Thursday, April 07, 2011

You're Standing on My Neck: An Analysis of Daria (Part 2)

I covered some stuff in Part 1, now here's some more stuff.

One of the main draws of the show, even today, is it's mantra that nothing and no one is perfect. The world is not black and white but shades of grey, and Daria tackled that head on.


An instance of the show's pioneering is its handling of African Americans. Mack was on the football team, but he was nowhere as idiotic as Kevin. In fact, he barely tolerated Kevin's presence and knew when the jokes were on Kevin. Jodie was just as smart as Daria but also popular and driven. Eventual valedictorian and prom queen, Jodi may have been the ultimate idealized person of the show, even more so than Daria. Jodie's parents were also shown as dedicated, successful adults to the envy of Daria's father, Jake.

In Jodie, the writers masterfully created a depth to a show about a smart kid in a modern setting. Daria was always the show's heroine, but Jodie was proof that being smart didn't exclusively mean that one was an outcast. Jodie was an intellectual equal, but was also much more pragmatic. She knew how to play nice with others, while Daria was morally unbending.

In the Season 2 premiere, Arts N Crass, Daria and Jane found themselves in a situation where their views were compromised by the teachers. As a result, they resorted to an extreme solution of sabotaging their own work. It's easy to wonder how Jodie would've handled the dilemma and predict that it would've been much less confrontational.

The Season 4 premiere, Partner's Complaint took the Jodie and Daria's relationship head-on. A class assignment resulted in a moral problem and forced them to confront their stylistic differences. Intellect was not the issue, but rather how to handle themselves in a nuanced situation. It was a great example that the show realized that the world isn't full of absolutes; that no one way is ever perfect.

So the series had a very enlightened view of African Americans, but as an Asian American, I took particular enjoyment out of its unconventionally wry take on my culture. Tiffany was undoubtedly the dumbest member of the Fashion Club, to the point of barely literate. And the principle, Ms Li was unfailingly morally bankrupt, usually invoking activities that were ultimately for her own glorification and self-benefit.


What was most impressive to me about the series was that it never shied away from the idea that nothing is perfect. Daria might have mainly been about how high school was a torturous experience, but nothing was immune from being placed under the show's microscope.

The parents, while usually well-meaning, were usually clueless. The teachers usually came under the harshest criticism. Mr O'Neill embodied a modern educator who tried to be sensitive to his students' feelings but usually ended up wildly mis-interpreting them and making matters worse than before. Mr DeMartino was a more straight-laced portrait of a teacher but was so ground down by the inept students that his only coping mechanism to his misery was anger. Ms Li was already touched upon earlier. Mrs DeFoe, the art teacher was closest to a competent, encouraging figure for Jane but usually lacked enough insight to read into what Jane was thinking. Ms Barch was the hyperbolized feminist and was used to mostly comedic effects.

Even the cool kids were not ideal. Take the quintessentially hip, Trent. Even his worshipper, Daria saw the shortcomings of a guy without any ambition and the inability to be responsible. Despite that, I wished I was more like Trent. Probably because I was more like Upchuck in high school, though less creepily lecherous and more cluelessly shy.

It's easy to see that the basic premise of the series was that Daria was an outsider and thus "imperfect" in the eyes of normal society. Further, it's interesting to realize that even through the lens of the show which was always on Daria's side, that we could see her faults. Yes, she was a brain which casts her out from others, but in more cases her moral code caused more of the conflict than straight-up intelligence.

Of course there's also the instance of her stealing Tom away from Jane, which was a bold move to put the show's heroine in that position. Again, I initially saw this as a distraction from what the show was about, but now I think it was a perfect and natural path that Daria went on. With this upheaval, Jane and Daria's friendship was no longer out of convenience or adolescent playing. It suddenly became very adult and very real. They had to face this issue and purposefully decide to stay friends. It showed that no friendship, even true pairings of kindredness, is immune to scarring. And that a lasting friendship isn't automatic.

Aunt Amy made a few appearances throughout the series, usually to provide adult support to Daria in times of distress. Thus, we were set up to see her as a perfected, future version of Daria. Amy had overcome whatever obstacles were in her adolescent youth to become a confident, successful adult which is what we want for Daria. Yet even Amy felt the sting of imperfection in Aunt Nauseam when instead of coming to the rescue, she fell into sibling squabbling like everyone else.

Flaws weren't confined to individuals but entire groups and institutions. Almost every business, from the Mall of the Millennium to the local banks, showed signs of corruption. College students were portrayed as the same slackers as in high school, showing that graduating from Lawndale wasn't going to be the end of anyone's problems. In Is It Fall Yet? Jane attends an art camp which should've been a haven for her. Yet she quickly discovers that even artists are not immune to social flaws.


Failure permeated the show on a variety of levels: the failure of parents to effectively connect to their kids, the failure of high school teachers in just about every way, Jake's professional floundering.

Most importantly, the show embraced the idea of making Daria fail on more than one occasion. In The Story of D, Daria is encouraged to submit a short story to a literary magazine and faces rejection. The result crushes Daria's sense of self, since writing was one of the few pillars of strength that she had always clung to. Further, as graduation loomed in the finale, Daria found out she wasn't accepted into the prestigious Bromwell, hinting it was due not lack of grades but a less than engaging personality.

There's the saying that you learn more by failing than by succeeding. And certainly no one, no matter how talented or intelligent can win everything. Daria certainly wavered when she failed but it was important to showed that she survived.

I remember their portrayal of Daria as imperfect being very significant to me. Here was a character we were supposed to relate to and cheer for. And here the show writers were saying that it was okay to fail and to be wrong.


I'm sure I could keep going but I think I'll let that sink in for now.

You're Standing on My Neck: An Analysis of Daria (Part 1)

Recently, I've rediscovered a show from my youth, Daria. I'm still amazed at the wealth the show had to offer and have been thinking about its impact. A marathon viewing of every episode reminded me why I always admired the series while also unearthing a few new observations that I missed before.


Looking back, it still seems revolutionary and unique in its handling of high school life. Though I was surprised at a some things that I incorrectly remembered. For one, I thought the show debuted in the heyday of the Alternative uprising; as MTV's voice which spoke out against the hollow offerings of shows like Beverly Hills 90210. However, the show actually aired in the tail-end of the 90s and into the early 2000s when MTV had already steered head-first into the squealing mainstream of TRL and Britney Spears. Then again, maybe that helps prove that the show was so special. The Alternative movement was already dying from the inside out from corporate corruption and Teeny Pop was already surging into all facets of media. In effect, Daria was the last of the breed, and MTV's final gesture of authenticity.

As an outsider, I definitely grew an instant attachment to the show.

What made the show truly original was that it spoke to and about a group of kids that usually wasn't given much focus in media. If they were portrayed, usually it was in the form of a background weirdo or misfit side-character. In Daria, the spotlight wasn't on the typical kids who were well-adjusted, popular, and sporty. In fact, the show was a shot across the bow to the "normal" types. They were still the popular ones in class. But now they were the butt of the jokes.

Daria proved that there was an audience that had been untapped. Thus paving the way for future misfit shows like Freaks and Geeks, and the basic acceptance (and celebration) of nerd culture so prevalent today.

Seeing the series again as an older person also highlighted some aspects that may have been more about adults writing for teens. Why were they so into pizza? They were teenagers, not ninja turtles. Yeah I remember liking pizza and it was a treat to eat a slice or two, but it was never the singular dietary obsession.

And the series tended to overlook the sillier aspects of teenage life. It's a period where we transition out of childhood and there are still remnants of goofiness that permeate in everyday life. Teen viewers probably aspire to how adult the characters were all the time, but I think an occasional sprinkling of pure joyousness once in a while would've done the show some good.

Those are minor quibbles though to a show that was supremely adept at getting into the mindset of a person in their teens.


The show probably provided a strong voice for young women, but I think it also spoke well to any teen who felt like an outsider. What helped is that the show handled itself maturely and never pandered or talked down to its audience.

On the surface, Daria seemed to just be about archetypes and jokes about all those archetypes. Quinn was the pretty and popular child, Brittany was the well-endowed, vapid cheerleader, Kevin was the moronic jock, Jane was the artsy alt-girl, and Daria was the isolated brainiac.

While those characters were a fertile playground of jokes, the show was not afraid to tackle serious issues. The Season 1 finale, Misery Chick dealt with the aftermath of a death. The range of confusion and guilt experienced by various characters showed a depth of subtlety that is rarely found in a TV show, let alone a cartoon.

The last two seasons of the show introduced Tom as a romantic element to Jane and eventually Daria. At the time, I decried his addition as a misstep, turning an atypical show into just more trite teeny bopper pandering of girls fighting over boys. But upon a recent viewing of the entire series, it made much more sense. And the Tom story was less pervasive through the show than I recall. There were still plenty of episodes that didn't deal with him at all.

Storywise, Tom was another way for the show to deal with a heavy issue in the lives of teens and portray the complexity of what happens between friends when love gets in the way. Daria and Jane's friendship was the bedrock of the series and it was a bold move for the creators to shake that up. It demonstrated that the show was willing to grow along with its audience. Whereas other cartoons and shows are content with the infinite loop of high school life in their universes, Daria evolved past "Hey our classmates are so dumb" and into issues like relationships and what to do with your life as college and adulthood loom on the horizon.

Examples of growth also occurred with Quinn in the movie between seasons 4 and 5. After years of treating boys as disposable playthings, Quinn feels the pangs of infatuation… to a boy with a brain. His eventual rejection makes her take stock of her position and see value her own intelligence.

Stacy was an unlikely instance of growth in the end of the series span. Arguably the most fragile member of the Fashion Club, she eventually rebelled against the group's ideals by being Upchuck's magic assistant, and in the movie finale, she was the death knell for the club by standing up to Sandi's list of demands.

Lest the show be seen as too morally heavy, there were for sure, moments of mockery that the series never strayed from. Kevin was always a buffoon, Sandi was an ice queen, and Jane was always a cool customer.


What's interesting is that within minutes of the first episode, Daria found a kindred spirit in another student, Jane. I'm sure logistically, the show needed a companion to Daria otherwise there wouldn't be a whole lot of dialogue for the show. That aside, it was a good sign to us all that even the most alienated person could find someone to relate to.

The amazing thing is that the creators didn't set out to find an intellectual equal to Daria (that would come later with Jodie) but someone who had a similar personality yet qualities that set her apart. Artsy and cool, Jane was even allowed to venture into un-Daria-esque territory like enjoying a physical activity like jogging. It's easy to imagine that before Daria transferred to Lawndale, Jane coped quite well on her own.

In Jane, the writers were allowed to play with insecurities that probably wouldn't be applicable to Daria. Jane in a period of self-doubt actually tried out for the cheerleading squad. In an effort to make money, she momentarily sold-out and flailed creatively.


One of the most important aspects of the show was the family environment. Interestingly, the show kept Daria in a relatively stable household. While certainly dysfunctional, the parents were still together and accessible to their kids.

Jake, the father, was without question a neurotic, hapless dad who had his own father issues. But he never purposely veered away from wanting the best for his wife and kids.

Helen, the workaholic mother would always begin a scene as distracted and disengaged, though eventually had keen insight on what was going on with the girls and usually gave Daria poignant advice on her problems.

Quinn (clever play on "Queen") was predominantly used as a foil for Daria a majority of the time. Though whenever a drastic upheaval would occur that would shake up her orderly world (ie. the threat of divorce between the parents or the rejection of a boy she actually liked), Quinn would show that she was a loyal and loving sister.

In this light, the show actually portrays a pretty healthy and optimistic view of a modern family. More-so than viewers would expect.

Despite the underlying normality of the family, the series utilized a wealth of humor and story out of the roles of the shallow sister and the out of touch parents. This is where the show's Anti-Adult policy usually rears its head. The parents, and the teachers, were adults, and Daria was very clear about marking them as The Enemy.

Maybe viewing the episodes as a much older person is giving me a slanted view, but I never recall being a teen and observing grown ups as such opposition. Sure teens go through angst and rebelliousness, but I never recoiled at my parents or any adult who showed genuine care and desire to help me. This was one of the few hard-lined stances in Daria, which is surprising given the amazing sensitivity and insight the show normally had on key issues of youth. Even the few instances when Daria would recognize that her parents were helpful, her gratitude would be uttered in reluctant mumbling. And her parents would react in shocked disbelief.

Perhaps not totally unaware of their maintaining the nuclear family status, the show creators placed Jane's family in direct opposition to Daria's. The parents were unresponsive, if they were around at all. Here, the show seemed to take a stance of Nature over Nurture. After all, Jane is just as well-developed as Daria as far as personality and sense of self worth, even without a family like Daria's. However the show rarely dove into Jane's family life other than as a joke. I honestly didn't recall ever seeing her parents' faces, making them spiritual successors to Charlie Brown's teachers and parents. But in the 3rd season episode, Lane Miserables, we get a view of the Lane family coming back to the house, and Jane and Trent's reaction is that they just want them to go away again.

By the way, how amazing is it that one of the Lanes is named Penny?


In Part 2, I hope to focus more on themes of imperfection.