Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: The Importance of Dora

As an adult who has seen more than her share of children's programming, I have a very complex relationship with Dora the Explorer. On the one hand, I think it's a brilliant show that deftly teaches basic reasoning skills, shapes, colors, and Spanish fluency, and on the other hand, it's so annoying it makes me want to jam pencils in my ears.

The reason I find it so irritating is almost entirely due to those reasons listed above, because as an adult with a working grasp of logic and spatial relations, I find it endlessly tedious to sit there waiting for a two year old to figure out where Map is on the screen. But I get why shows like this are useful and important. They're educational, and nice, and hey, isn't it pleasant when kids know at least a few words in languages other than their native tongue?

It's this understanding that helps me bite my tongue and not snark at the screen during Dora the Explorer, or the slightly less inane Diego the Explorer, or the painfully adorable Ni-hao, Kai-Lan that teaches children Mandarin Chinese, or the moral lesson minefield that is Little Bill. I appreciate all of these shows for their willingness to use entertainment to educate children, and their comfort with other languages, cultures, and moral lessons. That's all great and I support it.

But that's not the real reason I put up with these shows (all of which I find educational but super duper irritating, as only an adult forced to watch television for toddlers can). The real reason is a little more nebulous, but a whole lot more important. None of the main characters of these shows are white. And that's a feature, not a bug.

I complain a lot (a lot) about the lack of diversity in most mainstream media. The lack of diversity can lead to a decrease in the self-esteem of children of color watching it. When they don't see themselves on screen, they can come to feel like they are worth less, or like their stories aren't worth being told. Worst of all? They can come to feel like they aren't human or that the world does not see them as people. And it's not just me saying that:
This month, the academic journal Communication Research published a study by two Indiana University professors called “Racial and gender differences in the relationship between children’s television use and self esteem: a longitudinal panel study.”
This unique piece of research studied 396 black and white preteens in communities in the Midwest United States over a yearlong period. Researchers focused on how much the kids watched TV, and how that impacted their self esteem. What they found – although kind of common sense – is making headlines: Television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys. [From Racebending.com]
So obviously there is a lot of value for children of color to look at the television and see these shows. Dora and Diego are identifiably Hispanic, while Kai-lan is Chinese, and Little Bill is African-American (and based on Bill Cosby). These are important characters for children of color to see and relate to, to understand that they are human, and that their stories should be told.

But I would argue that there's another benefit too, one that gets a bit less press because it's harder to quantify: watching these shows gives white children a valuable view of cultures and experiences different from their own. And that has merit not just because sharing and caring is a nice thing to do, but because exposure to the lives and cultures of people of other races can and does have long-lasting impact on the child's perception of those races.

In other words, a kid who loves Dora the Explorer is a lot less likely to grow up and hate Mexicans. A child who enjoys Ni-hao, Kai-lan is less likely to spend their adulthood raging about them Chinese coming to steal our jobs. And the adorable child who watches Little Bill and learns moral lesson after moral lesson is considerably less likely to believe that the African-American community is entirely filled with thugs and hookers and criminals. These shows have a normalizing effect on their audience, both in showing children of color that they are not alone, and in showing white children that people of color are human too.

That's very very important.

I don't really talk about politics on this blog, but if you follow my tumblr then you should know by now that I am very aware of what's happening in Ferguson, MO, and it breaks my heart. It's horrific to watch a group of people being targeted strictly because the law enforcement in that town does not see them as human. It's really sad, and I see no other explanation. And I'm not saying that all of this would be solved with a mandatory viewing of Little Bill or some episodes of Diego, but I do think that diversity of children's programming is a crucial first step in making sure that our future generations never ever think of their neighbors as less than human.

And the handy part is that diverse children's programming doesn't just make children more tolerant and willing accept others, it also has a noticeable effect on their parents. No parent wants to seem like a jerk in front of their kid, and if the kid slowly grows more tolerant, then the parent, not wanting to seem like a complete poophead, especially in public, is apt to follow suit. 

Obviously there are exceptions, because people can and are terrible sometimes, but most often, this sort of gentle pressure works. And constant, mind-numbing exposure to other cultures via children's television? It's hard to get through that and not feel some connection with the other parents and nannies sitting through it around the world.

So obviously these shows are an incredibly valuable resource. I would actually go so far as to say that they are one of our most valuable resources. I don't want to dig up the statistics, because they make me sad, but in reality only a minuscule proportion of children's media features children of color. These shows are great, but they're also, sadly in the vast minority.

Far more shows actually feature animal protagonists than protagonists of color, a fact that makes horrible sense of a lot of our current culture. We are, after all, the culture that regularly inquires about the health and happiness of the animals who died to go into our food, and rather blithely ignore the millions of people dying because they lack access to fresh drinking water, or the police brutality that regularly occurs across town. We are more used to humanizing animals than people of color, and that bothers me deeply.

Furthermore, all these animal protagonist shows only serve to reinforce the notion that white culture is "universal". While the protagonists in these shows are usually rabbits or dogs or aardvarks or whatever, culturally they can be considered white. They are usually voiced by white voice-actors. Their families celebrate Judeo-Christian holidays, and they live in nice suburbs with, well, culturally white signifiers of status. You cannot tell me the Berenstain Bears are not white. Nor can you convince me that Arthur is not the whitest white child to ever white. 

What this does is create a false illusion of diversity. Because with the relative dearth of human protagonists, shows that feature a character of color in the lead role seem almost like they represent a large proportion of the programming on channels like Nick Jr. or PBS or Disney Junior. But they don't. Arthur the Aardvark might not have a visible race, but you bet your butt that Arthur is reinforcing white social normals and cultural values. It's a strange, strange world when the talking aardvark (an animal I doubt most toddlers could identify even with help) is a more comforting protagonist, and more culturally familiar to the white audience, than the human being who happens to need less sunblock to go outside.

Okay. I've ranted a lot. What's the upshot?

The real key here is twofold. First, I really do want to praise the shows I've mentioned above for stepping out and giving us really quality programming with a diversity of culture and race. I love that the kids I nanny get to learn some Spanish, a smattering of Mandarin, and even the occasional Urdu, thanks to Burka Avenger, while they veg out. I love that they get exposed to other cultures, and I love that they're given the chance to see that they are not alone in the world.

But also I want to issue a warning and a challenge to all the white people out there. It's easy to ignore how privileged we are culturally. Fish don't notice the water they're swimming in, and we don't really tend to see the ways in which our popular culture is geared towards making us feel comfortable. With shows like Max and Ruby and Arthur and Berenstain Bears making white culture accessible even when represented by animals, we need to be really careful to make sure that we don't forget that our culture is not universal. It is not better, it is not more common, and it is not what everyone experiences.

Get out of your comfort zone. Experience the world through someone else's lens. Be uncomfortable. Notice your whiteness, and confront it. Recognize how many stories around you are about people like you, and actively seek out the ones that are not. If you have children, intentionally expose them to stories about people who live utterly different lives, and make sure above all else that they know their fellow children, no matter their race, are human

It's the only solution.

Look at all those fellow human beings. I like them.


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