Daria Morgendorffer (Tracy Grandstaff) may be one of the most iconic female characters in all of American television. Even people who didn’t religiously watch the groundbreaking MTV series Daria easily recognize her special monotonous, sardonic voice. Though the character first appeared as an extra on Beavis & Butt-Head as much-needed intellectual relief to the title characters, millions of fans worldwide thank whomever made the decision to give the duo’s foil her own show. Though Daria’s appearance changed slightly when she became the lead in her own animated sitcom, Daria’s core personality remained the same: steady, sarcastic, and and straight-forward.
Daria was a breath of fresh air during an era where girls were constantly told that our worth was in how well we could apply makeup to look “natural”, how many issues of Seventeen and YM magazine we’d read, and how caught up we were on the latest celebrity gossip. Daria was just a teenage girl trying to finish high school without losing her sense of self, while trying to survive the claustrophobically hypocritical and shallow people around her. Daria calls out people as they are, doesn’t pretend to care about things that she doesn’t, and does care about things that are not popular enough to make a blip on anyone else’s radar, and this makes her an outcast at Lawndale High School.
Daria’s immediate family consists of her workaholic mother, Helen (Wendy Hoopes), her neurotic father, Jake (Julian Rebolledo), and her vain younger sister, Quinn (Wendy Hoopes). Helen is a former hippie, current yuppie, and the family breadwinner as a corporate attorney. Essentially, she’s everything that Daria does not want to be: a sell-out. Jake is well-meaning but deeply emotionally-unstable as a result of his own upbringing, fluctuating constantly between being loving and having hostile outbursts. Quinn is actually quite intelligent but, unlike Daria, cares more about popularity and social capital than anything else and throughout the series, she willing takes on the arduous task of pretending to be something she’s not in order to keep her crown as Lawndale High’s queen bee.
In Daria’s family as well as her teachers and classmates, we run the spectrum of a variety of character, all who bring out the best and worst in one another, Daria, and themselves, based on the situation. Through all the highs and lows, Daria has her best friend, Jane (Wendy Hoopes), and their friendship alone is reason enough to watch the series. Watching Daria and Jane’s unique banter (a slower, less pretentious, and more witty version of that between Lorelai and Rory on Gilmore Girls) was damn near inspirational. Daria and Jane were rare examples in the 90s of two girls who were sincerely best friends, not catty frenemies out to get one another, or social climbers clocking each other’s movements in order to go up in the ranks. Daria and Jane were outcasts together, their ostracism from their classmates both testing and cementing a genuine camaraderie that sustained them through the most uncomfortable and ridiculous situations.
Daria was a refuge for every girl who took pride in being intelligent before being smart was trendy, for every girl who was told that her lack of designer labels determined how much respect she was entitled to, for every girl who was ever told to smile when she didn’t feel like it, and for every teenager just trying to forge their own way in a sea of conformity. Daria wasn’t up on all of the latest trends in clothing, music, or makeup, but she did have a very grounded sense of self and perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned during the series’ 5 year run is that being true to one’s self can be a very polarizing and lonely place to be.
Like many series and movies of the 90s, Daria had exactly one Black boy, one Black girl, and one Asian girl (see: Can’t Hardly Wait). But the Black girl in this case, Jodie Landon(Jessica Cyndee Jackson), was not your ordinary token and was surprisingly Woke™, often operating as the intersectional pin that burst Daria’s self-centered, White feminist delusions of oppression. Jodie, though bubbly, pretty, fashionable, and popular, was also smart (even more so than Daria), and (in her own way) was also trying her best to survive high school. In Jodie’s case, survival meant expertly navigating toxic Whiteness and trying to dodge rampant microaggressions. Portraying Jodie as the perfect package, do-it-all super girl served as a not-so-subtle reminder that only White girls get to be dejected, disinterested, and depressed. Had Jodie (or any Black girl) ever behaved like Daria, she would have had “an attitude problem”. Jodie brings much needed perspective to Daria and her character, though secondary, was definitely not wasted, and illustrated to our protagonist that nonconformity is a luxury.
Daria is nostalgic, honest, unique, hilarious, and will surely go down in history as one of the best animated series in American history, and rightly so. Though dated now, I doubt there will ever be a generation without Darias, Janes, Jodies, and even Quinns: just teenage girls trying their best to make it through the most character-building years in a young girl’s life. I give this one 5 stars.