In the Media

The New York Times
May 16, 1999

'Daria': In Praise of the Most Unpopular Girl at Lawndale

The older I get, the more I think about high school. This may explain my current, unseemly attachment to "Dawson's Creek," a WB nighttime soap aimed at 14-year-olds.

Every Wednesday night, its heroine Joey Potter (played by the unnaturally beautiful Katie Holmes) breezes through difficulties -- a classmate's accidental drowning, learning that the boy she's dating is gay, her on-again, off-again romance with Dawson (James Van Der Beek) -- with verbal and physical aplomb.

Problems just seem to make Joey cuter and more articulate. If things get really bad, she may bite her lip or push her hair behind her ears, which makes her look even more like Natalie Wood sometime between "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Splendor in the Grass."

But I could never have been Joey. This is a girl who can hear the boy she has loved since childhood say he wants her back and dismiss him with the poise of Michelle Pfeiffer channeling Myrna Loy, exiting through his bedroom window as if she were climbing into a limousine.

"Believe it or not, Jack," she once told a guy, "not every moment with you is sexually charged." I couldn't pull off that sort of thing when I was 30. Or ever.

No, the teen-age girl I really might have been, if I'd had the courage, is over on MTV. She's smart, bitter and animated, a blend of Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz and Janeane Garofalo, wearing Carrie Donovan's glasses. She is the star of "Daria," the epitome of suburban teen-age irony.

Daria Morgendorffer, 16 and cursed with a functioning brain, has the misfortune to see high school, her family and her life for exactly what they are and the temerity to comment on it. When asked to share her goals in life with other students in a classroom, Daria declines. When pressed, she answers, "My goal is not to wake up at 40 with the bitter realization that I've wasted my life in a job I hate because I was forced to decide on a career in my teens."

Daria is the kind of girl who reads "Heart of Darkness" and Edgar Allan Poe's "Telltale Heart" in class. (Brittany the cheerleader, who wears double blond ponytails and a teddy bear backpack, thinks the latter is a Harlequin romance.) Nobody gets to Daria and nobody impresses her.

When her essay "My So-Called Angst" wins an award, Val, 28, the trendy editor of Val magazine, comes to visit its author and to research "the hidden heart of high school." Soon Val is planning an article on "cheerleading as the new yoga," and Daria is observing, "Edgy and icky are so hard to tell apart these days."

Daria the character made her debut on MTV's less verbal animated series "Beavis and Butt-head" in 1994. "Daria" the show had its premiere in March 1997, when the title character transferred to a new school.

"I like to think that I've helped her come out of her shell," says Glenn Eichler, who created the original character and is co-creator, with Susie Lewis Lynn, of the series. The secret of Daria's popularity (everywhere but in her own home and school) may be our collective alienation.

"Apparently everyone, with the exception of a very few people who were hit on the head when they were very young, felt like they were outsiders," says Eichler. "You either identify with her as an outsider or you sort of envy her ability to navigate her life as an outsider and stay sane."

And then there are some people who just like her because she says mean things. As far as I can tell, with her show well into its third season (new episodes start again on June 30), Daria has never cracked a smile.

And her tastes are a little dark. When she reluctantly signs up to read to the elderly at the Better Days Retirement House, she chooses to read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl!" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness").

The Morgendorffers don't even seem to notice that Daria constantly gives them lip. When Daria's mother, a cell-phone-addicted workaholic lawyer, explains, "There's no course that can teach you to be a perfect mother," Daria answers in a snap, "That's obvious." And nobody sends her to her room.

Her misguided father, who viewers learned in one episode was actually at Altamont (it was sort of the violent Woodstock), is usually oblivious. He suffers from road rage and, when the pesto doesn't go right, stove rage.

But the greatest burden on the home front is Daria's terminally cute, popular little sister, Quinn. Quinn and her pals constitute Lawndale High's Fashion Club ("Friends don't let shortwaisted friends wear hip-huggers" is one of their mottos). Quinn tells people that Daria is her cousin or just an unrelated girl who lives with her.

Luckily, Daria has a best friend, whom she met in low-self-esteem class. Jane Lane knows all of Daria's peculiarities and still loves her. "You're a twisted little cruller, ain't you?" she says. "That's why I'm proud to be your friend."

Daria's only discernible weakness, in fact, is her silent intense crush on Jane's spiky-haired brother, Trent. Trent plays in a band called Mystik Spiral, whose signature song seems to be "Ow, My Nose! Ow, My Face!" And the absolute proof that Jane is a good friend is that she knows how Daria feels about Trent and will never, ever tell.

Of course the only real teen-agers this confident and articulate are time travelers, like Kathleen Turner in "Peggy Sue Got Married," who have the chance, literally, to know then what they know now. Until time travel is perfected, Daria is my idol.