Daria: A Character Development Masterclass, Part 3 – Helen Morgendorffer

Hello and welcome to part three of my exploration of the female characters in Daria.

This show is a fantastic example of writing of female characters as people with a wide range of personalities and drives, rather than relying on tired old tropes.

For a more in-depth explanation of why I am embarking on this endeavour please read the first post in this series.

Before I begin, all quotes herein can be found in the episode transcripts atOutpost Daria.

This post is about Daria’s  mother, Helen Morgendorffer (US readers please note, the author of this post is an Australian. I’ll be using Australian English and saying ‘Mum’ instead of ‘Mom’).

Daria and Helen

Helen is a character emblematic of the ‘go go 90’s’; she’s a prime example of the middle-aged mum who is trying to balance work and family and consequently being judged on every move she makes. She can’t cook, she’s under a lot of stress, and the person who pushes her the hardest is herself. Parental figures in pop culture tend to be either wise mentors or antagonistic, nagging caregivers. Helen manages to be both and more because the writers took the time to develop her character, rather than setting her up at the start as a work-ahollic who doesn’t understand her child and just leaving her there. Unlike Daria, Quinn and Jane, there are very few episodes that involve Helen in the forefront of the primary storyline, but she is given plenty of ‘learning moments’ in episodes throughout the series.

As regular readers and devoted Daria fans will know by now, episode one involves Daria showing up to her new school and being diagnosed with low self-esteem by the school counsellor. When Helen finds out the result over dinner her reaction leaves a lot to be desired –

“We tell you over and over again that you’re wonderful and you just don’t get it. What’s wrong with you?”

Helen spends the first two seasons or so attempting to get Daria to make friends and socialise more. She uses bribery, coercion and guilt to try and achieve this, but seems to give up by season three. We need to remember that Daria doesn’t talk to her parents much, at least at the beginning, so Helen has very little information to go from and her attempts to get Daria to hang out with the few other kids she knows about (mostly the quarterback, Kevin) fall woefully short as a result.

Helen and her husband, Jake, are both worried that they don’t know their daughters as well as they should. Helen tries to rectify this with Quinn in the episode Pierce Me  by appearing in a Mother and Daughter fashion show with her, but their senses of style don’t really match. That and they both stack it on the runway.

helen quinn runway daria

Helen and Quinn do have a lot in common, however – both are hugely competitive and have very busy schedules, and Helen often tries to convince Quinn that she should be putting her focus and ambition into her studies. These similarities are juxtaposed in the musical episode Daria! (yes, there was a musical episode. It was the 90’s, remember?). A huge storm is about to hit Lawndale and all residents are urged to go home before it lands. Helen can’t seem to tear herself away from work, and Quinn just can’t stop herself from searching for the perfect ‘storm-ready’ outfit. The two sing a duet called “Don’t they know I can’t leave yet?” showcasing their obsessive and competitive natures (Author’s note: I wasn’t able to find the song by itself online, but the whole episode is worth watching for the pure absurdity).

Helen, Quinn, Daria Musical
“Don’t they know I can’t leave yet?”

Not only is Helen competitive, but she also has a fierce protective instinct and sense of justice – well, she is a lawyer. This comes to the fore particularly when her daughters are under attack. In my previous post about Jane, I mentioned the episode Arts n Crass in which Jane and Daria create a controversial poster for an art contest. The school administration alters the poster without their permission, so Daria and Jane deface the poster and wind up in trouble. Below is what happens when Ms Li calls Helen about the situation.

Ms. Li:  Mrs. Morgendorffer, I’m afraid I have some rather bad news. Your daughter, Daria, appears to have been involved in an act of vandalism.

Helen:  What?!

Ms. Li:  Mrs. Morgendorffer, your daughter collaborated with Jane Lane in the creation of a poster for our art contest.

Helen:  Yes, I’m aware of that.

Ms. Li:  We found part of the poster unacceptable, so it was altered prior to its entry. Unfortunately, someone defaced the poster while it was on display, and since your daughter and Ms. Lane objected to changing it, I must assume that they were the vandals. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take drastic action.

(as Ms. Li talks, Helen’s expression slowly begins shifting from “concerned mom” to ” lawyer”)

Helen:  Wait a moment. You’re saying the girls were against changing the poster, but entered it into the contest anyway?

Ms. Li:  It was entered for them.

Helen:  I was under the impression that participation in this contest was voluntary.

Ms. Li:  It was, but your daughter refused to volunteer, so in her case, I made it mandatory.

Helen:  All right, Ms. Li, let me make sure I have this straight. You took my daughter’s poster from her, altered its content, exhibited it against her will, and are now threatening discipline because you claim she defaced her own property, which you admit to stealing?

Ms. Li:  (flustered) That’s not what I said at all!

Helen:  Ms. Li, are you familiar with the phrase “violation of civil liberties”?

Ms. Li:  I…

Helen:  And the phrase “big fat lawsuit”?

Helen, Daria, Ms Li, Big Fat Lawsuit

Helen  also sticks up for Daria against other parents. In The New Kid Daria makes friends with a boy named Ted and gives him some chewing gum. When his parents find out, they march straight over to the Morgendorffer household and demand that Daria stays away from him. Helen’s reply of “Look here, Hippy…” is both angry and derisive.

In the season three episode It Happened one Nut, it becomes apparent that Jane has learned which of Helen’s buttons to push in order to get a required result. When Helen forces Daria to take a job at the mall’s nut stand, Daria is utterly miserable about being made to interact with the public and also work with Kevin.

Daria, Jane, Nutty World

Jane calls Helen and uses the magic phrase, “She’s the senior employee at the nut stand, and the most qualified, but for some reason her male co-worker is the one they’ve got behind the counter.”

Presto – instant outrage and a freed Daria.

By the time we get to season three, Helen seems to be a bit better at connecting with Daria. In Through a Lens Darkly Helen floats the idea of Daria getting contact lenses. I covered this episode from Daria’s perspective in a previous post, and Helen’s story is a more subtle one here. While Daria is struggling with the choice, Helen realises that she may not have been respecting Daria’s ideas about who she is versus who Helen wants her to be.

Helen:  I just want you to know that I was thinking about our conversation the other day, and I don’t want you to believe for a second that I think you need contact lenses. You’re beautiful inside and out, no matter what, and I understand and respect your objection to contacts, and there’ll be no more discussions about it. Okay?

Daria:  (sighs) All right, you talked me into it.

Helen:  I did?

Daria:  Mom, that reverse psychology of yours is killer.

Helen looks perplexed here, but the truth is that Daria has come to her own decision already. This moment between them adds to a foundation of trust that is fully realised by the end of the show’s run.

It’s obvious very early on that Helen struggles with balancing work and family life. Even when she’s spending time with her family at home she is often interrupted mid-conversation by an urgent phone call.  In the season one episode The Teachings of Don Jake, the family go on a camping trip to try and “reconnect” with one another. Helen insists on no technology, including no phones. When the rest of the family go crazy from eating psychotropic berries, Daria doesn’t know what to do…

Helen Camping Berries Daria
“Girls, have you seen your father’s spirit animal? He was just telling it about his childhood when it scampered off!”

… until she hears the familiar sound of a ringing phone coming from her mother’s backpack and she’s able to call 911. They’re evacuated by helicopter.

Daria camping berries helicopter
“…has anyone seen my pants?”

Something similar occurs in a later episode, The Daria Hunter. Helen and Jake sign up as volunteers for a school field trip to a paintball ground in order to become more involved with their daughters’ education, but Helen winds up talking on the phone to her boss while shooting at the opposing team. She then shelters from the rain in a tent with Ms Li, and the two get into an argument about which of them has the worse influence on Daria’s attitude.

Helen:  Absolutely. Although it would be nice if the students got a little more encouragement. Maybe a bright kid like Daria would have a better attitude.

(Ms. Li laughs)

Helen:  Did I say something funny?

Ms. Li:  With all due respect, I can’t think of a prison that could create an attitude like your daughter’s, much less a school. No, I always assumed that came from interaction with her parents, or lack of it.Daria Helen Ms Li

Helen:  (angry) Oh, so you draw a distinction between prison and school. Because from what I’ve heard, you run the one pretty much like the other.

Burn!

In a later episode, Ill, Daria comes down with a mysterious stress-related rash. Helen gets a call from the school but, due to an important meeting, needs to rely on Jake to take Daria to the hospital. When she finally gets to the hospital and learns that Daria still hasn’t seen a doctor, she goes into full “lawyer mode” to make sure Daria gets proper treatment.  This is how Helen typically responds to stress – she takes control of the situation and gets tough until things are resolved. Later, Helen explains that she’s proud of the way Daria handled the situation. Daria realises just how worried her parents were and that she’s lucky to have them in her corner. She mumbles “thanks for being there for me,” and Helen couldn’t be happier.

I have discussed the episode Write Where It Hurts in previous posts, but this is an episode that is a huge learning experience for both Helen and Daria. Helen attempts to help Daria through some pretty heavy writers block but is continuingly distracted by work-related phone calls. Her frustration with work transitions to being frustrated with Daria, and the whole situation blows up in her face.

Helen:  Is something wrong?

Daria:  Wrong? Uh, no. I’m thinking about an assignment I got in school.

Helen:  Anything I can help with?

Daria:  No. (sighs) I’m supposed to write a story using people I know as fictional characters.

Helen:  Really? That sounds fascinating.

Daria:  Not so far. Everything I write comes out bad. I have no story.

Helen:  Oh, I’m sure… (phone rings) Hang on a second, Daria. (answers phone) Hellooo. No, that’s not a counteroffer, it’s an insult. I will talk to you tomorrow during office hours. Good-bye! (hangs up) Okay, now, what are the other students writing?

Daria:  They’re not. This is an extra assignment just for me.

Helen:  Ooh!

Daria:  A punishment for being smart.

Helen:  Now, come on, Daria, I’m sure you’ll do a great job if you just put your mind to it.

Daria:  You are very, very wrong.

Helen:  Sure you will. All you… (phone rings) Yes?! Tomorrow! During office hours. (hangs up) All you have to do is get off your tuchus and do it! When Quinn has a challenge…

Daria:  Quinn? All her challenges involve coordinating her shoes with the colour of her date’s eyes.

Helen:  Daria, what I mean is…

Daria:  How can you talk to me about Quinn? She’ll never have this kind of problem. It involves thinking. You make me tell you what’s wrong, in between calls, and then you bring up Quinn? Don’t you know me at all? (leaves)

Helen:  Good one, Morgendorffer. (phone rings) Damn! (throws phone at tree)

She tries to fix things later, but then Jake sets a stew on fire and she has to go and take care of it. At long last, after Daria has had a few more attempts at storytelling, Helen apologises for their fight. Daria asks if  comparing one sibling to the other would get Helen an automatic F in parenting 101, and Helen says that the problem is that there is no parenting 101. She then suggests that Daria writes what she’d honestly like to see (as quoted in a previous post). This exchange between the two shows that Helen is also still learning how to be a parent, something that everyone with kids struggles with in one form or other.

daria-and-helen

Daria and Helen continue to have similar heart-to-heart talks through seasons three and four, giving each other help and advice. It even gets to a point where Helen learns that rather than directly asking Daria what’s wrong, she should let her daughter come to her. In the episode Partners Complaint she’s finally learned to play it perfectly –

(knock on Daria’s bedroom door)

Daria:  Yeah? (Helen enters) No, I don’t want to talk about it.

Helen:  Talk about what?

Daria:  Whatever it is you came in to have a heart to heart about.

Helen:  I came in to ask you to rinse off your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher. Your father found a cheese fry melted onto his “World’s Greatest Dad” cup and he thought it was some kind of rodent. Now he’s sworn off coffee.

Daria:  Then I should be hearing from the Nobel committee any day now.

Helen:  All right, then, I’ll leave you to your reading. (starts to leave)

Daria:  Don’t I seem inordinately unhappy to you?

Helen:  I don’t want to pry. (sees look on Daria’s face) Well… I did overhear your argument with Jodie…

Partners complaint

By this point Helen has also gotten to know Jane and appreciate her as Daria’s best friend, suggesting that Daria have a chat to Jane, too. She’s stopped trying to get Daria to socialise with the popular kids and is instead focusing on actually listening to her daughters. It’s also the moment that lets Daria feel she can go to Helen when shit really hits the fan at the end of season four.

The eighth episode of season four, Psycho Therapy is a huge turning point for Helen. She’s up for partner at the law firm and is told that she and her family need to attend a retreat so she can be assessed for the position. It’s billed as a “spa for the soul,” but really the retreat is a hotel full of counsellors and psychoanalysts. After Helen spends her personal counselling session and her couples session with Jake worried that she was giving the wrong answers, the entire family are invited to work on their issues together. They are asked to “wear each other’s faces,” pretend to be one another to develop empathy for each other. This goes about as well as you’d expect.

Dr. Bacon:  Maybe the grown-ups can lead the way here. Helen and Jake, go on. Switcharoo.

Jake:  Um, gee, I don’t know if I can do this. Well, I’ll give it a try. (he extends his fingers to simulate a telephone and speaks like Helen) Oh, hi Eric! No, just walked in. I thought I’d make dinner for…what? You have a hangnail? I’ll be right over!

psycho therapy jake

(Helen nervously laughs and takes a drink of wine)

Dr. Bacon:  Uh-uh. Jake.

Helen – I mean…Dammit! I lost another client, dammit! I can’t understand why! Dammit! Nobody likes poor old Jake. Should I think about the reason? Oh, must be my father’s fault. Where’s the newspaper, dammit! (fakes dropping off to sleep and snoring)

psycho therapy helen

Jake:  Look at the time! Gee, dear. You’ll have to tell me about your deepest fears and worries when I get back. I’ve got a big meeting, so I better run!

Helen:  No matter, I’m not saying anything relevant anyway. I’m lost in a fog, when I’m not flying into a rage!

Jake:  Oh, Jakey. Let me bring home the pizza. I have to be the one doing everything so everyone will thank me and tell me what a big superwoman I am. I’m very, very important and very, very stressed and I don’t have time to actually do anything for anyone else, but I can pretend I care, can’t I?

(Helen’s face turns red in shocked embarrassment and Jake sighs deeply)

Helen (quiet):  Everybody hates me.

Quinn:  Are you being Daria now?

Dr. Bacon:  Stay with it everyone, this is good stuff.

(Helen pushes chair back and stands)

Helen:  I’ve given everything I’ve got, but it’s just not enough. Well, I’ve got nothing left to give.

(Helen exits)

Daria follows Helen out to the car, where Helen has decided to spend the rest of their stay so she won’t be hurting anybody. Seeing her mother this way, Daria repays some of Helen’s kindness throughout the years by explaining that she’s actually a pretty great mum.

 

Helen:  Look what I’ve done to my family! Your father feels completely neglected and resentful. I’ve shut you out so many times, you don’t even try to talk to me, and Quinn…well, I can’t even think about what happened there, not right now. Oh my God, Daria! You didn’t hear that!

Daria:  Look, Mom. Dad has to feel neglected; it’s how he stays the center of attention. And the reason I don’t talk to you is that I know you’ll hang on my every word, and frankly, who needs that kind of responsibility? And as for Quinn, well, I can’t even think about what happened there.

(Helen laughs and stops herself)

Helen:  Oh, my.

Daria:  So you get carried away with the job. Big deal. You’re just as committed to the family.

Helen:  I try to be.

Daria:  You’re very grounded, it’s why you’re half-crazy.

Helen:  You really don’t hate me for working so hard?

Daria:  I came to this stupid place and pretended to be well-adjusted, didn’t I?

Helen:  Hmm.

Daria:  Well, anyway. I came to this stupid place.

daria helen psychotherapy

This conversation serves to cement Helen’s bond with her child as an adult. That Daria is giving her advice and reassurance, rather than the other way around, shows a real maturity and friendship that wasn’t there in earlier seasons. They’ve both seen each other’s vulnerable sides and are stronger for it.

At the end of this episode her boss, Eric, reads Helen’s psychological report: “Helen Morgendorffer suffers from overarching competitive aggression, unhealthy self-involvement, a gross insensitivity to others needs, and an overriding conviction that she is always right.”

This assessment is correct on the surface, except after this episode Helen is no longer willing to put her family last.

In the finale of season four, Dye Dye My Darling, Helen is working long hours rushed off her feet and stressing that she has “no time to waste!” But when Daria comes to visit Helen at the office, looking like the embodiment of misery itself, she doesn’t hesitate to put her work-life on hold and help her daughter. She dispenses some pretty rock-solid advice, too.

tumblr_lrtbw2GdBE1r2wm2po1_500

Daria:  (sighs) You know… I had everything more or less under control. I’m not saying it was great, but I could deal with school, I could deal with home, and now nothing’s under control.

Helen:  It never is, sweetie. We just tell ourselves otherwise so we can function.

Daria:  Who came up with that stupid arrangement?

Helen:  It’s called life.

Daria:  Life sucks.

Helen:  Yes. Sometimes. (pause) Often.

Daria:  That’s reassuring.

Helen:  But it still beats the alternative. Honey, things will work out. I don’t know how, but they will.

Daria:  You don’t know how? What kind of parental wisdom is that?

Helen:  Honest.

Daria:  Don’t you have to be getting back to that huge case of yours?

Helen:  Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s completely under control.

Daria went to Helen because their relationship has solidified and she needs real adult advice. She couldn’t talk to Jane for obvious reasons, but because Helen has put in the hard yards and developed their relationship, learning to put work on hold to make time for her family, Daria finally feels comfortable with opening up to her. Daria shows her appreciation by giving her mum a very rare smile – a miracle given the situation.

There is one topic, however, that no teenager feels one hundred percent comfortable discussing with parents. When Daria starts dating Tom, Helen’s anxiety shifts to worrying that Daria is having sex. It makes for some great comedic moments, but despite the topic  hanging over them Daria still goes to Helen for relationship advice in Sappy Anniversary.

 Daria:  Well, um… I was wondering if I could ask you something…

Helen:  Yes!

Daria:  Uh, well… Tom and I have been going out for about six months, and…

Helen:  Oh. Um… Daria, sometimes we may think we’re ready for something and it won’t change anything but we’re really not and it changes everything and in the rush to grow up we sometimes forget how precious are the fleeting years before adulthood’s cares…

Daria:  It’s not about sex.

Helen:  Thank God! I mean, “Oh, I see.” But when you’re ready, please feel free to come to me. Not that there’s any hurry, nor should that statement be interpreted as some kind of encouragement.

Daria:  Right. Anyway, it’s about our anniversary. It’s not that I’m expecting anything…

Helen:  And you shouldn’t.

Daria:  I shouldn’t?

Helen:  No. Because you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Trust me.

Helen tells Daria a story of one of her wedding anniversaries where Jake made her a candle.

Daria:  So, you were disappointed, huh?

Helen:  Well, I would have been if I’d been expecting a diamond bracelet. But I knew that a lot of time and love went into that silly lump of wax. See, Daria, it doesn’t matter what he buys you or where he takes you. The only thing that matters is how you feel about each other.

Daria:  But what if he forgets your anniversary altogether?

Helen: Show no mercy.

Helen Show No Mercy

A few episodes later in The Story of D­, Helen keeps freaking out when she suspects that Tom is up in Daria’s room. In several scenes reminiscent of my own experiences, she bursts into Daria’s bedroom unannounced, suggesting she and Tom come downstairs or that Helen bring them some snacks. At the end of the episode she  bursts in just in time to see Tom give Daria a chaste smooch.

The Story of D, Teltale smooch

This is all leading up to My Night at Daria’s, when Tom and Daria fall asleep while studying in Daria’s room and wake at four AM.

“Oh god. We have to get you the hell out of here.”

Tom tries to sneak out, only to be caught by Jake who is too sleepy and/or drunk to register any issue. When Jake goes back to bed and mentions to Helen that he should have offered Tom a snack, Helen jumps to the obvious conclusion about what happens between two teens with raging hormones. “My hormones don’t rage…”

tumblr_m7sbmjZAQt1r6dfgpo1_500

Daria is able to convince her mother that nothing happened, but this doesn’t stop Quinn telling the fashion club, and therefore the rest of the school, that Tom was in Daria’s room all night.

 Helen:  Not that I would ever try to talk you out of it — which is not to say I’m trying to talk you into it – it’s just that I’d like to have the chance to discuss things with you first. I only wish I could have gone to my mother before I made such an awful mistake. What is it about stunt drivers that makes otherwise level-headed teenage girls just whip off their…

Daria:  (quickly interrupts) Okay, okay. Um, I’ve got to study. Big test. Biiig test…

At the end of the episode Daria actually volunteers information to Helen, saying that she and Tom haven’t had sex and aren’t going to anytime soon.

 Helen:  Well, I can’t say I’m not somewhat relieved. I just want you to know that whatever decisions you make in life, I’m on your side and…

(Daria lifts the newspaper high to hide from Helen)

Daria:  So instead, we’ve decided to sublimate our urges by traveling cross-country with a motorcycle gang.

Helen:  All right. You just remember to call home on Sunday nights.

Daria:  (lowers paper) Hey!

Helen:  Ha!

That they are able to exchange this kind of banter is a fantastic testament to how far their relationship has come. There’s no way this exchange would have been plausible without all of the foundation work laid previously.

The final episode of season five, Boxing Daria, was a strong finish to the show (discounting the subsequent movie Is it College Yet?). In this instalment we get some insight into Daria’s childhood. The Morgendorffers get a new refrigerator and the delivery box is left in the yard. It triggers a memory from when Daria was about five or six, when she used to play in a refrigerator box that she had turned into a sort of cubby-house in her room.  She remembers hearing her parents arguing about her, and her hiding in the box to block it out.

Boxing Daria

When Daria brings the argument up over a decade later, Helen has no idea what she’s talking about and Daria accuses her of lying. When Quinn confirms that Daria is right about the fight, Daria crawls into the new refrigerator box and won’t leave. Helen is genuinely perplexed and asks Jake for help. Quinn clues them in on what’s bothering her sister, and they agree to talk with Daria about what happened. They are able to explain, with the benefit of hindsight, that the two of them had been under a lot of stress at work and kept getting called into Daria’s school due to her anti-social tendencies.

boxing daria

This episode reminds us that Helen used to try and force Daria to socialise, and we’re given an explanation as to how it began in the first place. She knows now to just leave Daria be, that she’s perfectly fine.

Then Daria talks it all through with Jane, the person she trusts most. She talks to Jane about Helen, and (previously) to Helen about Jane. They’re her two best friends.

There are still more topics I could cover with regard to Helen. I could show examples of how her relationship with her sisters mirrors that of Daria and Quinn while also explaining Helen’s competitiveness (I Don’t and Aunt Nauseum).
Daria Aunt Nauseum

I could talk about her and Jake’s marriage, and how they were hippies when they were young but have less in common now they’ve gone ‘white collar’ and can only connect to each other physically (That was Then This is Dumb, Antisocial Climbers, Of Human Bonding).

“…if we focus our positive energy we can make the Pentagon rise of the ground!… RISE, DAMMIT!”

I could even discuss how Helen is a proud feminist with body image issues who feels the pressure to cook and clean for her family while also maintaining a high-pressure job (Jake of Hearts).

But all of that is just background detail. It’s thoroughly interesting background detail which adds extra layers to Helen’s character, but it doesn’t actually push her forward.

Helen and Daria’s relationship is highly complex and quite possibly one of the best-realised examples of parent/child relationship development in modern times. Helen goes from being distant, distracted and subsequently shut out of her child’s life, to developing a close bond with Daria. This is the result of experience, trial and error and maturation of both mother and daughter, and is written with such subtle finesse that you don’t really notice the change unless you’re looking for it. Simply put, it’s an example of exemplary writing.

Next week’s entry will focus on Daria’s sister, Quinn, and her transition from airhead to confident young woman. Until then… you should probably call your mother.

helen phone

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