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.


Anonymous said...

really deep essay, well done.

Betelgeuse said...

This is such a perfect, well-written analysis. Thanks!