“Daria” was an animated television show that aired on MTV from 1997-2002. Its leading lady, Daria Morgendorffer, was a cynical and sarcastic teenage girl attending a High School she had a deeply sardonic and deep-seated sarcastic relation too. The show could be seen as the female response to “The Simpsons”, and is to date one of the few adult cartoon shows that’s main characters are all women.
Quinn Morgendorffer, Daria’s popular and shallow sister takes the second seat in this animation of the vaudeville of the teens. Quinn plays out the role of “popular girl” going on dates with hundreds of boys to gain more status in the high school hierarchy, and completes the role by being the vice-president of the schools’ “Fashion Club”. Daria and Quinn are constantly in conflict, due to the fact of Daria being the penultimate outsider at their High School, and not helped by being considered a “brain” (i.e. Freak), which Quinn in true form of the popular teen elite is deeply ashamed of. A third central person in the show is Daria’s best friend Jane, a television addict and artist. Daria and Jane, her also spurned teen friend, spend their time laughing and criticizing all the weird stuff that people do in the hot bed of suburbia and the high school microcosm.
“Daria” was an excellent animated comedy with an equally excellent heroine. Daria was a person you wished you could emulate in your own life due to her innate toughness and quick wit in the face of the insipid actions and statements circulating around her. Her clashes with Quinn were amusing, showing two very different kinds of women which a strong sense of their “own” identity and their wills to defend them to one another (Even if Quinn wasn’t always THAT loyal to her “identity”). The archetypes of this binary played out in the animation as Daria being the somewhat “Intellectual” self-determined woman and Quinn the “air head” superficial woman.
The show tackled a lot of impressive subjects, like fashion modeling (“This year’s model”, Season 1), censorship (“Crash n’ Art”, Season 2) and the bad sides of sponsoring (“Fizz Ed”, season 5). Most of the episodes were written and directed by women. The most notable director of the episodes, as well as the two expanded movies in the franchise (“Is it fall yet?”, “Is it college yet?”) was Karen Disher. The first film Disher directed with Guy Moore, the second she work as lone auteur. This still unusual in the world of animated television shows, that is often created, written and directed for men.
“Daria” was an unusual show in many ways, regarding it’s concentration on female head characters, subject matters along with the predominance of women who were shaping the show. I consider “Daria” one of the high points of Women’s television shows. But this show isn’t only groundbreaking in its female centered nature, but for its bravery to be one of the rare shows to have an openly non-religious, skeptic heroine. Even if the word “Atheist” was never really used in the show, Daria just might be one of the few positive portrayals of atheism in popular culture.
Daria’s beliefs are made mostly clear in the episode “Grouped by an Angel” in season four. (Before you continue this post, I must warn that there will be spoilers for this episode). Quinn becomes obsessed with the idea of guardian angels. After an incident at Dinner, where Quinn just in time leaves the table to miss a lamp falling on her, she is convinced that she has a guardian angel of her own. In the days which follow this instance her good luck convinces her to become even more engaged with the idea of her own Angel. Daria, on the other hand, finds Quinn’s beliefs annoying and stupid. The turning point of the episode, however, is when Quinn experiences a series of unfortunate accidents at a popular girl’s party. This sends Quinn into a sullen state. She wonders why her guardian angel has abandoned her and if she has ever had a guardian angel at all. Turning to Daria, Quinn demands of her to answer what, if she doesn’t believe in Angels, does she believe in? To this demand Daria simply replies: “I guess I believe in treating others the way you would want to be treated”. Daria continues saying:
“… Until I see some pretty convincing evidence, I think we (humans) are on our own”. This statement seems not only to hint that Daria is an atheist, but practically says she is one. Some commentators note that directly after this Daria states the vaguely conditional: “Well, I don’t have any proof that one of that stuff exists…” However, in the context of the episode, there can be no doubt that Daria says this merely to cheer Quinn up, and is counter to what she actually believes.
Daria was, even from the outset of the show, an original and outstanding character, but this episode made her even more rare and special. To this date there are few good atheist characters on Television. “Family Guys” Brian is the only other atheist character to be “out-ted” in a popular show. “The Simpsons”, for instance, has never really had an atheist as a character (which is strange since they’ve had Protestants, Catholics, hinds, Buddhist, Jewish people and Muslims appear in the show. Basically all religions have been presented on the show, but not atheist or agnostics…).
The closest to a real atheist in animated television comes in “The Boondocks’” hero Huey Freeman who is an openly agnostic. Agnostics are more common “non-religious” characters on TV since they are less controversial since they often aren’t sure whether higher powers exist or not. What was brave about Daria’s frank words, where that she makes it clear to the viewer that she doesn’t believe in any kind of higher powers, is the strong meaning she voices in the rejection of a belief in any kind of God.
Daria isn’t portrayed as the stereotypical mean and harsh atheist either; she does give Quinn hope to carry on her own beliefs, giving a group of some-what good reasons for why her angel wasn’t there to help her at the party, making Quinn hopeful. This is pretty radical, since most atheists shown on TV are often grumpy and mean-spirited (like the main character in “House”).
“Daria” was a show I wish they had more of. After Daria, all of the main adult cartoons have been male centered (“South Park”, “Family guy”, “King of the Hill”). And as for live-action shows, most of them center on pretty shallow women (even if they are some pretty awesome shows with good female leads, like “30 Rock”, but that’s one of few). And besides Daria, very few shows have had the courage to have a (likeable) atheist character. When discussing atheism in popular culture, Daria is sadly often forgotten and not mentioned as much as she should be. She was one of the first atheists on TV, long before Brian from “Family Guy” or House from “House”. “Daria” as a show gave women a clever and witty show and one to be proud of.
I would love to show just the part of “Grouped by an Angel” where Daria tells Quinn her beliefs, but unfortunately I can only show the first half of the episode due to copyrights. But if you get the chance to check out the whole episode, definitely due so!