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When a Warner Bros. representative announced last week that “Scooby-Doo” character Velma Dinkley would be reprised as East Asian in Mindy Kaling’s new adult HBO Max show, Twitter went into a frenzy with racist and Scooby traditionalist comments.
“Well she’s not Velma then is she,” one person tweeted.
“velma’s not real, sis,” another user responded.
The slew of complaints that brought Velma to the trending page were followed by an equal number of fans defending Kaling’s decision, pointing out something the haters were missing about an East Asian version of the character: It’s already been done.
"Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!" the original animated show that inspired several remakes, was created in 1969 and only ran for a year on CBS. It featured a cast of all white characters, voiced by all white actors, and their dog, Scooby. It’s been reimagined many times since then, including several cartoon and live-action versions.
Over the decades, 12 actresses have voiced animated Velma and four others have played her in live-action adaptations. In the “Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins” and “Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster,” live remakes from 2009 and 2010, Velma was portrayed by Hayley Kiyoko, an actress and singer of Japanese descent. Gina Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican actress, voiced Velma in the 2020 animated movie “Scoob!” where the character also had darker skin.
Pitfalls of reimagining characters as people of color
Though some on Twitter made openly racist comments about Kaling’s new venture, some shared concerns that the portrayal of the nerdy Velma as an Asian American plays into the model minority myth that Asians are inherently hardworking and studious.
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen said side characters like Velma have the potential to fall into that trap if they’re one-dimensional. But if the new show is built around her and gives her a well-rounded arc with her own friends and love interests, that can be avoided.
“I grew up with ‘Scooby-Doo’ and Velma, and for sure I could really see her as East Asian,” Yuen said. “Hopefully not in a model minority way but a quirky way that’s kind of bookish but she’s multifaceted. The fact that she could be nerdy, that was kind of revolutionary back then.”
Controversy and racism often ensues when people of color are cast in traditionally white roles. In 1997, a live adaptation of “Cinderella” featured Black singer and songwriter Brandy in the titular role. While the film is remembered now as a classic, it was met with racist comments from both viewers and industry professionals. A similar backlash followed the announcement of singer Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in an upcoming live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.”
A “Scooby-Doo” fan herself, Yuen said she hopes Kaling’s team doesn’t just slap an Asian face onto the character but instead develops a backstory that’s in line with her racial and cultural identity. She also sees the need for original Asian American stories rather than just the reimagination of old favorites.
“It’s lazy for Hollywood to just try to use old material and try to freshen it up when they could actually create true freshness by centering people of color, centering BIPOC stories rather than just trying to revamp old stories,” she said, referring to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color.
While this recycling doesn’t fill the need for Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood, Yuen related to Velma as a kid and said she thinks seeing her as an Asian American could be fun.
“As someone who was an Asian American female nerd, a person who was geeky and nerdy but into fashion and all sorts of stuff, I hope she can embody so much more than the nerd,” she said.
Velma, an LGBTQ icon
Fans on Twitter also noted that not only should Velma be a person of color but she should also be queer.
Last year, “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” producer Tony Cervone posted on Instagram that Velma was indeed meant to be gay in his adaptation, which lasted from 2010 to 2013. Cervone said in his post that the character was intended to have a romantic relationship with Marcie Fleach, her rival on the show.
Due to an early cancelation, the two weren’t able “to act on their feelings.”
Yuen acknowledged how important the character of Velma is to fans, herself included, but encouraged fans to put the debate in perspective.
“It’s a fictional character,” she said. “Scooby-Doo and the gang — it was a talking dog. For someone to say, ‘That character is meant to be this,’ I mean, come on.”