This year marks 20 years since the debut of Daria, the MTV series about a bespectacled, combat boot-wearing misfit whose defining trait was, on the surface, a deep disdain for those around her. In the years since viewers were first introduced to Daria Morgendorffer, she’s become a heroine of sorts for many who saw (or still see) themselves as outsiders – particularly women – for whom mainstream depictions of non-traditional characters were, at the time, few and far between. (Cher from Clueless and the Spice Girls weren’t exactly relatable if you were a weird girl in the 1990s.)
Two decades later, the series remains a cherished touchstone of the decade – one whose influence can still be felt across the pop-culture landscape of today.
Despite Daria’s ascension to the ranks of beloved pop-culture feminists, her origin story isn’t exactly a girl-power fantasy. The character of Daria Morgendorffer first appeared on Beavis & Butthead as the whip-smart, exasperated foil to the titular teenage dumbasses. (How asinine were Beavis and Butthead? Their nickname for Daria was “diarrhea.” Heh heh. Heh.) She was added, according to series creator Mike Judge, as “somebody who obviously points out that [Beavis and Butt-Head] are stupid. … Also maybe she’s a little bit of a rebel herself, and obviously smarter than them.”
Mission accomplished: Daria proved to be the perfect sarcastic avatar for the too-cool-for-school Nineties kids who not-so-secretly enjoyed watching two dummies play frog baseball every week. And eventually, it led to her own series: MTV tapped B&B staffers Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis to oversee the show – Judge was busy with King of the Hill, which premiered two months before Daria – to bring back female viewers, who were otherwise isolated by the channel’s bro-centric programming. The series debuted in March 1997, and quickly became a hit with the young and disaffected.
The series came at a particularly fertile time for teen programming: Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered one week after Daria; Dawson’s Creek and Felicity followed the next year; and series like Popular, Gilmore Girls and Freaks and Geeks would all debut during the show’s run. But Daria was different from the largely polished protagonists of those shows, and not just because she appeared in cartoon form.
In fact, Daria owes a debt to one of the decade’s most unsung sitcom heroines: Darlene Connor, the misfit middle child on Roseanne – whose run ended, coincidentally, mere months after Daria began. When asked about her inspiration for the character in a recent Vice oral history, Tracy Grandstaff, the voice of Daria, namechecked “Sara Gilbert from Roseanne, probably more than anyone” as an influence.
Both were misanthropes whose tough exterior belied a generally good-hearted, squishy center; both were whip-smart and quick with a quip (or an insult); and unlike the stars of later teen series, Darlene Connor – and Daria, though again, she was animated—actually looked like teenagers, rather than the Hollywood ideal of what a high school sophomore might resemble. That was crucial.
Another crucial difference: while shows like Dawson’s Creek or Felicity dealt with problems high-schoolers might be able to relate to (academic problems, growing apart from your friends, and the like), they were also, in large part, soap operas that happened to star young people. Even though Daria was created by adults, the way the series approached life as a teenager, particularly one who didn’t have any interest fitting in with her more conventional peers, felt more authentic. (One-liners like, “I don’t have low self-esteem – I have low esteem for everyone else,” certainly helped.)
Daria was also, as its creators have noted, in touch with some of the hot-button topics of the times – issues like eating disorders, or bringing corporate sponsors to school campuses, or racism in small towns. “They weren’t obvious topics in some cases, but they scratched the surface,” Grandtsaff told Vice earlier this year. “They went a little deeper than, ‘Let’s just make Jane and Daria decide to go to a concert and meet guys.'”
While her bubbly, popular sister, Quinn, may have been preoccupied with boys and clothes and dating, Daria didn’t really care about any of that; it was rare that she or her best friend, the artsy and equally sardonic Jane Lane, gave a shit about what the opposite sex was doing at any given time. (Daria did, of course, have a crush on Jane’s wanna-be rock star brother, Trent, but could you blame her? He was in a band called Mystik Spiral.)
Even when the series did introduce a love interest – Tom Sloane, who starts out as Jane’s boyfriend but ends up dating Daria – he functioned less as a boy for the cranky heroines to moon over, and more as a sneaky plot device that helped show how the characters had grown up. Daria and Jane navigate the challenges of remaining friends after a betrayal; later, Daria and Tom discuss whether or not to have sex. These issues were handled with both sensitivity and the show’s trademark biting humor, proving that things like liking a boy or losing your virginity didn’t need to be overwrought, soapy moments – they could just be things that happened, and you talked about it with your friends, and you got through it.
Daria went off the air in 2001 (one of two films, Is It College Yet?, premiered in 2002, signaling the definitive end of the series), but the character never really went away. Thanks to the Internet, Daria’s legacy lives on in endless listicles (“28 Daria Quotes for Every Situation,” “17 Times Daria Just Got You,” you get the idea), as well as endless items on Etsy that the character herself would surely find ridiculous. (The show was, unsurprisingly, harsh when it came to capitalism and the co-opting of youth culture.)
Daria’s legacy can also be seen all across the pop culture landscape: characters like Parks & Recreation’s April Ludgate, who probably watched one too many episodes of Sick Sad World, or Community’s Britta Perry, can trace their lineage directly back to Daria. Meanwhile, writers like 2 Dope Queens’s Phoebe Robinson (whose blog is called Blaria, i.e., “Black Daria”) and Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson have shouted her out as a major influence.
And, of course, there’s Liz: Even before co-creator Susie Lewis told Entertainment Weekly that Daria grows up to be “the only female writer on a late-night talk show,” the comparisons between the character and 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, herself a bespectacled pessimist who was smarter than everyone else around her, and not afraid to say so, were inevitable.
Revisiting the series as an adult, it’s remarkable how relevant the episodes still feel, and how many of the experiences the characters have still ring true. Decades may have passed (and we may be living in an even scarier world now than in 1997) but some things, like the crappiness of high school and dealing with your lame-o parents, will never change. It’s reassuring, then, that nerdy, weird girls everywhere will continue to have a guiding light in Daria – someone who can show them that it’s OK to be yourself, even if that means being an outcast.
Or, as Daria herself would say, “I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.”