Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Daria Day

This blog rarely confronts pop culture, except occasionally in passing. Even so, I suppose a little variety isn't such a bad thing. I found today when it was time to write that I was weary of teh serious and would rather focus on other topics. Please do forgive me this once.

The late 90's to early 2000's MTV animated series Daria was finally released yesterday on DVD in totality. I'm not sure a more perfect encapsulation of my adolescence could have ever been created. Born in an era where content on MTV still could be seen as edgy and daring, instantly creating a kind of seductively rebellious authenticity with a younger audience, the series served as a lifeline to lonely, isolated, insecure teens like myself. I myself related so much to many of the characters. Daria and her best friend Jane were a kind of wise-cracking vaudeville act, lampooning the contradictions and hypocrisies of the world around them with their own private repertoire. I also knew many in my own life who reminded me of Jane's ne'er do well brother, Trent, a chronic slacker whose dreams of rock 'n roll stardom are always frustrated by his limited proficiency as a songwriter and guitarist. Sometimes I still encounter the Trents of the world, particularly when it comes time for me to once again take my guitar in hand, sit, and play before an audience.

To return to the past for a little while, let me preface by saying that I don't often like to think much about high school. Those days were largely unhappy ones. I will, however, always think fondly of Daria because it was one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dismal experience. When I was being teased mercilessly or left out of social gatherings because I refused to hide my intellect or my sensitivity, I saw my own darkly comedic defense mechanisms staring back at me in the person of the title character. As I desperately sought the company of other people who were creative and artistic, I often had Jane in mind as the ideal. I honestly saw a little bit of myself in most of the characters--the ones, that is, not completely self-absorbed or obsessed with popularity and conformity at all cost. That I relied on an animated series to serve as a primary sense of solace struck me as a bit odd, even at the time. I know now, based on the testimonials I have encountered from other people, that I was not alone. Not by a long shot.

None of the misfit characters are malicious or cruel. Instead, they are their own worst enemies, particularly in their neuroses and in the ways they discounted and short-changed their own self-worth. The truly vicious characters, rather, are the popular kids, especially Daria's sister Quinn, and her fellow Fashion Club dictator, Sandi. They are self-absorbed on a much baser, more superficial manner, turning their own insecurities towards each other rather than inward. At the time, I thought that this sort of behavior and general set-up was meant to be read as exaggeration, though as I have spoken at length with female friends, I find this to not be far off the mark at all.

Regarding other characters, as I have gotten older, I have gotten to know many of the Helen Morgendorffers (Daria's mother) of the world, both male and female: well-meaning, highly driven, Type A, workaholics married to their jobs. Had Blackberries been in existence in say, 1998, Daria's mother would have carried one, too. The fallacy of this sort of manic lifestyle is revealed during one crucial episode where Daria's mother and father press for a family camping trip. Daria and her sister Quinn are not especially enthused about what what is intended to be a totally rustic respite from the distractions from the world. The camping trip begins auspiciously enough until, however, most of the family, with the exception of Daria, eat wild berries they have found growing in the forest. These cause a trip of another sort altogether. Have no fear--the family is saved from peril because of the hypocrisy of the mother. You see, she has, in flagrant violation of the stated rules, brought along her cell phone, and Daria is able to call for help.

In some ways, the character of Helen could be Feminist. She is the family's primary breadwinner. She holds the job that yields the most power. Unlike her bumbling, fragile, and at times almost impotent husband, she is forceful, bold, and opinionated. Yet, she also reluctantly concedes that she must play the game to an extent, conceding wearily that women are judged based on their physical appearance and sense of youthfulness. My criticisms of the character are the same ones that are implied by the show itself; life is meant to be enjoyed and that nothing is so important that work responsibilities can't wait. Helen is a good mother and capable lawyer, but she is so compelled to be perfect that her occupation frequently intrudes on her personal life.

Daria lamentably defined the end of a era. Shortly after the series concluded in 2001, MTV top brass decided there was more money to be made in airing reality TV shows than sticking to a tried-and-true format of music videos. Perhaps it made sense to the bottom line, but the high water mark of that network, then at its zenith, rapidly began to recede. MTV does not hold the same instant sway over the younger set that it once did. I think in many ways a void exists that has yet to be filled, a void which began with the decline of a channel still called Music Television that, quite ironically, infrequently plays music these days. I hope that today's teenagers might find their own Daria. Nothing shores up self-esteem and provides a common basis for understanding quite as effectively. If I had known then how common my experiences were, comparatively speaking, I might have felt more confident stepping out of myself and being able to determine friends from uncomprehending peers. In all of the discussion of how the media fails us, we might learn from the ways it lifts us skyward.

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