The Best Feminist Lessons from MTV’s Daria

When I was in fourth grade, a friend and classmate of mine who was a successful child actor announced to our class that he had a guest role on the MTV series, Daria. As he was a peer of ours and our parents wanted to appear supportive of our creativity and self-expression, we all were allowed to watch MTV that night to watch his episode. If you were eight years old in the 90’s, you know what a big deal this was. Needless to say, I watched the show that night with my parents, and immediately became obsessed with what would become my favorite TV show of childhood.

Daria Morgendorffer, the show’s cynical, misanthropic titular character, has become a cult icon for the millennial generation, and with good reason.

With her “uncool” — but now unspeakably chic — outfit of oversized round glasses, combat boots, and black kilt, to her sarcastic-yet-nuanced observations of the ridiculous people surrounding her in Lawndale, Daria emerged as the feminist voice our generation needed, and still needs.

While Daria continues to be celebrated as a sarcastic ideal and style icon for a certain subset of girls who came of age in the 90’s and early 00’s, her feminist leanings and the lessons we all learned from her often take a backseat.

While it was clear Daria didn’t fit in, her unapologetic pride about her considerable intellect and her refusal to bend to what her classmates (and society as a whole) expected of her, our pessimistic protagonist remains a pinnacle of what it means to be an unapologetic female in a world that is not always accepting of one.  

Anyone who has watched the show is familiar with Daria’s chicly gothic artist best friend Jane, her brother Trent (who happens to be the hottest cartoon character ever drawn), and her beautiful, uber-popular, and completely opposite younger sister Quinn (another unappreciated character — #justiceforquinn). These characters, who each had personality and character in their own right, helped emphasize Daria’s feminist message.

In the Season 1 episode “This Year’s Model,” a modeling agency comes to Lawndale High under the guise of recruiting the next big thing in modeling. Naturally, Quinn, perky blonde cheerleader Brittany, and many of the other girls and boys in Daria’s midst jump at the chance to be a model, with Quinn begging her and Daria’s parents (Jake and Helen) to let her participate. Daria, however, remains skeptical, realizing it as the scam that it was. The entire school pressures her and criticizes her for not wanting to try out, but Daria holds strong to her beliefs — that the agency, and Lawndale High itself, are using young, impressionable students for their own personal gain.

Daria turns out to be right — the school was paid a hefty sum of money to have the agency on campus and it ends up turning into a local scandal. Even in the face of extreme peer pressure, Daria did not give up on what she believed and refused to be evaluated on her looks just because it was the popular thing to do.

Any fan of Daria knows that one of Daria’s favorite pastimes, aside from reading and watching Sick Sad World, is messing with her sister Quinn. In the episode “Too Cute,” Quinn, who is widely considered to be the most beautiful girl at their school, becomes convinced she needs plastic surgery. In a rare sisterly move, Quinn recruits Daria to go with her to visit the doctor, who not only tells Quinn she needs to change everything about herself, but suggests some modifications for Daria that will leave her looking exactly like Quinn. Daria, despite her negative feelings towards her sister, puts her ego aside and tells her: “There’s nothing wrong with you, physically. You’ve got the kind of looks that make other girls mentally ill. You’re perfect.”

Daria shows us that there is nothing to be gained by women putting each other down. No matter how two women may feel about each other, degrading each other’s looks and smarts will only make us weaker individually, when we could instead stand strong together. In standing up for her sister, Daria teaches us a lesson that sisterhood, both literal and metaphorical, stands above all — especially in the face of adversity.

In the Season 2 episode “Pierce Me,” Daria gets recruited by her best friend Jane’s brother Trent (who she happens to have a huge crush on) to buy Jane a birthday present in secret. Trent, with his tattoos, piercings, and “dude-in-a-band” attitude, ends up convincing Daria to get her very first piercing, a navel hoop (which was very on-brand for the 90’s counterculture). Daria, despite her complete lack of interest in body modification, goes ahead with it. Later though, Daria realizes it’s not her style and gets rid of the piercing completely.

What she teaches us here is that we are all human. As women come of age and begin to discover who they are and what they believe in, they can sometimes feel that if you make one mistake or do one small thing that betrays who you are, then you are a complete fraud.

In a world of 24/7 communication and access, where people share their beliefs on social media ad nauseam and constantly sit on a virtual high horse, it is easy for a woman to feel that if she does something for a boy or girl she likes, or if she does something that does not always totally align with the public feminist agenda, then she is less of a woman and less of a feminist than all those elusive online voices.

Daria teaches us that you can have strong convictions and hold fast to those beliefs, but at the end of the day, we are all human beings and beautifully flawed women — something none of us needs to apologize for.

Francine Weiss is a NYC-based freelance writer focusing on culture and lifestyle topics. She also works as a corporate publicist, following several years in the fashion industry. A native of Manhattan, Francine enjoys reading, trying new restaurants, modern art, and unicorns.  

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