In a post on the Paris Review blog today, DoubleX contributor Marisa Meltzer waxed nostalgic about the “the super-smart, dry, withering, righteously angry girls” of television’s Daria days. While it’s true that TV’s sharp-tongued girl archetype has been watered down with Gossip Girl frivolity and vacuous Hills dialogue, there’s still plenty of sarcastic heroines on cable-they’ve actually gone mainstream by way of the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Yes, Glee is an absurdly cheery show, but it still shows high-school characters (Mercedes, Tina, and boy diva Kurt) with alt-girl attitude. Even without the hostile, “nasty” strain of snark, the musical nerds can still express Daria’s deeply felt cynicism.
The sassy adolescent prototype has gotten younger and admittedly a bit less offbeat than Daria (for lack of MTV, my preteen heroines were Nickelodeon’s tomboyish Alex Mack and contemptuous tough-girl Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold ), but today’s girls still have TV role models whose interests stretch beyond boys and makeup. Their brand of irony comes unexpected, with a smile, as with the nerdy Maddie Fitzpatrick on The Suite Life of Zac and Cody or the non-celebrity half of Hannah Montana’s split-persona protagonist, middle-school pariah Miley Stewart.
The 11-year-old girl I frequently baby-sit absolutely loves Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place , and truth be told, I don’t mind watching it with her, because the show’s teen witch protagonist Alex Russo (played by Selena Gomez) is a brassy, spell-casting incarnation of Daria Morgendorffer. Alongside her loopy best friend Harper, Alex endures her artsy outsider status by questioning authority (her parents, the school principal) and casting spells on her popular peers-think Ghost World meets Sabrina the Teenage Witch . Always quick to ridicule the norm, Alex and Harper even have a mocking little rhyme they say every time one of their classmates tries to sport a trendy hat.
Alex’s habit of eye-rolling witchcraft may come off as bratty, but ultimately I think the show offers an evolved version of Daria’s wit, one that isn’t necessarily decked out in combat boots and accompanied by a constant scowl. The tone is sassy and self-aware-Alex’s dialogue even has a budding feminist’s cynical edge. When her best friend suggests a makeover, the teen witch shoots back a dry response, “Makeovers? You mean where stuck up girls make snooty faces at us while they pluck our eyebrows until we scream and then they tell us ‘well, you’d be pretty if you took care of your skin.’? Pass.” Teen girl snark has softened, yes, but it’s still there.