Last night while reorganizing this blog I came across a draft of the following post, which I wrote about a year ago when I was living a somewhat isolated life near Frankfurt, Germany. Back then I think I decided not to publish it because it was paranoid in an off-putting way, but upon rereading it I think maybe it’s actually paranoid in kind of an amusing way? A dominant theme in the post seems to be sleep; if I remember correctly, I wasn’t sleeping much at all back then. Anyway, here it is:
As part of my morning routine here in Germany, in an attempt to supplement my German language textbook, I have begun watching children’s cartoons (in German). One that has me particularly disturbed is Dora the Explorer.
Dora seems to me the perfect child of the digital age.
We never see her at home, for one. Do you know where Dora lives? Where does she sleep? Where does she eat?
Dora inhabits the colourful 2D world inside the computer screen featured in the opening credits. She occupies a small space of rolling green hills, lakes, and mounds shaped like various fruit and livestock. It’s a fantasyland sure, but really, whose fantasy is she living in? Would you want to live where Dora lives? And again, where does she go home to after each episode? Where does she sleep? An even more frightening thought is that, much like Sadako, the long-haired ghou(r)l of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, Dora never sleeps at all.
Sure, Dora is an explorer, and the idea might be that she is never depicted at home because she is always out exploring, but she seems to always be out exploring the same small area. It’s true that she discovers new objects in every episode/adventure, but really she just lives the same day over and over again, with different objects filling reserved slots within the same restrictive narrative template–a nihilistic comment on the pointlessness of everyday life as a cog in the machine, perhaps.
Dora literally lives inside a machine. She is just a computer program, isn’t she? If you took the red pill, would Dora hunt you down and try to kill you when you returned to the Matrix’s false reality? Or is Dora just another victim. An organic battery cell for her machine, wandering around lost in a world full of meaningless distractions?
Whereas cartoons like The Simpsons and American Dad locate their characters within a family unit and a home, Dora the Explorer presents its star as a wandering, homeless orphan. Where are her parents? Who takes care of her? Are there any adults in her world at all? Dora might think she can take care of herself, but she’s just a kid. There’s no way she knows everything. Even Pippi Longstocking needed help from adults once in a while, if only to keep other adults from bothering her.
The creators of Dora the Explorer would have us believe that Dora lives in a world of plenty, where she can pluck bananas off trees and navigate boats through chocolate lakes, but really, how does Dora survive? I’ve tried to live on bananas and chocolate before, and it wasn’t sustainable. Furthermore, in an episode I recently watched, Dora and Boots wanted ice cream, and the money for their ice cream just magically rained down from the sky into Dora’s open pockets. We were shown that the money was in Dora’s magical talking backpack, but where did it come from in the first place?
How does Dora earn money, anyway? It’s certainly not an allowance from her deadbeat (or maybe even dead?) parents (could she have killed them?). Does she earn money from her show? Does she live off the royalties? I haven’t seen many episodes. Maybe there’s a special segment every seven episodes in which Dora, during one of her attempts to communicate with the viewer, requests donations?
Perhaps Dora simply requires neither sleep nor food. She lives in a computer after all. Maybe all she needs is the energy that feeds into your television when it’s plugged in. Maybe… maybe when you’re sleeping, the television comes on and she just stares at you while you sleep. Maybe Dora’s favourite food is your soul.
Dora is a drifter: an early symptom of the approaching digital apocalypse that will leave us all homeless and rootless, with monkeys as our best friends (best case scenario; worst case scenario, they’re our masters), wandering around talking to our backpacks as if they could talk back.
Dora is trapped in a digital hell, in a world that only ever changes superficially as she bounces between the three locations that comprise her day’s quest. One day it’s “bridge” (bruecke), “gate” (tor) and “big red chicken” (grosses rotes huhn); the next day it’s “strawberry hill” (erdbeer huegel), chocolate lake (schokolade see) and waffle cone island (waffel insel)–admittedly a more exciting and delicious endeavour.
With her backpack and her exploring, Dora may believe that she enjoys a high level of freedom. Indeed, she is not subject to the same overt displays of power as poor Daffy in the famous Looney Tunes episode, “Duck Amuck,” but still, Dora is not her own master. What dark creator has trapped that poor child in such a small, limited world, dooming her to perform the same tasks over and over again, with no home to return to once her day’s work is done–no proper meals, no family, no rest? Sure, you might argue that Boots, Tico and the other animals of Dora’s tiny world are her family, but really, they’re all so caught up in their own affairs that I highly doubt they ever have much time for Dora. Of course Boots seems to have more free time, but can he really give Dora everything she needs? If anything, it seems that Dora must take care of him.
In this world in which we are simultaneously more connected and more lonely than ever before, Dora represents a glimpse into the future of the human individual: what philosopher Paul Virilio calls the “planet man,” who sits suspended in space, isolated from all human contact, purposely alienated from friends and family because everything he needs he (at least believes he) can get online. Similarly, Dora sits suspended in cyberspace, ultimately alone in her world inside the computer. Her “friends” and “adventures” fail to infuse Dora’s life with any true sense of meaning; her poor diet, comprising mainly “empty calories,” will not only destroy her teeth, but (if it hasn’t already) will eventually infiltrate and infect the rest of her youthful body, until she is completely rotten.
Dora is ultimately alone and directionless in her fantasy world, talking to imaginary beings and moving through her daily activities like a mindless automaton. Throughout this post I have tried to maintain a balanced view of Dora. She is frightening, yes. She might even be evil. But is it her fault? It’s hard to believe that Dora has chosen this life; as sad as it is, it’s more comforting to view her as the victim of a devious programmer… at least that way, her awful situation is not her fault.
But what if Dora is content with the way things are? What if she even enjoys Matrix life? She wouldn’t be the first person to remain purposefully ignorant for the sake of happiness. I mean, don’t we all do that to some extent (she asks as she shamefully hides her non-fair-trade chocolate bar wrapper beneath the keyboard)?
Regardless of whether Dora has chosen her awful life, perhaps we can still find it within our hearts to regard Dora with compassion. Look into her dull, lifeless eyes and you’ll know it’s true: Dora is not an explorer at all, but a prisoner in a pretty cell.
Then again, aren’t we all?