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September 21, 2014

In Search of 'Daria': Where Have All the Snarky TV Teens Gone?

by Gary Susman, posted Jul 27th 2010 3:00PM
Daria on MTVWhere have all the Darias gone?

An article at the Paris Review's blog raises that question. Watching the late-'90s MTV series 'Daria,' released on DVD in its entirety a couple months ago, author Marisa Meltzer laments that characters like Daria Morgendorffer -- smart, snarky, self-assured teenage girls -- were once prevalent on TV (Darlene Conner of 'Roseanne' and Angela Chase of 'My So-Called Life' were her contemporaries) but now have all but disappeared from the tube.

Today's TV teen girls, on series like '90210' or 'Gossip Girl' or MTV's reality shows, are just bubbleheads obsessed with sex, status, and shopping.

But it's not true that there are no more Darias on TV; in fact, they never left, even if there were only a handful of lonely torchbearers between then and now (such as Lindsay on 'Freaks and Geeks,' Claire on 'Six Feed Under,' or Veronica Mars). They may not be all over primetime network TV, but they're there. Still looking for them, and seeing how the Daria type has evolved and become more inclusive over the last decade, prompts some interesting questions about how teen girls have been portrayed on TV, then and now.

• Who are the Darias today? One reason it seems so hard to find Darias now is that the character really seemed a product of both her moment (the late '90s) and her audience (late Gen X). A spinoff of 'Beavis and Butt-head,' 'Daria' owed a debt to the '90s alt-rock scene (particularly the post-punk feminism of Riot Grrrl bands), Janeane Garofalo (whose stand-up comic persona Daria echoed in both her delivery and personal style, from the glasses to the chunky boots), and yes, other smart misfit TV teens like Darleen Conner and Angela Chase.

Even during the show's run, however, Daria was becoming an anachronism. Riot Grrrl was replaced by the Spice Girls, and MTV made Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson into the new role models for teen girls. And if they seemed too sexy, then there were the Disney Channel farm-leaguers: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato. It was as if the Fashion Club (the group represented by Daria's younger sister, the perky, style-obsessed Quinn) had regained the high school throne, with Daria's rule as cultural arbiter a brief aberration. Gens Y and Z apparently wanted something different (which is, the hedonistic teen type that was common before the anomaly of the Grunge Era), and they got it.

One could also argue that snark has so completely permeated our culture that it's the common language of seemingly self-aware teens (which is all of them) on shows like 'Gossip Girl' or 'Pretty Little Liars.' And when everyone has attitude, no one particularly stands out as a misfit/sensitive soul/misunderstood genius just by having sarcastic things to say.

Mae Whitman on 'Parenthood'Still, that doesn't mean there are no Darias on TV today. Two of the most blatant: Amber (Mae Whitman) on NBC's 'Parenthood' and Becca Moody (Madeleine Martin) on Showtime's 'Californication.' Both dress in black and roll their eyes at their parents. Both are smart and sharp-witted. Both feel like outsiders at school. Amber also feels like a misfit within the extended Braverman clan, while Becca plays rock guitar and lives up to her last name.

Madeleine Martin in 'Californication'Also on Showtime, there's Astor (Christina Robinson) on 'Dexter,' who has grown into sullen, rebellious teen. And there's Kate (Brie Larson) on 'United States of Tara,' who despite her conventional attractiveness feels like a misfit (as does the whole family, thanks to having to cope with Tara's multiple personalities) and comes up with a bizarre but lucrative way to capitalize on her looks, her comic-book geekiness, and her computer savvy (that is, making live fetish webcam videos for pervy clients).

Others include Wil (Nikki Blonsky), the sassy, spunky, overweight heroine of ABC Family's new 'Huge.' Alex (Ariel Winter), the bespectacled younger sister on ABC's 'Modern Family,' is a little Daria-in-training, a smart-mouthed brainiac with a Quinn-like sister. Surly April (Aubrey Plaza) on NBC's 'Parks and Recreation' can't be bothered to care about anything, but she's also clever and feisty. (And like Daria, she harbors a barely-hidden crush on a musician buddy.)

Even MTV, now known more for 'The Hills' and 'Jersey Shore' than for 'Daria' or music videos, has a real-life Daria in Liz Lee, the Texas high school senior busting to break free of her small town in 'My Life as Liz.'

• Do Darias have to be white?
One thing not much mentioned in the wave of 'Daria' nostalgia is that, for all her complaining, Daria had it pretty easy and benefited from a lot of seldom-examined privileges -- she was white, straight, thin, able-bodied, comfortably middle-class and living in a two-parent home with a happily married mom and dad. (Occasionally, another character, like African-American classmate Jodie, would point this out to her.)

Daria's relatively minor problems might have been considered luxuries by less privileged kids. Nor did she do much, besides offer withering quips, to challenge the system she found so intolerable (even as it rewarded her with material comfort).

You could argue that what made 'Daria' work, despite her unjustified whining, was the same notion that made John Hughes movies work: the awareness that teenagers are generally self-centered and myopic creatures who tend to over-dramatize their own lives because they lack the perspective of time and experience that comes with adulthood. Also, as we all learned from Hughes' 'Breakfast Club,' every teen feels like a misfit, even the ones at the top of the high school caste system. We remember 'Daria' fondly because it seemed to get that selfish, self-dramatizing, low self-esteem mindset of adolescence just right, but played it wittier than we ever were as teens.

Jenna Ushkowitz and Amber Riley on 'Glee'That said, what would 'Glee's' Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Mercedes (Amber Riley) think of Daria? Tina's Asian-American and a little Goth-y; Mercedes is African-American, sharp-tongued and plus-sized. Those qualities are marginalizing enough, but then they're also in glee club, which puts them even lower on the high school totem pole. Maybe they'd find Daria as insufferable and complacent as Jodie did, but then again, their own acts of rebellion are largely stylistic and symbolic. And no teen is more self-dramatizing than the kids who break into spontaneous song-and-dance numbers on 'Glee.'

Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton on 'Hung'• Do Darias have to be girls? On HBO's 'Hung,' Darby (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) seems like a model Daria. She's a high school outcast, she joins a pro-fat activist group, and she's insightful, particularly about her parents' hypocrisies. But her twin brother Damon (Charlie Saxton), could also be a Daria. He's also a high school misfit who discovers an affinity for poetry, likes Goth music, and wears Daria-like shaggy bangs and glasses. Sure, he's a guy, but his sexuality is pretty ambiguous.

Tina Fey on '30 Rock'• Do Darias have to be adolescents? Not anymore. Look at '30 Rock's' Liz Lemon (Tina Fey): she's Daria all grown up, with a good job and a good salary, still with the glasses, still with the snark, still with the unexamined privilege granted by a system she does little to challenge. (At least she has Tracy and others to point out occasionally how easy she truly has it.) She may think of herself as a role model for younger women, but she's still driven by the same yearnings (to marry an astronaut!) and petty grievances that drove her as a teen. Fortunately, that's true of all the other '30 Rock' characters as well. All seem examples of the one true lesson of 'Daria' (and of the current wave of nostalgia for that show): we never really graduate from high school.


Do you think TV today is missing Darias?

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

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Peachy4luv18

I was kind of ok with this article but saying Liz Lemon from 30 Rock is like daria is just a joke. Liz Lemon tries to fit in in every episode. Unlike daria she cares what people think and can actually put herself in an embarrasing situation where Daria would never be caught dead.

August 12 2012 at 2:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Adam

I love this article. It's sad that topics like these are largely ignored and not covered by mainstream media.

May 30 2012 at 6:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tanya-

I was thinking this myself. Although I was born in the early 90's and don't appreciate this new 'blonde, silly and sexy' thing that's going on, I much prefer and associate with Daria and similar characters.

January 27 2012 at 5:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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