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Where Are the Darias?

July 22, 2010 | by

Daria went off the air in 2002, but where did she go?

Daria, the MTV nineties-era animated sitcom, was not the first show to tell the high-school experience from the point of view of the outcast. It just happened to be the most emboldening. In Daria Morgendorffer, adolescent girls (and fans of any gender or age) could use an outsider unafraid to be herself. Today, that archetype hardly seems to exist.

Daria dwells near the bottom of the caste system—somewhere between the geeks and art kids—at her suburban school. With her round glasses, sarcastic monotone, and chunky black boots, she is equally disaffected and defensive—an outsider who's smarter than most everyone in her town. In the pilot episode, she quips, "I don't have low self-esteem, I have low esteem for everyone else.” Of her peers, she explains: “I'm not miserable, I'm just not like them.” Her lack of pep makes her an outcast not only at school, but at home, where she’s the black sheep to Quinn, her younger, more attractive, and socially ambitious sister. But Daria is no loser; she stands up for herself, doesn’t care about the social hierarchy, and has no trouble speaking her mind or talking back. She has a sidekick and confidant—Jane Lane—and while Jane’s brother Trent is something of a crush for Daria, boys are far from the main topic of their conversations.

Daria's character originally appeared as a foil to the characters on Beavis and Butthead. In the extra features of the DVD, Glenn Eichler, the executive producer (who's now at The Colbert Report), said that “MTV was looking for a show that would appeal to its female viewership.” After all, this was the bikini and booty-shaking Spring Break era of MTV, and as another writer mentions, the network wanted a show that would make girls appear smart. The creators of Daria cast around, looking at other teen characters on television—Darlene Conner from Roseanne, Angela Chase from My So-Called Life—and noticed something: teen girls were portrayed as fully realized people, and not mini-adults.

So where did all the Darias go? Eight years after the show went off the air, the super-smart, dry, withering, righteously angry girls are largely absent from pop culture. For every sassy adolescent as played by Juno’s Ellen Page, our current teen cultural landscape is clogged with heroines whose principal interests, as on Gossip Girl, are status and men. It’s a transition that happened gradually from the late nineties to the present: There was the dry-humored Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the earnest clique on Dawson’s Creek, Mean Girls, the teen magazines that brazenly suggested $400 APC wedges for fifteen year-olds, the endless YA series that read like junior versions of Danielle Steel novels.

Daria’s brand of snide sarcasm seemed realistic to her audience and probably edgy to advertisers. But over the ensuing years, her trademark snarky voice was everywhere. On LiveJournals and on MySpace pages, teenage girls could rant about the high school caste system or proudly proclaim their every disaffected mood to virtual friends. And on blogs like Gawker, the grown-up popular crowd—celebrities, the wealthy, the media elite—were skewered in an often deadpan voice.

Only it had hardened into something more mean-spirited. The tone was caustic in weekly tabloids or on websites like Perez Hilton’s that wondered aloud whether starlets were with child or just bloated. Over the past decade, being overly sarcastic wasn’t just considered out of fashion, it was seen as a social problem. David Denby called snark “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.” But Daria—both the character and the tenor of the show—was full of nuance: outraged, sullen, eye-rolling, but also, like most teenagers, tender when you least expect it. These days, teen culture can be about sex (The Hills), or optimism (Glee), or vampires, but it seems to have no place for a snarky teen girl.

Marisa Meltzer is the author of Girl Power and How Sassy Changed My Life.

37 COMMENTS

28 Comments

  1. Katie | July 22, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Excellent piece. What really rings true for me is the last line, as a teen girl I often feel like well if I don’t want to be all about sex a la the hills then my only option is super bubbly optimism.
    Sometimes we all need a middle ground in the form of sarcasm. I just wish I didn’t have to go back in time to find my pop culture role models.

  2. Meghan | July 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    this is a great blog post! I was in middle school when Daria was on MTV and she was my idol – I had Daria notebooks, pens, & magnets in my locker even…I felt like I could relate to her more than to my more “popular” peers at my age. We need another intelligent and sarcastic girl like her on TV to offer their point of view versus the bimbos and airheads that shows seem to prefer to cast, whether reality or scripted. Beavis & Butthead are coming back to MTV with new episodes, so why not balance it with Daria?

    http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/telefile/2010/07/todays-twop-news-july-7-2010.php

  3. Peregrine | July 22, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    There’s a snarky daughter on the new television series, “Modern Family.” Great reflection on an important topic.

  4. Wendy | July 22, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    10 Things I Hate About You had a very Daria-esque character, Kat (played by Lindsey Shaw). Yes, she was involved with Gregory Peck’s grandson on the show, but she was a pretty outspoken, snarky, proud to be a feminist character.

    The show was canceled after its 20th episode. :(

  5. MMonides | July 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Great post, except for the reference to Denby, who’s just mad he never gets the jokes ;)

    #DariaIsMyHero

  6. Emmy | July 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    This is definitely a great conversation! But there are other examples of snarky female characters as well. Veronica Mars? Granted, the show is not not on the air anymore, but I would say she counts. And Peregrine (previous commenter) is right about Alex on Modern Family. What about April on Parks and Rec? And while I would never argue that any character on Glee is realistic, I also wouldn’t say that they all necessarily represent optimism either. What about Tina? She’s pretty snarky, although they haven’t done that much with her character yet. Anyway, while I agree that there aren’t many Darias on tv these days, there is a whole lot of variety out there which deserves mention.

  7. AAP212 | July 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    The best part of Daria was always the subtext that her life really wasn’t bad at all. She had a great best friend. Her family was together and at least half-cared, even if they were completely clueless. Her crush was decent to her. The cool kids were annoying, but entirely harmless. The joke beneath the surface always seemed to be that Daria really didn’t have that much to complain about. Frankly, I always hoped for a spinoff that followed Jane. She was delightful.

  8. sarah | July 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Daria is/was by definition, an outsider. So to imply that in the good ole’ days, there were a bunch of people like her, negates the single most important aspect of her identity, which is that she is not like others. Ergo, “Where are the Darias?” is a ridiculous question. The Darias are unseen outsiders, as they have always been. By wondering wondering where they are, or moreover, why they aren’t mainstream, you’re kind of answering your own question.

  9. Katy Ryan | July 23, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Emmy, I love that you mentioned Veronica Mars – she’s my personal hero. Thoroughly enjoyed this post – I was a huge Daria fan and agree that snarky girls are harder to find these days. The funny thing is that I am one of the bubbly, overly optimistic females that seem to run rampant in today’s pop culture, but even us school spirit-types need a humbling dose of sarcasm and snark in order to maintain mental balance.

  10. Lindsey | July 23, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    I like your overall point about the the shift in teen girl protagonists, even I feel like the overall tone comes off as a little too nostalgic and “hey kids get off my lawn.” While I agree that there might be fewer snarky teen girl (anti?)heroines these days, that’s not to say that the snark and sarcasm is totally gone. I myself actually read Glee (and most of its optimism) as drawn from a type of sarcasm and snark. And Tina Fey, even as an adult, also provides a certain kind of snarky female lead for teens to get behind.

    And finally, who says that teens have to have current characters to enjoy? The fact that girls (well, everyone, no matter how they gender identify, really) can easily obtain/watch/enjoy Daria is something that wasn’t possible in the years before wide-release TV on DVD or online video. Finding their own meaning and appreciation in series, films, music, etc. from previous generations is perhaps just as significant than enjoying something (or someone) that claims to speak for their current generation.

  11. Laura | July 24, 2010 at 12:00 am

    ‘Daria’ was very much a product of its time. These days, I think the sarcastic-outsider smart girl archetype has been replaced by the peppy, hyper-involved overachiever. Daria’s teenage-girl-as-a-fully-realized-person heir is Rory from Gilmore Girls, not anybody from Gossip Girl.

  12. whatissnooky? | July 24, 2010 at 7:09 am

    The Darias of today are sitting behind their computer screens smirking at articles/comments denying their existance. just you wait.

  13. christy | July 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    While we can find and acknowledge snarky minor characters today, the shows aren’t really about that perspective. Plus I don’t find the snarky daughter in Modern Family particularly deep or well-developed character-wise. But maybe I’m blinded by my general distaste for the show.

    But I don’t think she’s saying Daria-esque girls don’t exist, whatissnooky, just that they aren’t prominently featured in pop culture.

  14. Lydia | July 25, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I was a Daria as an adolescent and so the show was very special to me and still is. I agree that there really is no teenage female character that comes close to Daria on TV today. But I don’t think you can really expect there to be. Characters like Daria don’t come around very often. Her unique mixture of bold confidence and well-camouflaged insecurity, her sense of justice that occasionally shaded over until self-righteousness, her moments of vulnerability that she hates but can’t deny–it was all so true. She was at once heroic and deeply flawed. Characters that well-written and well-observed just don’t come around that often, especially not female ones and ESPECIALLY not teenage female ones. The only other one I can think of that came shortly after her was Claire from “Six Feet Under” who I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned.

  15. Annie | July 25, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    “…the endless YA series that read like junior versions of Danielle Steel novels.”

    There are always going to be the Gossip Girl/Sweet Valley High-esque novels. But YA lit is full of empowering female characters, like Katniss from the recent Hunger Games series. I would say there are more smart, capable young women in YA lit than there have ever been.

  16. C | July 26, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Chloe Sullivan on Smallville is defiintely snarky. She’s extremely smart, capable, witty, and selfless.

  17. scottishtanningsecrets | July 26, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I would love to see this show! I think I was a little young for it when it first aired. I do think Glee presents teens girls that, while not “snarky”, are facing real world problems like teen pregnancy which is more than can be said for a lot of female characters.

  18. G20 | July 27, 2010 at 5:00 am

    Yes! I was just thinking about this the other day.

    And while there have been others that are perhaps similar to Daria, I don’t think any have been quite as realistic (even though she’s a cartoon) or cut quite as deep as her. Although not nearly as snarky, I’d say Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks is closest in spirit. Smart, wearing a large coat, stuck between social groups, etc.

    Watching Daria was a nice palate cleanser after MTV Spring Break or TRL in the same way as listening to PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” after Backstreet Boys or the like.

  19. Mydria | July 27, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I miss the Daria character on TV shows as well. Perhaps that is why I don’t watch much television anymore. I totally identified with MSCL’s Angela when I was younger and I was extremely crushed when the show was canceled. Actually, it seems that every show that had fully developed young female characters gets canceled, such as MSCL, Daria, Felicity, and ABC Family’s Beautiful People. I’m not sure why this happens. Is society too afraid to provide young women with an alternate point of view?

  20. Ann | July 29, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    So true! This is something that the blog The FBomb seems to discuss a lot. The blog is written by what I would call Real Life Darias – snarky teen feminists. Here are a few posts from there that sort of go along with this:

    http://thefbomb.org/2009/07/the-fatal-generalizations-in-the-teen-movie/

    http://thefbomb.org/2009/07/another-teen-show-rant/

  21. Simone | September 11, 2010 at 1:33 am

    As much as I loved Daria (a few people used to call me that at school) I know exactly where her disciples are- right here. The one thing that they forgot to tell you is that all of the clueless people in the show are the ones who wind up being your boss because they know how to play politics at the office much better that the snarky, intelligent, outsider ever could. I truly applauded the role models that stress to young women that they do not need to be sex symbols in order to be happy, but I think that I’d love it even more if they could illustrate for us how to be smart, fully realized, and successful.

  22. Microzen | September 21, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    This piece poses some interesting points. One must remember that there was a big cultural shift starting about 9 years ago. While it was a laughable statement, people proclaimed the “end of irony”. A character steeped in sarcasm no longer had cache with the producers and advertisers in this new cultural zeitgeist.

    At the same time we saw an 80′s style backlash against strong female characters. We went from a world of kick-ass heroines like Buffy to damsels in distress like Bella Swan or Elena Gilbert.

    I was a big fan of Daria when it was out & am interested in picking up the DVDs. But I will say that a decade ago when Noggin regularly ran Daria marathons, the show took a different character to me. Watching all those episodes concentrated together showed almost all the characters growing, often with the influence of Daria. Except for one, Daria herself. Even when the show introduced plotlines when she could grow in her perspective, like how she hurt her best friend Jane when she dated Jane’s boyfriend, Daria never changed.

    At the beginning of the marathon, it was like, yeah Daria, tell it like it is, dealing with Quinn & her hopeless friends, brainless jocks, wigged out teachers, disconnected parents, etc. But by the end I was left feeling, “can’t you find any joy in your world? Even the completely vapid Quinn has managed to grow in her perspective of life. Don’t you see that the world isn’t as bleak as you treat it? And all these supposed losers are no longer on their obnoxious trajectory?”

    But those are the foibles of a long-running series. If you change the qualities of a character through the course of a series, you risk losing the audience that was drawn to it in the first place. But without some evolution, the series eventually grows tiresome but to the most die-hard fans. But as a cartoon, Daria never fails to deliver quality writing and fun entertainment. Just don’t subject yourself to too many episodes in a row ;)

  23. Martine | October 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Funny, I think the opposite. I am so fed up with all these books where they act like being a bratty, immature snot is the same as being smart. Crass is not the same as funny, and snyde is not the same as strong. No one has the right to be selfish and thoughtless and cruel. Ruining someone’s day is easy. Being unkind is easy. Its being strong enough to not blame people, and to work for what you need that I think is worth emulating. Being negative is selfish and a huge cop out. People who do that deserve the world they create. Its just that the rest of us don’t deserve them. I am a feminist myself. Im not ashamed of it. But that doesn’t mean I belittle men, or other women. Nor do I think being beautiful is anything less then a gift from god like a great voice or the ability to run a mile in under 5 min. I don’t begrudge or belittle peoples gifts. I have no idea why you think seeing the worst in everything is a woman’s job, but I am not with you.

  24. Martine | October 24, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I find Bella Swan’s strength to be a more realistic kind of strength then Buffy’s. They are both intelligent and have a good understanding of tactics. But Buffy has only physical strength. Her emotional strength isn’t there until the last season, when it blossoms. This is seen in Buffy understanding the First Evil’s plans where Faith and Giles(The male superiority figure) did not. With,and only with, encouragement from Spike, she saves the day. She realizes there can be more then one slayer. That was one of Buffy’s best, and most mature moments.
    Bella Swan proves her obvious intelligence when she sees through Victoria’s involvement in Riley and the Newborn’s plot, when all of the Cullens do not see the truth. Bella also proves it by how quickly she figures out what Edward is, and how calmly she accepts it. She doesn’t try to hide from a difficult situation with silly humor. She isn’t afraid to love with her whole heart. Thats something that scares most people. The reason people are defensive, and try to be funny when it isn’t necessary, is fear. They try to be sarcastic so others don’t realize how unhappy they are. Its just cowardice. Bella is also very polite, respectful. I love that. But she is brave and strong. More so then Buffy. She choses the adventure. Where Buffy is constantly whinning about not able to be a normal girl, and have a nice prom dress, and fat grandkids, Bella grabs the dangerous, exciting vampire life,and never once looks back. Where Buffy was the chosen one, and got her powers purely by chance, Bella got her power by working towards that goal, and taking chances. She was in danger, but never in distress. Except for when her other half, her soulmate left. But she corrected that as well. Maybe the choice betweeb Edward and Jacob says it best. She has a choice between having to change everything, and the choice at having to stay the same. She choses change. She choses power. Thats a real hero to me. So I think things are changing for the better. Its good for people to know that being kind and caring is cooler then any amount of snark, and it will certainly take you further.

  25. William Nelson | November 12, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Let’s face it, Daria is the underground man, or woman as it were. And the painfully self-aware anti-hero is never going to resonate with the public in the way that it does here among the Paris Review readership. So to answer your question in some sense, HERE are all the Darias.

    But as to the absence of Darias in today’s media culture, should we really be surprised that the Daria protagonist went out with the 90′s?

    Such an anti-hero as Daria will always have relevance to many people in this post modern life, I think. But really Daria was way more relevant to young people who grew up in 1990′s America. The economy was great so consumerism was conspicuous (see the episode “Malled”) and politics were hardly as big an issue as they are today. Quite to the contrary, I mean the Clinton antics were such a freak show, how does a kid not feel civically and culturally disaffected after being saturated on a daily basis by news of such a lurid spectacle? Seeing the president tell a stone faced lie to the American public on national television? It just seemed natural to sit back and scoff at the excesses of our sick, sad, 1990′s world. Daria showed us that we weren’t crazy to feel disaffected by the zeitgeist of the 90′s.

    It’s still a sick, sad, world, in SO many senses, but, to borrow a phrase from Daria’s herself, isn’t the “harsh light of reality” painfully evident enough?
    Today adults and the media are a lot more concerned with national politics and shit has generally gotten a lot more serious for everyone, what with the constant media driven fear of international terrorism and the very serious possibility of seeing your family or friends in the poorhouse. Young people hardly need Daria’s brand of sardonic commentary to remind them of the cursed pall that is this post-9/11 zeitgeist of fear.

    I think you would agree that Daria is a solid chick. She may poke fun to bring others into self awareness and more conscientious living, but she doesn’t seem like the type of person who likes to twist the knife. Daria took her leave right around 9-11, a most graceful exit I think. Where did she go? I figure she’s behind the cameras now, probably producing the optimistic shit about a group of high school weirdos who find sanity and identity in… showtunes of all things… Uh, well, maybe she isn’t writing for glee, but possibly for the daily show or the Soup or Tosh.0 or the Office, or 30 rock, or some other comfort-satire like that?

    One things for sure, the underground woman is not gone. She lies in wait for that inevitable point in our collective national future when times are easy again, excess is normal again, and she is once again needed to show us how we have overstepped our core values. …And to let us smirk again.

  26.  | April 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Can I simply say such a relief to find anyone who actually realizes exactly what they may be talking about on the internet. You certainly have learned to bring a problem to light and make it vital. Even more people need to read this and understand it section of the story. I can’t believe you’re not more popular because you positively have the gift.

  27. Destiny Bos | April 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Hai met toeval zag ik net jou artikeltje , ikke ben ultra geboeid. Er zitten een ontzettende boel uren in de artikelen, is dat zo? Dank je wel.

  28. Phylis Brissett | May 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    One thing I’d like to say is the fact that before getting more computer system memory, look at the machine directly into which it can be installed. In case the machine is usually running Windows XP, for instance, the actual memory ceiling is 3.25GB. Putting in greater than this would purely constitute a new waste. Make certain that one’s motherboard can handle this upgrade quantity, as well. Good blog post.

9 Pingbacks

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