MTV's long-lost cult cartoon Daria finally comes out on DVD today. Revisiting the series eight years after its demise reminds me that I have Daria to thank for surviving my teens and emerging with smarts and sass intact.
Daria debuted in 1997 and ended with the TV movie Is It College Yet? in 2002, by which point I was halfway through my senior year of high school. There weren't (and still aren't) too many smart female characters in pop culture that painfully geeky girls can relate to — I adored Dana Scully from The X-Files and Dr. Beverly Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Alas, my exposure to alien life-forms was limited, and these fictitious women didn't provide much guidance for handling the indignities of high school.
Enter Daria. When I first caught an episode in eighth grade, a few months after it premiered, I felt like I was watching an animated version of my life. I'd recently moved and was at a new school, like Daria, and didn't have many friends. My interest in writing and classic novels wasn't catapulting me to the top of the social ladder. And I had a constant sarcastic monologue running in my head, a made-for-television narration of the events unfolding before me. Plus, with my giant glasses, bushy bangs, and fondness for oversized clothing, there was a bit of a physical resemblance between myself and the cartoon herself, as evidenced by this photo of me in Public Relationship Club (whatever that was) from my 8th grade year book.
(Faces blurred to protect the innocent.)
It's a little embarrassing to admit that the only character I could identify with as a teen was a cartoon that originated on Beavis & Butt-Head, but part of the reason Daria was allowed to be so authentically sardonic and unattractive was because the show was animated. In a 1998 New York Times article, Chris Marcil said that he and many fellow Daria writers credited the show's success with the fact that she's not played by a real actress, explaining:
My So Called Life tackled some similar themes as Daria — you know, the girl who's not the most popular and isn't considered the greatest beauty — and it didn't last... I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that it's hard for people to take something that's as real as that. The success of 90210 is that it is fantasy and everybody really is gorgeous and it's very easy to look at. With animation, it at least makes reality more palatable.
I can't comment on My So-Called Life since I wasn't allowed to watch possibly risqué teen shows when I was in fourth grade, but there was no realistically dorky female character on a live-action show during my teens. I loved Dawson's Creek (hey, I was 14) and Joey Potter, who was presented as a semi-unpopular underdog. Nevertheless, as an outcast she competed in a beauty pageant, was smart enough to get a scholarship to study in Paris, and she even got the guy by the end of season one. She was hardly a social fugitive who couldn't function in the high school petri dish.
Nowadays, there are more geeky, ostensibly unattractive women on TV, from Liz Lemon on 30 Rock to Rachel Berry in Glee and Betty Suarez of Ugly Betty, but they're all still hoping to earn the admiration of their peers. What set Daria apart, and made her the most authentic TV nerd — despite the fact that she's a cartoon — was that she didn't look for her fellow students to accept her. She just wanted to be left alone. I could relate.
I wish I could say that I wore my geekiness on my sleeve as proudly as Daria, but in my school wearing combat boots every day and asking a bitchy cheerleader if she could teach me to "twirl hair around my little finger and look vacant" would have led to taunting and getting shoved into a locker — the exact opposite of being left alone.
Still, Daria gave me a different outlook on high school by confirming my suspicions: Being popular wasn't as fun as it looked, and volleyball skills wouldn't have much bearing on the rest of my life. While on other shows being invited to a party thrown by the popular kids would be cause for celebration (before the inevitable humiliation, that is), when Daria's faced with the idea of attending a cool-kid party, she says, "Sure. And after that I think I'll swallow glass."
Those were the kind of moments when Daria implicitly championed the life of a geeky outcast as a legitimate choice, not something thrust upon you by the popular kids.
Daria and her best friend Jane Lane provided me with the sort of social guidance that allowed me to stay true to myself. It took me until 10th grade to find my Jane, a girl who managed to inhabit an even lower social caste than I did. (Before I moved, there was some incident involving her dumping macaroni and cheese on one of the biggest bullies in school, and he gave her a nickname that not-so-cleverly involved the word "poo.") Dirty looks and cafeteria Siberia made it clear that continuing to associate with her would eliminate any hope I had of digging myself out of my pit of raging nerd-dom. Before encountering Daria, committing social suicide probably would have mattered to me, but I'd picked up her attitude that it's easier to survive high school with one fellow-loser who shares your misanthropic views than to spend four years trying to earn the admiration of girls whose main interests include proper eyeliner application and shopping at Contempo Casuals.
I stuck with my Jane, and even though we missed out on a lot of football games and dances (we didn't even have a geeky boy to fight over), today we still reminisce about walking into town to get a slice of pizza after school, watching weird independent movies at her house on Friday nights, and all the funny nicknames we had for the kids who didn't think we were cool enough to hang out with.
I didn't strictly live by Daria's code of total alienation in high school: I rarely had the courage to tell off mean girls to their faces, and I was more like Rushmore's Max Fisher when it came to oddball after-school activities (I don't even recall my middle school having a Public Relations Club, but there I am, frozen in yearbook time). Still, at a time when nothing seemed to matter as much as being pretty and popular, Daria taught me that with smarts, sarcasm, and one real friend, nerdy girls can keep their sanity in high school, even if we can't all spend four years hiding out in a bedroom with padded walls.
Earlier: Daria Takes Aim At Jane Magazine