Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MTV's Daria: Did the Writers Send the Wrong Message?

Since I'm on this animation kick, I might as well get something off of my chest that I've been thinking about for a while: is it possible that the creators of MTV's Daria sent the wrong message in the end?

Daria premiered on MTV in 1997 as the rare portrayal of a social outcast.  Not someone who was an "outcast" while looking and acting like a fashion model, but a genuine introvert with no interest in wider social approval.  The first season established a pattern where Daria Morgendorffer and her friend, Jane Lane, stood off to one side and criticized the activities that people their age were taught to embrace.

At the same time, these episodes -- frequently referred to as "fish in a barrel" episodes -- started to feel a little stale.  Were Daria and Jane really the only two smart ones in the city of Lawndale?  Were other people really so stupid?  And even if they were, would they just stand by, grinning vacantly, while getting insulted?  The only episode in which a popular person offered any pushback was "The Misery Chick," where visiting jock Tommy Sherman told Daria: "You're one of those misery chicks, always moping about what a cruel world it is, making a big deal about it so people won't notice you're a loser."  Minutes later, he died.

Given the stale quality of the first season, I was all in favor of Daria learning that not everyone was a dartboard for her proverbial darts of wisdom.  Season Two delivered a nice balance of cynicism and rounding out of characters, particularly Jodie Landon, the student body vice president.

Then the show got extended a few more seasons, and the writers had to figure out how to keep it interesting.  Season Three found them experimenting with forced send-ups to Titanic and The X-Files while the characters remained static.  Season Four and Season Five got back on the character development bus, but in trying to make Daria "grow," they arguably sent her too far in the other direction.  Now her every negative comment was second-guessed by Jodie, her mother, Jane, and Tom Sloane -- the latter of whom I'll get to in a moment.  Now Daria's responses to problems were frequently presented as childish, stubborn, and narrow-minded.  Daria would regain some of her sharp mojo in the final movie of the series, Is It College Yet?, but it served to remind us how long it had been missing.

I was in favor of Daria growing and maturing beyond her black-and-white vision of things, but I wonder if the show didn't get it wrong.  Rather than mature Daria's sharp, cynical nature, the writers seemed to want Daria to shed it.  "Give people a chance" and "adjust to differences" were common themes, especially in Season Four.  There is nothing wrong with more tolerance, but it seemed as though these "lessons" left no room for Daria's cynicism to be valued.

Daria and Jodie in "Partner's Complaint"
One infamous example was in the Season Four premiere, "Partner's Complaint."  Daria and Jodie worked on a school project together that required getting a loan for their made-up business.  The first loan company treated Jodie poorly for being black, until she revealed that her father was a successful entrepreneur.  Afterward, she complained about being judged before the loan officer learned anything about her.  At the next loan company, Jodie immediately dropped her father's name, so the problem was avoided.  Daria later pointed out the hypocrisy, and Jodie jumped on her, berating her "black and white" view of ethics, before storming out.  Later, Daria's mother suggested that Jodie was "just a little more pragmatic" than Daria and didn't appreciate being criticized for it.  In the end, Daria swallowed the urge to mention this experience during the class presentation, and told Jodie that she (Daria) was wrong.

So Daria learned to be nonjudgemental... hooray?  It would probably be a nonissue if it were balanced out by episodes that showed Daria using her sharp cynicism in a more active way, such as by joining a newspaper or at least writing her own webzine.  Instead, this was just one of many episodes where Daria was discouraged from asserting her point of view.

Quinn wants to believe that Hallmark guardian angels exist?  No problem.  Why challenge her beliefs and possibly get into a constructive debate?  Debates are for rigid, judgmental people.

But one of the worst cases of Daria being discouraged from asserting herself, or even from trusting her judgment, was in Is It Fall Yet?.  Daria was on the outs with Jane after kissing Tom, Jane's boyfriend.  Soon after, Daria and Tom began officially dating, which of course only made her relationship with Jane colder.  The rift in their friendship clearly bothered Daria for much of the summer, but she never spoke up about it and Tom never acknowledged it.  When she defended Jane from Tom's rather snobbish assumptions, Tom accused Daria of trying to pick a fight with him because she was afraid to get close.

Yes, that must it.  Not because Jane was Daria's best friend and Daria knew that she was more than good enough for Tom's wealthy family.  Not because Daria was feeling guilty for hurting her friend by dating Tom.  And certainly not because Daria had valid reasons to feel uncomfortable dating someone from such a different background.  (At one point, Daria rather limply expressed discomfort with Tom's "privileged world," to which Tom retorted: "It's not privileged, and it's not my world."  His experience in Is It College Yet? said otherwise.)  Her feelings were barely acknowledged, and instead Daria adopted Tom's frame.  Her negativity was just fear of getting too close, of course.

Oh Tom, disliked for so many reasons...
Tom in Season Four was probably the worst at acknowledging Daria's views, but he was not alone.  I like Daria's mother, Helen, but she too had a tendency to brush off Daria's point of view.  Sure, she'd admit that Daria had one, and that it was all very well and good, but Daria needed to learn how to compromise out in the Real World.  She certainly never let Daria's judgment influence her in any way (unless Daria was validating her, as in "Psycho Therapy").  Yet both Tom and Helen were meant to be seen as positive forces in the later seasons.  Don't get me wrong -- in many ways they were.  However, between Tom, Helen, Jodie, and sometimes Jane, the message came through loud and clear: don't be yourself Daria, because it's not good enough.

Why does this bother me so much?  Because throughout the series, Daria showed classic introverted traits.  She valued authenticity over shallow small talk.  Social interactions drained her, and she preferred reading in her room to attending parties.  She liked to think deeply about things.  These weren't just clothes that she decided to wear -- this was who she was.  It was hard-wired into her from the moment sperm met egg.  Yet Daria was repeatedly asked to change herself, or else she would never make it in the Real World.

Which other character in the series has had such consistent pressure to change?  Not Jodie, who frequently lamented that she was overworked, but did nothing to ease her pressure.  Not Helen, who never sought to work in a saner law office, even though she clearly needed it.  Not Jane.  Not Trent.  Not Brittany, and certainly not Kevin.  Not even Quinn, who was occasionally taken to task for her shallow attitude, but never really pressured to change it, with the exception of one brilliant takedown in Is It Fall Yet?, done by someone who was not even a main character.  Yet other than that lone example, Quinn was left to decide on her own to take learning more seriously -- and even then, just kinda sorta.

Daria and Quinn: classic introvert/extrovert split 
Yes, the show is called Daria, which means the main character gets more attention.  But it would have been better if the pressure to change were at least a little more balanced.  Say not only was Daria pressured to change her attitude, but also Quinn and Helen.  Otherwise, the message that comes across, again, is Daria was mostly in the wrong.

I don't think the writers intended to play into the harsh stereotypes about introverted people, yet they did.  That's a problem, because introverts face much more social prejudice than extroverts.  They are constantly told to smile more, to get out more, to network more.  If they are naturally quiet, then they can never be good leaders (though data suggests otherwise).  Their skill sets are less valued than an extrovert's; they may be passed over for jobs and promotions.      

The message of Daria -- intended or not -- is that introverts must become more extroverted to be socially successful.  Maybe one reason Helen, Jodie, and Quinn faced less pressure is because, let's face it, their approach is more validated socially -- even Quinn at her most shallow.  As for Jane and Trent, they were too far out on the edge of society to be worthy of attention.  But Daria was a member of the striving, perpetually insecure upper-middle class.  She must be groomed for success!  She must be made to conform.  At least, that is how it appears.

Is that a good message to send to other introverted teenagers?  You're all right, except that you really aren't?  Why couldn't Daria have been validated for who she was, while also being encouraged to channel her cynicism into worthwhile pursuits?  Why was she so often treated like her point of view was invalid?  Even in cases where she actually did use her cynicism toward a worthy cause -- in the too-little, too-late Season Five episode, "Fizz Ed" -- Daria's quest to end the soda company's influence received virtually no encouragement from her friends and family, other than Jane.  It's enough to make an introvert burrow under the covers in frustration.

The writers for Daria do deserve a lot of credit for showcasing an introvert, a rare species on television, let alone in animation.  It's just unfortunate that they perpetuated as many negative stereotypes as they punctured.  Maybe somewhere out there, a 30-something Daria is at her job, realizing that as open-minded as she tries to be, she will always be treated negatively for being quieter and more serious.  She may be frustrated that no one warned her about this, that "giving people a chance" does not magically make life better.  And she may be wishing that a few extroverts had received the same lessons that she did -- that they should conform themselves to her needs, not just the other way around.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.


  1. It is a great observation that the cast of the show seems to discourage Daria's cynicism and angst, and push her towards more extroverted traits, while the cast themselves receives no such pressure to change. However, rather than viewing that as a negative, I view it a little differently. The characters who are telling Daria to change, shallow Quin, overworked Helen, rageaholic Jake, all thus lose credibility; how can they tell someone to change the way they live their life when they themselves have such glaring problems with the way they live their own lives? And I think that's the point; the show isn't promoting the discouraging of Daria's introverted tendencies, its reflecting the very real reaction of most of the world who tries to do that. The message is not "don't be an introvert" but rather "if you are an introvert, people will likely discourage you from being an introvert. But take a nice hard look at those people, look at the issues in their lives and all of their 'extravert problems'. These are not people who's advice you should take to heart. Don't worry about it, keep doing what you're doing."

    Great read though! And also, Tom sucks. Worst. Character. Ever.

    1. Really cogent post. It gave me a different way of viewing the situation. Thanks!

  2. Omg sorry for commenting something irrelevant but Tom is so annoying I really wanted he and Daria to split when they had that fight.

    1. Totally agree. Literally clicked on this link to find someone who shared my sentiments. He's just generally a bad character. I hate the "dynamic" he brought to the show and the shadiness that overshadowed his whole persona, to me. Almost ruined the whole show me honestly,

    2. I think Tom would be considered a "mansplainer" these days.

    3. @RA X:

      He ruined it for me, honestly. I never bought that Daria and Jane of all people would let a boy come between them - it reeked of some MTV executive saying the show needed to hit "a broader audience" - and seeing Daria kiss him as she did, which is something even Quinn wouldn't have done when she was at her worst, has ruined it for me. I can still watch anything before Tom's first appearance, but anything after I honestly can't - it's like a completely different show.

  3. There is so much hate for Tom!! lol I didn't really like him but I thought it was interesting showing the struggles you face dating a person who isn't an introvert.

    I also don't see the others as hating Daria but showing the struggles that introverts face while experiencing new and real world things as they grow from their adolescence into adulthood. I don't think they are necessarily discouraging Daria's behavior but actually trying to understand it to their best abilities. It's foreign so of course they well respond to it negatively but the discussion of her actions alone show that they aren't just pushing her off.

    I do however feel that much of the topics they open up to they never really resolve in the show. Such as the issues with other characters (to an extent I feel is because with the evolution of other characters on the show would lose the conflict that is faced in the "Daria Against the World" kinda out look) but this is still one of my favorite Animated shows ever because it's a side that we never see. Which was an actual introverted intellectual cynical (ALSO slightly awkward) person who was an actual outcast. I feel that the writers of the show didn't realize the complex and abstract painting they were crafting when this show was still in the works and that's also part of the issue.

    Love this review though it's really insightful!

  4. I also thought this article was insightful.

    Two words: Aunt Amy. She was the only one to validate Daria's sarcasm. Let's not forget that Jane, Tom, Trent and even Helen at one point all appreciated Daria's biting social commentary. It was still touching when Jake feared the loss of his eldest daughter during the storm of "Daria!" To have a father that loves you and leaves you be most of the time seems like a good guy to me. Daria has traits, like cynicism, that are handy at keeping the societal brainwashing at bay, yet can be a bit much such as her disdain with Jane for joining the track team and falling in love with guys.

    1. Aunt Amy is so underused as a character that it's almost criminal.

      Also, Daria had no real reason to be cynical. Jodie/Jane/Jake/Helen all do. One of them should've gone Frank Grimes on her spoiled ass, honestly.

      Now THAT would've been a realistic high school experience.