Why This Generation Needs a Daria
Glenn Eichler created the unlikeliest of teen heroes: an alt icon who told us it's okay to be a misfit
I grew up in the 90s, so irony and skepticism are nine tenths of the law. My eyebrow is forever arched, my tongue lives in my cheek. And there was only one other person whose blithe disregard for all things high school so closely mirrored my own: Daria Morgendorffer, the unaffected voice of a generation, MTV’s most sardonic 17-year-old and television’s most well-rounded one-dimensional character. The girl whose motto was: “The world is my oyster, yet I can’t seem to get it open.”
Exposed to a minefield of precarious situations throughout five seasons, Daria managed to navigate the halls of Lawndale High and escape unscathed, leaving behind only a trail of bitter sarcasm. The series – a spinoff from Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head – was created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis in 1997 after MTV decided its cartoonishly titillating Aeon Flux wasn’t as appealing to girls as they’d initially hoped. “I’m sure you’ve seen her costumes,” jokes Daria co-creator Glenn Eichler. “That didn’t pan out the way they planned so they thought, 'Well, let’s try to spin Daria off,' and I volunteered to do it.” That it found a home with the exact opposite demographic of Butt-head and dealt with relatable teenage issues also spoke volumes about its necessity. “You know that feeling you have in high school that’s like, everyone else is different and you’re the only one that understands you?” Eichler offers, “That’s Daria.”
Over the phone, Glenn Eichler is so deadpan, it's hard to believe it's not Daria on the other end (although she would only answer the phone when her Fashion Club sister Quinn was indisposed). "One of the other (Daria) writers, David Felton, says Daria is me in a skirt. I don’t know. She has certain aspects of my personality, but I don’t care. I didn’t care. And I still don’t care much about what people think of me." Eichler's bone-dry sense of humour underlines every episode. Every line was combed over by him (if he didn't write it himself) before being voiced by Daria's mouthpiece, actor Tracy Grandstaff, during exhaustive recording sessions. The world needs more of Daria's DGAF attitude, evident in all of her best Eichler-penned one-liners. Lines like: "I don't have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else."
For the unintiated, the show's premise was simple. Daria saunters around Lawndale with her best friend Jane Lane, both outcasts dodging the circus of jocks, plastics and neurotic moms. So, basically, she's just like us. "Every person we spoke to, journalists, whatever, said, 'I was Daria in high school'," Eichler says. "They couldn’t all have been Daria. But she just tapped into that feeling of insecurity you have as a teenager – whether you’re as much of a misfit as you think you are. The fact that she was okay with being a misfit made people look at her as something of a role model."
She led by example. Wake up, scrape by, pizza, repeat. Oh yeah, and pepper your dialect with pithy remarks like, "Haven't you ever heard the expression 'get the hell away from me'?" What more could you ask from a role model? And next to the deluded chowderheads in the Real World's and Road Rules's of that era, it wasn't much of a contest for Daria to take the title of TV's strongest female character. She stuck up for herself, called out others on their bullshit, and decided early on that being her ironic, flippant self was the best and only way to get through high school.
So is Daria a feminist? "I would say so, yeah," Eichler says. "Absolutely." Simply put, "she thinks she’s as good as anyone else and should be treated as well as anyone else. And she doesn’t think she should be subservient to anyone." Daria asserts herself as early as episode two of the series, when a couple of guys tactlessly hit on Daria and Jane: "So… where have you girls been all our lives?" She rebukes with her signature sharp edge.
Daria: "Waiting here for you. We were born in this room, we grew up in this room, and we thought we would die here... alone. But now you've arrived, and our lives can truly begin."
Season three's tent-pole, "The Lost Girls", sees Daria win the prize of spending an entire day with a self-important magazine editor. The editor – hilariously modeled after XO's Jane Pratt (we're in the 90s, remember) – broadcasts to anyone that will lend an ear that Daria is "edgy". Eventually, Daria gets fed up with being her accessory, and gives her a healthy dose of wake-the-fuck-up: "What do you mean pushing yourself as some kind of role-model, when all you care about is how you look and what celebrities you know? Aren't teenage girls screwed up enough without you foisting your shallow values on them and making their lousy self-images even worse?"
"I think (Pratt) was actually flattered in the end," recalls Eichler. "She used to use such a string of buzzwords in every sentence when she spoke that we just thought it was funny." The punchline of Daria's character could be that she was – for the most part – written by Glenn Eichler, sarcastically giggling at the unorthodox situations in which he'd place Daria. "When we first were doing the series a lot of people would ask me, 'How do you write females so well?' And my answer was I was just writing a personality. I didn’t mean for her to be particularly female and I probably would have screwed it up if I had. I didn’t really think about it, I just did it."
This is an example of coming out on top with no ulterior intentions. It's just pure, rib-tickling delight. Daria was a bulldozer of biting commentary, aspirational in how she cut people down. What's the magic ingredient? "I think part of it is she says things everybody else wishes they could say but are too polite to or too socialized," Eichler says, before launching into a monologue. "In season one we saw the face she presented to the world and then the rest of the seasons we slowly unveiled the reasons she showed that face to the world. So if you think she remains consistent, it’s because her motivations and backstory, her flaws and character, all fed into that initial personality from season one," before adding, "If that sounds like a bunch of horseshit, perhaps it is."
What made Daria inherently unique was how its fan base ran the gamut and managed to curb the rise of reality TV (spoiler: it won the battle, lost the war) with its almost real-life situations told through the biting wit of Daria, Jane and the rotating cast of Lawndale. "We created Daria's character because we wanted a smart female who could serve as the foil," Abby Terkuhle, MTV's then-senior vice president and creative director, told the Chicago Tribune soon after Daria's launch. "We thought about it and decided that Daria was funny in her own right and worthy of her own series." It may have been the norm at the time, but Glenn Eichler and his team held the reins to Daria firmly. There was no answering to anyone. "At the time, the best thing about MTV was that they gave you complete creative control. I think it was just because I didn’t know better but we weren’t pressured to do anything about anyone or anybody. I think as reality TV became more prevalent – and it’s so much cheaper to do than any other kind of TV – it started crowding out other types of programming like animation. But that happened to everybody. Anybody doing drama or sitcoms."
And so began MTV's devolution from clever animated programs into a circle jerk of jokes about how they used to play "music videos". Now we're left with barrel-bottom reality residue like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. How's that for moral value? So I finally break the silence to say, "It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?" "Yes I believe it is kind of sad," Eichler sighs. "I don’t want to turn on my TV and see a show called Swamp Loggers, and yet, I do." Her occupancy as the girl who didn't care whether or not she fit in has since left a void. Daria was an alt icon, a paragon of misfits, yet a hilarious everywoman worth emulating. While it's easiest to end this on the pathetic note that Daria will come back "over my dead body", decries Eichler, and that the overriding message was always that "hypocrisy is bad, people are lying to you", I'd rather polish this off in the words of the 17-year-old feminist whose acidic mocking made TV worth turning on:
Daria: “You know, as stupid as both places are, I see now that they could be a lot worse."
Jane: "Why, Daria, are you becoming an optimist?"
Daria: "Hmm, I’m not sure. Hold up your glass. Nope, still half empty."
Originally published on Dazed