Two Decades of Daria: Unconventional Feminism

The MTV cartoon Daria just celebrated its 20th birthday not that long ago. I grew up on this Beavis and Butthead spin-off that took place in the fictional Lawndale High. Daria Morgendorffer was an angsty-filled teen who was comfortable with being at home with her books than out in public with her embarrassing parents and insufferable little sister. With her best friend, Jane Lane, they try to survive high school together.

Now, with the premise, there’s a lot I was able to enjoy. I was an awkward outcast who didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the community (until I found my own) but looking at the characters, there was a lot to like and there were some things that were problematic.

source This is Daria. She ends up being super cynical and bright but mostly just annoyed with the world around her. She starts out as super sympathetic in the series. She has a crush on her best friend’s older brother. She and her little sister are at odds. She just wants to be happy and make her parents proud of her. However, as the series goes on, she ends up with her best friend’s then boyfriend Tom, kissing him. This causes Daria and Jane to become estranged as Daria and Tom become closer. Towards the end of the series, Daria remembers a traumatic experience with her father, where she overhears her parents fighting about her, about her inability to get along with the other kids at school. This memory and the eventual cathartic bonding that happens with Daria and her mother Helen allows her to see her parents as human and allows Daria to come to terms with the fact that she’s asocial and that’s ok.

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This is Quinn, Daria’s younger and more popular sister. In the beginning of the series, she’s meant to be a foil towards Daria, being the materialistic vapid counterpart to Daria’s deep introspection. However, as the character develops, you see Quinn’s intelligence come through (that Daria’ does encourage) and Quinn’s selflessness grows as her initial selfishness shrinks. She ends the series leaving the Fashion Club as a means of learning who she is and as a chance to grow as the person she wants to be rather than the person that the Fashion Club expects her to be, but maintains the friendships she formed (specifically with Stacy who ends up standing up for herself after years of abuse from Sandi). She extends the olive branch to Daria by finally openly and loudly admitting that they are related (a running trope on the series was that Quinn would find excuses to explain why she’s with her sister ranging from being Quinn’s personal photographer to estranged cousin to cabana girl) to which everyone (except Sandi, who’s surprised by this) accepts because [they knew, they just didn’t want to embarrass Quinn].

The series goes on to feature strong female characters, such as the girls’ mother, Helen who is an ambitious lawyer who tried to balance work, love life and family. Jodi, the one black student overachiever who has to settle between following her father’s dreams and her own. Brittany, the bubbly cheerleader who is way way way smarter than she lets on because she knows to play the game to get what she wants. And the list goes on to Ms. Li, Jane and Ms. Barch.

I said earlier that the characters were problematic at times, and that’s because they were real. They spoke as multifaceted characters. There were times when Daria was straight up unlikable due to her own selfishness and ego (despite refusing to admit she has one) and Quinn was trying hard to be a person as opposed to the parody of a human she initially began as. You begin to fall in love with these characters and see yourself reflected in them because as the series grew, they grew. These strong characters who for the most part pass the Bechel test make feminism come out as a subtle force, these women are strong because they need to be and because they are.

They’re just as capable as any male character and that’s what made me love the series.

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