Friday, September 7, 2012

MTV's Daria: Its One Great Miss (Cont'd)

It struck me that the title could be construed to suggest that Daria itself was MTV's one great miss.  On the contrary, Daria was the best series to come out of MTV.  I would even venture to say that its very existence almost makes up for MTV's other drek.  Almost.

So after I built up the show so well in the last post, what was it that was Daria's great miss?  Well, for a show that managed to create such complex characters and a high schooler who was unique, yet to whom we could all relate, Daria never really seemed to get high school.

It is far from the only show to miss in that respect.  Saved By the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210 divided the school into Popular Kids and Everyone Else.  Occasionally an unknown character might pop up to "school" the Popular Kids about the Specialness of other students, but that person usually vanished by the next episode.  Buffy acknowledged the unpopular kids, to the extent that they really were unpopular, but the rest of the school was filled with affable nerds -- when they weren't turning into demons -- and comical popular people like Cordelia Chase.

The unpopular kids either did not exist, or, as shown on Buffy, they were the "cool" kids whom everyone would love to join if only they knew what they were really up to.  There is some truth to both perspectives -- I'm sure most popular kids really are not at all aware of the unpopular kids, and unpopular kids do all kinds of objectively "cool" activities.  However, despite the fact that Buffy speaks of the persecution of unpopular kids, except for one or two scenes of Willow being taunted, the viewer never really sees it.  In that sense, I actually find the Saved By the Bell universe to be more believable, since I'm sure many popular kids think of themselves as sensitive and caring, while doing very little to show it.

Since Daria purports to tell high school from the perspective of an unpopular person, I was expecting to really remember what that felt like.  The callous looks; the whispers behind your back; the "friendly" questions that contained hidden barbs; the crank calls; the refusal to pick you in gym class; the cretins who sometimes bellowed out sexual slurs as you walked past.  You didn't have to experience these often to experience them, and I'm pretty sure I experienced them all.  Yet oddly enough, Daria didn't.

Daria's "antagonists" were Kevin Thompson and Brittany Taylor, who were supposed to represent everything that was wrong with high school.  They were vapid, popular, cared little about substance, and routinely dismissed Daria.  But wait!  Despite this, neither Kevin nor Brittany was actually very... mean.  Already in the second episode, Brittany was inviting Daria to her house party.  ("You're not popular, but you're not so unpopular that I couldn't invite you to my party Saturday night.")  By Season Three, Brittany was giving Daria encouraging words through the door of a bathroom stall.  Kevin wasn't quite as generous, but he also never teased Daria or made intentionally derogatory comments.  Instead, he and Brittany routinely approached Daria and Jane in public, called them by their correct names, and seemed to genuinely respect them on some level.  So much for being Daria's high school persecutors.

The only other popular people in Daria and Jane's class, with whom they regularly interacted, were Jodie Landon and Michael "Mack" MacKenzie.  Jodie and Mack, aka the Only Other Intelligent Teens at Lawndale High, were far closer to being Daria's allies than adversaries.  They never had trouble approaching Daria in public and talking to her with respect.  In fact, Jodie sometimes went out of her way to get Daria and Jane to join activities, even asking Daria to be her partner for an economics project.

So there was no one on Daria's grade level who teased her or laughed behind her back.  What about the other grade levels?  One grade below her, Daria's most obvious antagonist was her sister, Quinn.  The Quinn of Season One, and possibly all the way through Season Four, would have made nasty comments about unpopular people and even laughed at them in their presence.  She did make some nasty comments to Daria, usually along the lines of "Go away!  I hate you!  You're so unpopular and unattractive!"  No doubt hearing those comments from her own sister was painful for Daria.  Yet I also think that having Daria's main antagonist be her sister neutralized some of the impact.  First, some of what Quinn said could hardly be distinguished from what any sibling might say to another when they attended the same school.  Second, Daria had the opportunity to get even with Quinn in ways that would not have been possible were they not related.  Take, for instance, her response to Quinn's comment in "The New Kid" that she had received 2,500 hits on her webpage: Daria shut the door and started hitting Quinn.  Imagine Veronica Sawyer being able to do that to Heather Chandler every time Heather got on Veronica's nerves -- maybe then she would not have resorted to more drastic measures.  Finally, Quinn being Daria's sister meant that the things Daria said and did actually influenced Quinn, to the point of making Quinn a nicer, deeper-thinking person as the series progressed.

In addition, I should point out that even Quinn at her meanest was less intent on humiliating Daria than on simply making her go away.  Had their paths never crossed, I doubt Quinn would have wasted a moment of energy on Daria.

If Quinn, the main antagonist, was neutralized, then who was left to make Daria's high school a meaner place?  The Fashion Club could have picked up the slack, especially Sandi Griffin, the president.  Spoiled, vapid, vain, and nasty, Sandi was the embodiment of the high school Mean Girl even more than Quinn.  Countless fanfics (including some of my own) were devoted to building her up as a nemesis for Daria and Jane.  But the "clash of the titans" never occurred: Sandi was far more intent on keeping Quinn down than on making Daria's life a living hell.  When she did encounter Daria, Sandi was intimidated.  She could hardly get three words out when she went to ask for Daria's help in "Quinn the Brain."  Nemesis indeed.  And once Daria decided to make Stacy Rowe a nice person and Tiffany Blum-Deckler too stupid to tie her own shoes, the Fashion Club lost whatever threatening quality it might have had.       

To sum up, the popular students at Daria's high school did not tease or humiliate her.  Instead, they spoke to her willingly, respected her to the point of being intimidated, and even tried to involve her in activities.  At the very worst, Daria was ignored, or Kevin and Brittany insulted her without realizing that they had done so.  Quinn, Daria's biggest antagonist, was neutralized by being Daria's sister and by becoming a nicer person throughout the series.

It is not as though I expected Daria to suffer Welcome to the Dollhouse levels of persecution.  That isn't necessarily a typical high school experience, either.  But to go through high school without any painful moments of humiliation at the hands of another student?  Even for only a few minutes?  It just does not ring true.  Why go to the trouble of making Daria so alienated and so misanthropic, only to have her glide through high school?  Why make Daria sensitive to injustice and not present any real injustice, apart from Ms. Li's machinations?

If there is one word that I would use to describe Daria's high school experience, it is "comfortable."  Which is the one thing that high school is not.  Since Daria's writers have shown that they are capable of presenting nuance, it would have been nice to see an edgier version of Lawndale High.  A version that was a little less safe, where Daria had a few more antagonists who were not just fish-in-a-barrel for her verbal putdowns.  The writers did not do this, though, and that was their one great miss. 



  1. Uuuhhhh, no other comments? Ok, ill respond. I appreciate analysis, usually, however in this case, hm. The point was to introduce the outcast archetype while retaining accessibility. If everyone is mean to daria then she's somewhat less than human, less than a person. How do you identify with someone who's being treated cruelly all the time? Id also take into account that she's the new girl, she didn't grow up with these people (like I did in high school). Why would you have tremendous animosity against someone you don't know? It really seems, tending by the last episode, that she went through hell before the show starts. It seems she actually had a friend at lawndale that understood her for the first time. It actually seems like lawndale is somewhat of a godsend for her, near the end of her k-12 education, a lucky anomaly. Her true adversary was probably that camp counselor, pushing her into a lake and stuff and losing her glasses.

    1. No one said she had to be treated cruelly all the time, you know. It's just that for someone like her to essentially coast through high school, doing as little as possible, isn't realistic at all. It makes her line to Tom pre-Kiss about being a total outcast (something she claimed she'd know she'd become when she moved to Lawndale) utterly absurd. And the fact that the Kiss didn't end up making her reviled and teased at school for doing something even Quinn wouldn't do (not to mention proving how much of a two faced hypocrite she was) just drives home the point.

      Daria works as a side character, but she fails hard as a protagonist. The show's basically the equivalent of somebody shooting fish in a barrel, and so many characters like Aunt Amy and Marianne are so underused that it's criminal.

      For me, it's so bad, it's good. It DOES have its moments, sure, but I never lost sight of how bad it was. Now King of the Hill, there's a show that did it right. That one episode of Bobby as a mascot stealing the armadillo nailed the school experience better than all seasons of Daria combined.

  2. But I really appreciate the blog, and you bringing the subject up, food for thought. Makes me think you should try to write your own version of it. What happens if daria's peer continuously tear her down, does she even survive that? The show of cruel, isn't that real world? Isn't that what made daria stand out, was identifiability, bringing up a subject that had never been tackled in such a way before (the life of the single, isolated person in a sea of people who supposedly communicate gleefully, amicably, cheerfully). I can't think of a similar character. It sounds like you want her to be the fat guy from full metal jacket, and that guy ends up in a very bad way.
    What's cool about daria is it isn't twin peaks, there's no major nemesis. I know I didn't have one main nemesis in high school. your idea sounds like 80s movies, like heathers, or pretty in pink. What daria gets right is the breakfast club outsider feel, but being all inclusive to everyone. In real life there's no black and white villain, just people trying to live their lives.

    You mentioned a big miss. For me that would be the inability for the show to explore a gay relationship between daria and jane, but I'm not writing any threatening letters or anything.

    1. Daria is nowhere even close to the Breakfast Club. If it was, Jane would've been like Bender.

      As for the big misses, there's so many more than that, such as how Daria never got called out on her BS, how Trent basically gets away with letting Tom break his sister's heart, how Jodie/Jane never went Frank Grimes on Daria's spoiled ass, and how characters like Aunt Amy and Amelia were so underused because "muh love triangle" was much more important.

      If you want realism in your animated shows, go to King of the Hill. Luanne Platter - that's what Daria should've been like. Somebody who went through a lot, but nevertheless tried her best to make do. Hell, I'd consider Daria no better than the bums who squatted in her house in that roommate episode.

      Catchy theme song, though.

  3. Thanks for your insights, jeff!

    Most of the conversation about this blog post (and other Daria-related stuff) can be found at the Paperpusher Message Board:

  4. Articles like this point out just how much Daria is the textbook definition of wasted potential. They could've sone SO MUCH MORE with the show.

    Hell, when Daria says what edgy is, she was basically admitting IMHO what MTV was doing by giving her show airtime at all. Her whole character was, in itself, a corporate master plan designed to bilk money from the youth culture.