While the term “white girl problems” was at one time a cute and dismissive way to make fun of how often white girls complain of essentially nothing, it’s now become something of a runaway train with how much it’s allowed other genders and races to simply write off white women as superficial for having feelings of pretty much any kind when they should just be happy to have been born in their “station” in life. But before this was the chic thing to do, Daria was born of Beavis and Butt-head on March 3, 1997. Her particular brand of dissatisfaction was a novelty the world of mainstream pop culture had not yet come to know (up until this point, all misanthropes really had was Welcome to the Dollhouse), and back then, sarcasm and complaining was deemed edgy rather than simply a suburban white girl whining about non-real issues.
The showrunner and creator of the series, underrated genius Glenn Eichler, had the rare opportunity to create the show without having too much red tape to get through as, at the time, MTV was desperate for just about any content geared toward a female audience. And with this amount of liberty in commencing, Daria persisted in breaking every rule of the time throughout its duration. Rule one broken, of course, was that the popular kids of Daria’s Lawndale High School were painted as the pitiable ones, with quarterback Kevin Thompson (Marc Thompson) and Brittany Taylor (Lisa Kathleen Collins) serving as the pinnacles of how being “well-liked” is often a tradeoff for one’s brain. And then there is Daria’s sister, Quinn Morgendorffer (Wendy Hoopes), who, somewhere deep down, might possess some intellect–as Daria sheepishly admits, “Quinn, you’re… um… not as superficial as you act. I’m sure you just feel obliged to stress the moronic aspects of your personality so you’ll fit in better with the fashion drones. Like a mask you wear because you think they wouldn’t like the real you.” But, yes, Quinn knows better than to rely on any “smart factor” she might have over her looks for garnering frenemies like those she runs the Fashion Club with: Sandi Griffin (Janie Mertz), Tiffany Blum-Deckler (Ashley Albert) and Stacy Rowe (Sarah Drew). Quinn, an obvious foil to Daria, is the more overt version of what we now consider to represent white girl problems, with moral outrage over being stood up by a male model named Paolo or being accused of having large pores among some of the greatest injustices she suffers.
Though Daria did suffer the worst curse of all–being the only intelligent person amid a sea of daft pricks–her life is what one would call an ordinary suburban prison. She has her cohort, Jane (Wendy Hoopes), to help her through the trying times of high school hell and is thus not totally alienated from the world, even though it later feels that way when Jane starts going out with Tom Sloane (Russell Hankin). But Daria even manages to classic “white girl” that up too by stealing Tom away from Jane, though she ultimately compares her time with him to feeling like “a lowly stable girl” for most of it. And perhaps this is what truly keeps Daria from being retrospectively viewed as “soft” or “overblown” in her complaints about life: her middle class standing. She’s neither affluent nor poor, just caught somewhere in this abyssal but necessary to American economic success ether.
More than any other thematic element in the show, the notion that looks are what makes a person truly thrive in life over their intellect is the one that stands out. As one of the first shows to poke fun at the ridiculousness of plastic surgery (though, in film, Clueless helped with Ambular’s nose job), the episode “Too Cute” is a prime example of Daria constantly railing against the emphasis on the aesthetic. With the premise centered around Quinn wanting $6,000 worth of cosmetic alterations, Daria lets her guard down in a rare moment to inform her sister, “You don’t need surgery, Quinn. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, and I’ll deny I ever said it, but there’s nothing wrong with you… physically. You’ve got the kind of looks that make other girls mentally ill. So stop it. You don’t need any plastic surgery. You’re perfect.” Daria’s consistent stance on remaining true to herself and her identity is part of what makes her one of the most imperial characters of television history–and, naturally gives her a leg up above the average suburban white girl willing to conform at a moment’s notice if it means not feeling ostracized.
In another salient episode regarding the premium everyone places on looks, “Arts ‘n’ Crass,” Daria and Jane collaborate on an art project together that finds them wanting to make a statement about beauty. At first, Daria, in something of a Trump foreshadowing moment, remarks, “How about we call it, ‘America’s Future Leaders,’ and we just enlarge a picture of Kevin and Brittany?” Jane returns, “Come on, that’s too depressing. How about we call it, ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,’ and we attach the actual skin of a student?” The duo’s constant dialogue about the blatant malfeasance toward those who don’t focus on their appearance is the most anti-white girl facet of the show, as, in the present, the white girl trope is that all she cares about is her looks/being adored.
Daria’s relationship with her parents, in all of its strainedness, is another aspect that separates her from the derogatory form of how we see the white girl now–which is as generally “close” to her parents (a.k.a. she knows better than to not kiss ass if she’s going to get any dough from them). Her hyperactive father and workaholic mother do not leave much room for Daria to feel as though they’re anything other than roommates in the house she inhabits. Furthermore, she is not the form of white girl to expect or demand money of them, unless, of course, it somehow involves being bribed to do something social or related to Quinn.
Nonetheless, in spite of all the distinctions Daria has from the negative incarnation of “white girl problems,” if the series hadn’t aired when it did twenty years ago, it’s quite possible that 1) many outsiders probably would not have survived high school and 2) it might have been dubbed as just another frivolous tale of the white girl, intensified by the fact that it would inevitably be accused of having a lack of diversity for only representing a black demographic through Jodie Landon (Jessica Cyndee Jackson) and Mack Mackenzie (voiced by too many different people to put in parentheses).