Daria Morgendorffer was the first person to teach me a girl doesn't have to smile
MTV’s Daria turned 21 years old this March.
Rarely do I try to dictate how others should process their own nostalgia, especially when it comes to the ’90s. After all, the era was so fecund with influential pop culture staples and micro-revolutions that it’s tough to find a universally shared experience. That said, here is a hill I will gladly die on: When discussing the lasting cultural influence of ’90s media, MTV’s Daria must absolutely be part of the conversation, every single time, without question.
Why? Because 21 years after its premiere, Daria is still one of the more radical depictions of girlhood, female friendships, and growing up we’ve seen in recent memory. We call upon it as an example of a golden age of MTV’s programming that also included the likes of Unplugged, Æon Flux, and the criminally undervalued Downtown. More importantly, we celebrate Daria for redefining “cool” in a way that included so many of us who, at the time, felt like total misfits.
On the day that Daria premiered, March 3rd, 1997, I was called into the vice principal’s office for loudly insulting a boy who decided to mock me as a “know-it-all” in front of our class.
I had apparently provoked this attack by pointing out a mistake on a recent test to the biology teacher. It was an act that hadn’t negatively affected the class in any way but was still deemed offensive by the classmate who hated my intelligence. After a brief stint in the office I was assured that he, too, would be firmly reprimanded — though I was also told that I should take a moment after class to talk to the teacher about “such matters,” rather than address the issue in front of other students.
I was also advised to “prevent” conflicts like this by smiling more.
Basically, the messaging was that I’d attract less negative attention by being sweet and shrinking myself down to something way less “threatening.”
I knew multiple girls who had received similar advice. So yeah, Daria Morgendorffer arrived at the exact right moment for me and many others.
She was unquestionably smart and visibly unimpressed. Even daring to ask her to smile would earn the offender a monotone-yet-deadly decimation of their spirit. Daria’s confidence in her intelligence was almost rebellious in the face of a student body and, at times, a family that were constantly pleading with her to tone down her “brain” persona, lighten up, and blend in. Her commitment to remaining true to herself — even if that deemed her the Misery Chick (which was a load of crap because she was just fine) — shone as a beacon for those of us who only wished to be ourselves, even if that wasn’t always (or ever) cheerful. Even now, as we’re witnessing campaigns geared specifically toward respecting a woman’s right not to smile, the image of Daria’s firm expression is still evoked as a symbol of defiance.
Daria also challenged societal notions of acceptable femininity without discounting one interpretation of womanhood over another.
Both Daria and her iconic best friend, Jane Lane, shirked expectations of gentle, soft femininity with their grunge fashion, unapologetic candor, and love of eccentricity. Conversely, Daria’s younger and unrelentingly bubbly sister Quinn had no qualms about subscribing to all things typically associated with girlhood: pink, popularity, and a deep, abiding love of fashion. Still, neither Daria nor Quinn are ever truly framed as villains, though they constantly clash. But instead of mocking Quinn, Daria helped develop Quinn’s identity by occasionally centering her own insecurities in a way that legitimized Quinn’s feelings.
Also, to this day, Daria and Jane’s friendship remains one of the most sterling examples of friendship goals in pop culture.
To find a person who accepts you just as you are is ideal. To have that person readily by your side at every possible turn, no matter how bizarre, is a dream. The solidarity that colored their entire friendship is still so uplifting, and in a time when women audiences are seeking more examples of female friendships in their entertainment, it’s desperately needed. Even the friendship between Daria and the highly ambitious Jodie Landon – a fictional hero of mine and so many other Black girls – was lovely in how they maintained a mutual respect despite their contrasting approaches to life and high school.
When discussing contemporary television, it’s difficult to find a current program that captures the same wit, edge, and honesty as ’90s juggernaut Daria. However, I’m comforted by the idea that I can still walk into a room full of my peers, sing the first melodic la la laaa la la‘s of Splendora’s “You’re Standing on My Neck” and make a new friend who is all too keen on celebrating the sarcastic, bespectacled icon who was only interested in being herself.