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What Daria Says about the 90s (and Today)

Daria Morgendorffer made it cool to be a wry and cynical loner. This teen girl who didn’t care about popularity or trends was the picture-perfect example of ‘90s alienation. She was a surprising character for a channel that often sold brash, extroverted, or overtly sexualized versions of womanhood during that same period. Years later, Daria still resonates with anyone who’s ever questioned whether the problem is you or the system you’re living in – and it can help us understand cultural changes that were happening back in the 1990s.

Transcript

Daria: “I don’t have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else.” - Daria, 1x01

Daria Morgendorffer made it cool to be a wry and cynical loner. This teen girl who didn’t care about popularity or trends was the picture-perfect example of ‘90s alienation. From her early days as one of the only students who seemed to (sort of) understand the mentality behind her idiot classmates Beavis and Butt-Head, to her five seasons as the anchor of her own animated spinoff, Daria was a fixture on MTV from the mid-90s into the early 2000s. And she was a surprising character for a channel that often sold brash, extroverted, or overtly sexualized versions of womanhood during that same period. Years later, Daria still resonates with anyone who’s ever questioned whether the problem is you or the system you’re living in – and it can help us understand cultural changes that were happening back in the 1990s. As Sonia Saraiya wrote in Variety, “At the turn of the millennium, MTV was saturated with Backstreet Boys and NSYNC music videos and obsessed with the nascent careers of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears…[Daria] became one of the first characters I saw on television who seemed to feel the way I did about the world” (Saraiya, Variety).

Here’s our take on how Daria sees the world – and how her show captured both the ‘90s where it began and the decade that would follow.

Daria: “My goal is not to wake up at 40 with the bitter realization that I’ve wasted my life in a job I hate because I was forced to decide on a career in my teens.” - Daria, 2x08

Daria’s Worldview

Daria began as a side character on the ‘90s cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head, where she acted as an occasional foil, issuing detached commentary on the boys’ juvenile antics. While she clearly (and correctly) thought Beavis and Butt-Head were stupid teenage boys, it was vaguely implied she had a certain affection for their idiocy; they were cretins, but they were fellow outsiders who were unapologetically and unavoidably themselves. Beavis and Butt-Head were also emblematic of the dead-end stupidity of their barren town of Highland, Texas. For her spinoff series, Daria moves to Lawndale, an unspecified but seemingly more affluent suburb, and the show explores her point of view about the vapid, vacuous, and sometimes mean-spirited teenagers (and adults) surrounding her.

Quinn: “Well, you know what I tell myself: Quinn, if not you, who? If not now, when?”

Daria: “If not leave, puke.”

- Daria, 4x13

One of her most consistent targets of disdain is Quinn, her younger, conventionally attractive, sometimes cruel, and extremely popular sister, an embodiment of the consumerism-driven superficiality that Daria sees as eye-rollingly phony and ultimately pointless.

Quinn is shown as aggressively superficial for buying into the most reductive ideas about beauty, gender, and social currency.

Quinn: “How do I make them stop?”

Daria: “By acting like you don’t care what they think.”

Quinn: “But I do care what they think! It’s why I do what I do, wear what I wear, say what I say!”

- Daria, 3x12

Before this point, Daria’s deadpan affect was more often seen as the voice of the sarcastic best friend, not the main character of this kind of show. Cher from Clueless, for example, more closely resembles Quinn than Daria, though Cher’s shading and complexity make her more immediately likable. Even contemporaneous teen-girl characters with more going on than Quinn Morgendorffer tended to still be more emotionally open than Daria – look at Angela Chase from My So-Called Life, which debuted around the same time as Beavis and Butt-Head. Angela is not one of the popular girls, but she’s also not as uninterested in her peers and family as Daria is

Another key aspect of Daria’s personality is that throughout the series, she chafes at the way people try to read or pigeonhole her based on her deadpan mannerism and lack of school-spirit enthusiasm. She is often annoyed or even hurt when she’s perceived by classmates as gloomy or dark.

Brittany: “You’re used to being all gloomy and depressed and thinking about bad stuff.”

Daria: “Why does everyone keep saying that?”

- Daria, 1x13

She thinks of herself as realistic and intelligent more than outright depressive.

Jane: “I knew I could talk to you Daria; you’re always miserable.”

Daria: “But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.”

- Daria, 1x13

It’s part of the show’s interest in what it’s like to actually be an outsider. Showrunner and co-creator Glenn Eichler explains, “Somebody said something about this show on like a message board and it was my favorite thing I ever read about it — if it weren’t so funny, it would be unbearably sad. We were trying to process all those horrible things, in a lighthearted way. And let people exhale a little bit and say it’s not just me or thank god I’m not there anymore” (Eichler, Variety).

In addition to sadness, there’s an undercurrent of anger to Daria’s worldview. Daria probably wouldn’t describe herself as an angry person, and certainly doesn’t present that way with her quiet, even-handed delivery. But people who use a lot of sarcasm are sometimes hiding a sincere sense of anger and hurt. Daria’s home life is generally supportive – though her parents may be clueless and unlike her in their temperaments, they clearly love her – yet she doesn’t always trust that support or love. It may even be that seeing the unconditional love they have for Quinn makes Daria feel suspicious of those feelings, though overall her family does reveal more depth as the show goes on.

Daria: “Now nothing’s under control.”

Helen Morgendorffer: “It never is, sweetie. We just tell ourselves otherwise so we can function.”

Daria: “Life sucks.”

Helen: “Yes, sometimes. Often.”

Daria: “That’s reassuring.”

Helen: “But it still beats the alternative.”

- Daria, 4x13

But even as her view of her family or peers may soften, Daria sees the world as valuing stupid, superficial, or shallow things like good looks, popularity, conformity, and deference to authority – and putting on airs about why they value those things in the first place. She has a clear yearning to escape her current life and move on to something else – her two made-for-MTV specials are called “Is It Fall Yet?” and “Is It College Yet?” conveying a tired impatience. Still, she doesn’t always seem to have a firm plan about how she might accomplish this, or even know whether it’s possible.

That all of these emotions can exist beneath the surface of a sarcastic teenage girl makes her deceptively relatable. Part of the appeal of Daria is that she feels like a real, authentic person – and her worldview was one that viewers of all stripes could relate to, even if they weren’t specifically a glasses-wearing teenage girl with a deadpan affect. As the show’s supervising director Karen Disher explained, “‘Daria’ was always written gender-neutral. Glenn was very specific about that. There are no [episodes] where they’re talking about their periods or having slumber parties” (Disher, Variety).

At the same time, Daria does embody a strong, unique form of feminist teenage girlhood. She’s an unwitting tour guide through a version of high school where the goal isn’t necessarily getting the guy or undergoing a popularity makeover, but just getting through it, because it just kind of inherently sucks a lot of the time. Daria’s situation may not be especially enviable, but for a lot of people who identified with her feelings, frustrations, and introversion, her personality was something approaching aspirational.

Jane: “He said he looked up to you?”

Daria: “Isn’t that weird? Flattering, but weird.”

- Is It College Yet?

Totally Late Nineties

Though Daria remains relatable to viewers today, the character is also deeply rooted in her origins in the mid-to-late 1990s. So let’s take a look at how Daria is a product of the ‘90s, and how her show actually subverts and deepens some aspects of ‘90s culture that had become prevalent even by 1997 when the show premiered.

Daria springs from a popular cultural movement that made her popularity on television possible. The rise of grunge and later-period Gen-X culture circa 1992 (finally displacing a lot of the remaining Baby Boomer-driven culture that had flourished since the 1960s) made it fashionable to be sarcastic, anti-authority, and suspicious of selling out.

Jane: “So, dazzling academic achievement, eh? What a sellout.”

- Is It College Yet?

Look at bands like Nirvana, who brought punk-rock values to the mainstream music charts, or movies like Reality Bites or Clerks, where disaffected young workers aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives. Though Daria’s age technically makes her an older millennial rather than a true Gen-Xer, she feels like an animated teenage version of live-action personalities like Janeane Garofalo – who played the sarcastic best friend from Reality Bites and graduated to leading-lady status right around the same time Daria premiered. According to a 2017 anniversary piece in Variety, other character designs were picked up from other bits of ‘90s culture: Jane’s brother Trent was named after Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and based on Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, while the design of Mr. DeMartino, a perpetually angry teacher at Lawndale High, was modeled on Christopher Walken’s appearance in Pulp Fiction.

But if the show lovingly incorporated a lot of ‘90s culture into its world, it also went in some bold new directions. In 1997, it was already rare to build a TV show around teenagers – My So-Called Life was a one-season-and-done cancellation victim just a few years earlier, and Dawson’s Creek wouldn’t premiere until 1998 – and it was even rarer to build one around a female protagonist. It was especially rare to see a teenage girl character so skeptical of her family, peers, and authority – a “smart girl” character who isn’t a nerdy teacher’s pet or obsessed with behaving “properly.”

Even a subversive teenage and girl-centric comedy like Heathers, which came out at the tail end of the 1980s, looked at popularity from the inside, assuming the perspective of a teenage girl with experience in her school’s highest social caste.

Veronica: “It’s just like they’re the people I work with and our job is being popular and shit.” - Heathers

Daria begins and ends her series as an outsider. Her experience is especially Gen-X and ‘90s in that it’s not necessarily specific people who are Daria’s sworn enemies, but the entire system of popularity, phoniness, clueless authority figures, and consumerism that she wants to opt out of. It’s not nerds versus preps versus jocks; it’s Daria and her artist best friend, Jane, versus the world. As Megan Koester writes, “Daria and Jane operate as quip machines but do so solely in order to create protective armor around themselves in a hostile world” (Koester, The Guardian). Koester also observes that Daria’s angst penetrates the whole world of the show; quote, “Daria’s sister Quinn, who at first glance appears to have it all together as a popular mean girl, is nevertheless riddled with existential ennui” (Koester, The Guardian).

There’s some irony in the fact that Daria the character was so disdainful of popularity, while Daria the show was able to take on this point of view only in a time where that was a culturally cool thing to do. The fact that Daria was in step with cultural trends of the ‘90s made Daria the show popular and beloved.

Another reason for that popularity probably has to do with how it’s not quite as viciously satirical as it might seem. Kevin and Brittany, the jock and cheerleader pair who appear in most episodes, are much more dim-witted than actively cruel.

Daria: “The Pigskin Channel. Great big guys slamming into other great big guys. Fun!” Kevin: “Cool!”

- Daria, 1x07

Some of Kevin and Brittany’s friendliness comes from a myopia and self-involvement that can’t allow them to conceive someone treating them with disdain or derision, as Daria and Jane sometimes do.

Jodie: “Do you know where you’re going yet?”

Kevin: “It’s a secret, man!”

Mack: “Why, is the school embarrassed?”

Kevin: “Why would it be embarrassed? I’m a QB; it’s not like I’m a brain or anything.”

Mack: “Truer words were never spoken.”

Kevin: “Thanks, man!”

- Is It College Yet?

At the same time, the show does seem to regard Brittany, at least, affectionately. Unlike Quinn, she’s never really cast as Daria’s enemy or tormentor. As Eichler told Variety: “We were satirizing people, but I hope we were sympathetic.” And the show further departs from Daria’s caustic point of view by exploring the very different problems of Jodie Landon, a high-achieving Black teenage girl who is intensely aware of both the expectations her parents place on her, and of how Lawndale treats her and her similarly accomplished boyfriend Mack as tokens of a diversity that doesn’t really exist in their student body.

Jodie: “Isn’t it great how they keep electing us homecoming king and queen every year?”

Mack: “It’s such a generous and enlightened gesture. It completely makes up for the town’s utter lack of diversity, in my mind.”

- Daria, 4x06

This balance between anti-authority satire and a softer, more palatable side of teenage alienation is what makes Daria feel late ‘90s in particular. The show became popular by capitalizing on the fashionableness of alienation, which mirrored the post-grunge gold rush toward “alternative rock” over on the music side of MTV.

Helen: “Why can’t you smile when somebody takes your picture?”

Daria: “I don’t like to smile unless I have a reason.”

- Daria 1x13

Nirvana was influenced by punk and indie bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but a lot of popular post-Nirvana bands didn’t actually sound much like punk; they sounded like Nirvana – or other popular influences that didn’t have much to do with the punk or indie scene Nirvana emerged from.

Similarly, Daria the character is rightfully disdainful of a lot of the failings she sees in society, while Daria aired in an MTV lineup that, at various times in Daria’s run, included shows like Total Request Live or Singled Out. To survive on MTV in the late ‘90s, Daria must have been able to appeal to at least some segment of that audience without making them feel they were just being mocked.

This doesn’t make the show hypocritical; it actually gives it an interesting generational subtext. Daria is forced to interact with the society she disdains, rather than just shut herself out from feelings or engagement with her community – just as a lot of ‘90s kids were gradually learning the limits of their teenage rebellion or disaffection.

Indeed, it’s telling that Daria actually ran into the middle of 2001, with a final wrap-up movie that aired in January 2002. By this point in pop culture, the irony, disaffection, and alienation of certain ‘90s cultural touchstones were giving way to a more optimistic millennial sensibility – just as alternative rock fell out of favor at a time when boy bands and teen-girl pop singers were gaining popularity again. The show ends with Daria graduating from Lawndale and heading for college – a life change that usually necessitates some kind of shift in worldview, now that the easier targets of high school are left behind. Daria was cynical about that possibility, too.

Jane: “What do you think we’ll find when we get there?”

Daria: “Hm. That the students are shockingly ignorant, the professors self-centered and corrupt, and the entire system geared solely toward the pursuit of funding?”

- Is It College Yet?

But her show clearly believed that some kind of progress, or at least survival, was possible.

“Given the unalterable fact that high school sucks, I’d like to add that if you’re lucky enough to have a good friend and a family that cares, it doesn’t have to suck quite as much.” - Daria, Is It College Yet?

Daria’s Impact

Daria may have moved on to college at the end of the series, but the series itself has stuck with fans and continued to influence popular culture. Some viewers might look at the 2001 movie Ghost World as a live-action version of Daria: the lead characters are two young women who are best friends and outsiders; they’re derisive of their stupid high school classmates and the consumerism they see everywhere. One of them has an artistic sensibility that seems destined to be misunderstood, and their fashion choices are not preppie or mainstream.

“It’s obviously a 1977 original punk-rock look! I guess Johnny Fuckface over there is too stupid to realize it!” - Enid, Ghost World

But though the movie Ghost World came out around the time Daria was ending its run, it’s based on a comic book that ran throughout the ‘90s and may have actually influenced the Daria series in both writing and its art style – there are times when the thick lines and vivid but semi-static facial expressions on Daria resemble a comic strip. Both the movie and the comic of Ghost World are a lot more cutting, and a lot less hopeful, than Daria.

“I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone, and going off to some random place. And I’d just… disappear.” - Enid, Ghost World

And whereas Ghost World is acerbic and designed to appeal more to specific subcultures, the big Daria impact is that it brought that cutting sensibility further into the mainstream.

Since then, there are a lot of characters in the wake of Daria who feel influenced by her sensibility – like Diane from Bojack Horseman

“She’s basically Asian Daria, right? With the glasses and the jacket and her whole ‘blah’ thing?” - Sarah Lynn, Bojack Horseman

– or Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks, who’s more earnest and emotionally open but essentially someone questioning her good-girl past and trying out a more Daria-like personality, even donning a similar green jacket. Lizzy Caplan’s characters in both Mean Girls and Party Down have Daria lineage: Janis from Mean Girls is sarcastic and disdainful of popular kids, while Casey on Party Down is like a grown-up version of that personality type, still uncertain about what exactly comes next for her.

Conclusion

Thanks to its sensibility, Daria wasn’t marketed as the same kind of teenage sensation as shows like Dawson’s Creek, which ran around the same time. “I don’t think in very commercial terms,” Eichler told Variety years later. “Dawson’s Creek was on at the same time we were on, and if I could think like those people, I’d have a much bigger house. But that’s OK.” And though Daria wasn’t as heavily watched as Dawson at the time, her show may actually be more beloved and influential today. Maybe all along, Daria Morgendorffer was a lot more popular than she ever realized.

Sources

Saraiya, Sonia. “‘Daria’ 20 Years Later: Producers Behind MTV’s Iconic Cartoon Look Back.” Variety, 1 Mar. 2017.

https://variety.com/2017/tv/features/mtv-daria-cartoon-20-year-anniversary-1202000114/

Koester, Megan. “Daria: The 90s Cartoon That Nailed American Feminist Teenhood.” The Guardian, 3 Mar. 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2017/mar/03/daria-90s-cartoon-teenage-feminism