Rita Is Better Than
Helen or Amy!
©2004 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2004 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: Rita Barksdale deserves better press than she’s gotten in Daria fanfic. This essay attempts to rectify the situation using material from the episodes themselves as proof of her basic goodness. Fanfic plot ideas are appended for everyone’s use.
Author's Notes: This essay was originally written for an online e-zine. When the e-zine folded, the unpublished work was put on PPMB. It is now offered for wider distribution.
Acknowledgements: This work is dedicated to everyone who writes nice things about Rita Barksdale in future fanfics.
Once upon a time, there were three sisters named Helen, Rita, and Amy Barksdale. They never got along, but when they appeared on the “Daria” show, Helen Morgendorffer and Amy Barksdale became popular and developed major followings in fanfic—but Rita Barksdale never did. Rita isn’t absent from Daria fanfic, but her appearances generally do not put her in a good light.
This is curious because, when you compare Rita’s behavior to that of her two siblings, Rita is nearly angelic. Helen attacks Rita viciously at every opportunity, dredging up her cherished belief that their mother favors Rita at every turn and gives Rita financial support that Rita doesn’t deserve. Helen’s oldest daughter, Daria, hates Rita’s daughter and calls her “my idiot cousin” (“Aunt Nauseum”). Amy doesn’t care much for Rita or Erin (or Helen) either, calling Daria “my favorite niece” (“Through a Lens Darkly”) and ignoring Quinn and Erin.
And do you know what the damnable thing about that is? At no point is Rita shown to do anything seriously wrong. Nothing! She’s not a tenth the first-class bitch Helen is, or the first-class sarcastic smart mouth Amy is. I submit that Rita Barksdale (or Chambers, or whatever her name is now) deserves a better break from “Daria” fans and fanfic authors.
Let’s examine the evidence. First, watch the second-season “Daria” episode, “I Don’t,” or else go to Outpost Daria (www.outpost-daria.com) and download the complete script. This is the first episode in which Rita appears (one of three episodes in which she is even mentioned). Study the dialog and action in this episode. Does Rita say or do anything bad to Helen? Does Helen say or do anything bad to Rita?
Rita is in a good mood when she first appears. She is happy that her only child is getting married. Helen, however, is obsessed with an old sibling fight over who was loved and favored most by their parents, a circumstance of which Rita had no control. Throughout the episode, Helen constantly harps about Rita getting this or that from Mother, and after a while it gets on your nerves (while still being funny, true). Perhaps it is no wonder that Helen married Jake Morgendorffer, who always complains bitterly about his father. Likes do attract in marriage.
Look at the start of the scene in “I Don’t” in which Amy appears. (Remember that this is the popular aunt, Amy, who has been gone from her nieces’ lives so long that Daria and Quinn don’t recognize her without some uncertainty.) When Rita greets Helen, she tells her sister that her daughters look lovely. What a nice thing to say! And what does Rita get in return? Helen, Amy, Daria, and Quinn all join in poking fun at Rita’s line of former boyfriends, including poor Roger the skydiver, who fell onto a cow. (I’m not taking that personally as another Roger, you understand—I’m just pointing it out.)
Carefully review what happens in the scene after the wedding ceremony, when the big fight breaks out. How does the fight start? Helen is drunk and abusive, complaining to one and all in a loud voice about her perception that Rita is unfairly the favored one in the family. Helen also appears upset that Rita is physically attractive. Rita is placed on the defensive but is still being nice. Then, Amy comes over and brings up the MG vs. Dodge Dart issue (showing that their father favored Rita as well), and things melt down. In an amazing turn of events, Rita’s own daughter Erin tells her that Rita’s “pathetic boyfriend” is making a scene. When Rita’s new son-in-law comes over and makes a really crass remark (“No cat fights!”) to the sisters, Rita blows her cool and says the one cruel thing she says in the entire episode, calling Brian a “prehistoric imbecile” and telling him to shut up. He deserved that, especially considering later events.
At the end of the episode, which sister is the first to tell the other sister that she is loved? Rita. Rita told Helen that she loved her! Rita just wants to get along.
At the start of the fifth season episode, “The Story of D,” a phone conversation between Rita and Helen reveals that Brian gave Erin herpes before they were married. Erin did not believe anyone else would want her as a result, so that is why she married him—she didn’t love him. What a prehistoric imbecile! No wonder Rita is pissed at Brian! It might have been better if Rita had kept this information to herself, but Helen certainly should have shut up about it, too, instead of telling the entire Fashion Club about it by accident. As a side note, it is interesting that Rita and Quinn seem to know each other quite well, as they pick up the chat about Erin’s marital woes on the spot. Quinn seems to think Erin should dump Brian because he’s short, but we’ll let that go.
Now, on to the only other episode in which Rita actually appears, “Aunt Nauseum.” Rita calls Helen to ask for her help in overseeing Erin’s (well-deserved) divorce from Brian. Helen reluctantly agrees to help but continues to jam in the knife and twist it, remarking to her two daughters, “I could kill that sister of mine!” Rita appears at Helen’s house instead of Erin, and true, Rita does ask if she could stay a few days while her home is being painted, so she does seem to expect help above and beyond the usual.
If I had to pick out Rita’s biggest flaw, she does have a remarkable sense of entitlement, as Mike Yamiolkoski points out in his thumbnail description of her at Daria Online. Kara Wild and others have pointed this out to me as well. This makes sense if Rita’s been the parental favorite for years. However—and this really freaks me out—no one disabuses Rita of this notion in practice, no matter what they say otherwise. Helen complains mightily about Rita getting preferential treatment, but then gives Rita the same preferential treatment in acting as Erin’s attorney! Why didn’t Helen just say no? Helen obviously feeds into this must-help-Rita notion herself, so why is she complaining? No wonder Rita expects people will do as she asks: They always do!
However, Rita’s venom in this episode, as in the others, is directed against her son-in-law, who (in addition to his other scummy actions) got Erin to sign a pre-nup, giving him access to half everything Erin owns if they divorce. Brian is Rita’s Enemy Number One, and he earned that spot. Helen’s venom is directed against Rita and their mother, but their mother isn’t there, so Rita absorbs the full blast. Helen attacks Rita for not having a job, for getting money from their mother for her weddings, and so on. After much abuse, Rita finally hits back and nails Helen as a workaholic. This was hardly a severe statement, as everyone already knows this; Jake and Daria have thrown it at Helen for years. Helen points out that she’s been working for Rita all this time on the divorce settlement for Erin, but Helen wasn’t forced into that. She chose to do it (and give Rita preferential treatment), so Helen’s abuse of Rita thereafter is very bad form, not respectful or mannerly at all. She should be ashamed.
Curiously, Rita several times during the episode offers to withdraw from Helen’s life or not bother Helen with the divorce problem, detecting Helen’s antipathy toward her, but Helen hangs on and wants to keep things going—perhaps because she is not yet finished abusing Rita. Even when making cookies as a way to heal their troubles, Helen is on the attack, essentially calling Rita lazy and stupid because of the way in which Rita cuts cookie dough. Seriously, now! “Let's bury the hatchet and, um, bake some cookies,” Helen says—not adding that the hatchet will be buried in Rita’s back. Rita surely knows she will never have Helen’s approval over any issue. She will never do anything right in Helen’s eyes, and this knowledge clearly eats at her. Daria and Quinn do not see their mother Helen as being the instigator of the troubles, preferring to blame both of them.
In the final Helen-Rita-Amy meltdown, Rita reveals that she has always been jealous of Helen’s intelligence, drive, and ability. She has lived in the shadow of Helen’s many achievements since childhood. Rita thinks Amy abdicated family responsibility, but Helen thinks so, too, and Amy doesn’t deny it. Rita denies to both sisters that she was their mother’s favorite—an odd thing to say. One wonders if perhaps she believes this is true, that she is favored just as much as the others. More likely, she denies it because she knows that she is the favored one and always has been, and this parental screw-up has created such a horrible mess she can barely face its consequences. Rita snaps that if either of her sisters had a closer relationship with their mother, they would be favored as well. Here, she is guilty of wishful thinking at the very worst, but she is not being malign. Maybe she really believes this, not being able (or not wanting) to see that her parents did a great evil to the family, or hoping that Mother will somehow reverse the mess if Helen and Amy approach her in a well-meaning way.
What do I think? I think Rita is screwed. She can’t win. Her parents likely treated her like a princess and destroyed all family cohesion. You see the echoes of it in the way Daria and Quinn can’t get along, in the way Daria hates her cousin Erin, and in the way Amy calls Daria her favorite niece. It probably has something to do, too, with why Rita and Erin never find good men.
Other fans of Daria have pointed out to me that Rita is shown as being self-absorbed or taken up completely in her own issues. Look at the evidence again. The only three times we see or hear from Rita, she is involved in major issues revolving around her daughter, her only child and likely the only person with whom Rita has a (mostly) stable relationship besides her mother. We see Rita when Erin is getting married, when Erin is having severe marital problems, and when Erin is getting divorced. These are big problems, and I’m not surprised that Rita is involved in them. We have no idea if there were other times when Rita just called Helen to chat and see what was up, if Rita sends her sisters and family members Christmas presents, if Rita works at a homeless shelter or other charity, etc. We’re given only the episodes in which Rita is experiencing crises that demand her attention as a good mother. Helen has done the same, right? Is Helen being self-absorbed when she tries to help Daria or Quinn? Ah, I thought not.
It is interesting to think that Rita deliberately avoided the whole problem of parental preference by having only one child, so that would never be an issue. Maybe in this sense she was wiser than her mother, though to her credit Helen managed to raise two girls and give them both sufficient amounts of parental love. Amy just avoided the whole problem by having no kids at all.
Perhaps we should pity Rita instead of hating her. We signed off on what Helen and Daria have been saying without examining the bill of goods. If Rita spent all her youth as a pampered child, she has grown up to be a helpless adult, and it has crippled her. She is divorced (at least twice) and lives alone, picks lousy boyfriends, can’t hold a job, can’t make ends meet financially without her mother sending her cash, has to beg Helen for help when her daughter’s marriage goes on the rocks, etc. She is totally dependent on other people to get things done in her life. She knows as a result her two sisters hate her, no matter what she does. “I should be punished forever because I made a few bad decisions,” she tells Helen with sarcasm (“I Don’t”), and true, she’s obviously made a few bad choices in life, having never been made to stand on her own two feet. She’s screwed, and she knows it. It’s expected, in a way, for people to hate the person favored by authority. It’s sort of an American habit. It is not a habit for us to consider that maybe the person we hate for being favored isn’t really that bad.
Why are Helen and Amy so interesting, then, in comparison? Helen has major flaws and bonuses, being a workaholic lawyer who also tries to be the perfect mother and wife. Her efforts to bridge this gap and do the best by Daria and Quinn make for great comedy and drama. She is very involved in her girls’ lives, and Daria and Quinn cares about her mother. Amy Barksdale cares deeply about Daria and presents her niece with a family member who might truly understand her, though Amy doesn’t seem to care much about Quinn—an ugly little part of the show I wish had come out differently, as Amy is repeating the same preferential treatment pattern her mother showed Rita. Amy came to Lawndale because Daria—her favorite niece—called her. Quinn cannot be ignorant of this; children can tell right away what is happening in the family. Thanks, Amy.
And Rita—everything we are presented with about Rita and Erin comes first through the mouth of Daria and Helen. We are biased against Rita and her daughter right from the start. Even Amy says that Helen was a tightly wound pain in the ass, but she doesn’t say that about Rita. It is reasonable to imagine that the childhood fights between Helen and Rita were instigated by Helen in revenge for Rita being favored. Rita is always shown on the defensive in the episodes, never starting fights, so this makes sense. Thanks, Helen.
We could look at Erin, too, for that matter. Think about it: Does Erin act like she’s an idiot in “I Don’t”? She obviously made a bad choice in men, like her mother. Marrying a guy because of the herpes issue was not smart. That’s a pretty serious problem, but do you think Jake Morgendorffer is a prize? Give me a break!
I admit there is one other flaw that Rita and Erin both show, which is that they don’t know when to shut up. Erin blabs at the wedding about Brian’s job with government intelligence, and Rita blabs about Erin’s herpes and where it came from. Erin also calls her mother’s boyfriend “pathetic” in “I Don’t,” but maybe she’s on target there. They still come off looking pretty good next to Helen and Amy.
Rita and Erin are more than we’ve been led to believe. Helen and Daria slammed them, and we took their evaluation at face value. We were wrong to do so. Look at the evidence and give the favored sibling a more favorable thought.
Most of these ideas are intended to take place after the conclusion of Daria’s school year, as per Is It College Yet? The summer thereafter or Quinn’s senior year in college are recommended, though Daria will be absent (in college in Boston) when summer ends. If you want to use one, take it. They’re free.
1. Rita’s new boyfriend, whom she shows off while visiting the Morgendorffers, turns out to be Mr. Goodbar (i.e., a bad and dangerous man who appears to be a good man). A regular family member (Helen, Daria, Quinn, etc.) discovers the boyfriend’s true nature and tries to save Rita from a horrifying fate.
2. Despite the patching up of her marriage in “Aunt Nauseum,” Erin eventually goes through an extremely messy divorce, getting Helen involved and stirring up tons of trouble within the family as Helen and Rita attempt to work with Erin on resolving complex divorce issues. A guest appearance by Grandma Barksdale is possible.
3. Rita herself meets Mister Right and decides to get married (again). Is her beau going to be a keeper? What will the Morgendorffers think when Rita and her beau show up unexpectedly to break the news? What if the beau is someone we already know from the show? How much will Mother shell out for the wedding? How big a drunken brawl will ensue between all three sisters?
4. Rita goes along with Erin and Brian on a vacation (on Mother’s money), but the Morgendorffers are at the same resort, in adjacent rooms, by sheer coincidence. After the initial horror passes, things go completely to hell as the family members keep running into each other under embarrassing circumstances.
5. Grandma Barksdale dies, and her inheritance goes out to....? Is a will contest in the wind between the three sisters? Scenes from just before the reading of the will, focusing on Rita’s point of view, would be interesting. Mixed with the grief is the suspicion that Rita will inherit most or all of the estate, which is substantial—or perhaps it looks like it is but it isn’t, and includes significant debts from bad investments or gambling. Maybe Rita is sick of the money thing and cannot take any more fighting with siblings, so she plans to get nothing and divide the money between Helen and Amy and their children.
6. Rita blabs something about her son-in-law, Brian, that she should not have said, and big trouble follows. Maybe he wasn’t really fired as a government intelligence worker, and he is still working with the CIA or other agency (getting fired was a cover story). Maybe Rita says something that tips Helen off that Brian might be working for the Mob. Maybe Rita admits to Helen that she slept with that prehistoric imbecile Brian once, when she was drunk (gasp!) and now feels guilty but doesn’t know what to do about it. Helen and other family members, possibly Amy, get dragged into the mess.
7. Rita blabs something about Erin she should not have—not the herpes thing, something worse—and big trouble follows. Erin finds out and blows up like Mt. St. Helens (sorry for the pun). Helen and other family members feel obligated to step in and fix things before they get worse, though they get worse anyway. Perhaps Erin was conceived during an ill-conceived affair with a family friend (let’s not pick Jake Morgendorffer, please), or Erin is having an affair and now everyone knows about it, and Brian’s divorcing her.
8. Rita, it develops, is ashamed to be taking money from Mother all this time (though she does anyway) and has been studying to be a paralegal. Heaven knows where she got the idea, but she decides to move to Lawndale and get a job—and she does, at Helen’s law firm. One of three scenarios develops.
a. Rita turns out to be superb as a paralegal, to everyone surprise. She saves Helen from disaster on several occasions and becomes famous, causing Helen to nearly go insane.
b. Rita turns out to be horrible as a paralegal, to no one’s surprise. She ruins several major cases for the firm and becomes infamous, causing Helen to nearly go insane.
c. [combined with either a or b, above] Rita cannot be removed from the law firm, because she begins a torrid affair with Helen’s boss, Eric, who now regards Rita as indispensable. This does finally drive Helen insane.
9. Rita finds religion—a poorly understood one from a general standpoint, such as Wicca. She is very serious about her conversion (as all converts are) and goes so far as to learn to become a priestess. Erin is mortified and begs the Morgendorffers to get her mother deprogrammed, but those who investigate find that Rita made the conversion of her own free will and is quite happy with it. Then, Rita tries to get one of the Morgendorffers or a family friend interested in her religion, too—and appears to be making progress.
10. Helen discovers that Rita secretly had an out-of-wedlock baby that she put up for adoption years ago. Rita wants to find the baby (sex unknown) and make contact, so Helen helps her. Rita’s long-lost offspring turns out to be someone we already know from the show, now a first cousin of Daria and Quinn.
a. Tiffany Blum-Deckler (Daria kills herself).
b. Monique (Daria kills herself).
c. Charles Ruttheimer III (both Daria and Quinn kill themselves).
c. Andrea (hey, it could happen!)
e. Not Jane Lane. Don’t do this one, please.
Original: 12/03/03, modified 11/21/04