Dora the Explorer: When Gender Representations in Children’s Media Backslide // Abigail Walsh, M.A., M.Ed.
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Dora the Explorer has been a beloved children’s television program since it aired in 2000. With a focus on problem solving and Spanish literacy, Dora the Explorer was a well-received show that both parents and children could agree on. Dora was a spunky child interested in exploring the world, solving problems, and helping her friends. She had a talking backpack that carried around a talking map and all the tools they might need along the trip with her talking animal friends.
Most importantly, Dora was a remarkable character that presented boys and girls with a non-traditional representation of what a girl can be and do. As a preschooler herself, Dora was portrayed with a chubby physique, short hair, and few gender-typical markers – she wore a pink shirt, and a flower bracelet. She was not swathed in pink or accessorized to the nines. Dora was a character that provided gender-neutral empowerment to young girls (Ryan, 2010). This is especially important during the preschool age because children are creating gender schemas, categories of what it means to be a girl or a boy (Martin & Halverson, 1981).
Now the tide has turned, and Dora is growing up. Nickelodeon announced Dora would be growing up back in March of 2009 (Associated Press, 2009; Rock, 2016). Partnering with Mattel, they would be bringing an interactive online and Dora doll experience for the tween audience. However, when Nickelodeon released an image of the new tween Dora there was uproar from the parenting community (Associated Press, 2009; Rock, 2016). Dora was a slim and lanky girl, with a pink flowered tunic, purple leggings; she had grown out her hair, taken to accessorizing, wearing more jewelry, and make-up. Parents were outraged by exactly how thin this new Dora was going to be, worrying that she would be portraying poor body image to their children. Parents protested this change until Nickelodeon and Mattel changed Dora’s silhouette to show a more typical and healthy body image. The debate, however, hasn’t gone away and parents are still concerned (Rock, 2016).
After the parent backlash from the initial image, the new Dora was promoted online before getting her own show on television. It took more than five years between the release of the first image and the premier of the new Dora and Friends: Into the City in August of 2014 (Wikipedia, 2016). The new tween Dora remains as gender stereotypical as the teaser image released back in 2009. This imagery strips Dora of the previous empowerment she gave to preschool girls, telling them that as they grow up it is important to dress and act like a stereotypical girl. This message, alone, is cause for concern at this new show. Especially in an era where we acknowledge the media’s shortcomings of representing girls and women.
Other aspects of the show have also changed considerably. Dora has traded in her backpack for a magical camcorder and swapped the talking map, which promoted spatial skills for young girls, for a smartphone app, perpetuating the lure of technology for younger and younger children. Dora’s friends have also gotten an upgrade. Dora no longer spends her time with the beloved talking animals, but with other children. Each character in the new show has a special interest: Kate is an avid reader who is dramatic and artistic, Naiya is a smart girl who excels at math and science, Emma is an accomplished musician with a drive to be the best, Alana is an athlete and animal lover, and Pablo, the token boy is a smart, playful, athlete and explorer (Wikipedia, 2016).
These characters represent an empty attempt at diversifying the portrayal of gender in children’s television. Each girl embodies a few select skills that are her trademark. By compartmentalizing these traits, Nickelodeon perpetuates girls’ beliefs that you can be good at one thing but not another. Pablo presents another issue entirely. He is the token boy of the group and while Nickelodeon seems to have made an effort, though misguided, in showing a diverse view of girls, they fell into a trap of portraying the one boy on the show as a stereotypical boy. Pablo is a smart athlete and explorer. These traits already express the typical traits boys are allowed to express by society’s standards. As Nickelodeon tried to portray multiple options for girls, they neglected to allow boys the same opportunity for diversity and growth.
Dora and Friends: Into the City maintains the importance of problem solving, Spanish literacy, and incorporates more music and singing than the earlier Dora the Explorer version of the television show. Unfortunately, while the overt mission remains the same, and promotes many skills, the underlying gender messages undermine the progressive gender-neutral stance that Dora the Explorer was championed for. It was announced recently that Nickelodeon has canceled Dora the Explorer. In growing up, Dora lost who she was.
Written by Abigail Walsh, M.A., M.Ed.
Associated Press, The. (2009, March 16). New Dora the Explorer, not a tramp. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/latino/tween-dora-not-tramp-nick-mattel-soothe-moms-uproar-article-1.372211
Martin, C. L. & Halverson, C. F. (1981) ‘A schematic processing model of sex typing and stereotyping in children’, Child Development, 52, 1119–34.
Rock, A. (2016, August 4). Controversy around tween Dora. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/nickelodeon-announces-plans-for-a-new-dora-2765008
Ryan, E. L. (2010). Dora the Explorer: Empowering preschoolers, girls, and Latinas. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(1), doi:10.1080/08838150903550394
Wikimedia Publications. (2016, September 5). Dora and Friends: Into the City! Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_and_Friends:_Into_the_City!