Two decades after Daria premiered on MTV, the sardonic teenager has come to represent a lot of things to a lot of people. She is the patron saint of smart girls, a testament to the power of inverting cliches on TV, and a great argument against getting laser eye surgery. But above all, Daria Morgendorffer is one of the 90s' greatest weapons against bro-culture. A title she has carried into the 21st century, as scores of fans, many who weren't born when the show originally debuted in 1997, discover the monotone heroine.
To be clear, we're not just being celebratory here; opposing boyish, sexist bravado was central to Daria's genesis story. The 90s was the decade of the slacker, and while Gen X's culturally defining moments include appearances from Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce, Bikini Kill's groundbreaking music and literally everything Ally Macbeal ever did, it was a theme largely explored through men. Movies like Wayne's World, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Clerks were awesome, but they were also celebrations of dumb guys doing anything they wanted, making no real effort to be a real human, smoking heaps of weed and still getting the girl and saving the day.
MTV's version of this narrative trend came in the form of Beavis and Butthead, and while they never got close to being recognised as any kind of hero by those around them, they were celebrated as icons to a generation. The Mike Judge creations were the TV channel's ultimate offering of the bro: rude, dumb, disinterested and still somehow charming. Their popularity was immense as guys saw themselves in them, and the rest of us were swept up in their admittedly artful fart jokes.
But Judge was no Seth MacFarlane, and he and his team of young writers and producers weren't totally at ease with the national admiration for their immature breakout stars. Speaking to VICE this year, supervising producer John Garrett Andrews remembered how MTV president Judy McGrath was concerned the show didn't have any "smart people, or women, or girls." Realising someone needed to put these guys in their place, as well as give a bit of gender balance to the show, the team set out to create the anti-Beavis and Butthead.
Enter Daria, the "misery chick" character that Abby Terkuhle, MTV's senior vice president and creative director, describes as being brought on to to serve as a "smart female who could serve as the foil" to the slackjawed metal fans. From that first sketch her role was clear: she was a female presence who wasn't a sexual object. But in the 20 years since she got her own Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis created spin off show— that soon eclipsed the original series — it's become clear she is so much more than a moral compass for two sex-obsessed boneheads.
Previously, to be smart and female on TV was to be uptight, cold and probably waiting to be offered a beer bong at a party to chill the fuck out. But Daria was not only comfortable with her intelligence, she saw it as a gift to be demonstrated regularly and unselfconsciously. While it was undoubtedly a barrier in some social interactions, it was more regularly shown as her secret weapon in finding meaning and amusement in a town she didn't feel she fitted into. Explaining their original intention in creating the character, Judge told Nerdist "We wanted her to be somebody who obviously points out that [Beavis and Butt-Head] are stupid, but who is tolerant and a little bit amused by them, and fucks with them. Also maybe she's a little bit of a rebel herself, and obviously smarter than them."
No pain in the ass moralist or one-dimensional Mary Sue trying to keep everyone in check, her mix of adult sarcasm and adolescent idealism was at once familiar and deeply aspirational to young viewers. Despite regularly being dismissed or ignored by her peers, Daria is never bitter. Rather she's protective of those around her, not in a maternal way, but rather as a superior being using her advanced intelligence to preserve a lesser life form. Even when her efforts are largely unrecognised, like when she singlehandedly saves the school from creeping corporate sponsorship in Fizz Ed, she perseveres. Also, that graduation speech, come on, the girl deserves a Peabody award. Because, while she probably wouldn't like us saying this, Daria wasn't the isolationist she insisted on being — she was interested in community, and the connections between people. Or at least, some people.
Many of the show's most interesting moments and storylines were explorations of female friendships and relationships between sisters. Best friend Jane Lane wasn't a supporting character there to nod and maybe wear a cute hat. She challenged and supported her friend; calling her out, pushing her to be better, smarter, never allowing her to become a parody of herself. No where is this more evident than in Daria's decision to try contact lenses, which then triggers an existential crisis. Jane lovingly calls bullshit on her pal, not dismissing her feelings, but allowing her the feel safe and loved enough to be imperfect.
When a boy comes between them in later episodes — a literal imposition of the male presence the show bristles against — the two don't fret over who gets the guy. Rather, the struggle is how to protect each other after realising they've been shown to be mortal in the face of teenage boys. Love triangles with teenagers are often lopsided: one party is rejected, another revealed to be petty or cruel. But this isn't 10 Things I Hate About You; Daria and Jane prioritise each other, managing to mark out the kind of mature dynamic between friends and boyfriends that most of us spend our 20s chasing.
While Daria and Jane are eternally the poster girls, and Halloween costumes, for sisters before misters, Quinn — the boy-mad sister constantly flanked by himbos — walks a different path. But while she has a tendency to mask her own intelligence (it's there, watch the episode Lucky Strike for evidence) when teamed up with her sister, or "cabana girl's distant cousin," she's empowered to press against the bull shit around her. Although they exist for the most part at odds, when they fall into step Daria's orbit can't help but suck Quinn in and show her the value of not censoring her own abilities — even for a date at Chez Pierre.
Ultimately, this is a show that doesn't just pass the Bechdel Test, it renders it irrelevant. For the most part Daria isn't even existing in opposition to the permeating bro culture of comedy, cartoon, high school and the 90s: she's failing to acknowledge it's existence.
The weight of these five seasons and two TV movies extends beyond Lawndale. Before Daria we'd never really seen women presented so dynamically in cartoons. While the rest of TV was waking up thanks to Sara GIlbert on Roseanne, Claire Danes on My So-called Life and anyone wearing a wedge heel on Buffy, in animation Lisa Simpson was very much holding down the fort alone. Elsewhere, cartoon females were still ditzy Hanna Barbera-style wives and side kicks or hyper sexual femme fatales like MTV stablemate Aeon Flux. But even compared to her flesh and blood equivalents Daria is still special: unlike many of them, she's no mini-adult. She may read Kafka and run rings around grown ups, but she isn't trying to be one of them. Recognising the flaws in the adult world, again watch her graduation speech, she looks not to join it, but to exist above it. Being grown up isn't the goal here, being yourself is.
Daria was created in opposition of Beavis and Butthead, and she quickly moved beyond them to define her own piece of TV history. She destabilised go-to tropes adolescence, high school, friendships and family. Ultimately exploring relationships and growing up with a tenderness that never felt saccharine or depressive, demonstrating that the inner life of teenage girls could inspire more than midday movies and episodes of Full House. Thanks to her we have a new generation of smart, dynamic, weird cartoon icons like Tina Belcher, Lana Kane, Diane Nguyen, Princess Bubblegum and Wendy Testaburger. Not bad for a girl who just wanted to watch Sick Sad World in peace.
Text Wendy Syfret
Images via IMDB