Daria and the Clichéd Representation of Teenagers
In 1997, MTV’s animated series Daria aired for the first time. What followed were five seasons and two T.V. movies. Though the show concluded in 2002, this quirky ensemble of animated characters still holds a special, nostalgic place in the hearts of many. A spin-off character from Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria Morgendorffer is the star of the show. A sarcastic and anti-social teenager, the series follows her journey through Lawndale High School. Daria explores a wide range of topics relevant to teenagers. These include friendship, crushes, self-esteem, and college applications.
Any narrative set in a high school environment runs the risk of reverting to overused schoolyard clichés and tropes. Vapid cheerleaders, socially inept nerds, the loner misfits; these character types have all been done before, and often. Though such clichés are usually exaggerated for storytelling purposes, they can also inadvertently cause harm to those viewing such media.
Daria flaunts proudly these same clichés. The show’s characters often fit the moulds that popular culture have laid out for them. However, as this article will go on to explore, these characters are made up of far more than just their shallow stereotypes. Daria offers a cast of refreshingly complex characters; all of which are deeply flawed, but capable of growth. For this reason, many ‘types’ of people are positively represented and celebrated for their differing strengths. This can be seen prominently within three of the show’s characters: Daria, Quinn, and Brittany.
Daria, The Misfit
Daria Morgendorffer is a textbook outcast. She appears moody, mysterious, and does not get along easily with her peers. The titular character is best known for her sarcasm, dark wit, and anti-social tendencies. She is truly misunderstood, by both her family and school peers. In the first episode of the show’s first season, Daria is forced to take a self-esteem class. To this, she responds, “I don’t have low self-esteem. It’s a mistake. I have low esteem for everyone else.” Thus, from the series’ outset, Daria is designated the misfit trope. She rejects the ‘mainstream’ and acts as though she is an inherently better person for that.
Throughout the show’s five seasons, Daria’s tendency to reject what others enjoy is prevalent. During the sixth episode in the fourth season, ‘I Loathe a Parade,’ Daria is caught amidst a busy Homecoming Parade whilst running an errand. Her thoughts on this are summed up succinctly: “this whole thing is a big joke.”
The episode is built around her determination to get away from the happy crowds. Children become overjoyed when confectionary is thrown from floats, to which Daria remarks “that’s it. When the candy reaches escape velocity, it’s time to leave.” She even finds herself in an altercation with the school mascot:
“Mascot – Let’s do the Lawndale shuffle.
Daria – How about the ‘get the hell away from me’ slide?”
This attitude is not all that Daria is, though. Beneath her hardened exterior, Daria is both caring and compassionate. She can be mean, unfairly so, but she can also be incredibly kind and thoughtful. This is demonstrated within the very same episode. The reason Daria is forced to spend so much time at the parade is because she is approached by a child she once babysat. Having been separated from his parents, he begs her to help him. Daria agrees, stating, “much to my surprise, my conscience tells me I should help you find your parents.” She then dedicates the day to finding the child’s parents.
Even towards those she claims to dislike, such as her younger sister, Quinn, Daria shows a natural kindness. During the first season’s ninth episode, Quinn is convinced by a plastic surgeon that she needs six thousand dollars worth of surgery. She becomes distraught thinking she is unattractive. Daria makes several jokes at her expense, of course. However, she later offers her sister touching reassurance:
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, and I’ll deny I ever said it, but there’s nothing wrong with you. Physically. You’ve got the kind of looks that make other girls mentally ill. So stop it. You don’t need any plastic surgery. You’re perfect.”
Daria shows deep understanding — she knows that her sister cares about her physical appearance more than anything else. She also recognises that her sister is in crisis, and puts aside her own beliefs on the subject to comfort her. Rather than sticking to her normal uncaring attitude, she shows genuine compassion.
Finally, despite her head-strong, misfit appearance, Daria is also insecure. Rather than establish her character as a one-dimensional person incapable of self-awareness, the writers of Daria have constructed their protagonist as emotionally complex. For all of her criticisms of other girls’ obsession with their appearance, she spends considerable time ensuring her own image is maintained.
As though she uses her trope as a mask, the threat of needing to alter her appearance — with contact lenses — causes Daria significant worry. During season three’s first episode, titled ‘Through a Lens Darkly,’ Daria’s glasses are discovered to impede her vision whilst driving. Thus, contact lenses become a necessity. Daria feels that, by wearing contact lenses, it would send a message that she, too, cares about her appearance. Trying to make sense of the situation, she asks the question:
“Suppose you were well known for not caring what other people think of you, and then suddenly you did something that showed maybe you do care a little about what other people think of you. Would that invalidate everything you’d done and said up till then and make you a hypocrite?”
Put simply, Daria committed herself to being the outcast, unconcerned with the ‘shallow’ concerns of others. So much so, that it caused her great anxiety to be seen suddenly caring. She confides in her Aunt who encourages her, “it wouldn’t change your personality, it wouldn’t change your values.” Despite her clichéd appearance as a self-assured nonconformist, Daria is still just a teenage girl trying to understand who she is.
The misfit trope is a favourite of many shows, films, and works of literature. For many, this is why they adore the character of Daria. She is weird and unconventional; unafraid of being different. However, she is more than just this stereotype. The edgy outcast forms only one part of Daria as a whole. Hidden underneath, the show’s writers have created a complex and emotional character who is distinctly human.
Quinn, the Popular Girl
Daria’s younger sister, Quinn Morgendorffer, acts as the protagonist’s antithesis in many ways. She fills the role of the quintessential high school ‘popular’ girl. In the series’ first episode, Quinn arrives at her new school where the greetings include “Hi! You’re cool. What’s your name?” and “Will you go out with me?” Quinn has never had trouble making friends, and she always manages to fall in with the ‘cool’ crowd. She joins the exclusive ‘Fashion Club,’ wherein four girls get together to discuss the latest trends and criticise those who are so-called out of style. Membership considerations for the club include eyelash length and body weight.
Not only is Quinn perceived as immensely shallow, she is also perceived as vapid. In season one, episode six, a modelling agency approaches the high school, looking for new models. Quinn, proudly, shares the poem she wrote for the scouts, “A model’s what I’d like to be… looking good comes naturally… da da da da, da da, me.” It is this behaviour, mixed with her constant judgement of others, that sets her up perfectly as the high school ‘royalty’ cliché.
Though her usual, self-obsessed tendencies mean that it is not immediately obvious, the character of Quinn Morgendorffer is both intelligent and thoughtful. In ‘Quinn the Brain,’ season two’s third episode, at the risk of potentially failing a class, Quinn is told she requires an A on her next assignment to pass. She writes the paper and gets the A she needs. The teacher also reads it aloud to the class. Not only does this prove that she is intelligent, it also offers insight into why she acts as though she is not.
Her friends laugh at her for having the piece read aloud. Rumours spread that she is now a ‘Brain.’ In fictional high school world, of course, popularity and book-smarts are rarely portrayed as compatible. Thus, Quinn is distraught, “what am I gonna do? I can’t be a brain! My friends will hate me!” It is never explicitly stated, but it is clear that Quinn dumbs herself down in order to fit in.
This is confirmed during the T.V. movie titled ‘Is it Fall Yet?’ During this episode, Quinn hires a tutor to help her with her studies. The rest of The Fashion Club do the same; either due to competitiveness or a lack of the ability to think for themselves. The tutor eventually quits working with all three of Quinn’s friends due to their lack of co-operation. He leaves Sandi because she asks him if they can “finish this session at Cashman’s?” He stops working with Tiffany because she refuses to pause the application of her makeup to listen to him. Finally, he quits tutoring Stacy because, upon learning that he quit with the other two, she believes she is being phased out of the group because nobody had told her. This causes her to have an emotional breakdown in the middle of a lesson.
Juxtaposed with her three friends’ lack of care or commitment is Quinn’s dedication to her tutoring sessions. After some initial troubles, she commits fully to her learning. She even finds herself enjoying studying. By their final session, the tutor admits that Quinn has progressed a long way during their sessions. It seems, without the pressure of her friends, Quinn is free to be herself, and express her intelligence. As the tutor notes, Quinn’s usual lack of effort is likely based upon her friends’ intellects: “no chance of feeling stupid around them.” Though this is harsh, it does reveal some truth — social constraints are the only thing holding Quinn back from her own educational success.
A T.V. show focusing on teenagers allows for natural character growth, and each Daria character matures by the series’ conclusion. Though not immediately obvious when watching isolated episodes, this character development is overt when watching the programme from beginning to end. Ultimately, it is Quinn who is arguably most improved. By the final T.V. movie, the concluding episode to the entire series, Quinn shows a distinct sophistication that was absent during the beginning episodes. As she witnesses a co-worker struggle with potential alcoholism, she must grapple with how best to proceed:
“This girl I was working with… I think she has a drinking problem. If I don’t say anything, I’m afraid she’ll get in an accident or something, but if I do say something, she’ll probably never speak to me again.”
Quinn decides to politely approach the subject, and though her friend receives it negatively, it seems the right thing to do. She had to face losing a friend in order to help that friend; something she would likely not have considered doing in the beginning episodes.
The trope of the popular girl is arguably the most overused in popular culture. Often, they are used simply as a point of conflict, and usually they are defeated. Quinn, however, is different. Like her sister, Daria, she is more than just the stereotype she has been allocated. Instead of a one-dimensional, mean spirited kid, Quinn is often forced to act a certain way. For teenagers especially, peer pressure can be immense. Quinn appears to be a victim of this. Though she is flawed, she is capable of growth and greatness — she is more than just her cliché.
Brittany, the Airhead
It seems that no teenager-themed show or movie would be complete without the so-called airhead trope. Often this character is a woman, and they are depicted as being clueless to an extreme level. This, then, makes them the natural punchline of their peers’ jokes. In Daria, the character of Brittany Taylor occupies this cliché.
Brittany, a cheerleader, is portrayed as utterly clueless. This can be seen clearly in the first episode of the second season, titled ‘Arts ‘N Crass.’ The school asks the students to create an artwork depicting life as a high school student. Brittany’s first attempt is a painting of two bottles, one labelled ‘alcohol’ and another labelled ‘drugs.’ When asked about the painting, she says, “I call it, ‘Don’t Drink or Take Drugs.’ And the message is, don’t drink or take drugs!” After being told that no part of the picture actually portrays the message, she pulls a tube of pink lipstick out of her bag. She draws a cross through the picture and says confidently, “there!”
For her second attempt, she draws a group of people standing together and claims her message is “don’t join a gang.” She is, again, told that her message is not clear and subsequently makes another pink lipstick cross. It is little actions like this throughout the series that make it clear that Brittany is intended as an airhead. This goes further than just a stereotype — her apparent lack of intellect is so pronounced that she is a caricature.
Brittany is not book-smart; this makes her an easy punchline. However, she proves that book-smarts is not all that matters. As the show is centred around Daria who, personally, champions this idea of educational success, Brittany can be easily dismissed. However, in other ways she is a valuable role model.
On many occasions, Brittany demonstrates that she is a strong woman who is confident in her sense of self. To begin with, she is the captain of her cheerleading team. This implies that she has strong leadership skills and is able to make decisions. She is also praised for her athletic capabilities. During ‘The Daria Hunter,’ episode two of season two, during a school paintball trip, Brittany demonstrates her knowledge of combat tactics. She leads her team and excels at it, surprising everyone.
More than this, though, she is unafraid to stand up for herself, especially against men; throughout the series she does so multiple times. Take, for example, this argument she has with her boyfriend, Kevin, during season four’s first episode, ‘Partner’s Complaint’:
“Brittany – I know what you think, but I know what I think, and I think I think just as well as you think, don’t you think?
Kevin – If it were up to me, I’d want you to have the brain power of a guy, but it’s science. Men are smarter, because we have more muscle mass in our heads.
Brittany – I’m just as smart as you, maybe smarter.
Kevin – (laughing) Okay, sure you are.”
The manner in which she articulates her point leaves much to be desired, however, the sentiment behind it is admirable. Brittany knows her self worth and refuses to be talked down to. While Kevin’s comeuppance might not have been immediate, the series’ finale reveals truth in Brittany’s words. Kevin was made to repeat his final year of high school, whereas the girlfriend he so smugly patronised was able to graduate.
This example is definitely petty, however, Brittany proves her strengths in scenarios more dire, too. During the final episode of the first season, ‘The Misery Chick,’ a former football player returns to the high school. Most of the student body is enamoured by this former sporting star; he gets treated like a celebrity. Brittany shares in this admiration, until she actually meets him face-to-face. His manner of greeting Brittany is to proposition her and make vulgar insinuations. In response to this, she slaps him and refuses to join in the celebration of him. Refusing to allow herself to be treated poorly, Brittany sets an important precedent for viewers.
Brittany is an important character because she highlights value beyond being academically successful. Despite the ‘airhead’ cliché that she has been assigned, and the continued jokes at her expense, Brittany is a well-rounded character. Unlike other shows that use this trope solely for comedic value, Brittany is more than just this stereotype. Her confident sense of self is something that even Daria would aspire to.
The Value of Daria
By subverting common tropes, Daria creates something important: positive representation. In any media, representation is necessary. It is important that viewers are able to identify part of themselves in the characters they watch. Even more so, it is important that such a depiction of themselves is celebrated, not demonised. In a popular TedTalk uploaded in 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses another important facet of representation. She argues that, without representation that is positive and accurate, a work runs the risk of only offering a ‘single story’:
“So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
This is where overused tropes, clichés, and stereotypes all become problematic. It is no mistake that the three characters discussed in this article are all teenage girls. This demographic has often been reduced to an unfair single story. Film, T.V., and literature are all guilty of representing teenage girls in simplistic ways. From appearance-obsessed airheads eager to party, to the not like other girls teenagers who are allegedly better for rejecting the ‘shallow’ norm. What these accounts do is fail to offer an image of young girls that is diverse or complex. By repeatedly making one type of normal teenager the antagonist, it risks sending the message that this is an inherently wrong way to be.
The brilliance of Daria, then, lies in the fact that the show does not present a single story. Within MTV’s series, no person is truly one sided. In the very not real medium of animation, these creators have devised an ensemble of realistic characters.
There is a reason clichés get overused — they work. Viewers devour a story where there exists a clear divide between different kinds of people. Thus, it was clever for the show to still use a formula that viewers love. But what is important is how they have treated that formula; they make it healthier. Every character is capable of being more than just the trope that befits them.
Daria is also important for the show’s elimination of a sense of hierarchy. Daria values her intellect, Quinn values her appearance, and Brittany values her popularity. Though individual characters might disagree with what another values, the show does not suggest that any of these interests are inherently more important than another. By the show’s conclusion, though each character has matured, they all maintain the same interests. Unlike a film such as Mean Girls, where the concluding sequence involves every character becoming more neutral and alike, Daria concludes with the same diversity of personalities. This sends the message that it is acceptable and very normal to champion different ideas. This is representative of real-life teenagers, who value different aspects of themselves. This representation is healthy, for it does not pretend that one kind of person is inherently better than another. No matter which character a viewer might identify with, they are shown that it is OK to be like that person.
It is almost common knowledge that entertainment media must communicate a useful ‘message’ to viewers; a moral to be learned from. However, it is often the more subtle lessons that are most significant. By embedding subverted tropes and clichés into every facet of Daria, the show sends the message that complexity is normal. A wide range of teenagers, and adults too, can look to the characters on screen and find a part of themselves positively represented.
The value of Daria does not only apply to the 1990s society who first received the animated series. Twenty-three years after it first premiered, the show can still be seen as a leader in the effort to ditch restrictive stereotypes in media. Perhaps that is why this quirky show with a snarky outcast as the centre of attention is still beloved by many today.
It is no secret that, to this day, representation in media is a pressing issue. Daria is not perfect; notable gaps in the series include representation of the LGBTQ+ community or people of colour. However, for a group as impressionable as teenagers, the show is a leader in depicting healthy and complex characters. Though they are merely animated, adolescents should turn to the cast of Daria for vibrant, flawed, and realistic role models.
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