Monday, July 30, 2012

“I'm the cream/Of the great utopia dream”: Daphne and Mod Futurism in Scooby-Doo

The kids are alright
Every once in awhile when doing these analytical re-evaluations of pop culture detritus I've inexplicably latched onto, I stumble upon an opportunity to find praise for someone or something hitherto passed over or looked at with derision. If the one thing I can contribute to the larger discourse about these works is to reveal some facets others might not have picked up on that allows people to view the more underrated aspects of Soda Pop Art with a bit more warmth in such a way as they might be even a little redeemed in the court of public opinion, then so be it. This is one such case: Before we progress with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its descendents, please allow me this space to gush about one of my favourite cartoon characters of all time and a person I think deserves a little more love.

Daphne is very probably the least understood character in Scooby-Doo, and this is a real shame, because she is also possibly the one character who provides the most solid evidence that my reading of the franchise as inherently about the triumph of youthful idealism over corruption and hegemony isn't completely off-base. Part of this might be due to the passage of time and countless reboots distancing us from the cultural context into which she was originally introduced, but a lot of it I feel is also due to the vagueness and subtleties that have surrounded her character almost from the very beginning. Parsing out who and what Daphne is then requires us, even more than in the case of her friends, to start from critical square one, ignore the 40+ years of cultural conditioning that weigh down the franchise and flex our media studies skills a bit.

Like each of her friends, Daphne is explicitly modeled off of a youth subculture that would have appeared curiously dated even for the time. What makes her different from Beat Shaggy and Geek Velma, however, is that I'm unsure her subculture, or at least the way she presents it, has been as easy for Scooby-Doo's target demographic (US children) to pick up on as there's has. Even Shaggy, who is all-too-often misread as a hippie, is at least bombastic enough that his core character traits are self-evident and is, at the very least, called a beatnik almost as frequently as he is a hippie. There's an inherent subtlety and understatement to Daphne that's not present in either Shaggy or Velma, and I have a feeling that's caused more than a few people to read her as dull and pointless instead of quietly subversive.

But take a good, close look at Daphne (no, no, not that way! Seriously, you people, give a girl some respect) and it becomes clear what she's meant to be, at least to those of us with a working knowledge of early-1960s British youth movements. That's right, the groovy miniskirt with the scandalously short hemline, fabulous riding scarf and flip hairstyle tell it all: Daphne is a Mod. Just like the others she's a stylized and caricatured version of a Mod and seems to take her fashion cues from the waning Carnaby Street days of the movement in the mid-1960s rather than the androgynous Teddy Girl stylings of earlier in the decade, but Daphne is unmistakably, fantastically Mod nevertheless. Which is actually rather tellingly appropriate, because Scooby-Doo is very, very Mod.

In order to figure out exactly why, it might be worth the time to give a brief overview of what the Mod subculture was and what it stood for. In a famous quote that's still the best descriptor of the movement I've yet seen, Peter Meaden, the manager of legendary Mod rockers The Who, described the lifestyle as “clean living under difficult circumstances”. The origins of the first Mods is the subject of a lot of academic disagreement, but the consensus seems to be that they were a group of working class dandies who emerged out of the 1950s Beat Generation and were inspired by Satre, Modern jazz and soul music and a fascination with consumerist culture as a deliberate act of rebellion against British traditionalism and the old-fashioned, classist social structure that went along with it. The Mods were also deeply inspired by continental Europe, particularly Italy, and Italian art house films, scooters and flashy suits became important symbols of the movement. Fashion and style were, in and of themselves, extremely important elements of the scene, though not in the stereotypical sense of an unscrupulous one percenter whittling vast fortunes away on trivialities. Because they were working class, the Mods were very conscientious about which products to purchase and show off and the way in which they would be displayed. More often than not, the goal was to take symbols of consumerist culture and reappropriate them in unique, “Mod” ways as a kind of Pop Art (not Soda) statement.

Fashion then, being so important to the Mods, is the first area in which Daphne reveals hidden depths. A popular interpretation of her is that she's a vain, prissy heiress who can afford to live in luxury because of her amazingly wealthy family. I'm not entirely sure where this conception came from because, well, there's absolutely no support for that reading anywhere in the original show. That pretty much describes the Tex Avery-inspired Daphne of Tom Ruegger's A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, but that's 20 years in the future from where we are now, is meant to be a self-referential parody based as much on people's memories of the show as it is the show itself and is built entirely around ideas Ruegger himself had, not anything that was in Mysteries Five or Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!.

If we look at the latter series, which I am positing as the original work here, then what we see is yes, Daphne is the best-dressed thing on camera, though Fred's got more than a few fans as well. She also mentions her hair a grand total of twice in the entire series (both times as a set-up to a self-deprecating joke it must be noted) which is still twice as many times as anyone else on the show. However, if Daphne is meant to be a Mod this suddenly takes on a new meaning: She's not a wealthy heiress at all, but instead a dandy trying to live well above her means (that she is later cast as a wealthy heiress in the late-1980s could be read as a case of spectacularly missing the point, were it not for my niggling feeling there's more to it than that given this is Tom Ruegger). And really, this reading does seem to make more sense: After all, why would a stupidly wealthy young woman obsessed with status bomb around in a beat-up Volkswagen van with a grungy Beat, a bookish nerd, a dog and a guy obsessed with poking his nose into other people's business?

Daphne is arguably the character hurt the most by the transition from Mysteries Five to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. Shifting from an ensemble setup to a showcase for a half-assed and shoehorned in comedy act leaves Daphne little room to showcase what makes her so special (this secondarily affects Fred, of course, but I'm still not entirely convinced there was anything particularly noteworthy about him to begin with). Indeed it's not really even until the mid-80s when she and Shaggy have the show all to themselves (Daphne returning, prophetically, as an investigative reporter) that the potential she seemed to have within her from the show's onset really begins to shine through. It also doesn't help that the intricacies of the Mod movement may or may not have been readily apparent to those who grew up on Scooby-Doo in the United States, or indeed those who wound up writing for its many reboots. This does seem to have been the intent with her though, further supported by the fact Daphne's original voice actor was Icelandic-American Indira Stefianna Christopherson. Christopherson may not have sounded particularly Scouse, but it is perhaps telling hers was the only voice in the original cast not immediately recognisable as Southern Californian (not to mention the birthplace of Mod being Britain, i.e. “overseas” and Hanna-Barbera's usual track record of creating ambiguously “foreign” characters. It's not much, but it's something).

Now that we've established Daphne is not, in fact, a greedy and vapid one percenter, we're presented with the slightly more difficult task of explaining exactly what it is she contributes to the narrative structure. Except that's a lie because it's not difficult at all: She contributes everything. Another popular misconception about Daphne is that she's useless because all she does is get kidnapped every episode to force some hollow simulacrum of drama while Velma sets about getting things done. This could not be further from the truth of the actual programme. Daphne does get captured once or twice (in a particularly uncomfortable instance it serves as the crux of the entire plot of one episode), but this is actually rare all things considered and she doesn't get abducted any more frequently than, say Shaggy and Fred (which is surprisingly a lot at this stage).

If any pejorative can be attributed to Daphne in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! it's that she's unlucky: If someone is meant to trip over a switch or fall onto something or pull the wrong lever or screw up a trap she'll probably be the one to do it (a role that, interestingly, will increasingly be taken up by Shaggy and later, Scrappy-Doo). This, not being a capture monkey (which she isn't) is what earns her the nickname “Danger-Prone Daphne”. That said, it's perhaps revealing that it's usually, if not exclusively, Fred who calls her by this name in the original series and Fred doesn't always actually seem to like her very much. I think there's actually some deeper symbolism to Daphne's chronic bad luck that can be teased out of this, and I'll return to it a little further on. However, Daphne's not merely a Bad News Bear either and this is far from the primary thing she contributes to the show. If her role isn't peril monkey though, what is it?

What Daphne actually spends the majority of her time on the show doing is not, in fact, getting kidnapped or falling down mine shafts, but finding clues and asking questions. She seems keenly observant in a way nobody else on the show is, not even Scooby-Doo, whose discovery of a clue usually leads to much excitement, jubilation and applause. Daphne seems to find clues and hidden subtleties the other characters overlook all the time which, far from rendering her disposable, makes her damn near irreplaceable. The other big thing Daphne does is to frequently ask the questions that cause the others to re-think a deduction or leads them to suddenly realise something they hadn't before. In other words, Daphne questions the status quo and uncovers evidence that blows puzzling cases wide open. Her mere existence at once facilitates and engenders revolutionary change in the show's world. Daphne is the most unabashedly radical and refreshingly youthful character in this entire show; Forget embodying the Mod spirit and style, she's every youth subculture past, present and future.

Oh yes, the Mods. The thing about Mod culture is that is was by definition forward-looking. An obsession with everything that was new, slick and current led Mod philosophy to eventually be defined by a troublingly teleological utopian futurism. The Mods were the future, they'd arrived and everything old-fashioned needed only to step aside (one of the less flattering traits the hippies inherited from them). Of course, we all know the Mods eventually gave way to the doomed psychedelic street theatre and the old guard were not quite so eager to go quietly into that dark night as it were, as 1968 aptly showed us. This bears some interesting ramifications for Scooby-Doo: First, it sets up a fascinating tension between Daphne and Shaggy, her pure Mod optimism contrasting with his jaded, cynical, Beat outlook and deeply ironically so given the shared history that links the two movements. Secondly, it might go a way towards explaining Daphne's bad luck-Idealism not tempered with experience and practicality is set up from the beginning for problems and can easily be taken advantage of. That doesn't even touch on the gruesome fact we know what really happened to the 60s youth, an entire culture that could easily be dubbed “unlucky”.

But Scooby-Doo isn't quite as despondent as all that. Though the central tension remains, as does his validity, Shaggy's immovable cynicism winds up being the butt of many, many more jokes than Daphne's runaway idealism. Our groovy heroes always win; the forces of hegemony and calculating dehumanization always fail. There's a peculiarly timeless, static and unchanging feel to Scooby-Doo, most notable in future iterations but still clear here to an extent: The gang never really shed their mid-60s fashions (dated even here, at the series' beginning) and continue to frequent Malt Shops well into the 1970s and 1980s, even when they're revealed as the official in-universe calendar dates. The franchise, after all, postulates a dream-world alternate reality where the 1960s never needed to end. What this surprisingly seems to reveal, however, is that Daphne's starry-eyed Mod Utopianism is the philosophy that eventually wins out. She and her friends don't have to be made to change by a shifting cultural zeitgeist: Rather, the world changes around them, the only strong and reliable things within it. And really, who better than to embody the dream of a world where oppression and corruption always fall to youth and righteousness then a Mod Utopian? The gang need never go into hiding or reinvent themselves because Daphne is not only the philosophical glue that holds them together, but the very spirit and ethos of the show given human form within the narrative.

Clean living under difficult circumstances” indeed. What better description of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is that? The world is falling to pieces, sure, but that doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our livelihoods, our values and our fun because of that. We can do something about it. We can channel our energy in constructive, positive ways that will bring justice to those who have wronged us and make good out of a desperate situation. And we will prevail. It's a simple sentiment, a powerful one, and one that's just as valid now as it was then. Daphne may be a hopeless, chronically unlucky idealist stuck in a phantasmagorical dream world consciously disconnected from reality at a fundamental level, but she shows us what's so worthwhile about that dream and, more to the point, why it's so important to hold onto it and keep it close to our hearts. Even in times of insurmountable hardship, especially in such times, there's goodness and hope worth striving for. Even if we can't always see it, let alone reach it.

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