In April 2009, one of the world's biggest celebrities performed at Radio City Music Hall for thousands of screaming and adoring fans. This superstar sang and danced on the same stage as other famous leading ladies had before her, the likes of Alicia Keys, Bette Midler, and Mary J. Blige. But she wasn't glitz and glam like you might expect. This heroine pranced around in unflattering orange shorts, pink t-shirt, yellow socks, and white sneakers, to the intoxication of a pint-sized audience.
Kid-friendly Dora the Explorer is to preschool girls what pop celebrity Miley Cyrus is to their older sisters. Except in this popularity contest, Dora is the unmistakable victor. The cartoon is syndicated in 140 markets worldwide, translated into 33 languages, and watched by 2.7 million viewers each month. The live-action stage performance grossed $85 million in its first year--exceeding the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds concert tour by more than $30 million. The bi-lingual character is the #1 preschool license across almost every category, with over $11 billion amassed in retail sales worldwide.
Dora has been the untouchable leader in preschool entertainment since she trounced Barney in 2000. The purple dinosaur shared Dora's optimism, but couldn't compete in terms of palatability--parents just couldn't stand the mind-numbing t-rex. Hungry for an entertainment alternative, Dora the Explorer was quick to take over airwaves and store shelves. The bi-lingual, dark-skinned Dora character has been embraced by an increasingly multiracial society. She is a positive role model who teaches self-confidence and generosity. And with each episode containing seven educational lessons; from reading, to arithmetic, to kinesthetics; the program substitutes as a preschool-appropriate tutor as well.
One great thing about fictional characters is that they never have to grow up. Real-life pop princess Miley Cyrus battles balancing her emerging sexuality and girl-next-door image, but animated Dora won't ever have to reveal womanly curves. She can imperviously continue to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles in a happy-go-lucky fabricated world.
But we should have known a makeover was around the corner. After ten years of success as a positive role model for young girls, the squeaky clean explorer has adopted a controversial new image. In December 2009, Mattel launched a toy called Dora Links, a plastic, 12-inch-tall doll that is controlled by a computer through a cord connected to her midsection. The toy's eye color, hair length, makeup, and jewelry can be changed with the click of a button. Existing as both a doll and an animated computer character, Dora Links represents gender stereotypes that the original character had managed to avoid. No longer a self-reliant, girl leader of a gang who faces adversity with unflagging positivity, the new Dora is focused on fashion, beauty, and popularity. It is a hurtful sentence for the formerly independent character. Dora--now bound by gender assumptions--is literally shackled by a USB cable.
The new Dora Links character, dubbed "tweenager Dora" by mom bloggers, tosses her shorts in favor of a pink dress, purple leggings, and ballet flats. She no longer hangs with pals Boots (a monkey), Swiper (a fox), and Diego (a boy), but has found a clique of pretty girls of which she is the trendsetter. The "explorer girls" are dutifully diverse: a blonde, a redhead, a black girl, and a girl of Mayan descent. Instead of teaching language and logic, the fashionistas get together to change their clothes. Instead of an appropriately pudgy seven-year-old, this new, nine-year-old Dora has a trim waist, budding breasts, rounded hips, and a noticeable rear-end.
Blink. Dora has blue eyes. Blink, now they are green. With an audible whir, the doll's hair extends down to her thighs, or is retracted for a "short" haircut, which is still halfway down her back. As makeup and jewelry is applied online, the doll's plastic cheeks, lips, and ears glow frightening shades of the rainbow. If there's an educational component to the new Dora, it's one of instant gratification, image editing, and the importance of accessorizing. The new lessons learned are of stereotypical beauty ideals, as young girls are at their most impressionable age. The new Dora confirms what they may have already suspected: being pretty, well-dressed, and well-endowed is more important than being smart.
Dora's new look incited parents. "We don't need another Bratz phenomenon," writes one mother on a petition to halt production of the new character. This particular plea, sponsored by a non-profit organization called the Hardy Girls for Healthy Women, has more than 14,000 signatures. The Huffington Post ran a scathing article wondering "Did Mattel Turn Dora the Explorer into a Tramp?" Author Mike Alvear blames the original "good girls gone dirty"--Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera--for blazing the trail. Formerly innocent teen vixens are nothing new. But parents, having seen what "growing up" really means for girls in the media, are furious to see Dora join that club.
Mattel marketing executive Gina Sirard issued a defense alleging empowerment, explaining that the doll "taps into a tween's love of fashion, and empowers girls to influence and change the 'lives' of Dora and her friends." Cries of "girl power" from both Mattel and Nickelodeon are both feeble and forlorn. The corporate partnership has remained fairly tight-lipped to the uproar from discerning parents. In the meantime, the Dora Links doll and her many accessories can be found on the shelf of almost any toy store, and online she has a robust virtual "life," complete with e-book stories, an e-mail account, videos, games, downloads, and an e-store where girls can select from a variety of "fashion packs" for purchase.
A glitz and glam Dora just might appear on stage after all. You can expect her to be wearing the "El Concierto" rock-and roll outfit (sold separately)--with gold lamé jacket and belt, hot pink guitar, and copper-colored high-heeled wedge boots. She's likely to be accompanied by a teeny dog in a pet carrier. And for the beach number she'll be sporting a low-cut bathing suit with pink sarong and platform shoes. On the blog "No Makeover for Dora," one protestor questions what's next: "Dora the cheerleader? Dora the fashionista with stylist purse and stilettos?"
The answer? Absolutely.
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