Many high school girls experience stress in their pursuits for acceptance from their peers. They neglect what is important, sacrificing their values, grades, and their health, and focus on ascending the hierarchy of popularity through the accumulation of social capital. Through Daria’s perspective, MTV’s Daria critiques society’s destructive preoccupation with social capital—such as appearance and reputation—that triggers superficiality among many high school girls in the 90s. Daria and her younger sister, Quinn exhibit the dichotomy of depth and superficiality enforced by high school society, but throughout the series, the sisters break from those molds and face positive and negative reactions from those around them.
Daria revolves around the high school life of Daria Morgendorffer, a brilliant student, realist, and social outcast. The Morgendorffers move to Lawndale, and “in the one moment of good luck [she has] in her entire life,” Daria becomes friends with Jane Lane, a traditional artist who is also an outcast with whom Daria can relate. Together they criticize the superficiality spread amongst their peers. Quinn regularly annoys Daria with her constant exhibition of shallowness that enables her to fit in with the popular crowd.
In “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Wolf says women living in First World countries possess more freedoms than women in other nations, but many do not feel free because of their devotion to trivial matters: “physical appearance, bodies, face, hair, and clothes” (1). She claims that obsessiveness has worsened over recent generations (2).
In popular media, smart women appear less often than men; unfortunately, writers tone down the intelligence of smart women “to make [them] more palatable to mainstream society” and make them more concerned with romance rather than their intellectual careers (Inness 8). Daria Morgendorffer deviates from those standards; although, she crushes on Jane’s older brother Trent and has a steady relationship with Tom Sloan in the final season, but she focuses more on her schoolwork and analyzing the absurdities around her. Daria was one of the earliest cartoons to portray a smart girl as the lead character (Conaway 59). “Brainy” girls in other animations—like Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons—exhibit more “earnestness” and contrast Daria who possesses “sarcastic wit” and “a general air for not caring about anything” (Conaway 59). The opposite of a “brainy” girl is a “dumb” blonde. Young blonde-haired women with “amazingly shallow” concerns dominate popular media (Inness 2). However, having blonde hair is not necessarily required to be a “dumb” blonde. Marilyn Monroe, an iconic role model for women, said, “‘I [did not] have to be bright [to become successful]…All I had to do was be blonde’” (qtd. in Inness 2). 1950s American society desired “dumb blondes” and spread the belief that “beautiful and blonde” women were more important than “brainy” women (Inness 2). “Dumb” blondes appear in Daria. Brittany Taylor is a popular cheerleader with an inability to answer questions correctly in class—such in “Esteemsters” when she says America fought in the “Viet-cong War” over Manifest Destiny—and her stepmother, Ashley Amber who also shows a lack of intelligence.
Many high school girls struggle with maintaining an appearance that meets current fashion and beauty trends. Obsessiveness toward one’s appearance exhibits shallowness and can backfire, causing physical and psychological harm to oneself and others. Repetitive conversation about appearance perpetuates “the cultural view that appearance is important” (Wasylkiw and Williamson 240). Throughout the series, the Fashion Club is often shown discussing their appearances or gossiping about the appearances of others. Girls often evaluate themselves based on the looks of their peers and media idols (Wasylkiw and Williamson 240). The members of the Fashion Club are idols and set the fashion and beauty standards at Lawndale High, and many girls strive for their acceptance. The opinions of others have an impact on how a girl views her own appearance (Wasylkiw and Williamson 240). In “Too Cute,” Brooke, a girl who aspires to join the Fashion Club, has reconstructive surgery on her nose and asks the Fashion Club for their opinion. Quinn says her nose job is cute, but Brooke catches uncertainly in her tone and suddenly fears that her nose is unattractive. Then Quinn becomes anxious of her nose and pursues reconstructive surgery, too, even though the surgeon Dr. Shar says there is nothing wrong with her nose and that “it would be a crime against nature” to tamper with it. Wolf mentions that many attractive women struggle with “self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of ageing, and dread of lost control…infused with notions of beauty” (2). Wolfe’s claim relates to Quinn’s regard toward maintaining popularity: “I like being attractive and popular, … so if Dr. Shar makes everyone else attractive and popular, then I will have to be even more attractive just to keep up…Where will it end?” Making many impractical body changes is an example of the obsessiveness Wolf mentions. One’s friends and peers are often the reason one develops body concerns (Wasylkiw and Williamson 240). After the other members of the Fashion Club receive reconstructive surgery on their noses, Quinn resorts to asking her peers for donations to afford surgery that would keep her attractiveness par with the rest of the club.
However, Daria points out the idiocy of Quinn’s desperateness for surgery: “You got the kind of looks that make other girls mentally ill, so stop it. You [do not] need any plastic surgery.” Then Quinn learns that Brooke’s nose caved in, unfortunately making her less attractive than before her initial surgery. Widespread and long-lasting emphasis on appearance can potentially brainwash girls into making irrational conclusions about themselves that many lead to irrational behavior and permanent body damage. However, having some concern over one’s appearance is healthy. Unlike Quinn, Daria generally shows no concern for consensual standards for fashion and beauty. Daria brushes off the recommendations of those trying “to teach her about beauty and appropriate girlhood” (Conaway 55).When others judge her appearance, they assume she has a problem. In “Esteemsters,” Daria takes a psychological exam and the results reveal that she has low self-esteem—only because she answers the questions sarcastically due to her belief that the test is “a complete waste of time” (Conaway 59). Self-esteem generally refers to how much people value themselves but can also refer to how high or low one gauges their body image (Uslu 119). Although Daria does not follow societal standards, she does not have low self-esteem; others—aside from Jane—simply do not see the world through her eyes or realize that she is “a happy marginal outsider” (Conaway 59). However, Daria occasionally proves that she does not have total immunity to societal pressures on appearance. In “Through a Lens Darkly,” Daria nearly runs over a dog because her glasses give her blind spots, so she gets contact lenses to improve her peripheral vision. Others believe she got them to improve her image and compliment her for doing so. She tells her new admirers that they are for driving, which makes them ask her, “Why are you wearing them now?” When Jane and Daria walk home, Trent pulls over in his car and tells Daria that she “looks good.” In a dream that following night, she wears her glasses and gazes in horror at her scrambled reflections in many funhouse mirrors. She removes her glasses and
feels relieved that her reflections look normal, but they scramble again, forcing her to panic and wake up. The nightmare reveals her developing anxiety of her look. Her contacts are too painful to wear, but she refuses to wear glasses, so she attends school practically blind. She feels ashamed after she realizes that she has exhibited vanity and turned against her standards—remaining “uncompromised and unconceited”—and succumbed to societal pressures and hides in a bathroom stall. Brittany praises Daria for getting contacts and caring “a little” about her appearance. She says, “Knowing that a brain can be worried about her looks makes me feel not so shallow—that [we are] not that different—just human or something.” Daria then leaves the stall and agrees that they are all human and casts aside her shame. Happy “marginal outsiders” in real life can realize it is acceptable to express some concern over one’s appearance. As Conaway says, the removal of her glasses does not change her life (57).
Some girls willingly subject themselves to discomfort in order to impress boys. In “See Jane Run,” Quinn wears a pair of high-heeled sandals that hurt her feet. She claims the pain is worthwhile because they “make her legs look hot.” In “Pierce Me,” Daria and Trent shop for Jane’s birthday present and stop at a piercing shop. There is a two-for-one sale on body piercings, and Trent pressures Daria to get a belly button ring. She initially refuses, but she willingly faces the pain of a navel piercing to impress her love interest. Jane later tells Daria, “You did something stupid for a guy. Gee, you may join the human race after all.” The piercing itches her “like hell,” so she removes it for the night, which causes the hole to seal up. She asks Jane not to tell Trent, but fortunately, he does not judge her. These episodes demonstrate that girls who exhibit stern introversion and nonconformity are also vulnerable to societal pressures, but showing concern for one’s own appearance is not problematic unless it develops from shallow motives—such as peer pressure or pressure to please men. Expressing some vanity reveals that people are “just human” and does not make them shallow.
High school girls receive condemnation from others when they exhibit any signs of intelligence, so those with intelligence must disguise it to maintain a positive reputation. There is a cultural belief that teenage girls with intellectual pursuits are wasting their time and ought to be dating boys and making friends instead (Conaway 55), which derives from the stereotype that women have less intelligence than men (Inness 3). Gender stereotypes can be traced throughout history. Victorian scientists concluded that “‘women’s brains are too small to be fully human’” with intelligence more equivalent to that of apes (Inness 3). Daria thoroughly exhibits that high school girls often prioritize their social life over academic achievement. Her peers label Daria a “brain,” a term that many high school girls (and boys) deem negative. In “Esteemsters,” on Daria’s first day of school, her history teacher Mr. DeMartino calls her definition for Manifest Destiny “suspiciously good.” He assumes that girls lack intelligence, and Daria’s answer surprises him because she breaks from the web of superficiality in which most high school girls are entangled. Quinn’s male admirers in that episode learn that her sister is a “brain” and fearfully wonder if she is a “brain,” too. In “Quinn the Brain,” Mr. O’Neil compliments Quinn’s essay, and Quinn says, “I [can not] be a brain. My friends will hate me.” Beth Berila points out that Americans live in a culture where popular media “blurs the line between what is ‘real’ and what is fiction” (153). Female “brainiacs” who possess depth rather than shallowness are generally represented in popular media as less sexually appealing than more “airheaded” women who fall under the “dumb blonde” stereotype (Inness 1-2). Many girls—such as Quinn and the Fashion Club—grow up exposed to “dumb” blondes in media in which it is difficult to distinguish between real-life and fiction, which may embed in their minds that having intelligence and depth is unattractive and against high school popularity standards.
Quinn possesses intelligence, but popularity standards force her to withhold it from her “brain-dead” friends. Sandy, president of the Fashion Club and Quinn’s rival in popularity, criticizes Quinn whenever she says something intelligent that is unrelated to beauty and fashion. Quinn is an example of girls who must withhold their beneficial skills in order to avoid being seen as unattractive and becoming unpopular. In “Write Where it Hurts,” Daria writes a short story that portrays her family in the future. In the story, Daria and Quinn visit their parents, and Mr. Morgendorffer praises his daughters for growing up into proper adults: Daria uses her deep viewpoints that made her an outcast in high school as content in her weekly newspaper column, and Quinn has directed her energy and enthusiasm from high school to raising her four children. Quinn refuses her father’s praise and claims that “[she] was a stuck-up little nightmare.” In the story, Quinn acknowledges the insignificance of popularity in adulthood, and in “real” life she gradually makes a similar realization. In Is it Fall Yet? the Fashion Club members receive the results from their preliminary SATs. Quinn scores highest with a 955; Stacy receives a 920 but tells everyone she received a 956. She feels ashamed because she thought she could score higher than her friends and hires a tutor for the summer, but she claims she is only trying to improve her test score to attend Pepper Hill University—a notorious party school—to hide her true motives. Her tutor David criticizes her for hanging out with her “brain dead” friends and says, “The only reason [you are] popular is your looks, and those won’t last forever. You have nothing interesting to say and no intellectual curiosity whatsoever.” His words motivate Quinn to concentrate more on her academics because once her attractiveness wears off, she will have nothing. That following fall on her first day of history class, Mr. DeMartino asks the class the definition of Manifest Destiny. Quinn hesitantly raises her hand and states an answer that impresses (and not sarcastically) Mr. DeMartino. Sandy accuses Quinn of “becoming a brain,” but Quinn defends herself and says, “Just because someone can answer a simple question [does not] make them a pedagogue.” Later that school year, In “Lucky Strike,” the Lawndale High teachers go on strike, so Principal Li asks Daria to cover Quinn’s Language Arts class. Daria (or Miss Darlene, as she calls herself) assigns the class to read Romeo and Juliet, and Quinn pays attention to class discussion and takes thorough notes. Daria announces a test, and Sandy tells Quinn to make sure Daria lowers her grading standards for them—the popular people. Daria asks Quinn, “Why should you go out of the way to protect the stupid?” Quinn knows the material, and Daria points out the ludicrousness of Quinn’s efforts to have the test simplified for her “stupid” friends because “[she is] not one of them.” Many girls who focus heavily on maintaining popularity and neglect their academics have difficulty obtaining successful careers in adulthood. Quinn struggles to break free from the social conventions for popularity and realizes popularity is meaningless in the real world, so she embraces her intelligence to prepare herself for success after graduation.
The portrayal of women in popular culture influences the standards enforced in high school culture. Some blend in with this system, and others strive to avoid it. Although Daria takes place in the 90s, the issues it presents are still relevant today. The series exposes the triviality of the concerns that some high school girls regard so seriously and encourages girls to dress and act on their own terms. If one’s intelligence or viewpoints isolates her from her peers, it does not matter because they will not attend high school forever. Exercising these skills throughout high school will lead one to an executive seat in a law firm rather than to the inside an ice-cream truck.
Berila, Beth. “Savvy Women, Old Boys’ School Politics, and The West Wing.” Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 153-169. Print.
Conaway, Cindy. “‘You Can See Things that Other People Can’t’: Changing Images of the Girl with Glasses, from Gidget to Daria.” Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 49-63. Print.
Davis, Anthony, dir. “Esteemsters.” Daria: The Complete Animated Series. Perfs. Tracy Grandstaff. Wendy Hoopes. Paramount, 2010. DVD.
—. Is it Fall Yet?
—. “Lucky Strike.”
—. “Pierce Me.”
—. “Quinn the Brain.”
—. “See Jane Run.”
—. “Through a Lens Darkly.”
—. “Too Cute.”
Inness, Sherrie A. “Who Remembers Sabrina? Intelligence, Gender, and the Media.” Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 1-9. Print.
Uslu, Mustafa. “Relationship Between Degrees Of Self-Esteem And Peer Pressure In High School Adolescents.” International Journal Of Academic Research 5.3 (2013): 119-124. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Wasylkiw, Louise, and Molly E. Williamson. “Actual Reports and Perceptions of Body Image Concerns of Young Women and Their Friends.” Sex Roles 68.3-4 (2013). 239-251. PsycINFO. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Wolf, Naomi. “The Beauty Myth.” The Beauty Myth. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 1-8. Print.