Looking Back at Daria’s Quiet Brilliance in the Midst of Reboot-mania
It’s official: 80s nostalgia is out. 90s nostalgia is in.
Recently, MTV (remember them?) announced that they’re going to be rebooting a number of classic shows, including Real World, Aeon Flux, and — brace for impact — Daria.
I love Daria with all my heart. It’s probably my favorite animated sitcom of all time. But news of this reboot is giving me the chills; the popular idea of what Daria was about has drifted off-course since it last aired, and I don’t trust MTV to steer it back on track. So today, we’re going to talk about what made Daria so great, and how Lawndale’s favorite misanthrope really wasn’t as cynical as we’d like to think.
Go onto any YouTube video about Daria, and you’ll find dozens upon dozens of versions of the same two comments:
The only people who hate this show are exactly like the other stereotypical idiots and/or jerks that’s delineated in this show. Only provincial, superficial people wouldn’t understand a show about a main character who is antisocial.
Stupid show, bad protagonist, all praise completely undeserved. This show did little more than pat edgy teenage egotists on the back simply for being egotists.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I think that both of these comments fail to understand one of the biggest things that made Daria who she was: she wasn’t the hero.
That isn’t to say the sharp judgments she made about her peers were unprovoked, or even wrong most of the time. But to pretend that the show treated its main character as some bastion of truth, some perfect mouthpiece to skewer all that was wrong with the world, is to ignore all the flaws and character development that made Daria into such an engaging and relatable character. If anything, Daria was the villain of her own show — constantly trying to hide within her sarcastic shell, if only to spare herself from the pain that came when the rest of the world let her down.
In fanfiction circles, we use the term “slow burn” a lot, usually referring to shipfics that take way too damn long to get to the damn kiss. But if I can repurpose the term for a moment, I’d like to make the claim that Daria is slow burning as all hell. That’s why everyone remembers Daria as such an irredeemable cynic — watch a single episode, and you’re getting a single static snapshot of her development. Watch the whole series, however, and you start to realize that even Daria, the “brain” of Lawndale High, found something to learn from her peers.
It’s no surprise that the best episodes of the series are the ones where Daria (and Jane!) take the risk of opening themselves up to the world, and actually show some nonironic emotion. Consider the season one finale, “The Misery Chick.”
On the eve of Lawndale High’s dedication ceremony to local asshole and football hero Tommy Sherman, said asshole/football hero dies in a tragic, senseless, and humorous accident — an accident that, mere seconds before it happened, Daria’s friend Jane wishes for. In the wake of his death, Jane isolates herself from Daria, angry and upset with her perceived role in the accident. Meanwhile, Daria finds herself becoming Lawndale High’s personal therapist. As the only one in school who isn’t outwardly grieving Sherman’s death — “I can’t believe the way people are reacting. I mean, yeah, it’s terrible what happened, but it’s not as if he was nice to anyone.” — and pegged as the town’s “misery chick,” her peers see Daria as a blank slate for them to wipe their grief off on, since she’s got no emotions of her own to interfere.
Yet, even if she’s not showing it as clearly as Jane, Daria is mourning in her own way. But it doesn’t come out in sadness; it comes out in anger and frustration that the rest of the world can grieve for a man she found so repulsive, while she’s left to console them. She distracts herself with that anger, so she doesn’t have to admit to herself that he shouldn’t have died, and then feel sympathy for him. She doesn’t want to feel sad like them — she wants to stay in her shell of detached sarcasm. But the episode works so well because it forces Daria and Jane to step outside their shells and struggle openly with the same awful emotions that everyone else deals with every day.
Daria never wanted to admit that she might be like her peers, the ones she judged and snarked at so harshly. Yet as her mother, Helen, quipped so well:
Helen: It’s just that sometimes you judge people’s behavior by a pretty rigid set of standards. Not everyone can live up to them.
Daria: That’s what’s wrong with the world.
Helen: Not even you live up to them all the time.
Daria could be just as petty, just as naive, and just as obsessed with her own appearance as any of her classmates (just look at any scene where she interacts with Trent, Jane’s older brother). And as the series went on, although she didn’t abandon any of her core principles, she eventually learned to make nice with her peers.
That’s because they changed as well — Daria might have been the main character, but she wasn’t the only one who earned herself some character development along the way. Over time, she managed to find common ground with the vapid cheerleader Brittany and the knucklehead quarterback Kevin, and even made peace with her shallow-as-a-kiddie-pool sister Quinn, once her sworn enemy. She learned that people, as awful as they seem at first, do grow — albeit slower than she might like. She even admitted that high school, as crappy as it was, could be bearable, provided you had a friend or two to help you through it.
Yet, Daria’s true standards were never as high as she made them seem. She never really liked being the cynic, or the outcast, or the “Misery Chick.” All she ever wanted was a world where she could be happy and accepted. Consider the season two finale, “Write Where It Hurts.” Tasked with an assignment to write a fictional story using the people in her life as characters, Daria finds herself totally stuck, unable to imagine her friends and family as anything more than the flaws she sees in them. It’s only after a talk with her mother, who gives her the advice to write not what the world is, but what she wants the world to be, that she gets past her writer’s block.
We get a glimpse at Daria’s desired fantasy world, and — well, it’s not that different from the one she’s living in. Set twenty years in the future, her parents are still overzealous and eccentric. Her sister’s matured a bit, sure, but is still the Quinn everyone remembers. Hell, even Daria is still fighting the good fight, writing a weekly political column to champion her social justice ideals. The biggest change she makes to the world isn’t to force everyone to agree with her, or to match up to her “rigid set of standards.”
The biggest change is that everyone in her family is happy. Everyone in her family accepts each other. There’s no bickering, or judging, or trying to become something that you aren’t. Daria might be a chronic armchair critic, but when it comes down to it, all she wants is a world she can be herself in. When she allows herself to tap into her emotions, she finds what truly brings her joy.
Today, we remember Daria for her cutting wit and endless cynicism. Yet, if we search for the series’ real thesis statement, we have to look for a line from the season two episode “Gifted.” In the middle of a discussion about Daria’s constant cynicism, Jodie says this:
You might spare yourself some pain by cutting everyone off, but you miss out on a lot of good stuff, too.
Life can be shitty and painful, yeah — especially in 2018. When the world around us seems to be getting worse every day, it becomes easy to stop caring. But if we close ourselves off, too afraid to care for others, to afraid bear any of the pain, we’ll never grow.
The Daria reboot is coming, whether we like it or not. But maybe a good dose of Daria is just what we need right now. I’ll be watching, hoping that our favorite combat boot aficionado is as complex and flawed as when we last saw her.