation?
What is uniquely strange about Dora, though, is that it is expressly modelled on a computer game. Part of the credit sequence is even designed like a retro Nintendo game, with logs, rafts and crocodiles going back and forth. Video game aesthetics dominate — but the oddest thing of all is the cursor. When you “help” identify an object in Dora’s backpack, or “tell her” where the map wants her to go next, a cursor marks your (imagined) intervention. The backpack opens and a number of objects circle above it. You’ll be asked: Can you find the length of rope? There’s a pause. Then this fat arrow-shaped cursor appears above it and makes an audible click. Well done! You found it!
Finally, there’s that three-part structure. On the one hand it mimics the shape of myths and fairy tales: we have three distinct episodes of adversity, a trickster in Swiper and a final triumph. Julia Donaldson’s stories — The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, Tiddler — rely on near-identical structures. But it’s also how computer games work: small challenges (levels or sub-levels) that are essentially variations on a theme, telescoped into a bigger story arc.
It’s open to question what’s going on here. Is this a show designed to appeal to children whose first language, so to speak, is video games? Or is it the other way round: a show designed to get children accustomed to clicks, cursors and modular level design — essentially, grooming toddlers for Xbox? Or is it just a telly programme dementedly pretending to be interactive in the hope of passing muster in the digital age?
I’m baffled. But it’s enough to make me wonder whether, while we’re scrutinising the work of avant-garde artists and the like in the hope of finding the new hybrid forms that will shape 21st-century minds, we might be better off tuning in to kids’ TV. —