Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lessons I Learned from Dora

I am back! And I have thoughts, as it turns out. Get ready!

I've spent a lot of time with children on this trip (I have five nieces and nephews and one baby second cousin), and as a side effect I have spent a lot of time with Dora. In particular, I can recite to you the maps for both rescuing the baby jaguar and bringing the baby penguino safely home to the South Pole. I can tell you that in one episode Swiper appears in the poorly conceived costume of a polar bear in the jungle; in the next, he skis down a snowy mountain--always the wrong costume for the wrong place (if only he'd held onto it for another episode).

As tired as I am of it, I have no beef with Dora--I think it's a great concept. The idea, those with children or child relatives probably know, is that Dora stimulates different intelligences, in keeping with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences--activating language centers as well as mathematical, spatial, artistic, and musical intelligences. Whereas traditional children's shows like Sesame Street isolate these skills (a counting segment, a reading segment, a musical segment, etc.), Dora combines them in an attempt to keep the child engaged the whole time, and in multiple ways. Not a minute goes by without some injunction to the child to move, speak, direct, or think in some new way. (Probably the perfection of this form is in Little Einsteins, where the linkages between math and music, space and art, etc. are made visually and aurally explicit.) And while all this is going, there is a semblance of a story--Dora is introducing us to her cousin Diego, and using animal sounds and knowledge of nature to save the baby jaguar is just an average day as far as he's concerned. In the books, the story is more explicit, though the formula is always the same. Dora must bring a crown and shoes to her sister to help celebrate her quinceaneara, but first she must pull out the Map and navigate between three separate locations/obstacles, avoid Swiper, utilize the talents of the animals or solve their problems, and so forth. There is a plot in the sense that there is a succession of events and that actions of consequence must be taken (often in Spanish: to open, to pull, to jump, to dive). But there is little shape other than that given by the Map--we do anticipate what will happen next, but ultimately we know, based on the outline given at the beginning of each episode or book, when and where the conflict in the story will occur.

What's interesting is that Dora puts the child in charge of identifying and overcoming these conflicts. ("Where do you see Swiper?" "Tell the penguino to swim deeper!") What's also interesting is that the conflicts in Dora must, due to the show's specific brand of interactivity, be resolved according to a single, predetermined response. Not only does the episode lead the child to a narrowed down input to solve the problem, but it ultimately makes irrelevant whether or not the child decides anything at all, as the situation will be resolved regardless of the presence or lack of input. If you wait, Dora and Boots will continue in their path; they will solve the problem; they will conquer the obstacles with or without your help. In this way Dora , particularly in its form as a TV show, is profoundly non-interactive, in that it limits the possible ways in which a child can respond to and influence the course of events, and indeed, makes it as possible (though less enticing, due to the power of its formula) for the child to zone out and not participate as with all the other televised mind-rot parents want badly to avoid.

Even with all this, I'll still advocate for Dora. If you're going to let your child watch TV, it should probably be TV that teaches and engages on such a regular basis. But it does make me wonder (as a non-mother, and thus an easily challengeable entity) why many parents who fear the negative influences of television have seemed to lean further toward TV shows, albeit TV shows like Dora and Little Einsteins, and further away from full-length children's films.

I'll explain. After a full three days of Dora (Rainforest--cave--waterfall!) I was heaving a sigh of relief when my little cousin asked for "Mrs. Brisby"--The Secret of NIMH. Admittedly, this was one of my favorite films growing up. My mom rented it from the library for me every other week. But it wasn't just me enjoying it--in addition to my cousin, all the other kids who were in the room when it started stopped to watch, some for only minutes, some for the full length of the movie. And they talked about it--saying the names of the characters, wondering what the different creatures were, asking what would happen to the mother mouse and her house, sometimes simply saying it looked too scary and walking away. Either way it provoked reactions--fear, admiration, distaste, amazement--and though the children were often watching quietly, they were not watching passively. The movie didn't give them the option, with its unusually nuanced soundtrack (Jerry Goldsmith--good as John Williams for fanfares and rollicking themes but knowing when to shut the trumpets up and do something strange with the strings), its somewhat odd characters (a shy mother the hero, along with a grumpy broken-legged doctor, a charming and unfailingly reasonable rat, and Dom DeLuise as a rambling crow), its black, blue, and red palette, and its unapologetically eerie settings and images (rats twitching and mutating under the influence of NIMH's drugs--the part I always watched with my eyes half covered). Well-made television can produce a response--but only one at any given time. Movies like this force the child to develop a variety of responses, and to keep up with an emotional and logical arc. Where the Map will always remind you of the right path, full-length films require attention or asking questions--either of which is a positive response and a sign of engagement.

Moreover, in a well-made children's film, there is no convincing guarantee that sticking it through will result in a happy ending. If anything, the prospects seem to get less favorable with every step toward the goal. In films with great stories, the hero must often face something terrifying every step of the way. She must visit the owl. She must climb inside the tractor and break it. She must visit the rats. She must confront (the hideous) Nicodemus and learn the truth about her husband's death. She must run inside the farmer's house and poison the watchful cat. She doesn't get a break, and the child watching doesn't get to help her. They can't tell her to run faster, to jump higher, to take the left path and not the right. They can't encourage her to make her jewel shine and save her children. She has to do it all herself. The story makes interaction possible not through asking for given inputs, but by encouraging identification with the hero--or, if not identification, basic response. Like her. Don't like her. Watch her. Don't watch her. Dora, in contrast, is kind of hate-proof. She is immediately engaging. She is immensely compelling. But she is never you, the viewer. You're tagging along on her adventure. She'll get it done, if you don't.

I think we don't talk often enough about television and film as objects of writing. The power to entertain, to engage, to involve is one given to storytellers just as much as animators, (voice) actors, or directors. Yet in explaining the different "powers" the storyteller can have, the discussion is often reduced to a series of precepts (truth to life, revelation of the human condition). A writer only exposed to these precepts is limited in his or her decisionmaking. The writer decides how to write in service to these precepts--often with little consideration of the reader's experience. If we were to change this conversation to focus more on the reader, though, as film and television often do, we would open up countless choices for the writer. Thinking like an entertainer does not mean limiting the quality or intelligence of one's writing. Think about it in terms of Dora: Talking about the reader could mean keeping hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of readers in your head, as it does in children's programming. Or it could mean writing for only some readers--the way The Secret of NIMH is written, knowing that not all children and not all parents will approve, but taking the chance in order to best please some whose storytelling needs were not being met elsewhere. The conversation in writing classrooms probably too often pits the writer against the reader--the writer with her noble aims and the reader with his base pleasures to gratify. (Read any essay by Flannery O'Connor.) Readers aren't stupid, and the conversation doesn't have to be about how to ignore them or how to trick them. I think the conversation would be very much improved if we spoke of readers as people with choices, as people who could watch TV, could mow the lawn, could volunteer, could cook, could dance, could read. It's not up to readers to need writers. And if, keeping this in mind, we spoke of how to offer something different to those people, of how to use the medium to provide a service that people need, we would open up more choices for ourselves as writers.

So how does Dora fit in? What's perhaps kind of scary is that Dora is too well-made to be ignored--too well-designed, too stimulating, too appealing--but all at a low level, with nothing for the child to deeply hope for or viscerally reject. Writing to capture the reader can be done, and it can do good things. It assures the reader that they can make some things happen, that they do have some impact in and control over their universe. But perhaps at all levels, for children and adults, we should try to encourage equally storytelling that reminds readers/hearers of their power--the power to react on basic, human levels, even if that means taking the risk that they will reject us entirely. Sometimes, literary writing tries to have both in the worst way--limited audience and constant hand-holding, constant assurances that it'll all come out okay. We can have both, or neither, and in an endless variety of ways, by thinking more about what our writing might do for readers and less about what our writing does for us.

Sometimes, on this trip, I've felt like the kids would be much happier if they only knew they didn't always have to be happy. If they knew it was okay to want, and to not want--not because it would all work out to their advantage regardless, but because it feels good just to make that decision, and to opt to withdraw or advance accordingly.


  1. Yeah, there's actually quite a lot of research into holding someone's attention. A lot of it comes from games - you can read Theory of Fun for a quick introduction to the gamey version.

    One of the big things the theory books talk about is your "reward schedule," which is pretty much what it sounds like. (If you have different sections of game being made by different people, you have to be aware of your reward schedule whether you like it or not - suddenly switching to more or less frequent rewards for no reason will annoy a player.)

    This sounds evil and manipulative at first, because peoples' instinct seems to be that "rewards" are something separate from the "important parts" - but that's a misunderstanding. The payoff of your story is actually (or at least should be) your biggest reward for the reader.

    (Minor rewards that aren't just "Ding! 100 points!" include: funny moments, clever dialogue, learning something new about the characters (assuming you like the characters,) or what we call "vista rewards" - a pretty view for players to look at.)

    In fact, one of the biggest rewards games have in their arsenal is teaching the player something new. Learning something new is fun! Having your assumptions challenged is fun.
    Having your mind blown is fun.

    Obviously this power can be used for evil, or for nothing at all. But the upside is that nothing really has to be boring if it doesn't want to be.

  2. Neat, Charlie! Thanks for the link. I think this is exactly the kind of theory I've been interested in. And it does make me wonder too why more parents veer so far from video games for so long. Dora is essentially a televised computer game (the depiction of a monitor during the theme song and the appearance of the cursor/pointer makes it explicit), but the medium makes the same level of interaction difficult to achieve. Where Dora succeeds, it is very often by using these reward principles. My favorite moment so far in watching Dora with the kids is when Swiper actually *does* manage to swipe something. He figures their defenses out. The moment is funny and unexpected, and upsets the usual order of things. It's difficult not to pay attention.

    And I think it's literature's work to use new principles and theories of rewards too. Often the idea seems to be that the reader owes the writer impeccable attention, that they are in charge of "catching" everything. I think if there's something that must be caught in order for the story to work or be enjoyable, it should probably, at the very least, be difficult not to notice that it's happening.