I remember growing up in the 90’s and never really appreciating Daria, which aired every Saturday on channel 5. I was drawn to the pleasing aesthetic of the show but I could never relate to this ugly, gawky outcast and besides, I didn’t find it funny and the characters voices irritated me. Perhaps I was just too young to fully appreciate her.
Recently there has been somewhat of a Daria revival on freeview channel VIVA, with Daria episodes airing left, right and centre, and this time round, I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with the show which has definitely seen Daria dragged off the mortuary slab, resuscitated and thrust back into her high school uniform to relieve those painfully awkward days.
For those that don’t know, Daria is a series following the lives of the Morgendorffer family, but particularly titular character Daria as they ride the peaks and weather the troughs of life in a new town.
Daria herself is best known for her cutting cynicism, wicked wit and sinister sarcasm. She’s not depressed and she doesn’t have low self esteem, just ‘low esteem for everyone else’. She dresses in drab fashion, clashing colours that would never work on the runway and she seems genuinely bemused and wearied by American teen life.
Little sister Quinn embodies everything that Daria despises about the teenage experience. She’s pretty, popular and perky, a real life Jessica Rabbit, and an odd mixture of doe-eyed Lolita like sexuality and padlocked celibacy with a love of everything bright, shiny and fashionable and a dislike of anything hot, sweaty and dirty. Quinn does indeed have all the depth of a puddle but she still manages to be quite a mesmerizing character. She personifies young newly awakened sexuality that parades but doesn’t really understand itself yet, immaturely beautiful, understanding the effects of her looks but not the responsibilities they entail.
Dad Jake is the little boy who never grew up, and constantly berates himself for selling out and following the conventional norms of society and wife Helen is the businesswoman-cum-mother who tries to excel at it all whilst wearing her perfectly preened suit.
Outside of the intriguing family dynamic and clash of characters are the students of Lawndale high who encapsulate the little world that Daria and Quinn are propelled into. For Daria, this world consists of equally outcast artist Jane (famous for her red jacket, short black hair and witty quips), her brother Trent (a guy who may or may not have finished high school who now spends his time playing in a band called Mystic Spiral – name liable to change, on whom Daria develops the crush to end all crushes and okay, I was won over by Trent myself…), students Brittany and Kevin who exemplify the cheerleader/jock archetypes and Upchuck, the resident deluded lothario with about as much charm and sex appeal as a cockroach mated with a rodent.
Quinn’s world consists of a very different set of acquaintances. Within seconds of her arrival at her new school, Quinn is snapped up by the fashion club and becomes their vice president. Sandi, Stacey and Tiffany form her image conscious gang, symbolic of everything shallow, self-conscious, materialistic and insecure about teenage girls. Indeed, this gang are a kind of pre-Mean Girls or alternate ‘Ashleys’ gang from Recess. They talk boys, eye liner and beauty products and little else. Daria and Quinn’s high school experiences are polar extremes; Daria exists on the periphery and Quinn excels in the spotlight under the glare on the precipice of popularity and obscurity.
Beyond the student body, the teachers are an equally dysfunctional bunch. Mr DeMartino can barely repress his rage at the apathy and stupidity of his students and constantly wishes he was doing something else, whilst Mr O’Neill is still in the Pollyanna mode of teaching, believing that he is making a difference with his blood curdling sensitivity and focus on esteem and emotions.
So what is it that hooked me about Daria this time around? Daria is a show that is a skilful slice of everything that the 90’s was. Each character represents and relates to a very definite aspect of many peoples lives.
For anyone that’s ever felt isolated by their morals or intelligence, there’s Daria.
For all the ‘what if’s’ and ‘if only’s’ of our romantic life’s, there’s the aching, embarrassing, hormone riddled infatuation that Daria has on Trent, a crush that probably would have little basis for a long lasting relationship but is definitely relatable to every teenage girl on earth.
Quinn is the shiny, super cute queen bee who has everything, and shows moments of maturation and growth beyond her desperate desire to fit in, acknowledging that everyone has something that they are good at, and for her, it’s being popular.
The fashion club represent herd mentality to hilarious effect, Jane represents alternate living, and Trent personifies the lazy but contradictorily ambitious attitude of a slacker with dreams.
Helen and Jake represent the power house matriarch and the coddled, ineffectual father becoming increasingly prevalent and I’ve never seen a better example of a teacher who just doesn’t give a rat’s ass (that would be Mr D.)
Daria is a brilliantly clever take on 90’s life seen through the eyes of a disillusioned teenage girl who can see through the fluff and pretence of cute clothes and bouncy hair, but what’s most important about this show is its heart. If it were made today, Daria would be portrayed as vivid and beautiful, and wholly unrelatable as an outcast loser ‘brain’. Instead, we can relate to Daria’s reluctance to fit in, her ability to soar above the average teenage issues (like getting a nose job or updating your wardrobe) and her awareness of the fact that there is more to life than high school. In this way, Daria is a role model for any outcast girl, or indeed, all outcasts, to escape from their petty problems and realise that Daria has been there and done that already. Daria doesn’t get the guy (Trent is always just a ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ crush, she is never popular and she never manages to achieve bouncy hair) , but she does survive high school, and she does so by never sacrificing who she is, and that is all any of us can really ask for.