In last week’s blog entry, I discussed the common film and TV tropes used to depict female characters in replacement of actual character development. The result of these cliché’s is two-dimensional characters and the alienation of much of your potential audience. It is difficult to enjoy most pop culture, especially geek culture, after coming to the realisation that the creators really don’t think of you as an audience at all. But there are some shows and movies that I keep coming back to and watching over and over because they don’t alienate women. I’ve decided to dedicate the next few blog entries to these productions.
Our first example of fantastic representations of women and character development: Daria.
Anybody who has known me for longer than ten minutes is aware of how much I adore this show. Originally a spinoff from Bevis and Butthead, Daria could not have been further from the B&B manifesto. In a rare display of cognition, the MTV executives came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a show in their line up that appealed to teenage girls, and as such they were losing a lot of potential viewers in their demographic. The program debuted in 1997 and was a huge hit, running for 5 seasons and two made-for-TV movies. It gained fans of all ages and genders – indeed, an acquaintance of mine once told me that everyone in her office would down tools when Daria was on during the 90’s.
The show is set in Lawndale, a fictional town in middle America in the same vein as Springfield or Riverdale – a “Joe Everytown”, if you will. It’s mostly populated with the white and middle-class, however there are quite a few episodes which tackle class divide and racial tokenism. The first episode involves Daria and her sister Quinn on their first day at their new high school, presumably having moved from the B&B town of Highland. The girls are asked to take a psychological exam to determine how well they will “fit in” at the school, and after refusing to give non-sarcastic answers to the councillor, Daria is forced to take after school “self-esteem classes”, where she meets Jane. The line “I don’t have low self-esteem, it’s a mistake… I have low esteem for everyone else” was the first real identifier for her character.
Within the first few episodes we have met not only Daria and her family, but also the extensive supporting cast. By the end of the final movie we get to see just how much every one of these characters has grown and changed over the last few years. The show is more than just the story of two misanthropes surviving high school, it’s a master class in character writing and development. (It’s also a showcase of the best music from the 90s, provided you can get a hold of episodes with the original soundtracks.)
DARIA. The titular character, Daria was the misanthropic misfit that so many people could relate to, at least on some level. Smart and sarcastic, we spend the first few episodes observing the world from her outsider point of view. Daria is a writer, and her knack for observation rather than participation is key to her writing style. This all comes to a head in the final of season two, Write Where It Hurts. Daria’s English teacher, Mr O’Neil, tasks Daria to write a story using people she knows. We see each of Daria’s attempts played out through the episode, but none of them seem to work for her.
It’s not until she has a conversation with her mother that she finally writes something that feels ‘true.’
Helen: How about describing what you’d like to see, honestly?
Daria: What do you mean?
Helen: Daria, the easiest thing in the world for you is being honest about what you observe.
Helen: What’s hard for you is being honest about your wishes. About the way you think things should be, not the way they are. You gloss over it with a cynical joke and nobody finds out what you really believe in.
Daria: Aha! So my evil plan is working.
Helen: If you really want to be honest, be truthful about what you’d like to happen. There’s a challenge.
Daria: When the hell did you learn so much about me?
Helen: It’s a funny thing, Daria. You give birth to someone, you just get an urge to keep tabs on them.
Daria then finishes her assignment by creating a story about herself and her family in the future, where she is a successful columnist and her sister has grown up considerably. Her mother and father have both retired and have mellowed out. It’s sappy, but it’s one of the first times we get to see what Daria wishes would happen rather than just her colour commentary.
They continue her development right away at the beginning of season three, in Through A Lens Darkly. In this episode, Helen gets Daria to try wearing contact lenses under the pretence that they’ll be better for driving. She agonises over the decision because her glasses are tied into her persona of not really caring what other people think of her.
Daria: 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?
Quinn: Daria, you’re giving me a headache!
Her aunt Amy points out that contacts just give more options, and that they’re no more vain than primping in the mirror. They wouldn’t change her values or her personality, so why not give it a try? Daria tries the contacts and gets a positive reception at school, reinforcing her view that people judge more on appearances than they like to admit (she even manages to convince the dopey quarterback, Kevin, that glasses actually make you smarter). She takes the contacts out at school because they prove to be too painful to put up with, but as she’s walking home she gets more positive feedback from Trent. The next day she goes to school without contacts OR glasses. When Jane finds out that Daria came to school blind out of sheer vanity her response probably wasn’t the most sensitive. “This is great! You want to borrow my lipstick?”
Later in the girls bathroom, Daria has locked herself in a stall. Both Jane and Jodie try to convince Daria that she’s a teenage girl and doesn’t have to be a martyr to principle, but with no success. It’s not until cheerleader Brittany comes in and says that “knowing that a brain can be worried about her looks makes me feel, um, I dunno, not so shallow or something. Like we’re not that different, just human or whatever”, that Daria finally comes to terms with her own vanity.
They continue along this line of character development in the very next episode, The Old and The Beautiful, in which Daria volunteers to read to senior citizens. When the old folks hear her voice they all refuse to let her read to them, instead begging for Brittany and Kevin. This would be a bruise to anyone’s ego, but as Daria’s voice is a key part of her persona it’s particularly painful. She tries to get advice on how to improve, but nothing helps until she reads to Mrs Blaine, a deaf lady who insists that Daria has ‘such a pretty voice.’ Daria then goes back to the home and reads her own stories to Mrs Blaine, who appears to thoroughly enjoy the graphic violence. Daria has finally realised that it’s not about what you read or how you read it, but the connection that you make with the people to whom you are volunteering your time.
Daria doesn’t get much development independent of other characters for season 4, but in the first episode of season 5 she is forced to test the strength of her personal principles in Fizz Ed. When the school needs more funding to pay for bullet-proof skylights, Ms Li signs a contract allowing soda companies to advertise in the school and directly market their product to the students. Believing (correctly) that a cola company using a school as an advertising venue is inappropriate, Daria tries to get Jodie to complain. When Jodie refuses, she points out that if Daria isn’t willing to put herself out there and properly protest on this one that she really mustn’t care that much. This forces Daria to conduct some introspection, and finally go and complain to the school district office. She is disappointed when this doesn’t get the result she was hoping for, but luckily the contract is reviewed when Ms Li has a nervous breakdown.
Daria as a writer is explored for a final time in episode five of the fifth season, The Story of D. Daria writes a short story and Tom encourages her to submit it to a magazine. She goes out on a limb, takes a chance and is ultimately rejected by the magazine, but not before most of the school learn that she submitted a story in the first place. Everyone’s well wishing and encouragement just makes the ultimate rejection more painful. She takes her anger and humiliation out on Tom, who is mad at her for giving up after just one try. She later realises that she was being a jerk and that Tom was just trying to be supportive. By the end of the episode, she has resolved to keep writing, because the alternative it giving up, and then what?
This is an episode which I relate to on a very personal level. Writers often talk about the pain of being rejected by publishers and agents, but it’s normally from a perspective of having finally made it through the gauntlet. This episode depicted the listless depression and frustration that is very easy to succumb to if a writer doesn’t have a strong support network around them. You’re not just being rejected for a job or by some hottie in a bar, which is mostly being judged on the surface, they’re rejecting something you have poured your soul into. They’re rejecting the essence of your being. The fact that Daria is able to process this, then pick herself up and keep plugging away after her first “thanks but no thanks” letter is a huge moment for a character who so rarely puts herself out there.
The rest of Daria’s development happens in her relationships with other characters, particularly with her family and Jane. Check back next week for the next instalment when we focus on Jane, Daria’s kindred spirit and everyone’s favourite fictional artist.
Until then, eat some pizza.