You’re (Still) Standing On My Neck: Daria 20 Years Later
“I don’t have low self-esteem… I have low esteem for everyone else,” Daria Morgendorffer announced on March 3rd, 1997, instantly securing her place in the firmament of the decade’s teen culture. Over the five seasons and two movies that followed on MTV, she served as a mouthpiece for a generation looking into the dawn of the new millennium and declaring, “Whatever.” But unlike car phones, the TGIF lineup, or a tattered Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour shirt, Daria not only holds up after 20 years, but offers more depth than ever when seen through the rear-view.
Daria was a Beavis and Butt-Head spin-off (something referenced exactly once, in the first episode), but without any direct involvement from that show’s mastermind, Mike Judge (whose own follow-up project, King of the Hill, debuted on Fox just two months earlier). Given free reign, Daria co-creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis crafted a perfect counterpoint to B&B-H’s manic vulgarity with their sardonically monotone, underappreciated overachiever of a heroine. It was a show for the proud outcasts, designed to reaffirm the disaffected. "Yes," it said, "you are smarter than the jocks and the cheerleaders. Your parents are selfishly too wrapped up in their careers to understand you. Your friendship with that one peer you trust is worth infinitely more than your sibling's vapid popularity."
Where other shows targeting the same demographic were content to pander to them into adulthood, Daria went on to deliver a swerve that was downright subversive. "You're not wrong," it said to the audience that saw themselves in its protagonist, "but you’re not perfect. Sometimes, you’re downright awful." As the series progressed, Daria learned, one awkward lesson at a time, how to be the best version of herself without compromising her principles. She had to confront the ways in which her rigid standards hurt herself (as when her concern over making a statement by switching to contacts left her stumbling blindly), or others (when Daria's reluctance to support Jane’s “selling out” by joining the track team endangered their friendship), or where her disdain was actually a lack of empathy (when Jodie explained to Daria that not caring what others think of you isn’t a luxury afforded to the only black girl at Lawndale High).
Even her relationships with her chronically clueless parents and insidiously shallow sister, Quinn, warmed as the show slowly revealed to us, and to Daria, what made them tick. When the final season opened with Daria frustrated that no one was standing up to the school’s buyout by a soda company, it was imparting the most important lesson it could to an adolescent audience about to leave high school: morals aren’t just a throne to elevate and isolate you, they’re the things you care about enough to get involved.
A Daria rewatch isn’t always pleasant. The Daria/Tom/Jane love triangle episodes are overwrought, an issue compounded by the fact that Tom is just the worst. But even that feels very true to the high school experience - flirtations are earth-shattering and most of us had a first relationship with someone entirely wrong for us. The show ties up its themes flawlessly, though, in the finale movie, Is It College Yet? Daria faces a decision between two schools, Jane confronts her fear of failure, and Quinn realizes her own potential. There is also a wonderful undercurrent in the show’s final stretch of its leading young women overcoming the mediocrity of the men in their lives; Daria decides she can have a better future than her father, Jane decides she can be more ambitious than her brother, and cheerleader Brittany decides she can do better than dating meathead quarterback Kevin forever.
A return trip through Lawndale is bound to be fraught with nostalgia, both for the culture of the turn of the millennium and for one’s own coming-of-age, but it can also serve as an important reminder of lessons we probably didn’t even realize, as teens, that we were learning, and may have forgotten since. Like visiting home decades later, it’s not quite the same, partly because all widely-available versions of the show have replaced the original wall-to-wall hit music with public domain sound-alikes (unpopular opinion: it’s actually a more satisfying experience without the constant inundation of radio singles), but it’s refreshing nonetheless. As a theoretical present-day Daria nears 40, she would likely look back on her animated teenage exploits with embarrassment but no regrets. She left TV with an address to her classmates full of advice that has aged rather well: “Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not ‘sort of the same thing’. And there’s no aspect, no facet, no moment of life that can’t be improved with pizza.”
Well said, Daria.