Having two young children, I am all too aware of the cartoon and marketing phenomenon Dora the Explorer. Dora’s smiling face is a ubiquitous presence throughout children’s culture.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, the plotline of each story, both on television and in books, follows a similar formula. Dora and her monkey friend named Boots (who incidentally wears nothing but boots) encounter some animal that needs help getting somewhere, and with aid of a talking map and backpack, they find directions, ready supplies, and begin their adventure. Along the way, they encounter numerous talking animals and trees, small animals who appear from nowhere to play a transitional-scene theme song, and other marvelous creatures on their enchanted romp through the (super)natural world. One common plot element involves the entrance of the villain Swiper the Fox, who inventively appears and attempts to steal something from the adventurers. However, they are usually able to foil his plans by calling out, “Swiper, no swiping!” three times in succession. After this, Swiper cries out, “Oh mannn!” and sulks back into the unmapped forest.
While watching an episode with my kids one day, it dawned on me: Swiper was being expelled with an incantation to ward off demons. Is Swiper to be understood as a demonic figure?
Since the year 2000, when the series began, Dora has been entertaining 2-5 year-old (and older) boys and girls with an exciting, though predictable, premise that is fun, educational and interactive. My favorite DVD episode is called “Dora’s Search for the Seasons”, in which Dora and Boots encounter Baby Flamingo, who, lost, wants to find his way back to Summer Lake. Dora and Boots consult the magical talking Map, who explains that in order to get to Summer Lake, first they need to go through Fall Forest, then Winter Mountain, Spring Meadow, then finally they can get to Summer Lake. This, of course, is designed for children to memorize the seasons in succession and get an idea about the kind of weather typically associated with each one. SPOILER ALERT: They eventually get to Summer Lake, where Baby Flamingo is gloriously reunited with his family, while dancing and singing breaks out (“We did it!”).
But before they can get there, they encounter Swiper the Fox, who they need to dispense with before they can continue their journey. The adventurers run into Swiper in Fall Forest after they pick some apples for the trip. Then some interesting Biblical themes spring out, but with an interesting twist. Here the creature of the forest wants to take the apples from the main characters.
Then we catch a glimpse of Swiper lurking in the background with his blue mask and gloves — and his appearance is usually accompanied by a sound best described as scratching or shaking and a distinctive sequence of keyboard notes (though not ominous sounding) — sneaking around in the background as Dora and her companions look to the audience for help. Swiper sneaks up on the explorers while we are reminded of the only way to get rid of him. We must yell, “Swiper, No swiping!” And it must be repeated, “Three times!” Along with Dora, Boots, and Baby Flamingo, every child is asked to repeat this directive. Fortunately, in “The Search of the Seasons,” Swiper is stopped after the third incantation. After this, Swiper cries out, “Oh mannn!” and creeps back into the woods.
As the Nick Jr. website indicates, the whole point of Dora the Explorer is to teach problem-solving skills:
Preschoolers are our least powerful citizens. They can’t reach the light switch; they have trouble pouring the milk on their cereal. They’re faced with obstacles throughout their day and it can get pretty discouraging. Problem-solving strategies like stopping to think, asking for help, and using what you know are modeled in every Dora show.
Indeed, children become empowered by Dora the Explorer. Children are asked to memorize directions and repeat phrases, often at disarming decibels — watching Dora’s adventures rarely coincides with quiet time. But if problem-solving skills are the desired outcome, then what problem-solving skills are children actually being taught when it comes to Swiper the Fox?
After many more viewings and readings of Dora the Explorer than I can ever count, the figure of Swiper began to seem hauntingly familiar to me. To me, a professor and scholar of the history of Christianity, I saw this problem-solving strategy of dealing with Swiper within a larger, historical contest. He is an archetypal image of the diabolical fox-spirit in the history of religions. The words to ward him off are similar in pattern to spells or exorcistic formulae used to ward off evil spirits throughout history. And not only may children be learning how best to deal with the demonic, but they’re doing so in a very sophisticated way. For Dora does not completely cast out her demon, but rather allows for its redemption.
The fox holds a peculiar place within our collective consciousness. In Aesop’s Fables, the fox is often the trickster, and a dangerous one at that. Take for example the story of the Hare and the Fox, when, after the fox invited him to experience his culinary arts, the unfortunate rabbit discovers that he is the main course. Indeed, the fox appears throughout world cultures as a trickster, often with sinister implications. The common English expression “like a fox” implies both sly and powerful; Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” made him “wanna get up and scream!”
Fox dressed as a monk in role as deceiver in a medieval bestiary.
(British Library, Stowe MS 17, Folio 84r.)
Indeed, the fox is a common symbol for the evil and chaotic presence in European culture. The seventh century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, Spain, writes that foxes “are deceptive animals that never run on a direct course, but only follow a winding path. To get food fox pretends to be dead, then captures birds that come to feed on what they suppose to be its corpse.” In some episodes, Swiper curls up into a ball to hide from the unsuspecting Dora and Boots, only to pounce on them and go for the goods they are carrying, reminiscent of this ploy attributed to the fox by medieval peoples.
Further, this deceptive nature made the fox a logical form for the devil to take on earth. In fact, for medieval Europeans, the fox was a common symbol for the devil himself. In the ninth century Life of Leoba by Rodolf of Folda, there is a story of a nun who loses the key to the church and, after looking all over for it, goes to Abbess Leoba to confess her negligence. The abbess, however, is convinced that the sister is not to blame: it is the work of the devil. So, she and the other nuns set themselves to reciting Matins and Lauds and gave themselves to prayer in order to defeat the swiper-demon through the power of God. While they were praying, they heard a sound at the door of the church, where was discovered a dead fox with the missing keys in his mouth. The abbess identified this fox as the “old enemy” himself, Satan, who transformed into a fox but was defeated by prayer. Swiper’s most demonic attributes display themselves when he is successful in his swiping, before the incantation can be repeated. “You’re too late!” the fox yells, or, mockingly, “You’ll never find it now! Ha, ha, ha!”
The formula, “Swiper, no swiping!” even has precedence in Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian demonology. In the pre-modern world, as well as in the modern magical tradition, the knowledge of a demon’s name meant the ability to have powers over it. For example, the Testament of Solomon (written before the 3rd century CE) is filled with interactions between Solomon and demons. One demon in particular, which Solomon learns is named Ornias, attempts to “swipe” money and food from the master artisan of the Temple. Once Solomon learns the demon’s name, he easily thwarts his plans.
Medieval demon in composite
animal form. Notice its foxtail.
(Photo: T.Marshall, Paintedchurch.org)
Demons in antiquity could also take possession of humans and run away with them. Take, for example, Mark 5:9, when Jesus meets the man who was taken by demons to the tombs in the country of the Gerasenes. Before he can properly expel the evil presence in the man, Jesus asks, “What is your name,” to which the demons replied, “My name is Legion.” It is at this point that Jesus gains control of the demons, expelling them into nearby pigs, which subsequently drown themselves in a lake. This exorcist formula has strong cultural modern resonances as well. Recall in the film The Exorcist when Father Karras first meets Regan, the possessed girl tied to her bed, and asks the name of the person inside her: “I am the Devil, now kindly undo these straps!” Of course, Dora already knows the name of her “demon” and so they can easily repel Swiper with the command to stop before he can swipe anything — and no one needs to commit suicide by jumping from a bedroom window. Recall, too, in The Exorcist the dramatic repetition of the formula, “The power of Christ compels you!” which was effective for expelling the Babylonian Pazuzu demon from Regan. Although Swiper needs much less repetition to be expelled, the sacred words are no less effective.
However, there is also a sympathetic view of the fox in the middle ages, as seen in the twelfth century French romance, Le Roman de Renart, aka, Raynard the Fox, who is a trickster character praised for his cunning for getting out of tight situations. Nevertheless, he often resorts to deception to get his way, and thus his association with demons is always right below the surface of the narrative. Swiper, like Raynard, is a lovable but conniving character.
Japanese Oinari shrine with fox-spirits represented.
The fox is a potent trickster figure in Asia too. The fox-demon, húlijīng, is common in “Liao Zhai” tales in Chinese folklore, where they terrorize the countryside with their shape-shifting powers. They are sexual vampires, often blamed for stealing the sexual energy of monks, both male and female. Japanese fox-spirits, kitsune, appear in many stories as bringers of havoc. They mainly attempt to trick their prey using their ability to take many forms. As late as 1995, the New York Times ran a story about a man who was considered by the inhabitants of his small Japanese town to have been killed by a fox-demon after he beat a fox to death for wreaking havoc on his property and threatening his livestock. Western-trained doctors maintain that he most likely died of natural causes, but his neighbors would have none of such theories. Foxes are not always evil in Japan, however. They are also protective deities whose images are depicted in domestic shrines in honor of Oinari, the god of rice — the fox is this god’s messenger protector. In fact, the Asian tradition regarding foxes is one of great ambivalence, lacking the distinct dichotomies of good and evil beings so common in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Swiper, too, is somewhat ambivalent as portrayed in the cartoon.
While researching this article, I asked an expert — my oldest son, who is five — for his opinion.
“So, is Swiper a bad guy?” I asked.
“No,” he answered, “Just when he’s swiping.”
“Why does he steal stuff from Dora?”
“He doesn’t steal!” he clarified. “He swipes!”
“Oh, yeah. He swipes!” I could sense his disgust in my ignorance. I should have realized it was a poorly phrased question.
“Why does he swipe?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he scary?” I asked.
It is obvious that my son is just showing off his keen analytical skills and attention to the cultural import of this familiar yet novel embodiment of the fox in the historical record.
It turns out that the unanswered and mysterious motivations for Swipers’s swiping were built into the show. In a howstuffworks.com interview with the show’s creator, Valerie Walsh, Swiper’s role is explained:
Swiper is a one-dimensional character. You don’t know why he steals, and we did that on purpose. Kids this age are learning about more complex thinking. The emotional and psychological reasons behind someone being bad have to be explained so thoroughly that we didn’t want the back-story…. We’ve had this discussion with advisors who wanted us to get into the motivation behind Swiper’s bad behavior. We decided that it’s cleaner without it. Similar to villains in fairy tales, we don’t get into the why.
Leaving this opening led me right in: that’s just what the demonic spirit, in this instance the fox-demon, does.
At first I thought my son’s insistence that Swiper does not steal but swipes was meaningless semantics. However, his insistence on the distinction appears to be an important one. We all know stealing is bad, but swiping? As the typical Swiper narrative shows, his swiping is easily foiled by the incantation, “Swiper, no swiping!” Also, even if Swiper does swipe something from Dora and Boots, it turns into an adventure in which our heroes, as my son informed me, are always able to get their stuff back. Swiping is an offence of a different order. It is undoable, impermanent, and unthreatening.
My son’s response to whether Swiper is scary or not is also insightful. It seems most children view Swiper more as an ambivalent, even friendly figure, rather than a menacing one, such as the Smurfs’ Gargamel or Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw. Indeed, Swiper is marketed as one of the main characters in Dora’s universe. One can purchase stuffed, plastic posable, and helicopter-equipped Swipers, along with books, CDs, and DVDs that showcase this important character of Dora the Explorer cosmology.
It’s not clear whether the creators of Dora the Explorer were thinking about this rich demonological tradition when they created Swiper — they did not need to. The image of the fox-demon has molded our religious consciousness for centuries. Dora the Explorer provides a wonderful opportunity to engage children in the enchanted worldview in which the universe is alive and communicates to us, and they can control it through the power of words. But Dora is not content to simply relegate the fox to the dark wilderness. Indeed, Dora’s demonology is not about absolute evils, but of the redeeming quality of all life, even pesky demon-foxes. On several occasions, Dora and her friends help Swiper to get out of traps and other sticky situations, showing grace and compassion even for such a historically maligned creature. Swiper, we discover, is not as evil as he thinks he is, but welcomes Dora’s help and evens learns the value of compassion.
The theological position that even the Devil and his demons will be saved with the death and resurrection of Christ has gathered dust on the cutting-room floor of early Christian history. The otherwise celebrated Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, who died in AD 254, held this position. For Origen, the mercy of God extended to all creation. Salvation for all, including the demonic, allows for a view of the world in which no beings should be excluded, thus being more tolerant of even the most extreme differences in the world. I wonder what our history might have looked like if the Western traditions had adopted the concept of the salvation of the Devil. It would certainly have been more difficult for these groups to justify the destruction of “evil doers” in its midst.
Through such portrayals, perhaps children might see that such “demonic” presences are not absolutely evil, but have a value and worth beyond simply being ostracized and counted as “other”. We tend to use the power of words today to demonize rather than exorcise. If we could get children to treat all such “old enemies” with compassion and understanding, they might indeed understand one of the central tenants of the Christian tradition, unfortunately lost by the most “pious” among us: “Love thy enemy.” Then, perhaps, we adults may all learn from our children to do the same to our foes, whether we conceive of them as demonic or not.