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Are We Afraid of Daria?

July 29, 2010 | by

A week ago, I asked where all the Darias had gone. The Internet, much to my delight, provided a litany of suggestions as to where to find the intelligent, prickly, but lovable teen archetype in pop culture.

There were characters mentioned from shows of the recent past: Veronica Mars, Maeby from Arrested Development, Rory of the Gilmore Girls, Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks, Claire of Six Feet Under, Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You. More currently, there’s Will from Huge, Alex on Modern Family, Alex on Wizards of Waverly Place, Becca from Californication, April from Parks and Recreation, Darby from Hung, or any character played by the Twilight actress Kristen Stewart. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was even thrown out by a few commenters as a grown-up version of Daria.

But Daria was the protagonist and the show was about her. While it’s reassuring to know that wry, disaffected teen girls do exist on screen, nearly all of the characters mentioned here are ancillary to a peppy, pretty protagonist. They're the token angry girl who provides a laugh or needs a makeover. MTV had its own Daria-type in its recent reality series My Life As Liz, though my twelve-year-old pen pal Bella told me the show rang false because Liz “is only an 'outsider' and an 'underdog' because she shops at Goodwill, listens to indie music, likes Star Wars, and reads comic books.” Daria didn’t identify with outcasts as some kind of hollow aesthetic choice—like shopping at Urban Outfitters as opposed to Abercrombie and Fitch. She was an outsider because she didn’t fit in at school, in her family, or in the world at large. And yet, it was her outlook that defined her position, because none of her problems were situational. As our commenter AAP212 notes, “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…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.” Daria’s greatest enemy might have just been her own angst.

“Teen girl snark has softened, yes, but it’s still there,” Claire Grossman wrote, in her response to me, on Double X. I would argue that it’s the softening that’s the problem. Daria was allowed to show off an extraordinary amount of bitterness that, while true to the teen experience, is almost never reflected in mass culture. Perhaps part of that was because she was a cartoon. Like Enid Coleslaw, the ornery heroine of Daniel Clowes’s nineties-era comic (though later adapted into a live-action film), Ghost World, teen girls are afforded more cynicism when it's colored in between the lines.

Of course, Daria herself was something of an anomaly even in the nineties. There was no Daria on Friends or E.R. or Seinfeld, some of the era’s most highly rated television shows. As commenter itsonreserve rightly noted on Jezebel’s post: “I was a Daria when Daria was a Daria, and I don't recall living in happy paradise where logic and sarcasm reigned supreme and life was full of candy canes.” She’s correct. There is no golden age where Darias reigned supreme, which is why so many of us can catalog every sarcastic teen girl character of the last few decades.

“We remember 'Daria' fondly because it seemed to get that selfish, self-dramatizing, low self-esteem mindset of adolescence just right, but played it wittier than we ever were as teens,” Gary Susman wrote on TV Squad. No matter where one falls in the high school hierarchy, we have all felt like an outsider at one time or another. Such is the eternal appeal of teen culture to adults: we can watch all the drama and self-obsession from our adolescent years at a safe—and sage—vantage point. So I wonder why this archetype isn’t more prominent. Perhaps the question isn’t where have all the Darias gone, but why are we so afraid of them?

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

6 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. duh | July 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    it’s six FEET under

  2. Thessaly La Force | July 29, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you for the correction. My bad.

  3. diana | July 29, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Exactly how familiar are you with this list of names? It seems like you just listed them and then went on to make the argument you wanted to make. Veronica, Will, Alex (WWP), Rory, Lindsay, Kat, and Liz Lemon are protagonists, and same for most of the characters Kristen Stewart plays. Maeby, Claire, Becca, and Darby aren’t ancillary to any “peppy, pretty protagonists,” unless you’re referring to their parents/brothers. Yes, April from Parks and Recreation is secondary to Leslie Knope, her boss. Yes, Alex on Modern Family does have a popular sister, but they have equal roles within the ensemble. I get that you miss Daria — I do too, and I’m not saying that she has an exact equivalent in today’s pop culture, and I wish there were more female protagonists, but your argument is flawed.

  4. Lana | July 29, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    I’m not sure this is a totally valid argument. As you state:

    “While it’s reassuring to know that wry, disaffected teen girls do exist on screen, nearly all of the characters mentioned here are ancillary to a peppy, pretty protagonist.”

    Except that’s not actually true of the characters mentioned. Veronica Mars is the title character of her show. Arrested Development is an ensemble show of dysfunction, so Maeby isn’t really ancillary to anyone. Rory is a Gilmore Girl, and her mother was most certainly a teenage outcast, just of a different sort. Kat is the main character in 10 Things, and while her sister is the peppy prep, she’s not the protagonist by any means.

    I don’t watch enough of the most recent examples to comment broadly, but isn’t Kristen Stewart generally the lead in her movies? Juno (mentioned in the past post) is also her story’s star, and Liz Lemon is essentially the main character of 30 Rock.

    All those examples are ones with Daria-esque leads who are by no means foils to a livelier character. If Darias aren’t as abundant as Quinns, it’s probably because truly witty teenage misanthropes are still the minority in reality, even if anyone can at times relate to them. If anything, I think it’s admirable how many strong, smart, self-assured girl teen characters survive the drudgery of mass pop culture.

2 Pingbacks

  1. [...] Here with more Daria goodness, The Paris Review asks “Are We Afraid of Daria?” [...]

  2. [...] Are We Afraid of Daria?: A follow up to the Where Are the Darias? post I linked a few weeks ago. In Praise of Precocious Narrators: Did you know that the first time I heard the word precocious was actually in Spanish (precoz)? It is the one and only word I can think of where I heard the Spanish word before ever hearing the English equivalent. And it happened rather late in life too: ninth grade, in reference to the main character in Ana Maria Matute’s Fiesta al Noroeste For the record, I barely survived AP Spanish. Also for the record, what I’ve just said is completely irrelevant. As for the topic at hand, I suppose I too like the precocious narrator, or at least I tend to be drawn to novels with such characters. The Glass children (Salinger), the narrator of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03, Josie and Jack Rayburn (Kelly Braffet’s Josie and Jack), the students of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Blue Van Meer of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (mentioned in the article). [...]

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