Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Daria Morgendorffer

“The Peculiar Olympians” is a series of blog posts about my most favourite fictional characters. They are each here for some combination of sympathy, empathy, inspiration, humour, quality, staying power, and/or significance to my relationship with fandom. These are not all the characters that I like, but they are the ones that have stood out to me the most. The list is also alphabetical and nothing more.

Putting Daria on this list is a total cliché. Yes, I’m a brainy female social outcast who wears glasses, says sarcastic things, and is often frustrated with mainstream culture, there you go. Daria is still a combination of the person I was in high school, and the person I wish I was in high school. And long past that period, when America’s obsession with high school remains baffling, Daria is still an icon of mine.

 It’s not entirely accurate to call her a source of inspiration, since she has a lot of flaws. Yet that is part of Daria’s charm; viewing the series as a grown woman introduces that new layer of appeal, namely that she is and has always been a well-crafted character that any kind of writer can appreciate.

Daria lives in the America you know, only dumber. Originally a foil to Beavis and Butt-head (made to provide an intelligent and poised female student in contrast to the two male dumbasses), her family moved to Lawndale, as she moved into her own spinoff.

In between dealing with the stupidity of life, Daria enjoys books, the perpetually-airing TV show Sick Sad World, and the company of her best friend Jane Lane, who had similar sensibilities but is the artistic instead of literary type.

As college grows nearer, Daria finds her preconceptions and habits challenged through the introduction of Jane's boyfriend Tom Sloane, who would also become Daria's boyfriend after a mess. Tom led Daria to challenge her attitudes and explore the negative aspects of them, but she mostly remained the same character.

The series finally saw a DVD re-release in 2010, due to years of licensing hell over the many pop songs used as incidental music. In the end, this music was almost entirely removed. Like most, I would rather it kept the original music, but the series was so important to me that I was not going to resort to bootlegs for the rest of my life.

During the intial wave of reviews following the DVD release, there were a few people coming out of the woodwork to indulge in trite moralizing against Daria-the-character. They seemed to miss the point, however: Daria was never an invincible character or mere wish fulfillment for those who hated the mainstream culture of the 1990s. Instead, she was a multi-faceted, multi-layered character who could be wrong, or could be hurtful, but also not to the extent of condemning female nonconformity and independence. This is true of the early seasons, and in fact I think the later seasons sometimes try too hard to put Daria in the wrong.

No matter what else, there is still a value, a rightness to Daria. Characters should not be vehicles to teach lessons, of course, but it’s still wonderful to see a smart female character as a lead, especially when she isn’t put on a pedestal. In a culture where women are encouraged to downplay their brains and avoid speaking their minds, it’s nice to have an alternative.

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