She's only seven years old, but already has a dazzling 10-year career behind her. Dora is both a local and international hit. Is she striking a blow at gender stereotypes among toddlers? And why are parents so crazy about her?
A few months ago, the young children's "goddess" Dora, the embodiment of cheer and goodwill, found herself battered and bloody in a police line-up. Up until that moment, Dora had contended largely with challenges like telling the difference between big and small, and counting to four, in the animated television series that bears her name. Now mug shots of her with a black eye were being distributed, after she was arrested and charged with trespassing.
This surprising turn in Dora's young life occurred in the wake of the new immigration law in the state of Arizona, which orders immigrants to carry identification, and permits police officers to arrest them for illegal residency even if they are not suspected of committing any crime. Dora, a Latina girl who speaks English and Spanish, was co-opted by opponents of the law for their protest campaign.
Nickelodeon, the channel that produces and broadcasts "Dora the Explorer," is careful to make the series as educational as possible: with no violence, stereotypes or trace of controversy, and with messages of brotherhood, equality and pluralism. The controversial context in which their darling was presented disturbed the top brass at the channel. "I didn't like seeing Dora with a black eye," says series creator Chris Gifford in a telephone interview, "but it attests to her power."
After a decade on screen, "Dora the Explorer" is indeed a famous label whose familiarity extends way beyond its original target audience of the three- to five-year-old American demographic. The show premiered on Nickelodeon exactly 10 years ago, and has since become the leading show for young children - in Israel as in America. It has been sold to dozens of countries and translated into dozens of languages. The merchandising of the heroine's image is a billion-dollar industry. Dora has joined the pantheon of animated characters reserved for Disney princesses and venerable old-timers like Winnie the Pooh.
So it's surprising that despite all the power and money accrued thanks to Dora, the Arizona affair continues to upset the titans at Nickelodeon.
"The channel does not wish to comment on this, because it's a political discussion," explains Gifford. "They just don't want to be involved in it."
After my conversation with him, the channel made the message even clearer: While our initial conversation was coordinated just three hours ahead of time, the next one was made conditional upon a pledge to avoid questions relating to political issues. Two days later, it seems that this was not sufficient either, and the channel would only consent to an interview with Gifford by email - in which all the questions were vetted ahead of time by a public relations department.
Chris Gifford and Valerie Walsh were working as part of the development team at Nickelodeon when they decided to come up with a program themselves, since they felt they had acquired so much experience at the channel.
Gifford: "It was a long process, it took about a year from the time we came up with the initial idea until the pilot. My initial idea was for a rabbit that goes on a journey and encounters obstacles. Later, we thought that it really ought to be a person, so that our audience could identify, and then we decided that it would be a girl because there aren't many girls starring in programs aimed at preschoolers. Afterward, we thought of having her speak two languages. And to help with the underrepresentation of Latinos in America, we decided that the heroine would be a Latina girl. We chose the name Dora, which means 'to explore' in Spanish. The Spanish word for computer, computadora, is derived from it. We chose her surname, Marquez, because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."
Since it went on the air in August 2000, Dora's age - seven - has remained unchanged. "We don't talk about it explicitly on the show," Gifford explains, "but our core audience, three- to five-year-olds, feels that maybe she's a little older than them, because she knows how to read and goes off on exciting adventures."
Dora's origins have also remained vague: "We consciously decided that she would not live in a specific place, because we wanted her to build bridges between cultures. When we decided that she would be Latina, some people said we had to name her country of origin, but the way we saw it, she didn't live in America but in an imaginary world with chocolate and blue monkeys. The secret of her attraction is something beyond her ethnicity. It derives from our desire to create a magical realism that is influenced by our imaginations and from interviews that we've held with children."
The physical design of the character started from the top down: "First came the hair," says Gifford. "My daughter had a hairdo like Dora's at the time we were working on it. And the eyes are very important because Dora gazes directly at viewers, sometimes for seven whole seconds, while she waits for a response from the audience. Most of the comments that we wrote on the storyboard [a layout of the planned scenes] were 'eyes to the camera.' When she is walking, too, she looks toward the camera instead of in the direction that she's walking, because the audience is an active participant, and Dora is always checking what the audience is doing, in order to keep the viewers' attention."
The character was subsequently refined, including the selection of her skin and hair color, thanks to interviews and focus group research among hundreds of children. "Everything we did was tested, as with every children's program," says Gifford. "First we showed the kids at the relevant ages a book with pictures that gave a general illustration of the plot, in the simplest way. After that we developed a storyboard with dialogues and showed them a simple version of the show, in black and white and without music. We tried to see where we were losing them and what could be improved. The interactive nature of the series made it easier for us to understand their response."
When did you realize that you had a big hit on your hands?
Gifford: "Only after the show went on the air. In the testing stage, we saw that the kids liked Dora, but we never imagined what a huge hit it would be."
"The secret of Dora's success is her absolute simplicity," says Dana Ben-Naftali of ZooZoo Marketing Consultants. "The animation is simple, the plot is simple, the texts are simple, the characters are two-dimensional at best. Everyone can watch, participate, understand. Dora has to get from Point A to Point B and pass a river and fox on the way, and that's it. Everyone knows from the start that Swiper the Fox is not really bad, that Dora will reach her destination and that we might also learn to say 'please' along the way. Aside from that, the series is constructed like a computer game for very young children, a world that they know and identify with from infancy. It may be broadcast on a medium that is not interactive, but the children are kept continuously involved and the instructions that they shout at the TV supposedly influence the decisions that Dora makes."
"The illustration is simple, the plot is repetitive, everything is very clear, as it should be in order to speak to children," echoes Oren Zivlin, CEO of Zivlin Youth Media. "She looks like Bratz - big head, big eyes; that's how you define a character. She also doesn't try to pull in viewers that are over the age of the target audience. After age six, children aren't interested. Unlike with the Smurfs, for instance. But what we're doing here is coming up with explanations after the fact. It was a success, period. If the series had failed, we'd have come up with explanations for that, too. Like, what's with this old-fashioned, two-dimensional idea when kids these days are used to 3D?"
"Some of the kids in kindergarten called her mean names, like 'Dora Donkey' or 'Ugly Dora,'" says Ela Ashfar, 6, from Tel Aviv. "I liked her until I was four, but now Dora bores me. It's always the same song and the same words. I learned enough from her, and at a certain age you don't want to see Dora anymore. I think I've grown up and when you grow up you don't like baby shows anymore."
Asked why she liked her when she was younger, Ela says: "I don't know, I'm not sure anymore."
By age four, children seem to deeply identify with the series and its characters. Dr. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a professor of science education at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, who is currently at Cornell University in the United States, tells of a night when she awoke to the cries of her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Tamar, who was shouting, "No, Swiper, No!" in her sleep.
"It's a little sad that there has to be a mean character to move the plot along," Baram-Tsabari says. "Because it says something about people. But afterward the fox had a birthday party and everyone came, there was a rehabilitation. And on Christmas they convinced him not to take Santa Claus' presents. Of course, it took exactly two episodes before the kids also wanted to have a decorated tree in the living room and to meet Dora."
The narrow age span of the series' target audience means a high turnover of viewers. But the fact remains: Ten years after her debut on the screen, Dora is still with us and still a major hit. She arrived in Israel in October 2005, and has since taken over local children's television. At first the program was aired on the Hop! cable network, and then in 2007 it moved to the local Nickelodeon franchise, with reruns shown on Hop! Today it is also shown on the Wall website and a few weeks ago, Channel 1 also began running it twice a day.
In the local version, too, Dora is bilingual. But in Israel she speaks Hebrew and teaches English expressions.
"I saw the program at MIPTV, the Cannes television festival. I think it was in 2005," says Tamir Paul, an owner of Hop!. "I didn't know if it would work or not, but it seemed right for our audience. Nickelodeon did not put it up for sale to other countries right at the beginning. In fact, Israel and France are the first countries where Nickelodeon agreed to let Dora's second language be English and not Spanish."
"When we proposed it, Nickelodeon International said no at first. They said, 'Dora speaks Spanish and not English,'" says Galia Halawi, deputy director of programming at Hop!. "They were a bit shocked by the request. Only after my colleagues from France told them that there was no chance that Dora could teach Spanish in France, they realized that we were not the only odd ones and they agreed - on condition that we be extremely careful in our adaptation."
In the original version, Dora's complexion and use of Spanish are used to stress her Latina character and to appeal to this minority group. "The songs that Dora sings are also Latino folklore, and most of the people she communicates with are bilingual," says Gifford.
Prof. Dafna Lemish of the Tel Aviv University communications department contends that clever use is made of Dora's complexion: "It's a brown shade that covers all the options. There's an attempt here to represent Hispanics, but in other places she could represent all kinds of nationalities: Skin that is a little brown could be Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, suntanned Caucasian - it's a shade that's a very broad common denominator. It's meant to give representation to minorities, but also to appeal to as many audiences as possible, and to serve as something that all kinds of population groups can identify with. It's a nonthreatening color: She's one of us, she fits in, she's in the mainstream."
"Her body is orange," young Ela Ashfar points out. "I think she's Chinese."
But she speaks Hebrew.
Ashfar: "Maybe she learned it."
The decision to use English as the second language for Dora here erased that ethnic aspect of the character. "Someone very brave could have decided that she would be called Dauda and that she would teach the children of Israel Arabic," says Ben-Naftali, "but that could have been dangerous, in commercial terms."
Alona Abt, another owner of Hop!, replies that such discussion is part of a broader social question, but anyway, "since we also broadcast 'Rehov Sumsum' (the local version of 'Sesame Street' ), which does not present Arabs in a distorted and stereotypical context, or in connection with the news, we thought the we didn't need to cover that in 'Dora' as well."
"The decision to use English was very logical," adds Ben-Naftali. "Just like Spanish is the second language in schools in America, here English is the second language."
But Lemish says that the parallel does not completely fit: "Having Dora speak Spanish in America is something bold and special, it's a language that the Hispanic community considers 'theirs,' so this is a way of showing recognition and identification. By making Spanish more familiar to the majority group, it's upgrading a language that is perceived as inferior. In Israel, they did not take this same bold step with Arabic, which would have upgraded it and portrayed it as something worthy.
"Dora could also easily have been a little girl from Kazakhstan who speaks Russian. Children in Israel are not exposed to Arabic or Russian in a positive context. But they went with the 'sure thing,' and so in Israel Dora lost that political advantage. It's a shame. It could have been a wonderful tool to bring people together."
Parents are a decisive link in determining the success of television programs for young children, which not only have to engage the young ones but also earn the adults' seal of approval. In Dora's case, there was no problem: The little girl who teaches viewers to count, name colors and say a few words in a foreign language easily won over the grown-ups. Then there is the social content, messages like encouraging teamwork and helping others, and the fact that the show also promotes physical activity. In each episode, Dora asks her viewers to get up off the couch and waddle like a penguin or flap their arms and do a chicken dance.
"It's not just silly like Yuval Hamebulbal" - a reference to a well-known character in Israeli children's literature, says Limor Ifergen, a website manager from Ramat Gan and mother of three-and-a-half-year-old Yonatan. "He learns new things from the show. Like how to say 'I love you.'"
"The show is totally clean, educational, calming," Ben-Naftali notes. "There isn't a single controversial message. And Dora is not a Barbie. Watching her doesn't make little girls want to throw up in order to stay skinny, or to dye their hair. Her appearance is nonthreatening. On the one hand, she is human, but the dimensions of her large head and small body make her something that's more like a toy."
"Aside from her shrill voice, I actually like her," says Baram-Tsabari. "I didn't mind if she were Hispanic or not, but I was glad that she had brown hair and brown eyes, and a T-shirt and not a midriff top. I also liked the repetitiveness: In each episode everything is repeated several times; it's a good way to learn. Also, Dora is an active child, who doesn't wait for someone to come and rescue her. She works as part of a team and she has friends."
Some of whom are imaginary.
Baram-Tsabari: "True, if what you mean to say is that a talking ox is imaginary. But it's nice that the boy in the series, Diego, is the secondary character, the sidekick. Although in our house Diego has become a main character and is now my daughter Tamar's imaginary friend."
Can children's shows really be educational?
"Studies show that television can also be an educational tool. They've done countless studies on 'Sesame Street,' for instance, and found that especially among weaker sectors, watching the show was linked to an increase in readiness for first grade. Children from more affluent households didn't need the show for that purpose, but in any event, an adult's mediation is important in the learning process because it directs the child's attention to the relevant things. If you use television as a babysitter, the educational benefit could be lost."
Baram-Tsabari exposed her children to the American version of the show ahead of the family's move to America. "I've never used television as a babysitter, and I also used 'Dora' to try to teach them English," she says. "But they ended up learning Spanish from it."
What was it about the show that appealed to the children?
"I think kids get addicted to anything you get them accustomed to, whether it's a bedtime story or Dora. I bet that if we gave them cucumber tea to drink on a regular basis, they'd get addicted to that, too."
"Sometimes things succeed just because," sums up Ben-Naftali. "Why Miley Cyrus and not other girls, who are prettier and more talented than her? There isn't always a scientific explanation or precise formula for every phenomenon like this. Lots of times, it's more a matter of luck and timing than anything else. And that could definitely be the case with Dora. She succeeded 'just because.'"
It didn't take long for franchisees to recognize Dora's merchandising potential, and she soon morphed from an animated character into a huge industry. According to Yooka, the Israeli licensee, sales of Dora products around the world have raked in more than $11 billion to date. In Israel, Dora merchandise was first offered in 2006, and since then about 40 different companies - clothing, food and drink, publishing, textile, toy manufacturers and more - have developed over 1,500 Dora products that have sold for a grand total of approximately NIS 200 million.
As part of "Dora the Explorer's" 10th-anniversary celebrations, celebrities like Shakira and Salma Hayek designed Dora backpacks. The proceeds will be donated to children's organizations around the world, but since other Dora backpacks have been sold for years, the question arises as to which came first - the character-related accessory or the merchandising idea? Or would that be putting the cart before the horse?
"Nowadays, the cart is planned from the start, together with the horse," says Merav Shmueli of Yooka, which markets the Dora label in Israel. "Part of the marketing is based on identification with the character, and Dora's backpack is a real icon."
Positioning a product as educational also helps expand the franchise into new areas. "You could use the Dora character to encourage children to take vitamins, or use a certain toothbrush and toothpaste, or to drink milk with nutritional additives," Shmueli elaborates. "We even came out with a digital children's thermometer. In 2008, you could see anything with Dora, and since then she's remained stable and is still the leading label for preschoolers."
More than 50 Dora books have been published in Israel. Shmueli says that four publishing houses vied for the translation rights before Modan acquired them.
"We've sold more than 800,000 Dora books so far. It's an incredible number," she says. "Parents prefer Dora books to a book about Mickey Mouse, for example, which is just for fun."
"At first it was a kind of gamble, not everybody knew what it was," says Roni Modan, the director of the eponymous publishing house. "My father was the one who first noticed it. It was a long process. You're always competing with several more publishers, and the franchise's representatives take a good look at the companies. This is a series that parents are happy to bring into their homes. We make sure that the contents are suited to Israel: We didn't take titles having to do with Christian holidays, because a book about Easter is obviously less relevant here. It's unusual for a children's label to maintain such a high level of sales for such a long time. It's hard for me to think of other examples, aside from Disney's immortal characters."
Dora's achievement is measured not only in ratings or dollars, but also in the gender model that she offers, as a forthright heroine in a world of Bratz and boys. "Hard to believe," says Prof. Lemish, "but children's programs still present the girl characters as little hotties: with long eyelashes, accessories in their hair, long legs, narrow waists, red lips. With Dora you don't see that. She's also not emotional or whiny, but a leader, with a positive attitude to life. She's curious and enterprising. She's not busy playing with her hair and with dolls. The program has been much praised as an attempt to break gender stereotypes, and in many ways it does this successfully. On the other hand, the little monkey character, and later Diego , were meant to attract other audiences. The role of the sidekick is to balance out the heroine, and even though they did something bold with Dora, they still wanted to be safe and not have the program led solely by a female character."
The relative daring of Dora's creators also becomes more restrained as it encounters market forces. The onscreen heroine is a tomboy who has no interest in primping, but the one on the toy-store shelves is linked with stereotypical female contexts. Not to mention the bright pink packaging.
"The television show appeals to boys, too, but they won't buy the Dora merchandise," says Lemish. "One explanation is that it's because of the parents' intervention. And Grandma won't buy a Dora pencil case for her grandson. The socialization processes are very strongly imprinted with the parents and are retained even if the program does try to break stereotypes."
"It's not Bratz and it's not Barbie or Disney princesses," says Shmueli. "We used to have a Dora kitchen, but that's not the guiding idea of the products. You'll see board games and puzzles for learning the numbers and letters."
Still, in the past year, Nickelodeon and Mattel Toys (producer of Barbie ) came out with a Dora doll representing the character as an early adolescent. The preteen Dora is more feminine: slim, with long hair, red lips and fashionable clothing. "And it took off like wildfire," says Shmueli.
Speaking for Dora
The high-pitched voice of the Israeli Dora, which makes more than a few parents fantasize about ripping out her vocal chords, belongs to Shira Naor, 17, from Ramat Gan. “It’s hard for me to watch a whole episode of Dora,” admits Naor, who has a perfectly normal and giggly voice off-screen. “My voice on there is really annoying, but the kids love it.”
Naor studies in the theater track at Ironi Aleph High School in Tel Aviv. She began her voice-over career in fourth grade, when she was invited to sing on the Hop! channel. In sixth grade, she was invited for the decisive audition of her career. “I’d just come back from a visit to my father in America, so I was familiar with Dora’s voice, and I tried to imitate the original girl who does the character.”
She says it’s hard work: “It’s a children’s show with a story that repeats itself, so there isn’t too much variety in the acting. But you have to put a lot of voice energy into it, because she’s always happy and you have to get the kids excited.”
Dora has spilled over into other aspects of Naor’s life beyond work, of course. “I became more popular with my girlfriends’ younger siblings,” she notes, adding that she still sometimes receives Dora merchandise as birthday gifts. “I got a few dolls, a toothbrush and a comb. One time, my friend put up a picture of Dora and Boots, and added lines that I would say, but in Dora’s style, like, ‘C’mon kids, let’s go for coffee!’”
Asked if she is recognized by kids, Naor says: “Only when I speak in a really high voice, when I’m shouting maybe. But I still get introduced all the time as Dora, which is kind of annoying, as if that’s all there is to me.”