Nihilism, Alienation and the Birth of Trash Journalism: MTV’s Daria

15 February 2018

The ‘90s were a golden era for ‘toons. Kids and adults alike parked themselves in front of the TV every evening and ate supper off metal trays. Knees were slapped and tears of sheer amusement shed throughout the neighbourhood when Homer Simpson accidentally bared his privates through his bathroom window to a passing helicopter.   

With a hungry audience demanding an encore, there was no better time for MTV to unleash the cartoon feminist icon Daria Morgendorffer. But what sort of legacy did Daria imprint on pop culture?             

For starters, the show is unique for the nihilism that, very much like its feminism, is delivered in frequent and delightful jabs. The show’s setting is possibly the root of Daria’s nihilism: a humdrum, middle-class suburban town called Lawndale. This fictional town is outwardly nothing more than a mildly pea-brained, yet harmless colony of capitalism-worshipping residents, a moral and intellectual wasteland. It’s the kind of place where high schools hold elaborate ceremonies for graduated football players in mockery of their existence as fundamentally educational entities. Where dollar-thirsty magazine writers write articles titled: ‘What TV’s Hottest Hunks Think of Your Blackheads’. Only an outsider with a moral compass like a brick wall (read: Daria), is able see Lawndale for the capitalistic rat race that it is. Throwing ethical values under the bus for the sake of material gain is a survival mechanism in Lawndale, a charade only Daria refuses to engage in. This type of practical nihilism Daria exhibits was a soothing antidote for a generation of millennial viewers who had mostly given up on their parents’ social-climbing ideals.

Yet, mainstream discourse sometimes critiques Daria’s character for her ‘extreme’ alienation from community. In particular, and most likely because of her choice of footwear, critics of the show blame the character of Daria Morgendorffer for the Columbine shootings of ‘99. I’d like to point out that saying black combat boots makes you a mass murderer is as ridiculous as saying playing with toy guns will nurture violent tendencies. In actual fact, Daria promotes a new and radical brand of social alienation that pokes its tongue at its trench coat mafia counterpart. Daria may suffer from ‘outsider syndrome’, however, her social separation is the result of willingly opting out of a shallow social hierarchy. Daria’s decision to wear glasses is a symbol of her rebellion against the trivial ideals of popular teen culture. She reads the works of Kant and Sartre in an open defiance of the cosmetic activities imposed on her. The fictional high school where much of the show takes place is a metaphor for the wider society which rewards superficiality and condemns individualism. Thus, Daria offers a unique take on the definition of ‘outcast’—if a reluctance to buy into a vapid social structure makes one a loser, then perhaps detachment is synonymous with autonomous thought. Daria’s self-inflicted alienation is therefore a rejection of the beehive mentality foisted onto her, and a triumph in the face of societal constraints.

Daria spoke on the future of newspapers. In a remarkably Orwellian fashion, the show predicts the rise of clickbait journalism. Fans will know that a pastime of Daria’s is indulging in the trashy, fictional TV show Sick, Sad World. With wacky headlines like: ‘What’s That You’re Stirring With Your Tea? Honey, or Bee Vomit?’, the channel forecasts the sorry state of 21st century print journalism. After all, nothing screams clickbait like umbilical cord art and net-surfing monkeys, right? (Have a look here, for example.) It’s the kind of news that aims to deliver an emotional shoulder-punch, rather than raise a generation of thinkers. That’s perfectly fine, until it starts to replace actual journalism—which it has. The kind of tasteless content in Sick, Sad World has gone from being sort of a joke, to infiltrating the very headlines of mainstream media today. Did the writers of Daria know that they were predicting the current click-thirsty news climate we inhabit today? If so, Daria was prophetic.  

From the excellent dialogue to the multi-dimensional characters, Daria was undoubtedly an impressive feat by MTV. Judging from the 2D Daria Morgendorffer figurehead that was held up during a Trump protest with the caption: “The Future is Female!”, it’ll be quite some time before popular culture forgets the beloved animation. 

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