Something beautiful happened a week ago: I stopped idolizing white icons and found solace in a cynical character within my own race. For the last four years I’ve identified closely with Daria Morgendorffer from MTV’s cult favorite (and Beavis and Butthead character spin off), Daria; I’ve also referred to Alanis Morissette as my spirit animal. Thinking about it now actually makes me sick because I realize how hard I was subconsciously trying to fit into the white experience—one in which I don’t belong.
But why Daria? For starters, my eyes are forever positioned in an unamused side-eye glare and my brain runs on a constant eye roll loop. I’ve learned to bite my tongue in all social and work settings because sarcasm is my default, and I’ve lost many a friend because I didn’t know when to cool it. And Daria was the unlikely feminist teen heroine who gave the circle jerking men of the world a reason to zip up and pay attention, and gave cynical women (like me) someone to whom they could finally relate, what with her “Don’t worry, I don’t have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else” demeanor. But while it seems like everyone I know has, at one point in her life, claimed they were Daria, the truth is that not everyone can be. After all, part of the beauty of Daria is that she always came out unscathed after pushing major social boundaries in a way that I, an Afro-Latina woman, never could.
It’s not that one cannot share traits or experiences with someone from another race; after all no other character can sum up my social awkwardness better than Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers. But with Daria and my search for self-discovery, I found myself basking in the glow of a sardonic, 17-year-old white protagonist whose problems were trivial and at times non-existent, which would’ve been fine if it hadn’t meant that I was also ignoring the real me on that show: Jodie Landon.
Jodie was one of the few “cool kids” who wasn’t shallow, and could form an intelligent sentence that didn’t involve clothes, boys or makeup, and she dropped thought-provoking knowledge so eloquently that she made me say, “wait, did she just go there?”
And while I’m generally hesitant to use descriptor adjectives like “black” and “female” because they tend to confirm the white, hetero, male experience as being the “normal” one, the fact is, Jodie is the black Daria (albeit also being popular and the homecoming queen). Jodie was the epitome of “woke” before the term became mainstream (i.e. discovered by white people), and despite only having limited lines in her few appearances, Jodie was able to deliver smart and snarky retorts that were on par with Daria’s. But in the ways that Daria was able to use her misanthropic sarcasm and unapologetic candor, Jodie wasn’t allowed. She had to maintain a pragmatic attitude though she was also a misanthrope with an acerbic wit because Jodie was a black girl navigating the white halls of Lawndale High School, which to my knowledge, only had five students of color.
Daria: Look Jodie, I’m too smart and too sensitive to live in a world like ours, at a time like this, with a sister like mine. Maybe I do miss out on stuff, but this attitude is what works for me now.
Jodie: Then you’ll understand what works for me now. At home, I’m Jodie – I can say and do whatever feels right. But at school I’m The Queen of the Negros, the perfect African-American teen, the role-model for all the other African-American teens at Lawndale. Oops! Where’d they go? Believe me, I’d like to be more like you.
And Jodie’s experience and personality is not that far off from my own.
Like Jodie, I am and have always been a black face in a white space; like Jodie, I have always wanted to be as carefree and unapologetic as Daria, but understood that my sarcastic quips are not always welcomed and will only perpetuate the sassy black girl stereotype. Like Jodie (and like many people of color), I am an ambassador for my entire race and must carry its burdens. And, like Jodie, I am a secondary character in a larger narrative that marginalizes people of color and praises white individuals, no matter how similar we may be.
Which is why I became sick when I realized I had played into this marginalization by rejecting Jodie, one of the few strong black characters who proved that women of color could be smart, quick-witted leaders and not just sassy nor angry sidekicks, in favor of Daria.
Realizing this, and coming to terms with the fact that beloved 90s misfit, Daria, whose smart, self-righteous pronouncements were at least partially borne out of a privileged upbringing, and thus not worth glorifying, was crucial for my empowerment. But as much as I would love to applaud myself for my “I am Jodie Landon, hear me roar” revelation and the reclaiming of my blackness, it didn’t come organically. Rather, it was the product of re-binging the entire series after attending A Seat For Me, an dinner event by The Dinner Table documentary creator and director, Asha Brown. The Dinner Table is a mini documentary that aims to start dialogue about what it means to be a multidimensional black woman, and not the “baby mamas” and “bottle throwers” that reality TV portrays women of color as being. The documentary starts at the dinner table, another A Seat For Me event, with young black millennial women sharing stories of success, mentorship, and inspiration.
It was at this event when, in her opening remarks, New York City Civil Court Judge Machelle Sweeting said “when there is not a seat at the table, you pull up a chair,” that I realized I needed to stop glorifying only white feminists and role models–both real and animated—but also the women of color who carved out a place for me to sit at the table.
And while I still love Daria and the role she played in empowering misfits, she is no longer my icon; that role belongs to all the black and Latina women who have inspired and paved the way for me to be where I am today—women like Jodie, the unsung feminist heroine of Daria.
Follow Dominique Stewart on twitter @Dom_Stew