I was one of those kids growing up in the 1990s who had the wonderful enjoyment of watching Daria, a fantastic show about adolescence during High School.
According to the Vulture article, “How Daria Shaped a Generation of Women (Especially This Black Lady)“:
Daria started out as a supporting cast member on Beavis and Butt-head because MTV’s president, Judy McGrath, deemed that the show should have at least one intelligent female character. That’s right, the mandate was not to have a bombshell character, or a sexy villain, or a buzzkill character who appeared only to ruin the guys’ good time. McGrath wanted something different. Something that was not only more true to real life, but representative of an underfed audience: smart teenage girls. Enter Daria, a crafty loner with wit and a wardrobe that screamed more “Doc Martens are my co-pilot” than “Hit me, baby, one more time.” Almost instantly, McGrath recognized the power and potential of her character and ordered a spinoff. Daria was one of the first of her kind on TV, but that’s not what makes her or the show special: It’s Daria‘s willingness for real talk on race, gender, and identity that feels as crucial today as ever.
If the Bechdel test existed when this show was on the air, Daria would have passed with flying colors. Whether she and her best friend, Jane Lane, were waxing philosophic about being judged on their looks, or Daria and Jodie Landon (more on her later) were discussing the school dynamics at Lawndale High, plenty of the female characters spent the majority of their time not consumed with crushes on boys. Because of that, it allowed for more interesting conversation and character development, and reminded teenage girls that there is more to life than being someone’s girlfriend.
Add that to a long list of the show’s other achievements: Daria was one of the first openly atheist characters on TV; the series tackled body image in the season-five episode “Fat Like Me“; and it managed to make the popular kids (well, at least some them), like Jodie and her footballer boyfriend, Mack, multidimensional instead of dimwitted fools who are beautiful, rich, and vapid, proving that everyone has a difficult time in high school. Most important, it created a female character in Daria who isn’t pitied or forced to get a makeover to be more palatable to others. She remains true to herself and demands the same of her family and friends. While this certainly makes her a wise character, it would also make her a bland one if she never turned the microscope on herself. In what is one of my favorite scenes from the entire series, Daria breaks down the insecurities of every member of her family, including herself. Her self-awareness is not only on point but entertaining, and audiences tuned in every week to see her calling bullshit.
Certainly, the show’s episodes often tackled really serious topics relevant to young adults. For example, according to The Aritfice‘s “Daria Morgendorffer: A Character Study” on the episode, “Arts N’ Crass”:
Daria and her best friend, fellow outsider Jane tackled assumptions of feminine beauty in Arts N’ Crass. In contrast to recent MTV-produced programming where stereotypes of feminine beauty are normalised, Daria and Jane aimed to break them down because they were infuriated by the same stereotypes at their high school. In contrast to Daria, recent MTV-produced programming like Geordie Shore, Jersey Shore, My Super Sweet Sixteen and Snooki & Jwoww have females parading around with too much make-up and expensive clothing conveying shallowness. This underlines Daria as a MTV-produced program which contained a sincere female character. Daria and Jane’s school art competition entry contained an image of a typical teenage beauty with a profound message, ‘she knows she’s a winner, she couldn’t be thinner, now she goes to the bathroom and vomits up dinner’. This is powerfully sincere in contrast to their fellow classmates’ entries such as Brittney’s clichéd anti-alcohol and drugs, reflecting Daria’s stance on integrity over obsession towards physical appearance which females within recent MTV-produced programming constantly do. Wherever it be the ladies from Geordie Shore and Jersey Shore using their physicality to attract men, there is an ultimate downside within this reality which might not be shown in Geordie Shore and Jersey Shore (rather it is sensationalised) yet Daria exposed it. Their entry soon causes controversy with Principal Lee confiscating and redefining its context, however Daria along with Jane consolidate their integrity by defacing it. Daria defacing the entry was a defying statement within her characterisation affirming sincerity which is sourly missing from recent MTV-produced programming where moral ethics are non-existent. Instead they are replaced by egotistical urges with little depth. Daria’s defiance for her ethics in Arts N’ Class was an admirable characteristic.
One of my favorite moments in this episode occurs when Helen calls Principal Li. According to “Daria: A Character Development Masterclass, Part 3 – Helen Morgendorffer“:
Not only is Helen competitive, but she also has a fierce protective instinct and sense of justice – well, she is a lawyer. This comes to the fore particularly when her daughters are under attack. In my previous post about Jane, I mentioned the episode Arts n Crass in which Jane and Daria create a controversial poster for an art contest. The school administration alters the poster without their permission, so Daria and Jane deface the poster and wind up in trouble. Below is what happens when Ms Li calls Helen about the situation.
Ms. Li: Mrs. Morgendorffer, I’m afraid I have some rather bad news. Your daughter, Daria, appears to have been involved in an act of vandalism.
Ms. Li: Mrs. Morgendorffer, your daughter collaborated with Jane Lane in the creation of a poster for our art contest.
Helen: Yes, I’m aware of that.
Ms. Li: We found part of the poster unacceptable, so it was altered prior to its entry. Unfortunately, someone defaced the poster while it was on display, and since your daughter and Ms. Lane objected to changing it, I must assume that they were the vandals. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take drastic action.(as Ms. Li talks, Helen’s expression slowly begins shifting from “concerned mom” to ” lawyer”)
Helen: Wait a moment. You’re saying the girls were against changing the poster, but entered it into the contest anyway?
Ms. Li: It was entered for them.
Helen: I was under the impression that participation in this contest was voluntary.
Ms. Li: It was, but your daughter refused to volunteer, so in her case, I made it mandatory.
Helen: All right, Ms. Li, let me make sure I have this straight. You took my daughter’s poster from her, altered its content, exhibited it against her will, and are now threatening discipline because you claim she defaced her own property, which you admit to stealing?
Ms. Li: (flustered) That’s not what I said at all!
Helen: Ms. Li, are you familiar with the phrase “violation of civil liberties”?
Ms. Li: I…
Helen: And the phrase “big fat lawsuit”?
Helen also sticks up for Daria against other parents. In The New Kid Daria makes friends with a boy named Ted and gives him some chewing gum. When his parents find out, they march straight over to the Morgendorffer household and demand that Daria stays away from him. Helen’s reply of “Look here, Hippy…” is both angry and derisive.
Another episode, covered in The Aritfice‘s “Daria Morgendorffer: A Character Study” is “The Lost Girls”:
The Lost Girls is similar to Malled in the sense that Daria continuously fought for her ethics against superficiality. She is unwillingly forced to spend a day with Val, owner of a self-titled teen magazine after Mr O’Neill submitted Daria’s essay to Val. Daria thinks the magazine is superficial with articles such as ‘What TV’s hottest hunks thinks of your blackheads’. Val is the polar opposite of Daria, cohering the latter’s sincerity. Val spoke in slang, was superficial and oblivious to her contradictions. Daria was offering a damning critique of Val yet there are striking similarities with Val and recent MTV-produced programming. Val’s obsession with her physical appearance mirrors the ladies from Geordie Shore and Jersey Shore reaffirming their physicality to attract men or focusing on moronic aspects of life. It is tragic that females within recent MTV-produced programming have personalities similar to Val’s values which are upheld towards its audience. Daria stood out as the special exception by continuously breaking down Val’s persona in particular being shocked by Val’s age of 28 feeling she is a fraud, “pushing yourself as a role model when all you care about is how you look”. Daria once more fought for her ethics against a tirade of superficial, shallow ignorance revealing Val’s pathetic nature. Daria having the capability of criticising superficial ethics reflected the sincerity incorporated into Daria’s characterization.
But if there is one episode that stands out: “Quinn the Brain,” which deals with cultural identity.
According to “What is Cultural Identity?“:
The definition of cultural identity, in its most basic form, is a sense of belonging. A shared sense of companionship that involves the same beliefs, interests and basic principles of living. When a person identifies with their culture, they often embrace traditions that have been passed down for years. The cultural identity that relates to a person’s heritage helps them to identify with others who have the same traditions and basic belief system.
Some people claim that a person’s cultural identity is the foundation or groundwork on which every other aspect of their being is built. It is the cornerstone of what makes them who they are. Embracing one’s culture often means practicing a specific religion and wearing a certain type of clothing. It creates an outward, visible means of identifying you as part of a particular culture or nationality.
Of course, during this episode, Daria and Quinn essentially switch identities. Quinn, writing her essay, gets credit in a context not aligned with her culture’s identity, which makes “smart” popular. This has a negative effect on Daria’s self-perception, create the loathing feeling she expresses. Daria, as we know, is best described as part of a subculture, while Quinn is firmly placed within mainstream. “What is a Cultural Identity?” continues:
A subculture is a smaller sect or group that belongs to a larger, cultural entity. While they belong to a larger group, their beliefs, mannerisms and basic behavioral patterns may vary slightly from the larger group. For example, the Aborigine culture known throughout New Zealand and Australia as the original inhabitants of the land. The different tribes and families that make up the entire group of indigenous peoples would be considered individually as a part of the subculture of the region.
Subcultures that can be found in within larger cultural groups, are similar to the larger group but have key differences that make them unique in some way. Their dress may be slightly different or their belief system may be somewhat different from that of the larger group. While they still retain the main cultural identity, the subculture is used to define them at a much deeper level.
Subcultures add depth and diversity to the larger cultural group. One way of viewing the culture/subculture concept is to think of Christianity and its generalized belief system. If Christianity is the culture, the religions who fall under its generalized definition would be the subcultures. Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist would all be considered subcultures. As off shoots of the main culture, each subculture still believes in the main concepts of the large group. While each group has slightly different beliefs than the others, the main concept and belief structure remain intact.
However, also can understand that Daria has achieved cultural identity achievement, before Quinn went on her cultural identity search, following the identity crisis spearheading by the poem.
This is shown when Daria speaks to her father, Jake, during the episode:
Jake: Is something bothering you, Daria?
Daria: (muffled) No.
Jake: You know, it’s all right to have a heart to heart with Dad. I’ve been known to do a little parenting in my time.
Daria: (muffled) It’s okay.
Jake: What’s on your mind? I’m up on the issues. Drugs, peer pressure… or is it a problem with your gang?
Daria: (muffled) It’s more of a personal issue.
Jake: It’s not… hygiene or anything…
Daria: (removes pillow) Dad, let’s say you have an identity that you didn’t even like…
Jake: Oh, sure! Like, one day you wake up middle aged and resenting the hell out of it.
Daria: Um, okay. But even though you don’t like this identity, somebody comes along and steals it from you.
Jake: And you’re upset. You earned that resentment, it’s your right.
Daria: Well, it’s more like, you didn’t want this identity, but if they take it away, you’ve got nothing. What do you do?
Jake: They took your identity, Daria? Then you walk away. You change your name, move to another state, get some ID. It’s not too late to start over, Daria, it’s not too late! You’re still a young man! You don’t have to live with your mistakes! Get out while you can! (grabs Daria’s shoulders)
Daria: Um, you’re not going to shake me, are you?
Jake: What I meant was, you hang in there and everything’s going to be all right.
Daria: Dad, talking to you has made me feel better about myself.
Jake: That’s what I’m here for, kiddo. (Daria leaves) Backup singer. Ha!
According to ICL blog‘s “Forming Your Cultural Identity“:
Cultural identity is often defined as the identity of a group, culture or an individual, influenced by one’s belonging to a group or culture. A developmental psychologist, Jean S. Phinney, formulated a three stage model describing how this identity is acquired.
The first stage, unexamined cultural identity, is characterized by a lack of exploration of culture and cultural differences – they are rather taken for granted without much critical thinking. This is usually the stage reserved for childhood when cultural ideas provided by parents, the community or the media are easily accepted. Children at this stage tend not to be interested in ethnicity and are generally ready to take on the opinions of others.
The second stage of the model is referred to as the cultural identity search and is characterized by the exploration and questioning of your culture in order to learn more about it and to understand the implications of belonging to it. During this stage you begin to question where your beliefs come from and why you hold them, you are ready to compare and analyze them across cultures. For some, this stage may arise from a turning point in their life or from a growing awareness of other cultures and it can also be a very emotional time. This is often the time when high-school students decide to go on an intercultural exchange program, such as the one provided by AFS. This kind of a program can satisfy a growing awareness of the world around you and the desire to learn more about culture.
Finally, the third stage of the model is cultural identity achievement. Ideally, people at this stage have a clear sense of their cultural identity and are able to successfully navigate it in the contemporary world which is undoubtedly very interconnected and intercultural. The acceptance of yourself and your cultural identity may play a significant role in your other important life decisions and choices, influencing your attitudes and behavior. This usually leads to an increase in self-confidence and positive psychological development.
Another episode that examined the characters identities was “Pinch Sitter,” where Helen and Quinn sit with Deena Decker after Helen decides to book them a mother-daughter session:
(at Deena Decker’s office)
Deena: Prioritizing, it’s the first step towards streamlining your life. Helen, please share your list of priorities, stating the most important first.
Helen: One, spend more time with my family. Two, break through the firm’s glass ceiling. Three, beat the pants of Carly Fishbeck in the library board election. Four, get the spice back into my marriage.
Helen: Four, window treatments for the living room.
Deena: Great, and what are your priorities Quinn?
Quinn: One, dating. Two, shopping. Three, bouncy hair. Four, school.
Helen: You don’t have to rush, sweetie. Maybe you would like to rethink the order.
Deena: Helen, Quinn is just being honest. We can’t get anywhere unless we take a hard, honest look at what really matters to us.
Helen: One, get the spice back into my marriage.
Deena: Quinn, here’s your very own Teen Life Runner, just like Mom’s. (hands planner to Quinn)
Helen: My baby’s all grown up.
Deena: Don’t forget to enter this experience on your Proud Moments Summary Page.
Quinn: I can’t use this thing. It’s ugly!
Deena: Customized styles are available for an extra charge. (hands Quinn a catalog)
Quinn: I’ll take the coral. Leatherette.
Deena: We also sell a matching lipstick and compact that fit right inside the planner. Quinn: Now I’ll be attractive, and popular, and organized!
Although Helen clearly displays attitudes attributed to second wave feminism (“break through the firm’s glass ceiling”), Quinn displays no regard for this (“dating,” “shopping,” and “bouncy hair”). However, I wouldn’t applaud Helen’s depiction only because it is suggestive here that her feminist views are likely overbearing, and could be connected to the need to “get the spice back into my marriage.” Notably, Quinn has “school” placed last on her list.
The final episode worth looking at on identity is “That Was Then, This Is Dumb.” Jake and Helen’s old friends, Coyote and Willow Yeager, visit after not seeing each other for 20 years. Right from the get-go we get the idea that we are entering an alternate reality, when Daria says of their car: “That’s not a car. It’s a time machine.” Moments later, Willow tells Daria, ” You have a very old soul.”
Once they gather at the table and speak to each other, trouble ensues:
Coyote: So, for the past twelve years, we’ve been selling hammocks made out of hemp through the mail.
Willow: And with all the new breakthroughs with hemp processing, this could be out most exciting year yet!
Helen: Oh! That’s fascinating. Quinn, didn’t you have a date tonight?
Quinn: I got Stacy to fill in.
Jake: (to Ethan) You into sports, my man? (no response) Ethan?
Willow: We think there’s enough aggressive behavior on the planet without creating more with quote unquote “healthy competition.”
Coyote: Ethan’s gonna rock climb, when he’s ready.
Ethan: Whatever. Peas. (spoons peas onto plate)
Willow: (bites into slice of bread) Hmmm. You can always tell when a bread isn’t hand-kneaded. Hand-kneaded bread has more soul.
Jake: This veggie stuff never fills me up. Anyone want a burger? (gets several cross looks) Hey, fair’s fair. We’ll all be worm food someday.
Jake: It’s the circle of life, Helen.
Coyote: You know, man, you’ve become kind of aggressive.
Jake: Have not!
Willow: It’s the meat.
Jake: Is not!
Willow: What ever happened to that mellow, let-it-be attitude you used to have?
During the episode, Jake decides not to shave to be more less like “cookie-cutter corporate guy,” and meanwhile, Helen receives a phone call from Eric:
Helen: (picks up drool-covered pillow) Ugh, dog drool. That beast! (to dog) Outside!
(phone rings as Willow and Coyote enter the room)
Helen (into phone) :Hello? Eric? What? They moved the hearing up to this week? I can be there in 20 minutes.
Jake: Talk about uptight.
(Helen finally catches on that Willow and Coyote are present, and abruptly chances her attitude)
Helen (into phone): Mellow out, man. Nothing’s so important that it can’t wait till Monday, and what are you doing in the corporate cage on the weekend? Go take a walk in the park.
Jake: Right on, honey.
Willow: You still have your priorities.
Coyote: Who’s up for frisbee? Come on, Leary!
(when Willow, Coyote, Jake, and Leary go outside, Helen’s tone changes back to normal)
Helen (into phone): Eric? Yes, of course I was kidding.
Finally, something gives way, as Coyote and Willow finally express frustration with their lifestyle:
Jake: I know what you’re thinking, that I’ve turned into the man!
Coyote: I’d never call you the man, man. Man, maybe, but not the man.(suddenly throws his wrench) I hate this stupid rusty piece of junk! And I’m tired of buying food in bulk! And not flushing every time I go because it wastes water!
(behind the house, Helen and Willow are in the middle of creating a compost pile)
Helen: I’m still young. What happened to my beliefs? What happened to being part of the solution, not part of the problem?
Willow: I hate kneading bread.
Willow: (stabbing ground with her rake) I… hate… kneading… bread! (slips and falls) Damn!
Helen: Oh Willow! Here!
(she attempts to help Willow to her feet, only to get pulled down into the mud also)
Coyote: Man, can you teach me how to play golf?
Jake: Sure I can, man.
Coyote: And can we ride around on those little carts?
Jake: Sure thing, pal! (mud-covered Helen and Willow appear) Hey, some kind of organic nutrient steam bath, right? Cool!
Helen: Jake, we fell on our asses in a pile of garbage. I feel like a hog.
Coyote: Hog! I miss bacon.
Willow: Oh, thanks so much for your concern! (both women leave)
Jake: Wow, sounds like the girls are getting liberated.
(Helen hands her electric bread maker to Willow)
Willow: You’re sure you don’t want this?
Helen: I never use it.
Willow: This will cut way down on the time I spending baking for Ethan and Coyote.
(Helen walks over to the refrigerator, pulls a bag out of the freezer, and tosses it to Willow)
Helen: Sister, meet the frozen bagel. (out the window) Hey, guys, it’s getting dark. When are you going to come in?
Coyote: In a minute.
Jake: I’m just showing Coyote how to drive without slicing! (ball flies through window, narrowly missing Helen) Better!
(later, all of the adults are seated at the kitchen table when Daria, Quinn, and Ethan walk in)
Helen: Girls, I expected you for dinner. Before I officially ground you, would you care to account for your whereabouts?
Daria: Sure. But first, a few questions. (pulls out notepad) Number one: why did you and Dad spend a night in jail in Boulder in August, 1969?
Much of this episode deals with Helen and Jake’s confrontation with their previous, less mature, and more idealistic, identities, through Coyote and Willow. However, they also both represent talents, or expressions, that neither Helen or Jake have. Helen, for example, cannot cook, while Willow can, and has for many years. Similarly, Jake is not particularly masculine, while Coyote (his name, as well) expresses masculinity aligned with expected male social behavior.
This, of course, are only several wonderful examples of how Daria was such a great show making articulate assessments of teenage life in the 1990s. I watch reruns of Daria to this day.