What a New Generation of Feminists Can Gain From Watching Daria

Still of Daria characters with the Gateway Episodes tag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by MTV.

When Daria Morgendorffer debuted as the star of her own eponymous series in 1997, the monotone, misanthropic teen was quickly embraced as an island of cynical skepticism amid an ocean of bubbly vapidity—not least on her own channel, MTV. Initially a minor character on Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria would soon become a bona fide ’90s icon, winning the undying affection of a generation of girls and women who knew there must be more to life than being pretty and trendy and popular, but weren’t sure where to focus that restlessness. The show was a brilliant bit of counterprogramming on MTV’s part, and now the network is banking on viewers’ nostalgia for its future programming plans, which include a series of spinoffs based on various Daria characters. But for newcomers, it’s worth giving the original Daria a try to discover for oneself the character’s exasperated appeal—and the ways our culture may have moved past her.

Daria encapsulated ’90s alt-feminism. While the Spice Girls sang catchy pop tunes about “girl power” in mini dresses and midriff-baring tops—more on that dichotomy in a minute—Daria didn’t smile for other people or even hide her disdain for them. She was unabashedly bookish and antisocial, and she hardly spent any time wondering if people liked her (though she did think a lot about to what extent she should care whether people liked her). With an affect as flat as her animation style, Daria couldn’t be further away from the feminine fieriness of Dixie Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker, for example, but you watched Daria and Designing Women for the same reason: an unapologetically smart woman telling off the dumb, hostile, and frequently deserving people around her. Yet Daria also became more nuanced and empathetic over its five seasons, with the final two years exploring how isolating, even troubling, Daria’s rigid code of ethics and self-imposed solitude could be for her and her parents.

All of that makes “The Lost Girls,” a Season 3 standout, an excellent place to dive into the show. It is, admittedly, one of Daria’s meanest episodes, taking unforgiving aim at Jane Pratt, a founding editor of the magazines Sassy and Jane, and the website xoJane, all now defunct. But divorced from its immediate satirical context, the episode also exemplifies the show’s idealism about what media for teenage girls could be as well as its fears that, in some ways, high school never ends. (Daria’s signature cynicism, like so many teenagers’, almost always stemmed from disappointment that people and institutions weren’t as upstanding as they could be.) And in hindsight, it illustrates both the righteousness and limitations of Daria’s cause, and of the era’s feminism as a whole.

In “The Lost Girls,” aspiring writer Daria discovers that she’s won an essay contest through a submission made on her behalf by a teacher. The prize: spending a day with Val, the publicity-obsessed editor in chief of a teen magazine who constantly deems things “jiggy” or “wack.” She’s also a pathological name-dropper—bask in the mononyms Drew, Noni, Gwynnie, Skeet, and Neve for a skip down memory lane. Preening and insecure but objectively accomplished, Val is also an unwelcome reminder for Daria that superficiality doesn’t go away when you exit adolescence and may even be beneficial toward a certain kind of success, literary or otherwise.

Even though Daria’s best friend Jane advises her to play along to get a free trip to New York out of Val, our protagonist can’t help lashing out when the magazine editor starts spouting a bunch of nonsense buzzwords. Asked what’s “edgy,” Daria responds that “ ‘Edgy’ occurs when middle-brow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy, not to mention spending money, out of ‘youth culture.’ So they come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan.” (That this rant first aired on MTV can’t help but recall one of Alanis Morissette’s biggest hits of that era.) Val’s self-titled magazine takes another hit when Daria’s classmate Jodie, the school’s only black female student, suggests that it “try harder to present a multicultural, multiethnic, less brain-dead point of view to enlighten girls instead of just marketing to them.” In the episode’s sharpest jab at Pratt, Val replies that Jodie has “great sassy energy.”

“The Lost Girls” is brisk and full of bite, with Daria finally able to kinda-sorta vanquish an embodiment of one of her greatest irks. And yet, the episode can’t help feeling like a time capsule. Teen Vogue is just the latest example that high school girls can care about developing both their intellect and their makeup skills. (It’s impossible not to wonder what sellout-phobic Daria would have made of former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth, who’s just as canny at self-branding as Val or Pratt but does it with much more brio and sense of authenticity.) Moreover, nerds like Daria have inherited the Earth, and the notion that a disaffected white girl from affluent suburbia is secretly the most relatable person in the world doesn’t quite hold up in 2019, which is probably why MTV’s first Daria spinoff will center on valedictorian Jodie, with Tracee Ellis-Ross voicing the now–college grad entering the workforce for the first time.

Younger audiences might well view Daria as a historical curiosity, with storylines involving cyber cafes, soda machine protests, thriving malls, and the phrase “cruising the information superhighway.” (If you don’t know what that means, don’t ever talk to me.) But the reason to keep watching after “The Lost Girls” is to see Daria grow up and soften on the high school hierarchies she sets up for herself. Ranting at people can be satisfying. But so can understanding them.

Daria complete animated series cover