This discussion will consider the Scooby Doo phenomenon in terms of its original appearance in the series Scooby Doo! Where Are You?
The first problem that confronts us when considering Scooby Doo and his gang is – who the heck are these guys? They’re always referred to as ‘meddling kids,’ so apparently they are still adolescents. But that can’t be right, unless they are very rich and have no need for further education. Unlike adolescent amateur detectives of the past – like the Hardy Boys – they don’t remain rooted to any locality, nor have very strong ties to their families. They drive around the country – literally, stories take place practically everywhere in the US, and sometimes in South America and Africa as well – quite aimlessly. I mean, it would be understandable if indeed they were professional problem solvers, getting called in on some mysterious robbery or other crime, but that is not what happens. Instead, the gang is always going out to some vacation spot or tourist trap, or sometimes they are just, well – driving around. Then they just happen to be in the right location at the right time when the mystery begins….
Whoa, hold on there. Clearly, an important function of the mystery is exactly to distract us from confronting the utterly empty lives these teen-agers lead. ALL they have to do is drive around; if there were no mysteries, they would simply, oh, go skiing, surfing, hiking in the parks, attend street festivals; go back to their van and drive away. Doesn’t sound like a bad life, until we begin asking whether any of these characters might enjoy such a life. Because, just as it happens, we know that at least two of them – Shaggy and Scooby – don’t. They don’t like any excitement, so activities like skiing and surfing are out. They don’t like anything that smacks of physical exertion, so there goes hiking. They might attend festivals, but only for one reason – to eat whatever food they can steal there (and one of the odd aspects to their characters is that, when it comes to food, they have no moral scruples about taking what they can when they can, without asking).
Let’s deal with that a little here – Scooby and Shaggy love to eat. Well, actually, that’s imprecise. Scooby and Shaggy love to shovel food-stuffs down their gullet just as fast as they can. Although they often smack their lips after gorging themselves, they cannot possibly be tasting the foods they ingest. Their bodies are simply sacks into which food is poured. Their only enjoyment would the kind of warm dull slow enervation that comes from eating beyond satiety. They are, to put it bluntly – gluttons. Yet these are the characters supposedly identified with, by the prepubescent audience that their adventures have largely been targeted at.
So, for them, the aimless wandering amounts to nothing more beyond clocking time between one binge and another. Pretty empty, I would say. What about the other ‘kids?’
Velma is of course the smart one of the group – something of a nerd and a book-worm. Originally, that was her definition. It’s very hard to see her enjoying anything like sports or exploring tourist attractions. Later – much later, say in the past ten or so years, they’ve tried to give Velma something of a personality. She likes hockey, admires certain television stars, develops a wry sense of humor. But largely, in the beginning, Velma was a kind of place-holder – ‘insert exposition here.’ Now granted, it went against the grain of the times to have a female do all the revelatory explaining, solving the mystery. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to find that they can only do that with a female that is not only two-dimensional, but homely to boot.
This is emphasize by comparing Velma with Daphne, the other female of the gang. Daphne is well-shaped (according to cultural standards), fashion-conscious, rich – and basically a ‘dumb blond’ (albeit with red hair) – who’s primary functions seem to be to ask directions from Fred, and to get kidnapped by the villains. It is easy to see her skiing and surfing (and in fact she does perform quite well at such sports), but it’s also easy to see that what she gets from such pass-times is essentially mere distraction – that is, momentary distraction from her evident narcissism.
Finally there’s Fred. He functions in the role of unofficial leader of the gang, really a kind of ‘big brother’ type, so it’s easy to see why some kids would identify with him. Although he’s not clever enough to solve the mysteries alone, he is clever enough to set traps for the villains. He’s something of a jock – he discusses sports with enthusiasm – but beyond that, his interest in the world is sadly lacking. He’s the sort who could look at a magnificent painting of Japan’s Mount Fuji, and remark, ‘ok. mountain. What’s next?’
So, without their good fortune in stumbling onto mysteries everywhere they go, Scooby and the gang would effectively end up sitting by their van some Saturday afternoon, looking at one another and going:
‘What do you wanna do?
‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’
I dunno. What do you wanna do?’
‘How about -‘
‘Nah, did that.’
‘Just ate. So: what do you wanna do?’
If this sounds familiar, you probably engaged in some similar discussion with your friends toward the end of summer vacation, when you were around the age of twelve. Certainly in the early 1970s, young people in middle class neighborhoods, generally found the end of their seasonal release from school getting rather dull by late August – the summer fun had all been used up: There were no more Little League games, the family had made the rounds of the beaches and amusement parks, summer camp had ended all too quickly (or not quickly enough, depending on which one you got sent to), and the big block buster movie releases had come and gone. So groups of friends frequently found themselves sitting on porch steps, trying to decided if there were any further distractions to be found to amuse themselves with.
No wonder this audience group found the adventures of Scooby Doo and his gang so much vicarious fun. The Scooby is on permanent vacation from school; but they are old enough to drive, and have enough funds (thanks to Daphne’s family), that they can extend their vacation indefinitely, both temporally and spatially. But they also enjoy one other good fortune – they are ‘mystery prone.’ That is, just when they are threatened with the late vacation blues their audiences knew too well, they stumble on a mystery to make vacation exciting again.
It should be obvious that the fact that the characters of the Scooby gang suffer from being dull and irreducibly banal in their backgrounds, interests and character traits, rather than being an irritation, as it would be if we met them at a party – this fact is actually what made them most attractive to its target audience. The Scooby gang risks the same bouts of boredom and mild depression we all do, especially when young, and probably considerably more, given their evident 2-dimensionality; but the mysteries keep on coming, whisking them away from the threat of ever confronting their personal flaws and weaknesses. This means that the audience could identify with them (and vicariously escape their own boredom and mild depression), and yet feel somewhat superior to them. The audience led real lives with real problems – and usually found real solutions to these, in the process of ‘growing up.’
(By the way, this indirectly answers the questions concerning the sexuality of the members of Scooby’s gang – they haven’t any, they only have gender. We know this, because they are not growing up, and their producers and target audience all know that they are not growing up. Sexuality is an issue one confronts only beginning with having to deal with hormonal changes at the onset of puberty. Despite the fact that they are old enough to drive and travel unchaperoned, Scooby’s ‘kids’ remain permanently pre-pubescent.)
Well, but what about Scooby himself? Unlike his gang, Scooby is a fully adult dog, he isn’t growing up. Who is he, anyway?
Scooby is actually something of an enigma. To some extent he’s a pawn in the narrative game, changing personality as the needs of the plot call for. Thus his primary characteristic, beyond gluttony, is supposedly cowardice, a quality he shares with Shaggy. But in episode after episode, he will suddenly show courageous behavior to help one of his friends; he’s much more likely to do so than Shaggy (because, after all, he’s the titular star of the show).
Throughout the show, Scooby exhibits behavior that is either vain, gluttonous or cowardly; but he seems to be aware of this and giggles guiltily every time he acts so. He is highly opinionated (especially about his gang), and expresses these opinions sometimes quite impulsively. (He is a dog, after all, and that would give him an excuse for such behavior, at least for his producers and his audience.)
Scooby is something of a comic impersonator (of people, ghosts, and other animals). He also knows how to dance; fortunately, given his speech impediment (almost every word starts with an ‘r’) and gravelly voice, he cannot sing. His other skills are undefined until they need to be exhibited (as pawn of the narrative). Like other cartoon dogs, he is able to use his body in ways not to be expected from a physical dog – for instance, he can use tail as a propeller. And like other cartoon animals, he can work a kind of comic magic, reaching off screen to bring forth objects that should not be present in the immediate location – such as dragging out a piano to play a melody in the middle of the woods.
Occasionally Scooby evidences savvy concerning the world beyond that of the show’s fictional world – that is, concerning the world of the audience, which he acknowledges by breaking television’s ‘fourth wall’ (the camera’s position) with a glance or a wink. Later series would take advantage of this by slipping ‘in-jokes,’ and even the occasional risque double entendre, into the dialogue.
We are beginning to get a sense of what Scooby represents to his audience. He is more mature than his gang, and yet acts younger. He is magician, clown, showman, hero. He is not of this world, yet appears to know it better than his audience does, certainly better than his cohorts. He can get away with all kinds of ‘naughtiness,’ because he has convinced us of his irreproachable innocence. He is yet another incarnation of Coyote – the prankster god of Native American mythology.
Obviously, the producers were not thinking along these lines when they invented the program. But they did have a pretty good understanding of what made their audiences tick. They well understood the culture they were marketing their product in.
Top Cat, Jonny Quest, Archie and his Gang, other successful cartoons, suggested the possibility of merging their more appealing qualities, qualities we now find in Scooby Doo and his gang. So such trends in successful television cartoon programing had been converging towards generating such characters for the previous ten years.
All that was needed was the ‘celebration of youth’ one found in the counter-culture of the 1960s, to begin bringing these trends together. Scooby and his gang are much too straight-edged to be hippies; but they share with hippies a tendency to self-indulgence, abhorrence of routine labor, and difficulties accepting the responsibilities that are inevitable with the process of growing up. Naturally they would appeal to a child who felt like an outsider – or who wanted to be.
“Coyote is a mythological character common to many cultures of the Indigenous peoples of North America, based on the coyote (Canis latrans) animal. This character is usually male and is generally anthropomorphic although he may have some coyote-like physical features such as fur, pointed ears, yellow eyes, a tail and claws. The myths and legends which include Coyote vary widely from culture to culture.”