The Misanthropic Love Story of Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane

The Misanthropic Love Story of Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane

There’s something fundamentally lonely about being a teenage girl: at least, the kind of teenage girl who is not only odd but who also knows it, who cultivates her oddness with jealous resolve while floundering under the burden of its social ramifications. This kind of girl both loves and loathes her loneliness; she would cringe at the idea of matching outfits, but secretly knows that shared sameness feels like home. If this girl came of age in the ’90s, she identified fiercely with Daria Morgendorffer and longed for a best friend like Jane Lane.

Daria originally ran on MTV from 1997 until 2001, cultivating an avid female fan base along the way. Pre-adolescents, twenty-somethings and those in the gulf between all sought relief in the take-no-shit, demure nihilism that distinguished Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane from the Joey Potters and Sabrina Spellmans of television.

Watching an episode of Daria folded us into the world Daria and Jane forged through their mutual cynicism. More than any other show of its generation, Daria understood the fierce attachment that comes from, at long last, discovering someone who finds most human beings as flagrantly buffoonish as you do. Here in this world, cheerleaders squeak like understudies for The Chipettes, emotionally mangled teachers wear their failures on their sleeves, and a crooked (and rather delusional) school principal scavenges for wealth and acclaim. Embracing social exclusion as a benediction, Daria and Jane’s twinned desire to reject social mores is the foundation of their relationship, the philosophy that makes their friendship almost a conviction.

Daria and Jane join misanthropic forces in the series pilot, when the two are (wonderfully) assigned to a course on self-esteem. Together, they plot a successful escape, and so begins the intimate and weird partnership of five seasons, which comes with a promise that it will continue beyond the series’ end: in the final movie-length episode, both girls are poised to attend college in Boston, and they toast pizza slices to a future of deadpan shit-talking.

Who could ever wish it otherwise? Daria and Jane are the acid-tongued power couple of our wildest dreams. They appreciate each other’s serrated contours (“You’re the most negative person I know,” Jane doesn’t not compliment). Daria’s chosen haven is Jane’s bedroom, where Jane wields her paintbrushes and pithy insights. Each girl loves her family in spite of herself, but a more satisfying iteration of home blossoms between them, over endless pizzas and walks home from school.

Daria never spells out precisely why Jane is so precious to her. Both girls balk at the prospect of sentiment, but the show makes it clear that they are flawlessly suited for each other. Their friendship runs on that elusive, exquisite alchemy: a sameness that enables mutual understanding, and differences that challenge and surprise. Jane’s edges are not as rigid as Daria’s, nor is she as inclined to self-isolation. She wears lipstick and flirts with boys, and her easy way with children rescues Daria from a babysitting gig that might otherwise have ended in double infanticide. And she is willing to admit what Daria cannot: that sometimes, we are vulnerable to others’ perceptions of us.

This dynamic comes to a head in season two’s “See Jane Run.” In this episode, Jane is galvanized by an accusation that she has inherited the Lane Family deadbeat tendency and joins, of all things, the track team. Daria, blindsided by Jane’s sudden lack of antipathy, wallows in the hole of her best friend’s absence. When faced with Jane’s request to attend the first track meet, she wonders whether she can support her pal’s acquiescence to the perverted system of secondary school athletics. It’s an ethical problem, she thinks.

But of course, her discontent comes not from principle but loneliness. Over the course of the episode, Daria begins talking to herself everywhere: in the school halls, in front of her family, and, naturally, in the sanctuary of her bedroom. It’s a desperate impulse to fill the void. When, at the episode’s end, Jane finally stops by to let Daria know that she has decided to quit the track team, her bereft friend cracks the door to her bedroom, self-administering final counsel: “Act natural. You’re not hurt.” But of course, the act is impossible, because there’s no one to whom Daria is more vulnerable than Jane.

If nothing can ever entirely negate the essential emotional solitude of adolescence, Jane’s playful irreverence nudges Daria out from within her Plexiglas armor while her own caustic worldview corroborates Daria’s suspicions regarding humanity’s essential lameness. Maybe it’s hubris that makes Daria so helplessly drawn to another teenage girl who doesn’t shy away from the sick and sad in the world. It’s the same self-involved conviction that survives into adulthood: no one that wasn’t truly special could ever possibly see what we see. In the ecology of intimacy, theirs is a good, loyal, selfish love.

I like to think that, in the midst of my awkward adolescence, my identity was more just than the sum of my external influences—that, however impressionable I may have been, a core of fervent (if naive) principle steadied my gawky frame. If the reality denied me Buffy Summers’s talent for performing acrobatics in heeled boots, and if my high school did not offer me a fleshly manifestation of Trent Lane, then at least, maybe, my nerdiness held some of Daria’s iron-clad resolve. Could I be a person who loved her friends, but whose peace of mind did not rely on comprehensively shared world visions?

Sort of. My high school pals were eclectic. And yet I was intoxicated by sameness. I always experienced—and if I’m being honest, still experience—visceral satisfaction when my best friends and I gorged on identical fetishes and prejudices and neuroses. These moments carried the thrill of world-making. What feels more like a universe unto itself than intimate friendship between sixteen-year-old girls?

Maybe you recall that tangled net of feelings, your swollen heart a little bit in love—with the girl and with the world you begot together, from complaints and mixtapes and tears. However exceptional Daria and Jane may be within Lawndale’s manicured and manic context, the dips and folds of their close friendship unite in a tune so many of us have hummed. At base, every best friend is an only friend, a Jane: co-conspirator and talisman against the loneliness we dread. Love between teenage girls is both life-giving and precarious. Everything depends upon it; everything threatens to destroy it.

This is the first installment of “Fake Friends,” a series about fictional female friendships. And, snowstorm PSA: all of Daria is currently available on Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She has published essays in The Hairpin and The Rumpus. Hang out with her on Twitter here: @RVoronaCote.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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