When Daria premiered in March 1997, I was a closeted high school sophomore whose attitude more-than-vaguely resembled that of Janeane Garofalo in Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (released the following month). While I had not yet discovered the joys of combat boots, I did have the all-black-clothing fuck-you-all persona of the permanently alienated, a jaded hangover from the early 90s grungy fetishization of the outsider. While I enjoyed the ironic distanced idiocy of MTV’s Beavis & Butt-head, it was their spin-off Daria that I more related to.
Daria Morgandorffer started her life as a jaded brainy side character on Mike Judge’s Beavis & Butt-head, a strong female who had to deal with two morons steeped in the machismo-laden privilege of American society. Although she was frequently on the wrong end of their jokes, Beavis & Butt-head’s humor was always laced with enough self-referentialism to double back on the protagonists. Judge’s humor was take-no-prisoners with a loving reverence for that which he targeted. After a few seasons of Beavis & Butt-Head, Daria moved on to be the center of her own show.
In the premiere episode of Daria, the Morgandorffers move from the lower-rent Highland, Texas to the upper-middle-class Lawndale, Texas. The new series fleshed out Daria as a Gen X/Millennial cuspy kid caught between the jadedness of the early 90s and the romanticism of the late 90s. She’s intelligent but rigid with high-enough emotional walls to keep out the Mongolian army. Part of her emotional inner turmoil was due to her social history in the previous series, and part was due to her family. Not so generously, Daria’s mother was a high-stress lawyer climbing the economic ladder at the cost of family time while her father was a Boomer headcase too stuck in his own childhood misery to properly parent his children. Quinn Morgandorffer, Daria’s younger sister, is cute, shallow and popular with a focus on the superficial knowing that the surface has the potential to carry her as much as Daria’s brains will.
The defining irony of Daria is the same irony in Lady Bird and The Edge of Seventeen; Daria built walls to protect her emotional stability by keeping people at arms length under the guise of having standards but these walls were defined by the ridicule she has been subjected to up to this point. She’s keeping people out before they can reject her. Within 15 minutes, Daria puts the irony succinctly, “I don’t have low self-esteem. It’s a mistake. I have low esteem for everyone else.” In actuality, it’s both.
Unlike Beavis & Butt-head, which centered the two characters and their foibles above the side characters they affected, Daria featured a whole host of emotionally fleshed out side characters with their own flaws, goals, and experiences. For as walled-off as Daria herself is, Daria the show is interested in how community is created even for people on the outside. Jane, her art-goth best friend, is similarly jaded and snarky but with more street smarts and less book smarts. Brittany and Kevin are the dumb-as-rocks but ever-so-popular Head Cheerleader and Football QB. Mack and Jodie are the two African American students who must balance their representation as upstanding black students against normal high school attitudes; their drive to achieve outstrips their fellow students. The adults are various Boomer stereotypes from a Vietnam Vet burnout to a man-hating divorcee.
From the outset, Daria saw herself in a “me against the world” lifestyle while the show saw the world from a toxically humane standpoint. That is to say, Daria saw its characters as people whose flaws were derivative of the society in which they lived. None of this is illustrated so brilliantly as in the second season episode Quinn The Brain where superficiality and book smarts go head to head in a battle for social dominance.
Quinn Morgandorffer’s identity is wrapped up in her drive to fit in: her need to be pretty and popular stems from society valuing looks and style over intelligence. But, in Quinn the Brain, Quinn accidentally writes an “existential” essay about the pains of school life, earning her an A from the teacher and getting her published in the school newspaper. The newfound “intelligence” spreads through the school as students start asking her questions about various academic subjects, and being “intelligent” becomes “popular.” As a result, Quinn abandons her style-based identity to dress in all black and embrace her new-found identity as a school “brain.”
This identity swap throws Daria into a loop as her identity is wrapped up in her superior intelligence and her need to wield that intelligence over her fellow classmates and especially her sister. By the end of the episode, to set Quinn back on the path of the attractive, Daria must become pretty and popular by imitating Quinn’s fashion and personality (hair: bouncy shimmering highlights; oh, just try to do something). The two characters are trapped by their self-imposed identities, even if they resent those identities. This switch reverberates through the school as Quinn is ex-communicated from the Fashion Club and Daria is once again seen as the Intelligent Sister, resulting in her continued shun from the rest of the students.
Daria would run for 5 seasons with 2 movies and a couple of specials. Despite having some seriously misguided late-series episodes, Daria had a relatively strong arc. Like its predecessor, Ghost World, Daria does finally allow its characters to grow into adulthood and mature beyond the high school stereotypes in which they began. Although I still don’t believe that we necessarily escape our old personalities (every work environment I’ve seen has had as much childish drama as my high school), they do complicate. Daria and Jane drift apart and come together and drift apart, humanity becomes a bit more tolerable, and the world becomes a bit less tedious.
21 years later, Daria is still – to this guy anyways – a shining example of a high school sitcom that carries weight without infantilizing or over-maturing its high schoolers. There’s some real heft in here despite the sardonic attitude and ironic wit. Or, to abuse the words of a scratched nursery school record, “Daria’s good and that is it. Everybody else is full of…full of…full of…”