The Optimism of Daria

No, you didn’t misread the title.

For those who are unaware or just don’t remember, Daria was a cartoon aimed at teens that aired between 1997 and 2002 on MTV. It was a spin-off of the Mike Judge moral panic-inspiring Beavis and Butthead, in which Daria was a character who appeared occasionally, often tormented by the show’s namesake pair. By the time Daria had her own series, Beavis and Butthead were boiled down to a single throwaway line in the series trailer, where they weren’t even mentioned by name.

With a Daria reboot looking like a reality, I thought it was a good time to talk a little bit about this millennial snarker.

Daria follows its cynical, monotone eponymous lead Daria as she moves to the town of Lawndale and struggles to navigate high school and the adolescence in a world that seems to run on anything but logic. But Daria, along with her friend Jane, her family, and her Lawndale classmates, manages to navigate those challenges with wit, humor, and even the poignant moment every now and then for five seasons and two TV movies. In its attempts to get a home video release, the series struggled with music licensing issues, since each episode featured multiple music samples from popular music at the time, but it finally saw a home video release in 2010 with much of the music sadly stripped away. (The website Outpost Daria originally catalogued all of the music cues and where they appeared for fans. That site went down in 2013, but a “reborn” version of it and the music cues catalogue can be found here for those who are curious.)

Daria also went up for streaming on Hulu around that time, which is how I found it again in my 20s. I enjoyed the show in my middle and high school days, but rewatching it again as an adult, I came to really love it. I could appreciate so much about the characters, about the way the show portrayed mundane insanities of life and its myriad experiences are, and especially Daria herself. I had seen her as intelligent, but still overly negative in my teen years. But as an adult, I realized something.

Daria is actually an optimist in a way.

Sure, she’s constantly making pointed jabs at the world around her, she’s comfortable with and interested in the darker parts of life, and she comes off as completely disaffected.

Despite all of that, she keeps going, keeps trying.

(Mild spoilers for a few episodes)

In “Write Where It Hurts”, Daria writes a story about what she wants to see, which includes a future where she and her family gather for a game of cards, at which time she lives as a writer who, in spite of her constant frustration, continues writing an opinion column to try and “wake her readers up”.

In “Is It College Yet?” we see Daria realizing how arbitrary admissions can be when her wealthy boyfriend gets in on the notoriety and wealth of his family – and then her admission seems contingent not on her academic prowess, but on who she knows or what she can offer the school.

She even manages to get herself embroiled in a love triangle with Jane and rich kid Tom.

As frustrated as she is with the people and world around her, even with herself and the fact that she is just as human as everyone else, falling prey to life’s foolish follies even when she thinks she’s immune to them, Daria doesn’t give up, shut down, or quit. She keeps moving forward with humor and wit.

To me, the penultimate example is the episode “The Misery Chick”. This episode resonated with me in many ways, but especially in the way it dealt with death. I lost my father a few years prior to seeing this episode. Topics like grief and all the aspects and heady realities of mortality that hit you when you face death so close to you were things I found difficult to discuss with my peers. Naturally, no one wants to talk about death.

In the episode, Daria has a morbid rush with popularity after a one-off character, Lawndale football legend Tommy Sherman, dies from running into a goal post and having it fall on him. Daria resents the fact that everyone wants to talk to her and basically have her cheer them up because they assume she’s comfortable with death and the dark side of life, dubbing her “The Misery Chick”. Meanwhile, her friend Jane avoids her for being so blasé about the death of another person.

The episode is in no way cheeful, but it manages to avoid the melodramatic trappings of a typical “very special episode” that deals with death.

Instead, it focuses on Daria trying to be a realist about the way people will often sanctify someone who may have been cruel or loathsome while living just because they passed away, but also learning a lesson in empathy and in understanding what it is most of her classmates are actually grieving for – their own mortality and the mortality of those they love.

Daria can stare into the abyss in a way most people are afraid to, and yet she can still keep going. She keeps growing, keeps learning, and keeps trying new things, no matter how futile they may seem to her. While her continued indulgence of the very things that seem to frustrate her is a necessity of the plot’s continued forward momentum, I also feel that, in its own way, it’s a form of optimism and hope. A particularly notable one.

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