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Why I Could Give Two Hot Fucks About the Loss of Daria

July 22, 2010

Marisa Meltzer wrote an interesting and engaging piece analyzing television’s erasure of smart, funny female teen characters. While it is certainly true the absence of characters like Daria or Angela Chase is quite the bummer, it’s pretty much only a bummer for the females with the lived experiences these characters reflect: white, straight, upper middle class, educated, able bodied, cisgendered females. Daria, My So Called Life, Sassy and Riot Grrrl were all a part of the pop culture landscape during my late teens and early twenties, yet it was pretty clear they weren’t meant to reflect or include me. At best marginalized folks were presented as learning opportunities or tokens; at worst our existence was completely erased. Whenever I encounter this kind of analysis, I’m so confused. Characters like Daria aren’t any more nuanced; they’re just informed as such because of their race, gender, class and ability status. Any marginalized character possessing Daria’s personality and level of whine-age would be swiftly told to buy a ladder and get the fuck over themselves.

While I enjoyed Daria – because it was funny, only engaging in low level -ism fail – I didn’t understand what the hell Daria was whining about half the time. High school definitely sucks, but I bet it sucked a lot more for Juin Baize who was bounced out of the same high school as Constance McMillan. The way high school sucks definitely depends on where one finds themselves in relation to the kyriarchy. More importantly, for anyone possessing the level of privilege Daria enjoys, the experience of suck will be temporary. No doubt the Darias of the world move past the banalities – her chief complaint – of high school and into an adult world where they will be able to enjoy the full benefit of their class, race, ability and gender privilege. Whatever disappointments and reversals of fortunes experienced in high school will be swiftly forgotten as they are embraced by whatever highly selective, private liberal arts college they attend.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the deification of Daria is this: she whined tremendously without lifting a finger to dismantle the systems she found so distasteful. Again, marginalized folks, devoid of the level of privilege as Daria tend to engage in a lot more direct action, despite not having anything approximating the level of power Daria’s privileges afforded her! Marginalized folks don’t have the luxury of sitting around whining about low level problems, which are largely self created. Other than identifying the ways in which other people were problematic, what exactly did Daria do to facilitate real change? I realize, this dynamic is not exclusive to Daria, but since she’s been framed the blueprint of the kind of teenage girl character television ought reinvigorate, it’s a valid question to consider. Celebrating the kind of unexamined privilege possessed by this character and passing it off as something television needs more is really baffling. With or without alterna framing don’t we have enough characters like this?

Daria didn’t go away. She became Liz Lemon. She became every white, straight, upper middle class, cisgendered, able bodied female blogger afforded a platform to lament the loss of another representation of themselves. Instead of mourning the loss of another white, upper middle class, cisgendered, able bodied straight female character – in a television landscape riddled with them – why not actively work to create a television landscape reflecting the diverse lived experiences of all teenage girls, with characters who reflect the best qualities of Daria – smarts, wit and moxie.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 4:23 pm

    thank you for, once again, snapping me out of my reverie. a lot of things that i loved in the past have gone unexamined as i’ve educated myself about the isms and such. they live in a sort of “halcyon days” spot in my brain, where i THOUGHT i was educated and smart and progressive, but was pretty much daria with less money. i don’t LIKE having them put into a harsh light, but it’s necessary so i don’t find myself making an asinine, uninformed argument in a later discussion.

    it’s not your job to do it, but i appreciate it VERY much.

  2. A Sarah permalink
    July 22, 2010 4:27 pm

    Great post!

    Children are bouncing and yelling all around me so forgive me if this is nonsensical. Reading this I started thinking about the differences between Daria (whom I only watched a few times) and another straight, white, able-bodied, cis teenage girl, Hermione Granger. And about how Hermione did sort of try to lift a finger to help the house elves — in the earnest and condescending way that my demographic often tries to “help the less fortunate and oppressed” — but this effort was mostly played to comic effect, as interpreted by the male protagonists. I don’t recall much criticism of Hermione’s condescension, it was more just the eye-rolling about Hermione’s bossy earnestness being a distraction from the really important goings-on. And of course, there wasn’t a whole lot about the house elves’ subjectivity at all. But both Daria and Hermione these are two characters that as an overachieving, nerdy, very very privileged white girl/woman I was meant to find relatable.

  3. A Sarah permalink
    July 22, 2010 4:28 pm

    ^ *which* I only watched a few times, rather.

  4. July 22, 2010 4:40 pm

    But both Daria and Hermione these are two characters that as an overachieving, nerdy, very very privileged white girl/woman I was meant to find relatable.

    Yes. To be clear, I find both characters a lot more useful than lots of other characters who are meant to appeal to young women and girls. Though with Daria I always found her judgmental and self righteous attitude – when in theory she wasn’t a lot better than any other character – a bit much. And I didn’t get the sense my framing of Daria was the intention of the show’s creator.

    The main issue is all this really marginalizing pop culture is enjoying a wave of nostalgia without any real analysis of its problematic elements, which suggests either the folks caught in the nostalgia don’t realize it did contain problematic elements or worse, they don’t care.

    Again, there’s privilege in being able to ignore the way in which pop culture marginalizes some folks as long as it’s not overtly problematic.

  5. July 22, 2010 4:45 pm

    …i THOUGHT i was educated and smart and progressive, but was pretty much daria with less money

    That’s my point too. Daria’s class privilege very much informed her experiences, enabling her to pick and choose – something not afforded to folks devoid of class privilege – what kinds of problems she focused on. One might argue that’s true of all teens, but honestly, some teens from marginalized backgrounds probably would find her “problems” refreshing.

  6. July 22, 2010 4:59 pm

    Can I just say thank you for writing this? There’s so much 90s nostalgia happening these days, and I’m finding that so little of it that was actually part of my life.

    “Daria didn’t go away. She became Liz Lemon. “

    This is so true.

    I was well into my twenties when Daria hit, and only a casual watcher. I’m white, but far from middle class, and only watching it now do I see it as more than just, “Oh, I was too old for this.” The only TV character I sort of identified with was Darlene Connor from Roseanne. In retrospect, I don’t know is she was more nuanced (Darlene was definitely whiny), but she did try to carve out her own way without a lot of resources.

  7. July 22, 2010 5:08 pm

    While I loved Daria as a teenager, I realized even then that in real life she would be a thoroughly unpleasant person – unless you were Jane, and thus afforded the privilege of joining her on her high horse. In that sense, and in the whining-without-lifting-a-finger sense, I think Daria and Jane are a very similar duo to Enid and Rebecca in the movie Ghost World. The only difference is that the audience is meant to find Enid and Rebecca repellent – as they themselves end up finding each other repellent – whereas, as you point out, we’re supposed to related uncritically to Daria and Jane.

    One of my favorite Daria moments took place in the Grove Hills episode, in which Daria actually lets her guard down and makes a relatively candid, unsarcastic comment to Jodie: “Maybe I do miss out on some stuff, but this attitude is what works for me now.” Of course, it’s still framed in ME ME ME terms – not “my attitude ultimately perpetuates the system it seeks to criticize,” but “my attitude might not be totally beneficial to ME.” MEEEE!

  8. July 22, 2010 5:18 pm

    (And then I scrolled down and noticed you just wrote about Ghost World, hooray!)

    Also, this

    but honestly, some teens from marginalized backgrounds probably would find her “problems” refreshing.

    is pretty much what Jodie points out to Daria in the Grove Hills episode. Seems to be one of the series’ brief moments of semi-clarity.

  9. July 22, 2010 5:21 pm

    I loved Jodie. She always made me laugh. She was so freaking earnest and sweet. I totally loved those qualities in her. Though of course she was the “model minority”. Well one of them.

  10. July 22, 2010 5:28 pm

    The only TV character I sort of identified with was Darlene Connor from Roseanne. In retrospect, I don’t know is she was more nuanced (Darlene was definitely whiny), but she did try to carve out her own way without a lot of resources.

    I LOVE DARLENE!!! I didn’t see her simply as whiny, but really complex. She was cynical, but it seemed to be realistically informed by her lived experiences as a working class person. There were real challenges in the Connor household, that needed to be dealt with in between being a teenage girl and dealing with all of dramedy accompanying it.

    Even Angela Chase started to question herself and upbringing because of her friends whose lived experiences were decidedly different than hers. She sort of noticed the inequities between them.

  11. hsofia permalink
    July 23, 2010 12:05 am

    I think I saw one episode of My So-Called Life, and did watch Daria a little bit. I thought Daria was fine for a teenager, but she was not someone I looked up to or wanted to be like. The most memorable thing about the show for me was that the dad on Daria looks just like the dad from Malcolm in the Middle!

  12. July 23, 2010 12:55 am

    Ha. Daria’s dad always made me laff. His voice was really funny, like he was always really excited about whatever he was saying.

  13. Octavia permalink
    July 23, 2010 5:07 am

    I saw a few episodes, but it didn’t screen much here (and NZ broadcasting has always had a very loose commitment to screening series in full or in order unless they’re the current super popular shows). Daria seemed a pretty accurate depiction of a multi-privileged teenager who didn’t have any actual problems (happy home life etc) yet has decided to Hate The World (TM) anyway because it didn’t, I don’t know, kiss her feet or something (which as you point out it would once she grew up a bit and took on her Proper Role in white society). And there’s never been any *actual* lack of whiney privileged people on TV.

    I liked it because it was a bit different to the other stuff on here at the time in terms of look, but it wasn’t in terms of plot. From what I saw she came off as basically unlikeable, but some of the other characters were more interesting. It makes me think of the few episodes I’ve seen of ‘American Dad’ where Mr White Privilege Stan does always ‘win’ in that he’ll usually get his way by the end of the episode and everything will be restored to rich white normal without him changing his views or behaviours, but we’re invited to laugh *at* him as the stereotype of a wealthy white man in a position of power, and at how out of touch his family is too (not that I find this show particularly noteworthy or even likeable, but this reminded me of it). But ‘Daria’ always felt like we were only invited to support Daria’s self-absorbed misanthropic (and incredibly childish, though I guess – teenager!) point of view, and not question it. There seemed to be no self-awareness on the part of the show.

    I hope this makes any kind of sense, I’m all cold woozy.

  14. July 23, 2010 8:23 am

    I’m not a sociologist, so I’m treading on shaky ground here… but I’m interested in how adults portray teenage rebellion, particularly in media directed back at teenagers.

    When teenagers are pampered and privileged — and I’m guilty of doing that with my own — I think there’s a tendency on their part to manufacture difficulties to be overcome; maybe teenage brains need conflict in order to continue to develop.

    I think the adults who create these shows clearly want to constrain the dissatisfied behavior into “safe” outlets, like raging against the social order, rather than making a serious challenge against their parents’ values.

  15. July 23, 2010 9:23 am

    Octavia, your post makes perfect sense! I definitely didn’t notice any self awareness on the part of the show’s creators and I really wonder if those who think there deserve to be more Darias on TV are missing that point.

  16. July 23, 2010 12:22 pm

    Kathy mentioned Darlene Connor and it reminded me of how I always thought Daria was like a Cliff’s Notes version of Darlene. I still remember being really moved by the period of time on the show when Darlene was depressed and wore a lot of black clothing. I think on the surface it read as usual teen crankiness/rebelliousness. But given that the Connor’s were a struggling working class family – something that would make any kid feel a bit out of place in the world in certain ways – and then Darlene was the black sheep of that family, it had a lot of resonance and depth in my opinion. Whereas Daria always seemed whiny and one note.

    I think this post is fantastic, by the way. And I love your assertion that Daria grew up to be Liz Lemon. 30 Rock cracks me up, no doubt, but I have been a bit worn out on all of the Tina Fey worshiping given how many interviews I’ve read where she’s said really essentialist stuff about gender and really anti-sex worker stuff.

  17. Leah permalink
    July 23, 2010 4:01 pm

    I have more Beavis and Butthead nostalgia than I do Daria nostalgia (for better or worse, getting high and making commentary about music videos with a friend remains one of my favorite activities), the only thing I really remember about Daria is loving the dad and crushing on Jane, though I do oddly enough still get the dad’s Daria The Musical song stuck in my head sometimes…

    But the notion that Daria grew up to be Liz Lemon puts a new image in my head because I always imagine the teenaged Liz Lemon to be Taylor Swift in the “You Belong to Me” video – some pretense of dorky intelligence on a very normative body that resents men for being with the “less intelligent” girls and not her. So does that mean that version of TS is a manifestation of Daria in my own mind? I’ll have to think about that! Tina Fey has been anti-feminist on a very 101 level for me ever since she had to resolve the Mean Girls character who everyone thought was a dyke by making sure we knew she wasn’t. I sometimes enjoy 30 Rock for other reasons, but Liz Lemon could never have a woman friend who she didn’t have a condescending relationship to because it would threaten her position as “intelligent lady with a adorable affectation of awkwardness.”

    As for My So-Called Life, I do think, as you note in comments, the “teenage angst” thing had an interesting dynamic to a world of actual problems. Sometimes these representations were quite typical (like Juliana Hatfield as the homeless lady), but I DO remember, as a queer kid, Ricky meaning something to me.

  18. July 23, 2010 6:09 pm

    As for My So-Called Life, I do think, as you note in comments, the “teenage angst” thing had an interesting dynamic to a world of actual problems. Sometimes these representations were quite typical (like Juliana Hatfield as the homeless lady), but I DO remember, as a queer kid, Ricky meaning something to me.

    I’ve never forgotten the first time I saw the Xmas episode with Juliana Hatfield. So incredible.

  19. Alibelle permalink
    July 25, 2010 8:20 pm

    I don’t know if I agree with the lack of self awareness thing. I just rewatched every episode of Daria and the movies and I have to argue that they constantly pointed out through other characters that Daria whined a shit ton and never ever did anything to fix what she was whining about. Jane was constantly getting fed up with Daria, Trent would sometimes teach Daria a “very important lesson” about how much she whined and overlooked what other people were going through.

    Jodie was obviously the one that most often gave Daria a talking to, which feeds into the Good Minority thing, but they acknowledged that constantly, constantly. That’s what really struck me about her character because she was perfect, but it wasn’t a “token black character who must be perfect to appease the minorities watching” thing. She was so stressed and upset throughout the whole series because her parents pushed her so hard and because she knew what was expected of her as a black woman. There was an episode where her and Mac were homecoming King and Queen and she wanted to boycott in a way by refusing to wave during the parade until she saw a black girl in the crowd and she felt pushed to set an example for her.

    I definitely agree that it’s all white upper class cisgendered representations of high school. They had one gay character in the movie that was meant to end the show and they made her look like a total asshole who forced herself on straight women claiming that her gaydar was never ever off. That pissed me off and I was extremely disappointed that Jane and Daria never hooked up because I was really hoping for that. And we need more “deep” characters, because Daria is another character that just fits a well used mold, it may be better than others and slightly less used, but it’s a flat character that still alienates most of the people it’s supposed to be so great for. But, I think the show was pretty self aware, they were just making the show that they had wanted as teenagers and one I needed as a teenager.

    I think we end up stagnating with Daria and Liz Lemon and not aiming for something better because we view them as the best it’s gonna get or something. However, until we get better characters and shows, I am upset by the loss of any “outsider” characters and the fact that nothing is coming up to replace them. Right now, what my 13 year old cousin has to look up to is fucking Bella Swan and I can guarantee that’s not setting her up to create things that are worthwhile. That’s not challenging her, making her think or making her more sensitive. So when she takes her place as a pretty white girl with power, she’s not gonna be making anything better. Daria and Liz Lemon might encourage the people in power to push for something even better.

  20. July 25, 2010 9:49 pm

    I don’t know if I agree with the lack of self awareness thing. I just rewatched every episode of Daria and the movies and I have to argue that they constantly pointed out through other characters that Daria whined a shit ton and never ever did anything to fix what she was whining about. Jane was constantly getting fed up with Daria, Trent would sometimes teach Daria a “very important lesson” about how much she whined and overlooked what other people were going through.

    Yes, but nobody kicked her to the curb, which seem to suggest a degree of tolerance on their part.

  21. Hig permalink
    July 26, 2010 12:20 pm

    Alibele – I agree with your points, regarding Daria. I think the show’s writers tried to show that Daria was a spoiled brat. This doesn’t take anything away from your post, Snarky, which was fab. It gave me a lot to consider.

  22. hsofia permalink
    July 28, 2010 1:00 pm

    Surely, Bella Swan is not the only teenage white girl character in popular culture! When I was a teenager I had lots of other teenage girl characters (white) to look up to. Some of them weren’t contemporary (Nancy Drew, for example), but they were … sadly, all white (I’m not). I think today there are even more!

  23. Miguel permalink
    July 28, 2010 3:52 pm

    Great post.

    I think a major issue with the way adolesence is seen in popular culture and is experienced by those who are privilidged, is how despite being aware of and whining about shit in the world, there is a lot of complacency with the way things are.

    Daria has a comfortable life, and though she criticizes it, she makes no effort to change things because she’s comfortable. What troubles me a lot about being a teenager nowadays is how the awareness and criticism of society’s failings that has been a part of privilidged adolescence since Catcher and Rye has not manifested itself in any desire for change in my generation. So many people in my school are insular in the way they view the world; the problems in society don’t matter so much as their own comfort in the suburban island they live in. We have been indoctrinated into a culture of apathy and meaningless irony, where sincere convictions or display of emotions are uncool and making the appearance of apathy becomes the center of life.

    That the privelidged youth are aware of the countless isms in society, are empowered and able to change things, yet have no interest in it is alarming. I dunno. I feel like the idealization of charecters like Daria, or the countless other cynical yet complacent teenagers on television who’s own concern for the world doesn’t extend beyond what are seen as being only ‘teenage issues’ is incredibly harmful. I feel like in the media presented view of a suburban, middle class, privilidged high school, those who exist in the ‘mainstream’ are vapid and complacent, and those who are outsiders, while aware of the vapidity, are completely complacent in it, without any attention called to that complacency being a negative thing. This is clear in Daria. I’m trying to think of young charecters who DO have sincere convictions and DO act on them, and all I can come up with is Huey from the Boondocks, but I’m not sure if he’s someone that’s looked up to the same way Daria is, and that show has plenty of its own fail.

    I desperately want a show aimed at teenagers that has charecters who reject the wallowing, or the complacency, or the apathy and ACT.

  24. Metal Prophet permalink
    July 30, 2010 12:08 am

    Daria is the sort of show I identified with growing up in a fairly privileged background. I was a teenager at the time, so I was about as good as my own perspectives. I suspect this was the case of Daria and I suspect this is something the writers of the show were not unaware of. From her perspective, her world was filled with popularity and fashion-obsessed kids and hypocritical and pushy adults that she didn’t think she’d have a chance in hell to change. As an adult with more perspective about the world, I see her a good bit less sympathetically, though I must say, I reject the whole “think of the starving children in Africa” approach. The idea that because there’s always someone worse off than you are, your own problems are not relevant and you need to STFU. And, as far as corporate TV goes, you’re not going to see a whole lot of shows from a poor, queer, or a minority perspective, so Daria was about as good as it was going to get. Finally, as the show went on, I think Daria did evolve as a character. She got a lot more tolerant of people around her that she’d initially dismissed as idiots and reached out more. I think that’s the evolution that a lot of people have as they turn 18 or so. They start realizing the world is more in shades of gray.

  25. July 30, 2010 1:03 am

    @Metal Prophet – critiquing pop culture messaging is definitely not on par with saying, “Think of the starving kids in Africa.” The lack of marginalized characters doesn’t make Daria anymore thoughtful or useful to the groups not reflected in the depiction of girlhood she represents. But I appreciate your thoughtful comment!

  26. Iris permalink
    August 5, 2010 9:45 am

    For all intents and purposes, I was Daria or Enid Coleslaw. Though I am fat and queer, I am white female who grew up in a privileged suburb and took Advanced Placement classes and spent a lot of time in my own head critiquing everything around me and being filled with misplaced rage at the “phonyness” and futility of the society I saw around me. I had a self-righteous attitude, and I can name MANY of my actions that bespoke complete obliviousness to how much privilege I held.I’m on a self-forgiving streak, though, so I’d rather not.
    My biggest problem seemed to be that though the school had recognized my verbal ability by placing me in advanced placement classes in English and History, my only average math skills had led to me being placed in “regular” math classes! OH, THE HORROR. If only the school could have recognized my true glory in ALL areas. The people I saw around me seemed to be all-around gifted, good looking, popular, good at sports (I couldn’t pass the presidential fitness test) and competent in ALL of their subjects. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was like the person who lives in a large, four-bedroom suburban house and envies their neighbor for having a pool. I didn’t know what it was like to grow up in the projects or to worry about what it was like to go without a meal, though moving to a city, making an income at the poverty line, and living and working in a working class neighborhood in my adult life has given me a lot more perspective.

    To give Daria some credit: upper class suburban high schools promote one model of success–excellent SAT scores, great grades, athletic ability, good looks, great social skills, and the financial stability that means that you have time to pad your resume after school in ways other than working for minimum wage. If you think about how marginalized I felt (and I met at least a few of those criteria, though certainly not all), then I can only imagine how the kids at my school who were more working class felt, or the kids of color, or the kids who were put in special ed. But when you are given one model of how the world works, and no one bothers to give you a different perspective, it can be hard to know where to put your energy. You’re a teenager, your parents are sheltering you, as far as you know the most important problems in the world are whether or not you’re going to get into an Ivy league school. When everyone around you seems to focused only on problems like this, it really would take having had a different life experience to know that there are other things to be worried about. But there is the budding of this strange awareness that there must be more to life than this. The bitterness grows, but since you don’t yet know why you are so bitter, you direct it at the popular kids. Daria simply doesn’t know any better, and it would be unfair to expect her to without first having had those experiences. Maybe with adulthood and a better perspective she would learn why she is so bitter. I think this is exactly why the show has the black overachiever character (I forgot her name) to act as a foil to Daria, but even that character is problematic, as commenters have pointed out above.

    My school was streamed in such a way that kids who were in AP classes were in all the same classes together, meaning that some of the other kids were completely invisible to us. We never had to interact with them if we didn’t want to. I guess the school was trying to mirror the way society works–the superachievers in a class of their own, living in metaphoric neighborhoods that are completely sheltered from some of the problems plaguing society. Maybe I was a little aware of how artificial and problematic it was, because I was one depressed, angry kid. But I felt completely powerless to change any of it. I think a lot of teenagers feel very powerless because society doesn’t give very much power to those under 18. And I think Daria, Enid and Rebecca are depictions of what can happen to a thoughtful teenager when their world doesn’t give them a lot of things to think about.

    I guess that if given the right perspectives and life experiences, Daria doesn’t have to become Liz Lemon. And as myopic as the “people are phony” perspective can seem to adult feminists, I think it’s important to remember that Daria is not supposed to be a revolutionary show that utterly changes the social structure and solves all the isms of the world. It’s a funny, snarky show on MTV. I love watching it when I’m looking for a trip down memory lane. It does offer commentary on gender roles and how out of place someone who does not conform to these gender roles can feel, but that’s about it when it comes to its contribution to social justice.

    I utterly agree that there need to be more feisty heroines from all backgrounds that can offer a more rich perspective on some of the problems life throws at people. Bonus points if they can face these problems with spunk and snark without retreating into an oppressed victim mentality. Daria is not the be all and end all, nor is it intended to be. We want more nuanced characters!

    But let’s be real here: I do miss Daria quite a lot.

  27. hsofia permalink
    August 6, 2010 11:13 am

    Iris – I liked your comment.

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