Are We Afraid of Daria?
July 29, 2010 | by Marisa Meltzer
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?