Daria Morgendorffer didn’t fit in at Lawndale High School. That’s OK, she didn’t want to. The sardonic teen had moved towns and shows, making the leap from Beavis and Butt-Head to the series that shared her name, but the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
A fresh beginning didn’t beckon. Rocketing up the social ladder wasn’t in her future. Rather, she found new classmates with the same mindsets as the heavy-metal loving duo she had left behind, and continued to wield the same sarcasm in response.
For five seasons and two television movies between 1997 and 2002, that was Daria’s lot in her animated life. She was immersed in adolescence and suburbia, but clearly, contentedly stood apart from her classmates and family. Wearing her cynicism and alienation not just on her sleeve but as prominently as her favoured green-jacketed outfit, Daria was fine with her place in the world — it was the world itself she oozed disdain for.
“I don't have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else,” she advised in the show’s first-ever episode. “I'm not miserable, I'm just not like them,” she offered at the end of its first season.
While that remained true onscreen as she lurked in corners watching her peers go through the usual teen party motions or sat at the family dinner table waxing wry as her attorney mother Helen, consultant father Jake and diva-like younger sister Quinn stressed over everyday inanities, off-screen it was a different matter. Daria mightn’t have been flesh and blood, but she had an army of kindred spirits watching her every move — donning their own skirt and combat boots combination, and with the same alternative soundtrack pumping through their headphones.
Welcome to Daria worship circa 1997. It wasn’t the best of times, but that’s simply because little about being a teenager could ever really fit that description, as Ms Morgendorffer would agree. Crucially, though, thanks to the droll observations and insights uttered in deadpan monotones from her animated lips, it was far from the worst of times. The acerbic, disaffected and alienated heard their inner thoughts given voice by their new unassuming hero — and I was one of them.
Watching Daria for the first time was like putting on the character’s coke-bottle glasses instead of my own thick-rimmed frames — where once the world looked blurry and grey, now a particular outlook came into sharp focus. Daria represented a perception that wasn’t often conveyed, at least not with such honesty and authenticity.
The importance of being yourself pops up in adolescent-centric films and television shows aplenty, as does the importance of persevering even when you don’t fit in, but gaining acceptance is still typically positioned as the end goal. Daria didn’t push that message. It reminded viewers that sticking out from the crowd wasn’t a detour — often, it’s both the journey and the destination.
The sound you don’t hear at the moment is the sound of everyone who has ever been 15 rolling their eyes at how self-evident that statement is. Still, knowing something to be true thanks to your own experience isn’t the same thing as seeing it reflected onscreen. In a viewing landscape filled with queen bees learning to relate to their less popular counterparts, outcasts finding their niche and fantasy endings for everyone, Daria presented reality rather than peddling an idyll. Both the character and the series struck a chord because they showed audiences what their life was, not just how they wished it could be.
That said, most of us didn’t fling witty barbs around regardless of the situation — the remarks and retorts Daria spoke usually just coursed through our heads. And most of us didn’t embrace the feeling of being out of sync with everyone around them — we didn’t know that was an option. We wanted to do both, and not only because we related to the scenarios Daria navigated or knew we had the same emotions jostling to be released as apathetic quips. We wanted to do all of that. But more than that, we wanted to be as comfortable standing out as the collection of lines and shapes we saw as our onscreen surrogate.
Feeling as though you were living Daria’s life was easy. Series creators, producers and writers Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis and their team gave audiences an immersive and empathetic social satire filled with figures everyone could recognise, from the eye-popping teacher seething with barely contained rage to the popular kids seemingly finding life a breeze to the moody but alluring older brother, Trent, of Daria’s best friend, Jane Lane.
And yet, as realistic as Daria was, she possessed one thing most teens watching didn’t. I certainly didn’t. She was OK with who she was, how she did — or didn’t — fit in and how the world saw her.
Of course, Daria wasn’t perfect. She faced challenges. She had worries. She made mistakes. Sometimes she learned from them and sometimes she didn’t. She had doubts and struggled with her worldview, often after learning more about the people around her.
Still, she understood who she was, even when she was plagued with conflict, wandering through a world she had no enthusiasm for and looking witheringly at everyone she knew. You didn’t have to share her music preferences or love of questionable news show Sick, Sad World to want to share that with her, too.
Indeed, it’s a testament to how fleshed-out Daria was that, revisiting her exploits two decades later, the same kinship still emanates. This year marks 20 years since Daria first graced screens, but, the now-nostalgia-inducing tunes aside, the show’s relevance remains.
As an adult, I’ve hopefully heeded her call by now, however, along with picking up a lifelong eye-rolling, sarcasm-spouting habit and a tendency to still pair skirts with boots, I’ve realised I’ll always want to walk in Daria’s footsteps. That’s not a case of arrested development or a desire to relive what certainly weren’t glory days, but recognition that watching someone embrace being themselves still remains rare — and important. And yes, it can be improved even more with pizza.
Watch Daria every Saturday night on SBS VICELAND at 6:45pm with double episodes.