Of all the icons that sprung from the 1990s, no one has made me feel “seen” like the titular character in the MTV cartoon series Daria. Growing up in the Philippines with a family that forced me to be loud and extroverted, I was used to being compared to the more well-adjusted and spunky heroines that permeated everyone’s TV sets. Back then, I had this notion that I needed to talk a lot and be aggressive for people to take me seriously, or at least pass as normal.
Then came Daria. This bespectacled young woman with acerbic wit came into my life in her green jacket and combat boots, showing my teenage self that not everyone cool needed to be perky and assertive. As someone who couldn’t relate to “action girls” or Disney princesses, I felt represented for the first time in my life. It sounds silly that a girl who lived in a lower-middle class Filipino neighborhood would see herself in a fairly privileged white American teen, but watching another bookish misfit traverse a constantly judgmental world somehow made me feel less alone.
Daria’s five-season run took place from 1997 to 2002, a time when people were still coming to terms with a new millennium. Although it aired during the earlier stages of my life, the show addressed issues I am still facing in my mid-20s: a hatred of vapidity, a disregard of shallow social niceties, and rejection of superficiality. Daria taught me that there’s always something to laugh at in a reality I can’t change, that I can be outspoken without being loud, and that non-aggressive defiance is best backed by an amazing soundtrack and reading list.
But despite being a hero to me and a million other maladjusted outsiders, Daria isn’t perfect—and that’s the best thing about her. In one of my favorite episodes “Boxing Daria,” it was revealed that she had problems growing up which resulted in her tendency to isolate herself due to unmet expectations of normalcy. In her desire to escape, she turned to a large box in her bedroom where she could be herself without being judged.
When I first saw the episode a year ago, I teared up over how much of my own childhood was reflected to me. Here was a little girl who couldn’t help being who she is; a girl whose default personality was not fitting in despite attempts by the adults around her to make her “normal.” Like Daria, I was used to hearing variations of the question “what’s wrong with you?” which resulted in my deployment of passive resistance as a form of retaliation and armor for the pain.
If Daria was just a smart teenage girl who did everything right and always acted reasonably in an unreasonable world, I wouldn’t be here writing about how the show molded a large part of my identity. Daria’s imperfection proved to me that even brilliant people get rejected; that they also struggle with balancing their ideals with practicality. The show and its heroine had heart, and it made me feel a little sad that I didn’t get to grow up watching someone like me mess up and strive to correct things. Then again, nobody really finishes growing up in this world.
“Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless experience proves you wrong,” Daria said during her poignant graduation speech in the show’s 90-minute finale. “Remember: when the Emperor looks naked, the Emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not the ‘same sort of thing.’”
In today’s hyperconnected society and emphasis on personal brands, it can be difficult to keep up with Daria’s message of authenticity. Our actions, online or offline, may become unintentionally performative so we can forward our careers and validate ourselves. It’s easy to fight for something nowadays—in fact, it’s even encouraged. But sometimes, truths can no longer be distinguished from lies. What seems sincere can really be hollow at its core.
The real world is even more absurd than the Lawndale of Daria’s world. News items are turning into a never-ending series of bad jokes, and it’s getting easier to become disillusioned with reality. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to change a rotten system. True to Daria’s virtue of cynical optimism, I aim to survive this whole spectacle by actively pursuing a quiet and mature kind of rebellion: sticking to my principles and adjusting accordingly when something proves me wrong.
After all, in the end, there’s nothing much we can do while they’re standing on our necks.
Image credit: @adriana_rll
Andrea Rivera is a struggling 20-something writer, office slave, and ex-emo kid from Manila, Philippines. You can follow her on Twitter @andreyeaah.