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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Dola Bola And The Search For The Inner Pickle

Though she hasn't quite eclipsed Arthur, the new craze in our household is for Dora the Explorer. Aviva, of course, makes the choices, but Noah is just as enthusiastic as she is: he trucks through the house, arms held high like a sprinter crossing the finish line, calling out: "Dola Bola! Dola Bola!"

I have mixed feelings about Dora. On the one hand, I like her. She's clearheaded, resourceful and undaunted. She's even-tempered and nonviolent. She deals with any calamity by solving it as a puzzle. If my monkey friend's new toy fell off the back of the UPS truck somewhere along its route through the Southwest, I might try calling the company or looking up the tracking number; but if these failed, well, I would give up. Not Dora. She sets out. That's what Dora does: she sets out. She's intrepid.

When people wrong her -- steal her packages and fling them into the swamp, say, before she can call out the magic injunction "Swiper no swiping!" -- she spends not a moment on rancor or indecision or self-pity or revenge; she locates the packages. Dora believes in preventative deterrents, but never in punitive ones. We all need a little more Dora in our lives and characters.

Then, too, I'm a sucker for Nickolodeon's cleverly strategized marketing plan. I like that Dora's a capable girl who's the star of her own show. I like that she's Hispanic (and that Boots the monkey, cleverly, is clearly Anglo -- gamely parrots the Spanish words, but you can tell from his accent and from the fact that Dora often has to act as intermediary).

But the show also bothers me. Though I like Dora's own ethics, I find the moral universe she inhabits pretty simple compared to, say, Arthur's. In Elwood City, everyone has nice moods and mean moods. Francine is Arthur's buddy, but she also picks on him. Arthur and D.W. are deeply loyal to each other despite their constant sniping. Binky is a bully with a heart of gold. Buster, while he is pretty much always nice, is terrifically gullible and obstinate in his half-baked notions.

In Dora's show, though, Dora is always sweet-tempered, and always right. Sidekick Boots is always fun, but helpless. Swiper, the show's villian, swipes things -- you can tell from his name. Heroes are heroes, villians are villians, sidekicks are sidekicks; in Dora, they've made the Man In The White Hat a Hispanic girl, but his dialectic remains intact....which bugs me.

Partly, I guess, it's just that the Arthur characters are round, and the Dora characters flat. Arthur characters remind you of people: Dora characters evoke aspects of people, ways of being. We are all sometimes Dora-like, sometimes Boots-like, sometimes Swiper-like. We are not really Buster-like or Brain-like or Binky-like in the same way, because Buster and Brain and Binky are not just one emblematic thing. And that's fine.

Indeed, that's what I think Aviva likes about the show. Compared to her usual diet of Arthur, it seems, on the surface, way too easy for her. The riddles and challenges meant to make the show, ponderously, "educational" -- finding the triangle, counting the eleven stars -- don't engage her at all. And she refuses to talk back to the screen, despite Dora's constant instructions and pleas to do so. (This makes watching Aviva watch the show kind of eerie. Dora pleads; Aviva is silent. Does she imagine Dora's pleas as being directed at some fictitious audience, not her? I find myself replying to Dora, shouting "barra!" to let the squirrel know he must stop his car at the stop light [who gave this squirrel a license anyway?] and Aviva shushes me. She has, apparently, less trouble than I do in keeping straight what is TV and what's real).

What I think she's loving about the show, though, what she's soaking up, is Dora's purity. She identifies with Arthur -- his anxieties, his failures, his nuanced triumphs -- but she aspires, maybe, to being Dora.

I told Aviva about how people are sometimes nice and sometimes mean in Arthur, and always one way or the other in Dora, and which did she think was more like life? She said, meeting my eyes, somewhat defiantly: "People who are nice are always nice." Which served me right, for asking a leading question!

What Noah gets out of it I'm not sure. He perches on the couch too, watching Dora, entranced. Part of it is that Aviva thinks it's cool and she's the center of his world at the moment. Part of it is that he thinks it's cool.

The other weird thing for me is how the show is clearly set inside a computer game. Where Arthur is a mimesis of life, transmuted by animal anthropomorphism, the exigencies of fiction, and occasional postmodern riffs like breaking the fourth wall, Dora is a mimesis of a computer game. It's not a dramatization of the events the computer game is supposed to represent -- it's a dramatization of what the lives of the characters in the computer game are like. The computer game is primary. I wonder if that'll be a core model of narrative for Aviva's generation? It sure wigs me out.


The title of this post, by the way, is from the Arthur casette tapes, which are many rungs of quality below the show. As opposed to the show's theme, played by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, the casettes have their own theme, about "Arthur, the friendliest aardvark". In the song it says (I realized after much pondering): "when he finds he's in a pickle, you'll be amazed at what he can do". But I always heard it as:

   When he finds his Inner Pickle,

   you'll be amazed at what he can do-oo-oo...

Perhaps it's some kind of revelatory mystical state, like Buddha Nature: the Inner Pickle.


Also: I stumbled upon this and cannot resist sharing: Arthur/Simpsons crossover fanfic! (Only funny if you know both shows well enough to hear the characters' voices in your head; but then it's really quite funny indeed).

What I really want to see, now, is an Arthur/Cerebus crossover...

Posted by benrosen at July 13, 2005 03:00 PM | Up to blog

Is it explicit, that Dora actually lives in a computer game?

Posted by: David Moles at July 13, 2005 05:55 PM

I haven't seen either show, although I'm sure I will soon enough, but it seems from your description that Arthur's characters ar meant for older children, no? Isn't it much harder to grasp the concept that a person has more than one quintessential quality of good/bad, nice/mean, etc.?

Posted by: Levi at July 13, 2005 10:35 PM

David -- it's made pretty darn explicit. For one thing, in the opening sequence, after the credits, the camera moves through a live-action kid's house (live action characters saying "come on!" "it's time!") and zooms in onto a computer screen showing Dora and her friends. The shot ends anchored on the screen and never leaves, for the rest of the show -- we have entered the computer.

And then, for another thing, there is a little mouse-cursor that flies into the frame and clicks on things occasionally. Say Swiper has stolen the steering wheel of the squirrel's car (in my opinion as an act of vigilante civic duty, given how badly that squirrel drives, but nobody asks me).

Dora asks the viewer to think about what the wheel looks like, then indicates a bunch of objects lying in the swamp (many of them other, non-circular or non-yellow steering wheels, presumbaly abandoned by other victims of Swiper's civic zeal who lacked Dora's tenacity). "Can you help us find the wheel? Where is it?" Dora implores the viewer. After a moment, the mouse cursor zooms in from stage left, hovers, and clicks on the correct wheel, lighting it up. "There it is! You did it!" cries Dora, bizarrely giving the viewer credit for the actions of the magic mouse cursor. The viewer is being asked to identify with the player of an imaginary computer game of which the TV show is a mimesis.

The whole plot of the show, too, is the plot of a computer game. A quest is announced (an object lost, a gift that must be delivered, a lost person who must be helped home). The Map ("I'm the map, I'm the map, I'm the map!") is consulted. There are three places (levels) that must be traversed (e.g. "river, tunnel, snowy mountain!"). Each consists of a series of puzzles and encounters (often with Swiper). The puzzles are video game puzzles -- jumping from whale to whale across a crocodile-infested river, say, where the whales are moving back and forth Frogger-style, and the viewer implored to tell Dora & co. when to jump: "shout 'salta'!"

(This makes it sound just eeriely dead and mechanical. And it *is* eerie, but there are also gags and grace notes, and Dora's winning, resolute personality to pull you through.)

Yes, Levi, Dora is designed for, I'd guess, 2-5 year olds, while Arthur is designed for, I think, 6-9 year olds. It's always 6-9 year old kids featured in the interstitial live action sequences in Arthur. Arthur is 8; Dora seems to be about 5 or 6.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 14, 2005 12:29 PM

But, Levi, note that Sesame Street is also for 2-5 year olds, and does without villains. Oscar the Grouch is no Swiper.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 14, 2005 12:30 PM

I did not mention the musical numbers. Dora has musical numbers. They are catchy, stylized, and include (every episode) the "where are we going?" song, the "I'm the map" dance number, and the "we did it!" song.

And as far as I can tell, Dora never does actually say, "as you know, Boots, we are in a video game." I don't know how conscious she is of this fact. I think she doesn't know there's any other existence possible. She's like a James Patrick Kelly heroine in that respect.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 14, 2005 12:34 PM

I wonder if perhaps Dora is a cynical indoctrination ploy, aimed at getting kids to pressure their parents into buying video games, much like GI Joe or the Masters of the Universe were famous for being marketing ploys for action figures in the 80s...

Posted by: Matt Hulan at July 14, 2005 01:26 PM

Incidentally, you have no idea what can be achieved when you find your Inner Pickle. It's one of the Discordian Mysteries, much like the Sacred Chao or the Pentabarf.

Once you've been initiated to the 23rd Degree of the Order of Saint Arthur, this and other Mysteries can be Explained to you. Sadly, having received the 14th Degree, you've been Enlightened, and you no longer care about the other 32 Degrees.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at July 14, 2005 01:32 PM

I wonder if perhaps Dora is a cynical indoctrination ploy

Well, uh... yeah!

Actually it's so straightforward you can hardly call it cynical. Cynical ploy implies some level of hypocrisy or scheming. This is an unapologetic ad for the video game from start to finish, really.

Actually we *have* the Dora video game; Aviva's had it for a while, on a little pink gameboy-type gizmo a friend gave her.

Indeed, if she hadn't been so into the video game, she would never have been willing to rent the video, thus sacrificing the chance to watch an Arthur video instead (we had to sit down and do the calculation with her, how if she watched the Dora video X days per year, there would still be 365-X days left for Arthur, for various values of X). Her screen time is strictly rationed; we're kinda old-school on that.

Actually I approve of the Dora video game heartily. It's only the TV show that makes me nervous. The video game, after all, is truly interactive instead of faux interactive. And, you get to save spectacled bears.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 14, 2005 01:47 PM

Yeah, on the rationing of screentime. I kind of wonder what Luke's childhood will be like, without a TV. I mean, we have a TV, but it's just hooked up to a DVD player (and an Xbox...). Eventually, of course, we'll set him up with some videos, but he's still a little young to see TV as anything but flickering images, and we're not in a big hurry to hook him up to the magic color box just yet...

That said, I have many happy childhood memories of TV - Capn Kangaroo, Sesame Street, Mr Rogers, Villa Allegre (although those of you with non-Texan childhoods probably don't know Villa Allegre...). I just wonder what Luke'll be missing.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at July 14, 2005 02:38 PM

We had Villa Allegre! But it was on some weird flickery channel. Maybe channel 24?

Right, we don't receive broadcast TV either, so it's all about the library and the video rental place.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 14, 2005 03:11 PM

Well, that's cool. Aviva doesn't seem particularly deprived :)

Posted by: Matt Hulan at July 14, 2005 03:43 PM

So, I'd think that computer games might become a core model of narrative for Aviva's generation, but probably not computer games like Dora -- at least the way you describe the show, it sounds like a mimesis of a particular sort of computer game, an Eighties video game if you like. Which is probably what its creators were raised on. Even if Grand Theft Auto isn't being pitched to kids, I'd expect it to eventually affect kids' games, and so I'd expect the narrative complexity to ratchet up as time goes by. (Does that make sense?)

Posted by: David Moles at July 14, 2005 05:03 PM

There is a sense in which Dora the game is retro, sure. But I don't think it's unintentionally retro. The Dora creators are not clueless, out of touch post-gamers: they are very sharp, and speak Aviva's language. The simplicity of the Dora game is a big part of its appeal: it may borrow from Frogger, but it does so to good effect.

The evolution could just as easily be the other way -- it's possible more narratively complex, more 3D video games have been tried for younger kids, and that going back to Frogger-style controls is a breakthough in reaching them. I don't know, since I haven't really been following it. But the Dora game has very subtle graphics -- it is essentially indistinguishable from the TV show. And what's great about it is how forgiving it is. You never get eaten by those crocodiles -- you never even get teleported to the origin shore to have to try again. If you miss a jump to a log, you splash into the water, blink a little, and clamber up onto the log you jumped from.

It's not an Eighties video game, it's a 2005 four-year olds' video game; that's where the simplicity, clarity, repetitiveness, and soft edge come from.

Obviously, older kids will play older kids' games, with more channels of input, harder puzzles, more 3D, or whatever. People like games that sit in the space just this side of "too hard", where they succeed by struggle.

So I think it's not so much time going by in terms of stuff filtering down to the four year olds -- I think it's more these four year olds growing up and expecting the same narrative model, of a passive viewing experience that recapitulates and enhances the primary interactive one, instead of the other way around. Indeed, they may find Grand Theft Auto old hat because it's *too* cinematic -- to at pains to imitate a medium, movies, that they see as inferior to games.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 15, 2005 09:48 AM

I'm firmly pro-Dora. What you say about the flat characters is true, of course, but it's not a character-driven show. And kids recognise that; you'll find that while your kids might talk about the human dynamics between Arthur and his pals (amusingly, non-human!) they won't have much interest in what motivates Dora to go out and rescue the prince from the witch and whatnot. What's fun about Dora is the quest, pure and simple, and the quest is a whole lot of fun.

Jeremiah's been a big fan for the past couple years, so I've seen a lot of this show. I think one of the show's main strengths (apart from the things you mention) is in the way it presents the game-like problems and solutions. Want to get from here to there? Figure out the goals along the way, and that's how to get it done. Dora was instrumental in forming Jeremiah's early task-oriented approach: we'd set goals in Dora-format ("thing 1, thing 2, thing 3!" repeat three times, celebrate each one as you accomplish it). When we had something to do that didn't seem immediately rewarding, we'd make a fun game out of doing the first thing, then the second thing, then the third thing -- and he grasped the concept of how that worked instead of being frustrated that we couldn't go straight to having it done. I think that's pretty cool.

For the record, though: Boots is occasionally a brat, and Swiper has some really sweet nice moments.

Posted by: Karen at July 15, 2005 03:17 PM

That's good to hear.

I did like it when Swiper gave back Santa's present after swiping it.

I think part of the odd thing for me is that Aviva is encountering Dora *now*, *after* Arthur -- the proper order would perhaps have been the other way around. She doesn't have any problem breaking tasks down into subgoals, and Noah is a bit too young to tackle that (I'm delighted that he's starting to enjoy one-goal tasks like "can you please put these shoes on the shoe pile?"). So maybe in a bit I'll get to have those kinds of conversations more with Noah.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at July 15, 2005 03:48 PM

Yeah, the height of J's interest in Dora was when he was around 2-3, so it was good building-block stuff at that age. Though he does still love the Dora musical pirate movie. And the "Swiper, no swiping!" mantra (or variations thereof) comes in handy on all kinds of occasions.

But you know, I was a lot older than Aviva when I encountered my first computer quest-style games, and they were still hella fun...

Posted by: Karen at July 15, 2005 04:18 PM

FYI, it's "para" not "barra" that you're supposed to say to make the squirrel (or anybody else Spanish-speaking) stop. Don't worry, Aviva knows this -- she recited all her Spanish phrases for me the other day. Hope you're having fun in Switzerland!

Posted by: Shoshana at August 9, 2005 12:13 PM
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