From Scooby to Scrappy: An Analysis of Cartoon Doghood

From Scooby to Scrappy: An Analysis of Cartoon Doghood

So, uh, why can Scrappy Doo talk but Scooby can’t again?

carouselSo I was talking with my boyfriend recently about Bandit–a.k.a. the dog from Jonny Quest, and don’t ask—when I had a curious thought.  Why is it that we, as human TV-watchers and filmgoers, are perfectly fine with the fact that dogs in the media sometimes act like dogs and sometimes don’t?  Seriously, am I the only one who finds this strange?  Take Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, for example.  It was weird enough when there was only Scooby, the dog who sometimes acted like a dog and sometimes acted like a person.  This was a dude who would sometimes walk on four legs and sometimes on two, and we were fine with that.  This was a dog who could speak English—not like Bugs Bunny can speak English, mind you, but some kind of bizarre pidgin English as approximated by a semi-sentient dog.  And we were okay with this.  I know I was.

But then what happened?  Then, the geniuses behind the Scooby Doo machine threw a wrench into the cogs—and his name was Scrappy Doo.  We were led to believe that the show was set in a universe in which dogs could kinda-sorta talk and kinda-sorta walk on two legs, and then here comes this new dog who speaks perfect English, without some kind of off-the-wall speech impediment, and how not only can walk and run on two legs, but who can box like a pro.

You would think that we, the audience, would have a problem with this.  And some of us did.  But you know what?  I really didn’t.  I accepted this.  I never even justified it to myself by saying, “Oh, I see!  In this universe, dogs do talk and act like perfect, hairy little humans.  It’s just that Scooby is developmentally disabled.  It all makes sense now!”  No, I didn’t say anything like that at all when I was a child.  I just said, “Huh, Scrappy can talk and Scooby can’t.  I accept this without question!”

Well, I’m older now, and wiser, and I realize that not all TV dogs are made alike.  But is there a way we could possibly categorize these canine critters?  Like, say, in a chart?

As President Obama says, yes.  Yes, we can.

A dog-human spectrum, huh?  My first thought, naturally, was a simple one-axis sliding scale.  On one end would be the most dog-like dogs, and on the other would be the most anthropomorphized pooches.

Turns out, this work was already done for me.  The champions at TVTropes came up with a sliding scale of anthropomorphism that looks something like this:

On the far left is the “Intellectual Animal,” a dog that acts like a dog and cannot speak to humans.  Now, these dogs are still smart and can save Timmy from a well, and often these dogs can talk to each other or think in English so the non-fluent dog speakers in the audience can understand them.  Some “Intellectual” dogs include dogs like the dogs from The Incredible Journey and the canine casts of 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp.

Second from the left is the “Speech Impaired Animal.” These dogs can kinda-sorta talk like humans but will often be misunderstood.  Some “Speech Impaired” dogs include Scooby Doo, Astro, and Inspector Gadget’s Brain.

In the middle of the scale is the “Talking Animal.” These animals talk like humans, and, importantly, can talk to humans, but they still act like animals in many ways.  Some “Talking” dogs include Wile E. Coyote (though he doesn’t talk that frequently), Droopy Dog, and Dug from Up.

Second to the right on this scale is the “Funny Animal.” These animals look like animals but talk and act like humans. A dog that fits here is Brian from Family Guy.

Finally, on the far right is the “Humanoid Animal.” These animals talk and act like humans, and they almost look like humans, too (even though, ostensibly, they are still animals).  The best dog example of a “Humanoid Animal” is Goofy.

The most I looked at this scale, though, the less useful it seemed.  The TVTropes people seemed to be conflating acting human and talking human, which to me seem different enough to be plotted on two separate axes.  The TVTropes scale doesn’t seem to even work that well for TVTropes, as Snoopy the dog is listed under “Intellectual Animal,” “Talking Animal,” and “Funny Animal.”  A dog scale that can’t figure out where Snoopy goes is majorly flawed in my book.

Another problem with the TVTropes scale is that there doesn’t seem to be enough difference between a “Funny Animal” and a “Humanoid Animal.”  Sure, Goofy may look slightly more human than Family Guy’s Brian, but that is a superficial difference.  They both talk, read, eat human food.  You could argue that Goofy is more “Humanoid” because he wears clothes, but “Funny Animals” Brian and Rowlf often wear clothes, too.  It just depends on the occasion.

Thus I felt it necessary to make my own scale.  There are two axes: the “acts like a dog or like a human” axis and the “talks like a dog or like a human” axis.  Notice that there are two “grey areas’ on the talking axis; I differentiated between dogs that talk to humans but speak like Scooby Doo and dogs that talk or think like humans to the human audience but can’t (usually) speak to humans within their own universe.

Et, voila:

Pluto and Goofy: Still polar opposites.

Pluto and Goofy: Still polar opposites.

Next time on “Mlawski writes dumb posts about anthropomorphism in the media”:
So, uh, can Gonzo really talk to Camilla, or is he schizophrenic, or what?

16 Comments on “From Scooby to Scrappy: An Analysis of Cartoon Doghood”

  1. Brady #

    Doesn’t Scooby Doo fit in the blank spot of the chart of dogness? Scooby talks with a dog accent but still acts like a dog (begginf for treats, sniffing for clues, etc). Personally, I feel Scooby completes that chart.


  2. Rosa #

    Doesn’t Snoopy talk like a person? He think-talks to readers, and Peanuts kids can at least read his typewriter output. In later, bastardized animated Peanuts, he actually talks out loud, which is AWFUL.

    And Blue from Blue’s Clues for your missing spot? She kind of barks with the right tonal inflections.


  3. DeuceLoosely #

    Don’t omit the possibility that Gonzo can really talk to Camilla AND he’s schizophrenic, which seems like it might be the best option to me. Its obvious that Camilla can understand Gonzo by the way she emotes in reaction to the stuff Gonzo says. And I think it can also be assumed that Gonzo can at least interpret Camilla’s emoting on the same level that we, the viewer can. The only question is if Gonzo can interpret her clucking semantically, or if he’s reading meaning into the clucking.

    Further, if he can’t interpret the clucking as some kind of language, like, say, C-3PO can with R2D2’s beeping, is Gonzo simply doing his best to interpret the meaning he’s sure is behind the clucking, like Luke does with R2D2, is he seriously deluded into thinking he understands the clucking when he does not, or is he putting on a show for the other Muppets in an effort to lead them to believe his and Camilla’s relationship is something more deep and nuanced than just an intelligent being having sex with a chicken.


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Brady: I’d argue that Scooby Doo fits in the same spot as Astro. He speaks English with a funny dog accent, and he sometimes acts like a dog and sometimes acts like a human. He eats dog food, sure, but sometimes he walks on his hind legs, points with his dog fingers, carries Shaggy around in his arms, checks himself out in mirrors, puts on human clothing, etc.

    @Rosa: I don’t know what to do about Blue, because Wikipedia tells me that in the Blue’s Clues spin-off, Blue’s Room, she starts to speak regular English. Hmm…


  5. Sheely #

    You missed a wonderful opportunity to title this piece “You’re the man now, dog!”


  6. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Sheely: Damn it! Or, in the words of Astro, “Roh no!”


  7. Dan #

    What about the “I Love You” dog?


  8. Evil #

    I don’t remember Astro ever acting like a person.


  9. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Dan: You know, that may be the best answer. I was trying to use only cartoon dogs, but goshdarnit, I do love that youtube sensation!

    @Evil: Well, it depends on the episode. Astro sometimes walks on two legs and puts his arm around George’s shoulders, and Astro has worn clothing before. I haven’t seen an episode of The Jetsons for a while, but I too remember him mostly acting like a dog.


  10. Tom P #

    Dynomutt? I don’t remember him acting like a human, just a superhero dog.


  11. Gab #

    Underthought: Escapism. And in re Blue: Yeah, there is some God-awful new spinoff I’ve seen a few times wherein she does, indeed, talk. I think it also involves puppets, too. The original Blue is much better.

    Overthought: Maybe this (site) is where it came up before, but in the Disney world, if you have clothes, you’re a master and can talk, and if not, you’re a pet. I think it’s much, much creepier that Goofy is totally okay with the subordination and objectification of his fellow dog than Scooby and Scrappy Doo being in the same cartoon.


  12. Sharper #

    If there’s confusion about Astro, we can replace him easily enough in the matrix with Muttley.

    In a similar vein as Gab, I propose, that Goofy doesn’t even belong on the list. One of the primary traits all other dogs in the grid share is that they understand Doggish — certainly well enough that Dug and Brian can interpret for and interact with more “traditional” dogs in their own universe. Goofy, if my memory is correct, never seemed to understand Pluto any better than his fellow non-dogs like Mickey and Donald.

    Goofy might just be another in Disney’s long line of genetic abominations, and not strictly a cartoon dog.


  13. Nateiums #

    I propose that Lassie could fill your blank spot, of course this is stretching the criteria that he/she is not animated or uses language. Yet the point being is that the animal acts fully as a dog (check) and can communicate ideas to humans despite a language barrier, be it a thick ruff-accent or the inability to enunciate at all. And Lassie can evidently clearly communicate through vocal inflections that Timmy has fallen down the well.


  14. Anon #

    The Pluto-v-Goofy discussion reminds me of that scene in Stand By Me in which they discuss what Goofy is supposed to be. I think they concluded that Goofy isn’t really a dog at all, but some sort of strange alien species.


  15. Sierra #

    I was reading and I couldn’t help but think of this:
    Scrappy: Hi, I’m Scooby’s nephew!
    Fred: If you’re Scooby’s nephew, why can you talk?
    Daphne: Oh my gosh, Fred! You can’t just ask someone why they can talk!


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