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The existential horror of Dora the Explorer


The existential horror of Dora the Explorer


My son is basically an adult now. But he wasn’t always. Children start young and get older through time.


Obviously.


Right?


Well, when he was little, he like Little Einsteins. And Diego, his favorite. I tried to get him into Ni Hao, Kai Lan, but honestly that show was as boring as Caillou.


Then there is Dora.


Dora lives in a horrifying universe. The trees talk and sometimes impede her way. She has a map that has eyes. She has to mollify it with song for it to help her. Dora keeps the sentient map inside a backpack that is also sentient. She’s friends with a monkey who dresses only in boots. Sometimes, even the sky or the road speak to her.


I’ve never dropped acid. But the way people describe those experiences has a certain overlap with Dora the Explorer. I wonder if the show would make more sense if one were tripping balls.


Why is it like that?


Piaget

Young children are not logical. One way to quickly reveal this is to tell them jokes. They can understand the social performance of a joke; they cannot understand the function of a joke.


Humor might have started as chimpanzee racism.

When a band of chimpanzees encounters a smaller band, they try to chase it away. The males line up, raise their crests, and make this panting noise a lot like human laughter while showing their teeth.

A LOT of human humor seems to be about identifying outsiders. Modern humor could be described as taking the fear of the outsider to a really abstract level.

I had an uncle once who made really big money. He got 25 years. It was a quarter inch too big.

I was driving down Main Street the other day and I saw a sign that said, “Huge book sale.” So I pulled over and went inside but I was really disappointed because all the books were regular size.

So I was at the bank on rent day, and I asked the teller for a few hundred out of my account to pay my rent, and she goes, “Would you like that in large bills?” I said, “No thanks. Regular size is OK. See, I had this uncle once…”

Jokes lead you in one direction, then take a sudden left turn to someplace unexpected. And we make this chimpanzee gesture to scare off the uncertainty.

Little kids don’t get it. Tell little kids a knock-knock joke.

“Knock knock?”

“Who’s there?”

“Ivana.”

“Ivana who?”

“Ivana come in now.”

Then wait for it. The little kid will tell you one back.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Poop!” Then they laugh insanely.

They don’t get jokes. They aren’t capable of logic.


Part of that incapacity involves categories. They even have a hard time with group inclusions. Show a kid a tray with Reeces minis and Jolly Ranchers. Say they can have the Reeces or the candy. Every kid in the world chooses the Reeces. But if they’d said the candy, well, that includes both things. They could have had delicious peanut butter chocolate bombs AND ammo for their slingshots.


What does it mean to be alive or dead? Little kids don’t know the difference, because these aren’t really things in the world. They’re categories that we find useful, but aren’t things in themselves. Is Pluto a planet? Well, it depends how you define planet. Is a virus alive? Well, same problem. What’s your starting definition?


I remember reading Lord of the Rings in the closing days of the last century. Pippin and Merry are off in the woods, and one of them gets trapped in some tree roots. And the other shouts, “The trees! They’re alive!” Or something, it was a long time ago.


Primitive people, like our grandparents, didn’t think of trees or even fish as “alive” unless prompted to use a science framework (living things). Alive didn’t mean a self-replicating chemical structure affected by Darwinian evolution. It mean agentic, capable of acting on its own behalf.


Kids have no idea. The sun could be alive (hence the horror of the Teletubbies solar baby). Or the TV. Or the fridge. And things that look like living things, such as creepy-ass clown dolls, have no place in the child’s room.


This is called animism. Children are totally untroubled by the dancing flowers, singing trees, or obdurate map.


Adults might be, if they’re paying attention. I was too busy really, writing my dissertation.


We never really outgrow the ambiguity of living vs dead things. In the uncanny valley, things appear so close to a living analogue that they cause unease. The shape of a fire hydrant in the dark, for example, that looks like a man. But we also respond to the television as if the people there can see and hear us.


You’re watching a slasher movie, as you do, and the nubile hero is just getting home to her apartment after a long day of watching her friends get murdered. She tries the lights, but the power is out. And she thinks to herself, “You know what I need after a day of violent victimhood and loss? A shower.” She proceeds to disrobe, walking through the dark house toward the bathroom.


And every reflective surface or reverse angle show The Stabber, standing there, waiting for the perfect cinematic moment to Stab. And you shout at the girl, “Look out! He’s behind you! FFS WHY ARE YOU TAKING A SHOWER!”


Or traffic lights when you’re in a hurry, amiright?


The thing is, living and dead aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. Viruses obviously pose a problem. They’re amenable to Darwinian evolution. We see that in the COVID virus. But they don’t self-replicate. They have to hijack living cells to get that done.


But when is a person dead?


What do you mean, dead?


Well, you could do a reflex check. Drag a pen down their bare sole. It shouldn’t flex. But they could just be paralyzed. Hold a mirror over their mouth and nose. If it fogs, they’re alive. If it doesn’t, they might be dead, but some illnesses reduce metabolic process to such a slow level that you can’t see any fog. A doctor can use a cardiac monitor. But how long after heart stoppage is the person gone?


The law starts to get really fuzzy around brain-death. Someone is technically medically alive, because a machine is filling their lungs with oxygen and circulating their blood. But they have minimal brain activity. How little brain activity constitutes alive?


Because the transplant team wants to know, yo. The family, the care doctor and the transplant team might all disagree on whether a patient remains in the land of the living. The organ harvesters want those organs as fresh as possible as soon as possible, to save other lives. And the more you know about body systems and definitions, the harder it is to come down on any one side of the argument.


And that’s way too big a problem for Dora or even Diego to solve. Maybe Little Einsteins could take a what at it.

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