Friday, March 20, 2009

Dora the Explorer, Tomboyism and Gender Policing

A minor event that caught my attention this week was the unveiling of at “Tween” version of everyone’s favorite bilingual elementary schooler Dora the Explorer, and the resulting kerfluffle started by parents over it. But besides allegations of turning her into a mini street walker, a thing I didn’t see people focusing on were some of the wider implications of this new look and what it tells our young girls. It’s being touted that she’s now 10 and “grown out of” being a shorts-wearing tomboy and is now obsessed with fashion, friends, and all the things girls are supposed to obsess over at that age. I grew up in the late 1990s, and was by most accounts a tomboy myself, and even back then I noticed that once I hit middle school it suddenly became unacceptable for a girl to be a tomboy, we had to “grow up” and start acting like “real women.”

A necessary disclaimer at this point is that I am not, for the most part never have been, and do not try to be what’s considered a “proper” girl or woman, in part because I happen to be dating another very wonderful girl at the moment, and that tends to put a bit of a crowbar between me and conventional definitions of femininity by default. I’m also what would usually be classified as butch, though I do have my feminine aspects and am not afraid to embrace those. I think I’m a healthy distance from the usual expectations as a result, so I tend to look at these things with a sociologist’s eye and try to figure out just what function they serve in society. Back when I was 10 to 12, however, I tried to fall into what was being touted as correct for my gender and tried to get into fashion and makeup, or to quote a friend of mine, “Let the programming begin!”

Now of course if you refuse to go along with it the insults begin, and at about the same time I realized that being a tomboy at that age was culturally unacceptable I had my first experience of homophobia. In retrospect the girls who first introduced me to the term “lesbo” were absolutely right, but we didn’t know that at the time and it doesn’t change the fact that they were using the term as a slur, a way of categorizing an outsider and a deviant.

Girls who refuse to conform to the expectations of femininity and continue being tomboys after the acceptable age often find themselves accused of being lesbians, and by extension defective women. This is what’s referred to by sociologists as “boundary policing”, and this sort of behavior extends beyond gender and racial definitions into all sort of groups that seek to define themselves against others and decide who’s in and who’s out. This in itself isn’t bad, but this behavior can very often be used to reinforce existing norms of behavior and allow them to go unquestioned, even if they’re in drastic need of a reevaluation.

So what does this have to do with Dora? The media is possibly the largest source of boundary policing in our culture, and it plays a huge role in shaping what we think we “should” look like, feel like and act like. The extent of the reaction against the image projected by this new Dora doll shows how many parents rely on this character to help their children through childhood, so there’s little doubt that Dora’s influence is huge. I’m not disturbed by the feminizing that Dora has been subjected to in and of itself, but rather it’s the idea that a little girl not unlike what I used to be like might be given this doll and start to doubt herself and her puddle hopping and frog collecting hobbies and trade them in for makeup and fashion not because she wants to, but because she thinks she has to.

I eventually said “screw this” to what was expected of me and chopped all my hair off when I was 15, but in my middle school years I felt that I had to become obsessed with makeup, fashion and boys, and when I found that I didn’t really care for any of those I started thinking something was wrong with me, which no doubt contributed to the depression I was already struggling with.

So my main questions about this “new” Dora are about what it’s really trying to accomplish, and if the little tomboy girls who have followed this character are about to find themselves pushed into a box that they don’t necessarily fit into, and if parents really want to enforce such a strict definition of femininity.

1 comment:

  1. find themselves pushed into a box

    I am sadly pleased to find you using that phrase -- since I recall telling you to tell your classmates not to "put" you in a box, that you weren't "done yet."

    I know that after a while, you got sick of hearing that. But I think the advice is still valid for many Doras.