Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"Hi, I'm Daria. Go to Hell."

Oh, Daria. There's so much to be said about this show that has, inevitably, already been discussed by legions of nerds and/or hipster ladies before me. In accordance with that fact, I hope that my thoughts on the series will offer a fresher perspective than what has already been said.

First of all, a little background, because I know you're just dying to hear the details of my childhood media consuming habits: Daria premiered in 1996, when I was six years old, ostensibly too young for the series. I don't remember exactly when I started watching the show, but it was sometime after the first few seasons had already aired, but not before the series had ended, so sometime in the late nineties. My parents were extremely strict about the television that my sister and I were allowed to watch, and we were banned from watching most mainstream cartoons. The two exceptions were The Simpsons (because it was "intellectual and satirical") and Daria, because it featured a female lead who was intelligent, interesting, and who refused to buy into shallow ideals of beauty and relationships. What can I say, my parents were feminists, and I'm lucky that they were.

As a nerdy brunette with glasses, a dysfunctional family, and a pretty, popular sister, I heavily identified with Daria at the time. I felt I was surrounded by idiots and used my wit and intelligence as a defense mechanism against my peers' attacks on what I was supposedly lacking (beauty and popularity, naturally). To have someone like her to look up to was comforting at the time, but as an adult re-watching the series, I have to question whether Daria is an intentionally flawed heroine or simply a "nerdy" version of the mean bitchy cheerleader trope.

Something that distinguishes Daria from most other teen series with an "outcast"-type protagonist is the fact that the head cheerleader and football captain are not antagonists in the least.

Brittany and Kevin (truly prophetic name choices there, I might add) may be utter dunces, but they're not mean or unpleasant. They are always friendly to Daria and Jane, and Brittany even does her best to do poor unpopular Daria a favour by inviting her to a house party in one of the series' first episodes. Daria and Jane, by contrast, kind of look like total assholes, as they mock Brittany and Kevin constantly, sometimes to their faces, when all the couple try to do is be friendly and sweet.

It's easy to understand why Daria and Jane behave this way, of course, because they're teenagers who have not developed fully evolved critical thinking skills, and as intelligent as they may be, they don't have the maturity to see that they would get along in high school much easier if they just accepted the friendship of the "popular kids", since it is genuinely offered without expectations.

If the pair have any true antagonists at school, it's probably Sandi and the other members of the Fashion Club.

Quinn and Stacy are less antagonistic than Sandi and Tiffani, but since they encourage the other girls' behaviour and enable their bullying, I'm going to say they come close. What's ironic about the Fashion Club though is that they are just as rude and snobby as Daria and Jane, albiet in a very different way. Daria and Jane are unpleasant because they feel disenfranchised and unnoticed in the "girl culture" of the '90s, and the fashion club are unpleasant because they feel intimidated by their more intelligent peers with the looming threat of college on the horizon.

Both groups of kids have their own issues to deal with, and I think the series explores this idea as Quinn grows emotionally throughout the run of the series, choosing to expand her horizons beyond sartorial choices, while Daria eventually gains some confidence and manages to develop enough self-actualization to participate in a real relationship with a human male.

In that sense, I think Daria is like The Breakfast Club in that it explores the hidden depths of every high school stereotype, from Brittany the Bimbo to Daria the Brain, to Sandi the Bitch and Jodie the Token Minority (there's been great stuff written about her, which as a white woman I don't feel qualified to regurgitate). 

So: is Daria an appropriate heroine for nerdy teenage girls? Someone they should emulate? It's hard to say. On the one hand I would answer no because she's deeply insecure and takes that out on other people. On the other hand, I think she experiences significant growth throughout the length of the series, and perhaps she could serve as an example of moving on from one's bitterness and self-hatred. In any case, I think the series itself is something that disenfranchised teenagers will always take comfort in, because it reassures them that there are other kids out there like them, and perhaps it will give them hope that they too can move on from a stifling environment to become fulfilled and feel appreciated, like Daria seemed to be in her last appearance, the TV movie Is It College Yet?. 

1 comment:

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