There have been times in the past year when I was grateful to Dora the Explorer. At the adult-hostile hour of 5:30 AM, I could, with eyes half shut, select an iTunes television episode on a laptop set up on a chair in front of the sofa, and half-snooze until 6:00 while my son contentedly watched its unvarying story structure unfold. The repetitious elements of each episode formed a surreal soundscape as I drifted in and out of consciousness and also kept me semi-aware of how much precious time I had left to keep my eyes closed before the episode was over. It is for this reason that my husband started calling it “Snora.” He performed the same Snora drill on days when he got up with our son.
Notice that I had iTunes shows. Yes, we own some of them. We’ve spent money on them and some other Dora items: underwear, diapers, books that I’ve since hidden because I can’t bear to read them aloud, Click the Camera (a “character” in the Go Diego, Go! spin off which features Dora’s older boy cousin Diego), a ball, mac ‘n cheese with Dora’s face on the box, and, well, that’s all I can dredge up at the moment, but I’m sure every reader knows there’s more to be had. A lot more. Enough stuff to earn Nickolodeon (and its parent company Viacom) $1 billion in 2004. While Viacom’s earnings are reportedly stagnating, one assumes that its merchandizing is still robust, even if all of the economic woes of the age finally slow the manufacturing (and purchasing) of plastic toys related to licensed television characters—you’d never know that trouble’s arrived roaming the toy aisles of Target.
It’s the absurdity of the situation and my own participation in it that makes me feel like I’m living in a culture that molds reality and my options as a parent in ways that I can’t control. Sure—I can insist that my son doesn’t watch Dora (at home). I can say “no” to toys that he badgers me for at the supermarket. But let’s see what this looks like.
I have a pre-shopping trip conversation with my son. “This is a food shopping trip. We won’t be buying toys. OK?” I seek eye contact and he nods. We get to Stop ‘n Shop, I hoist him into a shopping cart with difficulty, and we start our route through the aisles. I decide I would like a magazine for myself. Just across the aisle from the magazines for adults are large format coloring books for children: one of them has Thomas the Tank engine on it. It’s $10.99 and immense. Won’t be easy to accommodate once home. The badgering begins. “Mom, can I have that big Thomas coloring book?”
“No.” The exchange escalates. I have a cart full of food—at minimum I have another 20 minutes to endure in that store at the check-out line. I don’t want a kicking and yelling child to manage while in line. My choice is: stand firm with “no”(which seems arbitrary and a little unfair since I’ve just chosen a magazine for myself), endure the embarrassment of his uncharming behavior in the check out line, and then struggle to get him mid-fit into his car seat and home, or buckle and say “yes,” instantly calm the threatening storm, and compromise my self respect and his respect for my limits. The truth: sometimes I stand firm, and when I don’t have the energy to cope with the vehemence of his disappointment, I cave. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I’m consenting, but it’s a compromised consent, and the pervasiveness of these items and the video-culture that plants the seeds of desire in my kid create scenarios in which I’m forced to say no (or acquiesce) and cope with the inconvenient fallout repeatedly. My saying no does nothing to quell my son’s appetite for things.
Dora the Explorer isn’t the only offender, of course. Every successful children’s television show, including those aired on PBS (Sesame Street, for example, which has spawned millions of awful toys), makes good on the financial promise of merchandizing. And in fairness, I must mention that I applaud the Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go as mainstream shows for kids featuring bilingual, brown protagonists who are assertive, adventurous problem solvers. The shows aim to promote some degree of learning and active participation, although I don’t think the educational benefits come close to outweighing the negative effects of the attendant merchandizing.
Unseemly materialism, self loathing parents, homes full of plastic clutter, and a nation of kids afflicted with obesity and an appetite for junk food aren’t the only consequences of this market. The environmental impact of all the plastic is, to say the least, huge. (For a description of the types of plastics commonly manufactured and their environmental impact, see this useful article by Julie Rothschild Levi and this one by Jacki Hunt Christensen about toys.) According to Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 report, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the US,” plastics account for 12% of all landfill materials: 30.7 million tons (before recycling—6.8% of this is “recovered” through recycling, a comparatively low figure). And plastics in landfills and elsewhere leach toxins.
Some surprising good news on this front recently emerged. The Greenpeace website announced in July of this year that “President Bush signed into law national product-safety legislation that will ban certain chemicals from being used when producing toys. In an agreement announced on July 28th, Congress proposed legislation that will ban the use of six toxic chemicals, called phthalates, that are added to vinyl plastic to make it flexible.” Non-toy items made with the same chemicals were not banned in this legislation.
No purchase is an isolated act: this observation keeps hitting me. I can’t create a pure environment for my kid—no one can. Viacom Consumer Products manages the world’s third largest licensing business—when I let my son watch Dora, I’m contributing to the success of this company and the environmental hazards created by its manufacturing deals. I know I’ll be wrestling with what to permit and forbid for the rest of my son’s youth, which brings me to another element to consider when thinking about popular culture and mass marketing: not wanting to be the consistent kill-joy in a child’s life, and not wanting to be known as The Forbidder. I fear that such dynamics can affect parent-child relationships adversely for life. But ease and the convenience of letting the dominant American consumer culture dictate what we buy also come at a great cost: the health of all people. I think the least I can do is think about the big picture of my choices and consider the role of consumerism in my life.