The Joy of Shunning Sex
By: Guy Wheatley
What constitutes the formula for a successful teen sitcom? Take a batch of early twentysomething modeling agency upstarts, doctor them up with cosmetics and airbrushes, give them hackneyed pseudo-hipster "teen" dialogue to act out various scripted suburban mini-traumas, add plenty of melodramatic music twinkling in the background and during crucial facial poses, stir thoroughly into a 24-minute paste, and sprinkle in various corporate sponsorships after the opening trailer and youth demographic advertisements 'twix each mini-cliffhanger. Tack on an extended hour or so of the same with no need for considering a long-term relationship with the audience member and you have the silver screen teen comedy version, a self-contained one-night stand with some liberal profanity and innuendoes interspersed in, boundaries allotted by whatever it is the MPAA rating will stand for. And one cannot forget the sexual equation amidst all of these teen dreams, lord no. After all, Eric Erikson has all made us historically aware of the teenage period in a person's life, along that tempestuous 13-19-year-old span, that is fraught with drama and novelty, spiritual staking and sexual discovery. Television can be counted on not to downplay this "stage" in the least, particularly the sex element, where amid the cliques, proms, parties, courting circles and the games teens play, sparks will fly, and maybe for an encore, jealous fists too.
All of this sexual glitz and moody shtick in both teen comedies and dramas is something that our animated heroine Daria tries to stand diametrically opposite of, or at least skewer, which is no easy task considering her parent network rules the roost in regards to hormones. Any given day of the week in MTV's viewing schedule seems to resemble a junior high pajama party while the parents are out of town. Or at least a marketing executive's wet dreamy idea of it. I've found it typically has as much resemblance to actual teen life as Penthouse Forum has to actual sex. Still, with the non-stop come-hither undulating apparel of Brittany Spears and Christina Aguileria, immaculately bland boy-next-door freshness of you-know-who, simian angst-in-the-pants of Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Eminem, mock-up relationship ruination court of The Blame Game and the quasi-voyeurism of The Real World and Road Rules co., etc, etc, ad naeseum, MTV seems to be on a mission to prove that no one has the same lease on sexual angst as they. One of their latest programming debuts, Jailbait, is another sign of the times (as if the soft-core porn values of Undressed wasn't overkill already). The blurb that I'd read about its debut (because I wouldn't be caught dead condescending to actually watch such an affair) was that it's a "comedy" about an 18-year-old male and his 15-year-old hottie girlfriend, the "jailbait" in question I presume, whom he has sex with and then is promptly arrested for statutory rape. Yes, it's supposed to be a comedy. Are we having fun yet?
But MTV's piece of the gonad pie is just a slice of the sex-saturated media whole. If sexuality were a fad, it'd be long past it's prime and overdue for retirement into a rusty attic chest with leisure suits, corduroy, and vinyl records. However it's endlessly recycled in our icons and our entertainment, particularly with female celebrities who have to go to greater lengths at selling their sex appeal than men do. Michelle Pfiffer is reborn as Sarah Michelle Gellar. Mary Tyler Moore is resurrected as Calista Flockheart, Farrah Fawcett's willowy-haired, milk-fed descendent Heather Graham takes a similar helm. In music, Joni Mitchell begets Ani Defranco. Kate Bush begets Tori Amos. Proto-punk soloist Patti Smith begets 90s descendent Courtney Love, neurotic grunge-grrl in a kinderwhore dress. The pop-diva scene seems to owe a large debt to warmed-over mid-80s Madonna, while the real thing has undergone a number of revisions herself in her double-decade career, wearing and tearing through personas like yesterday's outfits. And so it goes, celebrity skin n' sex recycling of biblical proportions. A recent ABC docudrama would even make the, at best, dubious suggestion that Jennifer Love Hewitt is the next Audrey Hepburn.
Sexuality seems to be the ultimate medium and cure-all for anxiety, fatigue, boredom, despair, and, well, plain old vanilla arousal. Sex education continues way beyond the rudimentary information about contraceptives and STDs gleaned in high school; now we have countless tombs specializing in technique and how to channel your inner Don Juan, or Sharon Stone as it were, just a quick stroll away in the sexuality section of Barnes and Noble situated snugly by the self-help aisle. Shock-jock humor for the lowest common denominator ala Howard Stern lurks about the AM radio channels, as well as soundbite-translated Sex-For-Dummies talk shows ala Loveline. And is it just me or are all those jeans and moisturizer ads in newsstand mags the same ones, with merely the names and places changed, recycled over the past 20 years, proffering models with skin so absurdly immaculate you could eat off it? Yes, sex is smeared unceremoniously everywhere you trod, and you don't need me to tell you. I could tag on a pithy contrast with violence in the media and this essay would morph into one of those redundant late-night punditry think-pieces lamenting over the Orwellian effect of the media on our elastic psyches. You know it, I know it. Chances are a significant portion of your time concerns your love life, or pining over the lack thereof. It's probably impossible to even be a prude in the Victorian sense today in any progressive urban Western environment; unless you're willing to settle down in an idyllic old-fashioned countryside or Amish community the most you can settle for is being repressed. We're inundated with this sexual awareness to a degree that congressional and executive infidelity hardly raises an eyebrow anymore, and even previously trangressive lifestyles like bondage and sadomasochism are considered passe, and uber-risqué classics like The Story of O are rendered tame. There are probably few rules left to break in the public sexually-savvy eye, outside of telecast open-air orgies and Nickelodeon spinning off Storytime with De Sade.
One of my favorite short stories by my favorite author, J. G. Ballard, who had quite the knack for incisive psycho-sexuality, penned a short story entitled Love in a Colder Climate, which chronicled the logical course of this liberated sexual excess to its jaded extreme. That story depicted a future where cases of AIDS and other mutated STDs had risen to epidemic proportions and threatened the lives of every sexual active individual on the planet. In desperation national governments started regulating congress of any sort 'twix males and females, segregating them rigorously at the workplace and in public, and any sort of request for a sexual relationship required as much bureaucracy as an IRS audit. Facing a plummeting birth rate these governments then turned to revitalizing the perpetuation of their citizens, but not by revoking their restraints on interaction necessarily, but by mandating sexual "conscription" of all (HIV-negative) virile men and fertile women into an army of government-subsidized breeders under the zealous watch of the former Christian churches, which had morphed into playing matchmaker and trainer for all the "soldiers." In this Huxlian, totalitarian sex-regime two people dared to fall in love in the old-fashion sense, and ended up being persecuted for their aberrant romantic selfishness.
Now we're hardly to the extremist measure in that story, where all of the "soldiers" felt condemned to a life of empty, clinical copulation and would dodge the "draft" if given the chance. Nor was the story an attempt at wholly realistic near-future sci-fi, but rather a satirical allegory about the dangers of sexual revelry to the point of exhaustion and implosion. Now, I hardly lead an ascetic lifestyle, and I'm not making an elaborate pitch glorifying the days of conservative yore when chastity was a virtue. Rather I'm just trying to paint a backdrop of what sort of lifestyle the media presents, which shows like Daria are a participant on, like it or not. Nor do I live in an ivory tower of pure and untainted intellectual pursuits; I have the common sense to acknowledge that man can't abide by PBS, National Public Radio, and the New York Times alone. We all need a little fluff in our passive entertainment, but that doesn't mean we can't be a discriminate fluff-picker. I'm still a young man, but I make a point to vigorously eschew the glam-sex culture that I've been outlining above, in the way I expect Daria does. I don't tune in for Two Guys and a Girl, Friends, or Everybody Loves Raymond. I don't read GQ or Esquire magazine, play Quake or read John Grisham. And don't get me started on Ally McBeal, the worst of the dubiously "critically-acclaimed" shows on the networks, which despite the chic short skirts, armani suits, loquacious cleverness, self-aware sexual sass and authority that everyone in the cast boasts in-between the ridiculous cases that they tackle, I get the impression that I'm really watching a bunch of over(under)sexed high schoolers masquerading as lawyers. That's one of the reasons with the very little TV that I intake at all, I always find Daria a breath of fresh air on many levels.
It's hard to sift through this bleak landscape in search of worthy shows at all, and to find one set during those formative high school years that doesn't languish in rote melodrama and manipulate its audiences with the cheap faux-vicariousness of its cast members' sexual trysts and triangles, and instead opts for original characters over stereotypes. A recent sleeper to this end has been NBC's excellent and under-appreciated Freaks and Geeks. One of the bigwigs at that network actually let a great show slip in their line-up, but don't worry, they've rectified their mistake and canceled it far before it's time. Its plight was rather ironic in trying to vie against more "popular" shows, considering Freaks and Geeks itself has a coming-of-age motif about the trials and tribulations of a motley crew of, you guessed it, freaks and geeks. Sort of like a certain animated heroine that we know and love, which we have managed to fall back on. Daria as a program has thankfully managed to secure a solid enough viewer base by being--how would Val put it? "Edgy" enough to keep it in syndication. There are greater eps, there are lessor eps, and sometimes it has to follow the dynamics of many a sitcom in order to satisfy plot details and its humor quotient, after all, Daria is still a comedy meant to entertain. However, even during some of Daria's suburban misadventures that wouldn't seem terribly out of place showcased in shows of its peer group, Daria never loses her sense of wry self-effacement and deadpan unwillingness to exacerbate her troubles or generally take herself too seriously. Also, I enjoy many of Daria's smaller quirks, as any sophisticated Daria fan, one of which has been the (to me) amazingly steadfast asexuality of the title character. Sex? Spare me. At least, that's the vibe I've always gotten from Daria, who treats it with a very cool, candid disdain, and makes it clear that she strives to be above-it-all.
Case for the Devil's Advocate, No. 1: Doesn't the sexual tension 'twix primary characters enhance the show's effect? I mean, doesn't that unexplored, amorphous chemistry 'twix Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager and between Dana Scully and Fox Mulder on The X-Files add a little extra spark to the show's formula and wonder on what's to come? Sure. Daria's not made of stone; we've seen three seasons of shippery tension 'twix Daria and Trent, and it served its function nicely without reaching a critical and irrevocable breaking point.
Okay...Case for the Devil's Advocate, No. 2: Isn't Daria still a very young woman with a good gander of self-discovery to still traverse, including her own sexuality (which Helen quoted as much in "College Bored": "Daria is more of a late bloomer.")? Hasn't her one-sided crush with Trent in the first three seasons been an indictment of this direction? Well, that's one way of interpreting it, but personally I doubt it. From time to time on the Daria message boards, inevitable threads about sexuality in the show start to spawn, often with supporters of point No. 2 voicing hopeful choruses about the paths that Daria could eventually voyage yonder to during this time of "growth." Remarkably, there has been a lack of serious support for the notion that maybe, just maybe, in her mind's eye Daria has already come, blossomed, wilted, and judged without going on so much as a single date. I think Daria's demeanor during the show's run has made it quite clear that she has no interest in partaking in the sham and sharm of the teenage courtship dance, or compromising herself in any way for the sake of being more sexually or socially appealing. And in the name of brains, outcasts, and non-conformist value systems everywhere, I applaud this cynical abstinence of Daria's. Let the heartthrobs on Dawson's Creek and that show's parallel dimensions wax and whine about their romantic torment; Daria has already cast it off with the indifference of so much dead skin.
Evidence of this attitude in Daria is evident right from the start. In "The Invitation" Daria gives Jane a good ribbing for scooping out Bobby Bighead and his companion, and when the young men get the gaul to hit on them, Daria delivers one of her most famous deadpan snubs in the history of the show, without being unnecessarily cruel. Later on when Jane returns from her little adventure in the laundry room and Jane comments that she "wasn't really interested," Daria smoothly retorts with "Too bad...is this your sock?" The tone is indicative of everything here. Note that Daria doesn't deliver this line while leaning forward with girlish glee, eager to lap up some juicy details for gossip, but instead is cool and nonchalant, with a hint of a subtext in her voice beckoning to add sardonically: "Well, aren't you the randy one." On the social front, and she says it herself, Daria was ready to leave the party before they stepped in.
Daria excels in keeping up stoic appearances, and being very uncompromising as well. She wears a skirt, yes--a black pleated knee-length one that isn't meant to be risqué in the least. If that doesn't settle the case, then the Doc Marten thrasher-boots will, and the color-clashing green jacket. Daria doesn't doctor herself up with make-up, perfume, or experiment with exotic hair styles. She wears glasses instead of contacts, a decision guaranteed to mar her appearance at least slightly (I know, as a fellow bi-focals wearer), and one which concerned the entire plotline for one "Through a Lens Darkly." There we where also privy to Daria defense of her appearance to Helen, off-putting as it is, which I believe furthermore speaks volumes about her purposeful disinterest in what the men of Lawndale have to offer. Her contempt for fashion, modeling, and plastic surgery is readily apparent in the ribbing that she gives it in "This Year's Model," along with Jane, and a follow-up performance in "The Lost Girls." In "Too Cute" a typical Daria retort to Dr. Shar frowning over Daria "giving up" on herself on such an early age is "Maybe you can inject collagen into your lips in the form of a smile." Daria also has little use for running around the topic of sex with formalities; she openly declares her sexual inactivity to Dr. Phillips in "Ill" before he can get the opportunity to broach the "sensitive topic," and she jumps right into accusatory mode in "Jane's Addition" as soon as Jane and Tom get together.
Now, the most obvious exception amidst all this sexual scorn on Daria's part has been her shippery tension with Trent. But even that can likely be broken down in logical terms (even if unrequited attraction is by itself irrational). Almost all women at a time in their life harbor a romantic fallacy about overtly artistic or sensitive men, souls dedicated to lost causes and martyrdom who burn with a soulful flame, and can only hope that a soulmate could fully understand their passions. It's quite touching to believe that you could possible be that counterpart with a hand in their soul, and that you could reform the Robert Smith, Kurt Cobain, or Trent Reznor of your choice (case to point, the follow-up daydream of Daria's in "Lane Miserables" after the Trent-hell one). A similar complex often affects men who believe they can "rescue" a woman from her personal demons. Additionally, I think Trent's ruggedly indirect passive-aggressive stance towards authority and conventionality and his quaint indie-rocker values come off as cute to Daria's own outsider sensibilities. But much of this reasoning in the crush veers more to the psychological than the libidinous. It's also underplayed by and large during the show; Daria doesn't rush over to Jane's house after every day at school to ogle Trent's sleeping form or spend the late hours at night holding a vigil at her desk writing bad confessional poetry about Trent. In fact, traditionally there is only one shipper-centric ep per season in Daria, and the latest one, "Lane Miserables," had the Daria/Trent repartee play out more as a subplot. By and large I think the Trent crush just exists as evidence that Daria is still human. Even the most shippery, guilty pleasure in the canon, "Pierce Me," doesn't consummate anything. Similar miscellaneous exploits have proven other non-sexual points in the show, notably the quasi-relationship with Ted in "The New Kid," which I always thought was a personal trial for Daria to prove to herself that she can potentially let down her defenses, if she pleases, to let other people into her exclusive creed. Aside from these shippery tensions, Daria remains remarkably androgynous. Therein lies a good deal of Daria's appeal; by not piling on female high schooler clichés, like the Fashion Club do, Daria makes herself more accessible to male and female audiences. With very few changes in the show's structure I could easily see Daria having carried the baton of her pessimistic career as a male, the crush being carried out on a narcoleptic basement version of PJ Harvey. Ditto for the behavior of a male Jane.
Speaking of which, Jane's bona fide relationship with Tom is more veritable than any of the lingering tension 'twix Daria and Trent, however it's played out in an even more understated fashion. Jane is the more logical choice for an endeavor, besides my "The Invitation" example above she's been known to flirt a little ("See Jane Run") and generally be more open to the idea of boys. However, whenever Tom is chewing scenery on the set it's never as "the boyfriend," but as Tom. The scriptwriters have in fact avoided presenting us any lengthy scenes or eps specific to the context of their relationship; if we weren't told they were an item, it'd be hard to verify it at all. An ep's subplot never focuses on what happens when they go out on a date or "lover's quarrels" they may have, or (god forbid) make-out scenes. Even the most blatant example, in "The F Word" when Jane greeted Tom at the door in her, y'know, like, conventional outfit: "Hey fly boy...want to try out my new lip gloss? It's kiwi flavored..." Tom could have replied with any number of crass, leering come-ons at the opening Jane gave, like "Sure, it's just the glossing on the cake," or "As long as I can work my way down from there," or even worse, "Kiwi eh? So does this mean cherry is on the menu later on?" One can almost hear the faux-piqued "Ooooooooooh!" lifted from a Married with Children audience track in response to that last one. However, I inwardly cheered when Tom sardonically answered, "Well, if I were to kiss you, at least I wouldn't be looking at you." Instead of the fly boy falling into the flytrap, he smoothly voices his disapproval for Jane's make-over with a good-natured quip. In fact, the scriptwriters have been careful not to color outside the lines with this at all; each crisis point, from the initial catalyst of shipperdom in "The Road Worrier" of season one, to "The New Kid" and "Pierce Me" in season two, to the animosity arising at the end of "Jane's Addition" in season three have never dragged the show down to a Dawson's Creek level. And I assume that it never will if they continue to deal with these episodes tastefully, i.e. The latest issue to resolve being the vague chemistry 'twix Tom and Daria seen in "I Loathe a Parade." Fans who exhaust a significant number of brain cells pondering about the nuances of the sex lives of Daria's cast are missing the point--the scriptwriters only use sexuality so far as a device for advancing their satiric intentions (particularly Quinn and her menagerie of admirers), as much as they do with the Fashion Club power struggles. In the grand scheme of things, sex is as irrelevant to the show's dynamics as say, religion is (which hasn't even been brought up). For the earliest fans of Our Heroine who cut their teeth on Season One when "Road Worrier" had yet to be born, did anyone really exclaim after each episode, "Golly, I hope Daria(Jane) can hook up with a great guy in the next ep!"
Finally, Case for the Devil's Advocate, No. 3: Assuming Daria has already judged sexuality in the manner which you say, isn't she missing out prematurely, and stunting her growth as a character? This is a point I can't directly attack because even though it's become something of a buzzword in justifying any sort of aberration in the show's format, character development (char-dev) is something I support in moderation, and favorite eps of mine are in fact "Through a Lens Darkly," "Lane Miserables," "Jane's Addition," and recently "I Loathe a Parade" which char-dev, or at least tension, is made evident. As far as missing out goes, sure she is. Daria knows it, after all, she discloses her yielding to this fact in "Gifted." As far as stunting her growth as a character goes, I think a dichotomy can be made 'twix earnest personal growth and little "lessons" that are pitched to us in situational events to remind us that Daria isn't all that bad, she has feelings and flaws and foibles just like us. Really! Among these preachy "lessons" would be "proving" that Daria really cares about her family and friends, they care about her, Daria really has basic moral instincts at heart, Daria can learn to be tolerant of other people's beliefs, etc, etc, et al. I mean, "duh." I assume as much, Daria hardly has a heart of stone or a blatant sadistic streak; these qualities aren't necessarily synonymous with sarcasm or cynicism. I don't need to be led by the hand during an ep and "shown" that Daria is really a good person--that's not why I watch the show. And I think Daria embarking on a romantic relationship would be exercising another one of such redundant "lessons" thrown to us from the pontiff. What exactly would it prove? That Daria has the ability to love another? Spare me the sentimentality, I know Daria would.
Allow me to draw a brief analogy with the treatment of sex in Daria and its treatment in another show I'm a huge fan of, Doctor Who (a comparison I think you'll be hard pressed to find, well, outside a Yui Daoren crossover fanfic). In Doctor Who the title of the program really said it all. We knew basic things about this eccentric renegade who traveled in a deceptively battered old police box which was a dimensional front to the vast labyrinth of his ship, the TARDIS, underneath. We knew that he was of a race of Time Lords who typically lived to be 1500 and lived 13 lives, or 12 regenerations, his cardiovascular system had two hearts, and he liked floppy scarves and bohemian jackets. The Doctor had turned his back on his academic homeworld content for living in sedentary study and solitary in favor of adventuring across the cosmos and righting wrongs like an old-fashioned hero, except this one was a super-intelligent pacifist who typically thumbed his nose at authority. He also usually traveled with a singular young female companion whose job was to get in trouble and translate to the audience what was going on (usually by she asking the Doctor that question herself). The interesting quirk about this relationship was that it was wholly platonic, nay, devoid of sexual tension whatsoever. A message of abstinence wasn't even delivered in the form of a public service message, it was just avoided altogether. This curious asexuality furthered the enigma of the Doctor, as we fans, placed in that unenviable position of explaining all the discontinuity of a series, formed elaborate theories about Time Lord physiology and an inherently ultra-low libido in Time Lords.
All this changed during the BBC's negotiations with FOX in creating a spin-off Doctor Who TV movie in 1996. With a little luck this would be a gateway effort in creating a new, revamped, big budget Doctor Who for a new audience, continuing the voyages of our beloved doctor, as much as The Outer Limits was remade from its sixties origins. To cut a long story short the TV movie effort was an overproduced, glossy mess, with too much self-conscious effort in attempting to condense 26 years of Doctor Who continuity down into a 90 minute format, while telling an audience-gripping action-packaged tale in the bargain. The general audience wouldn't get it, indeed, the TV movie received anemic ratings in the States, nor would they care. At least it could have served as a nostalgia trip for us long-time loyalists, but in an effort to make the Doctor's character more accessible, the scriptwriter skewed key elements of his persona. One of which was the inclusion of the Doctor being "half-human." But that wasn't the most bitter pill to swallow--that was the idea to have the Doctor embark on a romantic sojourn with his newest female companion who he meets in the movie. Far from enriching the Doctor's person, this little odious attempt to humanize the Doctor's previous other-worldly self to a more general audience totally undermined everything that the Doctor had stood for before. In the TV Movie's aftermath follow-up plans for a new original series came to naught, but the rest of us fans had to deal with this new "revelation" brought on by the TV Movie and the responsibility of rationalizing it. Would the Doctor now have steamy quickies on the TARDIS control panel? Would he now be more discriminating in the "companions" he picks up? Would his intentions interacting with other beings he encountered ever be truly altruistic again? Would the Doctor think about sex every six seconds? The thoughts and the repercussions made us all collectively groan. Ultimately, most of us passed a silent decree disabusing the TV movie any legitimate place in the old Doctor Who canon (and as far as I'm concerned, there is no Eighth Doctor).
A similar occurrence could serve to undermine what Daria stands for, if love triangles start to take seed and teen angst starts to replace teen irony. What the TV networks need right now is Sex in the Suburbs like I need a hole in my head, especially when Daria's values are at stake. Of course, there is a difference 'twix purposeful abstinence on Daria's part and being in extended denial. I hardly practice Daria's asceticism, though I admire it from afar. I can imagine Daria eventually embarking on a relationship in her future, probably outside the natural life expectancy of Daria, an angle that two Daria shipper futurists Diane Long and Michelle Klein-Hass have tackled in fanfic. However, I don't think it will take place with a revised personal attitude via Daria embracing a liberated sense of do-me feminism or sexual actualization, but rather because she feels she has to interview for a job she really doesn't want, but knows she has to take it to be a productive member of society (mannerisms I didn't feel were too off-the-mark in Austin Covello's "My Date with Daria," even if it was critically panned). A stance that will, paradoxically, make her all the more attractive.