Version 1.0, December 2006
This essay explores the extraordinary similarities between the television series Daria and the motion picture Welcome to the Dollhouse. Is our favorite TV show just a cheap rip off?
I just switched off my television set after watching the story of a high school girl struggling with more than her fair share of teenage problems. Her plain face dominated by a pair of oversized glasses, and with absolutely no fashion sense, she is shunned by the popular students and excluded from their social events. At home her overwound mother and weak-willed father totally fail to understand her. Even worse, her sickeningly cute little sister gets all their attention. And to top things off, she has an irresistable, hormonally-driven crush on an older guitar-playing layabout with delusions of future musical success, but he remains oblivious to her attentions.
In other words, I was watching an episode of MTV's animated sit-com Daria, right? Wrong! I was watching Todd Solondz's motion picture Welcome to the Dollhouse which was released the year before Daria premiered. This essay explores the seemingly intimate relationship between the movie and the subsequent television series.
When the movie Ghost World was released in 2001, fans of the television series Daria were quick to point to the similarities between Ghost World's protagonists Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer and Daria's Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane. Certainly there are striking superficial similarities between Daria and Thora Birch's portrayal of Enid. (There is even a very brief scene in the movie in which Enid is dressed in Daria's trademark colors of a green top, black skirt and black boots, which may be a deliberate homage to Daria.)
Ultimately, however, the comparison does not hold water. Apart from glasses and a smart mouth there is little similarity between Enid and Daria, and the situations portrayed in the movie are unrelated to any that occur in Daria. (It's hard to imagine Daria Morgendorffer going to a sex shop and buying a rubber Catwoman mask to parade around in!) Furthermore, Ghost World has its origins in a comic book which predates Daria, so suggestions that the movie borrowed from the TV series are on shaky ground.
Having been thus misled once, I expected to find a similarly tenuous relationship between Daria and Welcome to the Dollhouse, the other movie that is often mentioned in connection with the TV series. However, when I finally got a chance to see Welcome to the Dollhouse recently it made me wonder seriously about Daria's origins.
The motion picture Welcome to the Dollhouse is a (very!) black comedy which presents the daily humiliations of Dawn Weiner, a 7th grade student at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. In a series of vignettes it shows her total alienation from everyone around her, teachers, classmates, parents and siblings. The film's language is extremely coarse (do 7th graders really swear like this?) and the numerous indignities heaped upon Dawn are painful to watch.
Dawn's Daria-like status is made explicit early in the movie. Her locker is covered with insulting graffiti. The other students nickname her "Weiner Dog" and "Dog face". Bullied by another student she asks, "Why do you hate me?" The answer is simple, "Because you're ugly." Later, reflecting on her problems, she openly says, "I want to be popular."
Dawn is usually portrayed as a self-pitying victim, but occasionally she tries to do what she thinks is right. She intervenes to help a boy named Troy who is threatened with a beating for being a suspected "fag". Her attempt is unsuccessful, however, and he insults rather than thanks her. The movie's climax revolves around a desperate and foolhardy attempt by Dawn to earn her parents' approval (which they ultimately don't even seem to notice).
The one bright spot in Dawn's life is her brother's friend Steve Rodgers. She is smitten by this guitar-playing layabout at first sight. The only time she smiles in the film is in his presence. She tries desperately to win his favour, but ultimately to no avail.
Interestingly, the overall effect of the live-action Welcome to the Dollhouse is far more "cartoonish" than the animated sit-com Daria. The cruelty of Dawn's classmates, the viciousness of her teachers, the lack of understanding of her parents, the cloying cuteness of her little sister, and the indifference of her idol Steve, are all so extreme that they are unbelievable. Indeed, this is part of the movie's appeal. It is not realistic, but depicts the world as Dawn sees it [Silver Screen Reviews, 2004].
As already noted above, the overall setting and tone of Welcome to the Dollhouse bears a strong similarity to that of Daria. However, it's important to note that Daria presents Daria Morgendorffer's experiences at high school whereas Welcome to the Dollhouse depicts Dawn Weiner's life in the first year of junior high school. Therefore, we should think of Welcome to the Dollhouse as equivalent to Daria Morgendorffer's pre-Lawndale - and hence pre-Jane Lane - experiences in Highland (i.e., at the time of Beavis and Butt-head).
In this context, Dawn's misanthropic approach to life is much like Daria's. She is a total outcast at school, where the other students are all shown to be stupid bullies. Her teachers and parents make no attempt to understand her. Her mother, Marjorie Weiner, sums her up by saying, "She's got no friends. She's a loner."
One of the few things that makes Dawn happy is being near Steve Rodgers, her unrequited love, who plays guitar in her brother's otherwise geeky band The Quadratics. The parallel with Daria Morgendorffer's crush on Trent Lane is obvious. Steve even drives a battered car like Trent's. Like Daria, Dawn doesn't smile much, but that's simply because the movie's events don't give her much to smile about. She grins broadly on the rare occasions when she is alone with Steve.
Despite the obvious similarities, there are many differences between Welcome to the Dollhouse and Daria. For instance, Dawn's parents, Harvey and Marjorie Weiner, are not upwardly mobile professionals like Jake and Helen Morgendorffer. Steve Rodgers is shown to be a thoroughly unpleasant and dishonest character, unlike his lazy, but caring and perceptive, counterpart Trent Lane.
More importantly, Dawn Weiner's character is quite different from Daria Morgendorffer's. Although she watches Junior Quiz Bowl on television, Dawn is not intellectually gifted like Daria. She receives a D- for a test, albeit under very stressful conditions. More revealing, the essay on "dignity" that unsympathetic teacher Mrs Grissom forces her to write is entirely vapid (and is one of the cleverest parts of the movie since it's exactly the sort of thing a 7th grade student would produce). Whereas Daria is clearly "smarter, deeper and funnier than anyone around her", Dawn is a "hopeless geek" [Joyce Millman, MTV's Women: They're 'Toons, Media Circus, 10 March 1997].
The biggest difference in the format between Welcome to the Dollhouse and Daria is the existence of Dawn Weiner's older computer-geek brother Mark. His presence acts as a constant reminder of Dawn's intellectual shortcomings. (Unlike Daria's Jodie Landon, who serves the important role of making Daria Morgendorffer a more believable character by showing that she is not necessarily the smartest girl in the school.)
Moreover, where Daria's actions earn the viewer's respect, Dawn is an unsympathetic, vindictive character. She swears at her little sister and saws the heads off her dolls. She smashes her parents' treasured videotape of their wedding anniversary party (because it shows her being embarrassed). Life seems unfair to Dawn, but she is equally cruel to others. In particular, she consistently belittles her younger schoolfriend Ralphy in ways that are obviously hurtful to him.
Overall, where Daria fights back at an unfair world with cunning and sarcasm, Dawn employs much cruder methods, especially picking on those weaker than herself. In turn, Dawn gives in meekly to bullying and, in an odd plot twist, forms a naive romantic attachment with Brandan McCarthy, a student who had previously threatened to assault her.
So what's the verdict? Was Daria based on Welcome to the Dollhouse? At first it may appear so, given the many strong similarities between the two. Combining Beavis and Butt-head's smart and cynical Daria Morgendorffer with the situations and attitudes presented in Welcome to the Dollhouse - suitably sanitized for television - would inevitably seem to produce Daria as we know it.
However, before jumping to any conclusions, consider the following timeline:
Importantly, this sequence of events reveals that all of the essential characters in Daria - bar one - were introduced in the pilot Sealed With a Kick long before Welcome to the Dollhouse premiered. It is thus impossible, for instance, for Quinn Morgendorffer to have been inspired by Missy Weiner, or for Daria's parents to have been based on Dawn's.
The one exception is the slim possibility that Daria's weakness for Trent Lane was inspired by Dawn's crush on Steve Rodgers. Trent is not mentioned in Daria's universe until after Welcome to the Dollhouse's release, so there is a chance that Daria's creators were influenced in this particular detail by the film. However, given the long development times for animated programs, even this seems unlikely.
In conclusion, therefore, despite their many remarkable similarities, Daria and Welcome to the Dollhouse (and Ghost World) seem to have evolved independently. For whatever reason, the angst-ridden 1990s appears to have inspired a whole crop of black comedies about unhappy teenaged girls with glasses. I'll leave it to future social historians to figure out why!
"Beavis and Butt-head" and "Daria" and all related titles, logos and characters are trademarks of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International Inc. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is copyright Sony Pictures/Tristar, 1995. "Ghost World" is copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001.