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.