Before Beyonce beamed the word “FEMINIST” to viewers at the Video Music Awards and Sheryl Sandberg told women to lean in if we didn’t want to lose out, there was Daria Morgendorffer, two-dimensional proof that girls owe the world nothing but the force of their brilliant, wise-cracking selves.
Daria, a cult animated series that ran between 1997 and 2001 (and given new life on SBS 2 and SBS On Demand), was created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis after MTV pushed for a brainy female corrective to Beavis and Butt-head. But Daria and her best friend Jane, an artist whose deadpan wit (and killer bob) I envied for most of the '90s, were also a corrective to a culture in which teenage girls are radically underestimated.
Sure, I wished I could slay bad guys like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy or be as universally adored as 90210’s Kelly (Jennie Garth) but it was this pair of Lawndale High misfits that showed me that I didn’t have to stuff myself into the cultural boxes offered me. It gave me permission to be weird and complicated and question everything, even if it was just for 30 minutes after school.
Unlike her bouncy-haired sister Quinn, who’s forever trailed by a trio of adoring jocks (the comically interchangeable Joey, Jeffy and Jamie), Daria knows that her bookishness disqualifies her from the cruel lottery of high-school popularity and couldn’t care less.
In “Esteemsters”, the first-ever episode, the sisters, who’ve just relocated to Lawndale, are forced to take a psychological test and although Quinn gives a textbook answer, Daria tells the school counsellor, Mrs Manson, that the people-shaped ink blots are “a herd of beautiful ponies running free across the plains".
She’s sent to self-esteem class where she meets Jane, whose friendship, despite an unlikely season-five plot twist in which they fight over a guy, is also the show’s greatest romance.
“I think what our society teaches young girls ... is the idea that likeability is an essential part of you ... that you’re supposed to twist yourself in shapes to make yourself likeable,” said writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during a speech at the 2015 Girls Write Now Ceremony.
Throughout the show, Daria and Jane, who hatch a plot to graduate from the class early, are co-conspirators who refuse to please others or be punished for critical thinking. They don’t pander to the pressure to be likeable but it’s okay because they like each other.
And in a culture that considers the phrase “you’re smart for a girl” a high compliment, Daria is just unabashedly smart.
In season one’s “This Year’s Model”, Ms Li, the principal of Lawndale High (a character whose role as an Orientalist schemer is an aspect of the show that now feels seriously uncomfortable) invites two hawkish fashion scouts from a New York modelling agency to recruit students in exchange for a fee.
“Isn't modelling about dropping out of school to pursue a career based solely on your youth and your looks, both of which are inevitably declared over by age 25?” deadpans Daria, who - later in the episode - shuts down the scouts’ interest in her pouty disposition with “I can’t take my glasses off, I need them to see scam artists”.
Over a decade before Twitter saw calling something out become the fastest way for progressives to earn brownie points, Daria’s knack for skewering cultural assumptions prove that the rewards are inbuilt when you’re brave enough to tell the truth.
People who grew up in the '90s either loved or loathed Daria and her biting sarcasm and conspicuous lack of glamour is wildly out of sync with a moment that worships at the alter of empowerment and whose feminist icons are always glossy, accessible and well-liked.
But if, like me, you believe that the feminist progress badly needs to make room for the weird outliers among us, then Daria Morgendorffer is your girl.
Daria airs Monday - Thursday at 5:35pm on SBS 2. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Missed the last episode? Watch it right here: