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Watching ‘Daria’ Made Me Feel Seen And Known

Culture
Photo from MTV

The Objects of Our Obsession

We all had them, those all-consuming crushes that took over our teenage lives. In our series The Objects of Our Obsession, writers explore the deeper meanings behind those fixations, and pay tribute to the people who we found totally crush-worthy.

I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a teenager but somehow—perhaps at my then-boyfriend’s house, where we’d watch Total Request Live together most afternoons before work—I came across Daria, the animated sitcom airing on MTV from 1997 to 2002. When the series begins, Daria, who debuted as a supporting character on Beavis and Butthead, has moved with her family from Highland, Texas, to Lawndale, USA, accompanied by her popular and fashion-obsessed little sister, Quinn, and her benignly neglectful parents, Jake and Helen. In the opening sequence, Daria, a makeup-free brunette with large round glasses, stands motionless in the backcourt of a PE volleyball match, knee pads askew, while everyone else plays enthusiastically. Two girls collide in front of her trying to dig up a kill, the ball hits the floor, and several seconds later Daria half-heartedly sticks out her arm. I didn’t know what "life rights" were when I was 17, but, if I had, I would have complained about not releasing mine. 

It’s hardly uncommon to hate high school, but with that signature solipsism of adolescence, I thought I was unique in loathing my small public high school, notable only for its small student body (250) and its excellent girls volleyball team (21 straight regional titles from 1984 to 2004, including second and third place State finishes my freshman and sophomore year). These athletes took PE with normal non-athlete civilians, and the volleyball unit each semester was 53 daily minutes of adrenaline, shame, and nonstop aerobic crisis.  

While Quinn adjusts to Lawndale High effortlessly, becoming the leader of the popular girls before she even steps indoors, Daria is placed in a class for students with low self-esteem after purposely failing a psychological assessment. “We tell you over and over again that you’re wonderful, and you just don’t get it. What’s wrong with you?” Helen says, pounding on the dinner table, when given the news Daria will have to take a class to address her low self-esteem. “Don’t worry, I don’t have low self-esteem. It’s a mistake,” Daria replies, in her characteristic affectless drawl. “I have low esteem for everyone else.”  

In class, Daria meets Jane Lane, a similarly misanthropic aspiring artist. “I can fill you in later, I’ve taken this course six times,” she whispers to Daria during a particularly nonsensical part of the syllabus. Jane could pass the test, she tells Daria, but she likes having low self-esteem. “It makes me feel special,” she says. 

United against a student body of idiots and fools, Daria and Jane endure high school together. Jane gets a boyfriend, Daria tries out contact lenses, they go on field trips and to school dances, they meet daily to eat pizza and watch gonzo news program Sick Sad World (“Is your toll collector wearing pants, a skirt, or nothing but a smile? Cold Breeze on the Interstate, next, on Sick, Sad World!”)

In one episode Daria has to visit the career counselor’s office, staffed by student volunteer Tiffany. “Aren’t you the girl from Quinn’s house?” Tiffany says. As someone with a much more popular sibling, who was tailgated and honked at while driving because people thought my brother was driving our shared car, I felt seen and known. 

I graduated high school before Daria did and went to a college where TV was similarly hard to come by (this was the early ‘00s and our dorms did not have cable, I KNOW). But I never really stopped thinking about Daria. Sometimes I’d catch a marathon on someone else’s TV, and for a brief period in my 20s I had cable and saw another season in reruns. Each episode ends with Daria et. al. drawn in unusual costumes or situations (Daria as a Baywatch lifeguard, Jane as David Bowie, Quinn as a gargoyle, etc).  I hadn’t realized how these brief flashes of an alternate absurd reality gave me hope for a different future of my own, a life free of volleyball and group projects, a future where I would be transformed from a nerdy nobody into a (literal) butterfly or at least a cool skater chick.  

Now that a Daria revival is rumored to be in the works, I’ve considered going back and watching the two seasons and the two made-for-TV movies I still haven’t seen. A good Sick Sad World teaser still makes me laugh, after all, and while I don’t plan on having kids, if I did have a daughter, I’d name her Daria. “I don’t know if I want to finish watching it,” I told my best friend the other day. “I’m worried it will still be really good and then it’ll be over and I’ll be so sad.” “I’ll be so sad,” she repeated back to me, in the deadpan tone I’ve unconsciously adopted as my standard adult register. The similarity was immediately obvious. “I didn’t even mean to do that,” I said.