Daria Morgendorffer, it’s time to stand up and be counted. Often topping lists compiled on the best examples of strong women in pop culture, cartoon hero Daria is strong, smart and sarcastic. She rejects the notion held by most of the women of Lawndale that a girl’s body is a commodity, is known for speaking up for herself, and by her staunch refusal to participate in unethical behaviour she exposes society’s injustices and hypocracies more times than you would think possible in a twenty-minute episode. Feminist icon, right? Not so much.
‘People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute,’ Daria says in one episode, separating herself from the label everyone else wants to stick her with. This reluctance to identify Daria with ‘the F word’ probably stems from a desire to make Daria accessible to a wider audience. For any television show, even one renowned for being niche or alternative, accessibility is really the key. In creating a traditionally unfeminine female lead, the writers and creators of the show allowed Daria strength without threatening the masculinity of either the male characters or the male viewers. They positioned the show with remarkable savvy – whether your high school experience was more in line with that of Daria’s popular sister Quinn or jock superstar Kevin, any high-schooler could relate to the themes of the show. Despite it being understood that Daria is unpopular, Daria and best friend/fellow outcast Jane regularly interact on good terms with all ‘popular’ characters, helping them with personal projects, exchanging one-liners in the hallways of Lawndale High. There is nothing essentially unlikeable about the character, and she manages to hold the unflinching respect of everyone else on the show. It’s accessibility at its most brilliant.
The show hasn’t been on air for ten years now, but with the Daria DVD released in the United States last year and in Australia this June, Daria is once again fresh in its fans’ minds. The themes that the show addresses are just as relevant to a 2011 audience as they were a decade ago, and new viewers are quickly embracing Daria as a feminist pop culture icon, whether Daria herself would want them to or not.
New audiences – like her long-time viewers – might not be able to help noticing that Daria almost always has a book in her hand, and unlike in other cartoons, where the book titles might be mere squiggles or in-jokes inserted by cartoonists, it’s nothing but the classics for Ms. Morgendorffer. As the character is portrayed as incredibly literary and is a writer herself, diehard viewers have naturally taken note of Daria’s reading habits. Run a Google search and you’ll find many websites detailing Daria’s literary choices over the course of the five seasons. For instance, the Sick Sad World website lists Daria’s reading list as follows:
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- The Iliad by Homer
- In Memoriam by Alfred Tennyson
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories by Edgar Allen Poe
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- On Moral Fiction by John Gardener
- The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa
- Howl by Allen Ginsberg
- Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
- A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel DeFoe
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The representation of women in literature has been a hot topic of late (see The Stella Prize, The Meanjin Tournament of Books), and the one thing that stuck out when I was perusing the list – other than deep-founded admiration; in high school I was still reading Animorphs – was that there is not a single female author on it. The fact that the writers couldn’t think of any female-authored texts that a character like Daria would consider worth her time speaks volumes, if you’ll excuse the pun. Daria may be ‘just a cartoon’, but this absence of women writers (in a show about the life of a female character intent on becoming a professional author) is an accurate representation of the way women and literature are considered within society. Many high schools – both in Australia and internationally – have student reading lists that are consistently failing to include valuable texts by female authors.
Daria is not by any stretch of the imagination an anti-feminist television show. In a time when Beavis and Butthead were our role models, Daria took over our televisions and taught us that it was better to be smart than beautiful, better to be outspoken and ostracised than stay silent and adored. It remains one of my favourites because it is also insightful, hilarious and brilliantly written. And just like the original Star Wars trilogy remains firmly lodged in place as my top three films of all time, despite there seeming to be only one female character in the entire galaxy, Daria will always go down as one of my favourite cartoons. What media we consume matters – our exposure to popular culture and sexist material has a recognised impact.
Looking back on Daria gives us an opportunity to realise that you have to be aware of what came before in order to get it right the next time. And so maybe the next time someone creates a wise-talking, influential young adult female character, she can come to terms with her feminism and read some Atwood, Morrison, Woolf, Plath or Lee.
– Sian Campbell is a Brisbane writer and has recently completed a Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at QUT. She blogs sporadically at siancampbell.wordpress.com.