by Kara Wild
Even the staunchest of the canonites and the character development boosters shifted their eyes away in horror. What was Jane doing... in a cheerleading uniform?!
What was she doing?? Oh Lord, what was she doing?! What sort of twisted joke was being played on us?? The cries of outrage were so intense, they were almost palpable.
How could the writers do this to us?? Did they not know that Jane would never try out for the cheerleading squad, no matter how pressured, no matter how low her self-esteem, no matter how much she had "sold out" previously by joining the track team??
Jane is... is... Jane.
Which means she is a rebel. Which means nonconformity is in her blood, especially given the fact that her parents are semi-nomadic artists. This fact has been established time and time again, in a wide span of episodes dating back to Season One.
For the writers to suggest she could behave otherwise would mean... they were writing her out of character.
Such are the strong feelings that foment around the much-maligned Fourth Season episode, "The 'F' Word." For those of you who haven't seen it yet and who like spoilers, what happens is that Jane chooses as her "failure" assignment to fail at being a conformist. Unfortunately, she succeeds too well; the cheerleaders take one look at her scrunchy and teddy bear backpack and invite her to try out for the squad. At this point, given the clues established throughout the series, one might expect Jane to cold-shoulder them or, better still, to plot a way to humiliate the cheerleading squad for their acceptance of her at face value. That is what we've come to expect from Jane, whose devilish side has shown itself in episodes like "Esteemers," "The Invitation," "Arts 'N Crass," "The Old and the Beautiful," "Daria Dance Party," and more. But instead, Jane is rattled enough that she gives the squad serious consideration. She tells Daria that fitting in was "too easy," and why fight what, perhaps, she was meant to be all along: a conformist.
So Jane tries out for the squad, only to be saved from utter conformity by a last-minute dream sequence which suggests she has morphed into Brittany. Dilemma resolved. Except that it wasn't.
Fans flat out would not accept that Jane would let her conformist tendencies go so far. As for myself, while I knew that Jane has a conformist side (as seen by her behavior in "Through a Lens Darkly" and "See Jane Run"), I severely disliked the rushed and poorly-conceived way in which her flirtation with this "dark" side was handled. Had an entire episode been built around Jane's temptation, it would have been easier. Instead, it was treated in an off-handed, "Oh well!" manner, given the same amount of time and importance as Brittany's attempts to fail at being unpopular. It seems that the writer of this episode, Rachelle Romberg did not attach special significance to Jane's deviation from her off-beat norm. Jane was just "one of the gang" in this episode, which, overall, had a chipper "Everything's gonna be O.K.!" tone to it. Except that Jane's deviation was significant. For those of us craving a look into her cloistered psyche, this represented a major opportunity to get to the heart of Jane Lane. To see her fears, her vulnerabilities, the strength and breadth of her values.
What we were left with was something very unsettling. This was Jane? Someone who could discard her cynical values the way she would a worn-out paintbrush?? Someone whose feelings were treated as casually as those of any random Lawndale High teen? It was easier for many fans to just denounce "The 'F' Word" as an abomination than to accept it as part of the "Daria" canon. And that is where those fans and I part ways.
To me, "The 'F' Word" is part of the "Daria" canon. Same as "Through a Lens Darkly," "Partner's Complaint," "Jane's Addition," and "I Loathe a Parade." It is canon because the "Daria" writers wrote it, and because it was presented to us as an episode devoid of any bizarre fantasy elements (save Jane's minor dream sequence).
I realize this contradicts the conventions I laid out in "The Off-Canon Approach." There, I stated that the "canon" Jane is always sardonic and the "canon" Daria is always cynical. But as this essay was written prior to "Partner's Complaint," the Season Four premiere, and since it did not make its way to the Outpost Daria Essay section until the weekend after, several people were quick to point out that my definition of "canon" was on the restrictive side. Indeed, it was.
I based my definition on the conventions established in Seasons One and Two. Season Three did not really tamper with those conventions, being too content to produce one episode after another that parodied pop culture. (Indeed, it could be labeled the "send-up" season, having spoofed MTV, "Titanic," "Thelma and Louise," "The X-Files," "The Simpsons," and Broadway musicals.) Yet during that season, Daria did grow mellower and more accepting of other people's viewpoints, as shown by her flirtation with contact lens-wearing and her quiet pleasure when Quinn referred to them as a "team" in "Speedtrapped." As for Ms. Jane, she remained ever the sardonic, unflappable Partner in Crime. But she did, now and then, lean toward conformity the way she did in "See Jane Run." In "Through a Lens Darkly," Jane not only kept from scorning Daria's decision to wear contacts, but she even supported it. Then, in "Jane's Addition," Jane gravitated toward a guy who could arguably be called a conformist. Tom, after all, attends prep school. He dresses in the same casual manner as any normal guy. The advice he gives, such as that Kevin become a safety lecturer in "A Tree Grows in Lawndale," is pragmatic, devoid of ideology. Although Tom is capable of seeing society's absurdities, he still comes across as someone who could live comfortably amongst the main stream.
Thus, Daria and Jane managed to show subtle changes in Season Three. But even so, I avoided drawing the conclusion that their values were shifting, simply because I did not know whether this was temporary. Then came Season Four. Right away, viewers saw that the changes in Season Three had left their indelible mark on the show. Tom had not gone away. In fact, to point out my big prediction boffo, he has become a semi-regular cast member, well-positioned to influence Daria and Jane with his pragmatic outlook. Daria, as we saw in "Partner's Complaint," has retained her more flexible-mindedness toward other people's points of view. Her softer side would emerge in other episodes as well, such as in "The 'F' Word" and "Of Human Bonding."
And Jane would reveal that she is someone who can be swayed into trying out for the cheerleading team.
At this point, I still can't tell which offended fans more: that Jane's cheerleader turn did not receive episode-length treatment, or that she tried out for cheerleading at all.
With regard to the former, I can understand the frustration. Romberg just sort of tossed out a half-dozen plotlines that, except for the school assignment, had little connection to one another. She gave a hefty role to the grating and already overexposed Kevin and Brittany. (Even worse: their plotline was just a reprise of the events that had taken place in "A Tree Grows in Lawndale.") Jane's popularity dilemma did not receive as much time and attention as it deserved.
And yet somehow I sense that all this just sharpened the sting of the true offense, which was that Jane tried out for cheerleading. Her behavior forced us to ask tough questions. Should we just see it as out of character andleave it at that? A rush job on the writer's part? Or worse: an example that Glenn Eichler and his fellow writers have sold their souls to MTV and are trying to appeal to a more mainstream crowd in exchange for ratings???
Or is this just a taste of what might be fleshed out in a future episode? Why be so quick to condemn Rachelle Romberg who, after all, wrote the definitive Jane episode, "See Jane Run"? An episode which wryly poked fun at high school's indulgence of its athletes, as well as provided a little insight into Jane and some tension within Daria and Jane's friendship. Should we assume that the values which compelled Romberg to pen that episode have undergone a major overhaul since?
Before I go into that any further, I suggest we take a closer look at Jane's plotline in "The 'F' Word." For one thing, notice the reason Jane gives for trying out for cheerleading: "fitting in was too easy." She does not say, "Wow, the cheerleaders are, like, really cool and I never noticed it before, but now I DO!" Or, "Gee, Daria, I don't understand why you don't like popular people; they're not so bad."
Perhaps it would have been better, more Jane-like, if she had just smirked at the cheerleaders' invitation and waved them off. But instead, she finds herself plagued with seemingly uncharacteristic uncertainty. For once she has been hit in the face with an opportunity to conform, one for which she has expressed vague longing in the past. Yet just as quickly as Jane gets this uncertainty, her nonconformist values re-establish themselves. She picks up a pom-pom and, with a wry expression, murmurs, "Cheer, cheer, cheer. Yell, yell, yell. Who cares who wins? We're all going to hell."
So in the end, Jane condemns popularity. And "The 'F' Word," itself, hardly does any less. In fact, this episode may cast the most critical eye on the "p" word since "The Invitation." As it unfolds, we see that the cheerleaders are cliquish, snotty, and absorbed in their own narrow-minded view of the world. They turn on Brittany, forcing her off the squad, when she tries to express an interest in world events. In some ways, "The 'F' Word even surpasses "The Invitation" in its harsh treatment of popularity. Where else have we seen such back-biting, other than in the Fashion Club power struggles? And because those struggles are often promoted as an amusing side show to the main event, they get dismissed as lacking genuine substance. Yet in "The 'F' Word," we could see that the F.C. problems are but part of a more widespread cruelty in the name of being popular.
When all is said and done, Jane is Jane again by the end of the episode -- cracking jokes about alien probes, acting weirded out by Mr. O'Neill's New Age décor. So the only damage, perhaps, could be that Jane's uncertainty did not receive an episode unto itself. Or rather, that Jane expressed uncertainty at all.
Why did her supposedly rock-solid values fluctuate now, during this season, as opposed to during Season One, when "The Invitation" aired? One thing is for certain: Jane's uncertainty in "The 'F' Word" seems to mirror our own about Season Four. In fact, Season Four's very theme could be uncertainty.
Since Season Two, we have seen that "Daria" is a show in which the characters change. Many and most of us have welcomed that change, to the point where we have become impatient to see [more] changes, ones that we think ought to occur. As I mentioned earlier, most changes were extraordinarily subtle and difficult to read. Daria considers Helen's advice on wearing contact lenses in "Through a Lens Darkly"; does that mean she's starting to appreciate her mother more? Quinn sighs cryptically when Sandi criticizes her for looking "sick" in "Daria!"; does that mean she's really more sensitive and aware than people give her credit for?? Were the characters really changing on a linear course, or were the writers haphazardly bestowing them with growth without bothering to guide it along?
Now the changes are not so subtle. Perhaps we should consider it to be the legacy of three years of more subtle change, and yes, growth. Things have built up to the point where they can't help but be more noticeable, such as Daria's softening relationship with her family and a few cracks in Jane's unflappable façade. Things build up, add up, until the viewer can no longer dismiss them the way he or she used to. So if Jane's uncertainty shows up now, we might view it as a fuller manifestation of the vulnerability first shown in Season Two.
Ironically, the changes in Daria and Jane seem to have been accelerated, or at least made clearer, by the fact that the writers are paying more attention to what they did in the past. We can see this especially in gratuitous flashbacks to previous episodes ("Antisocial Climbers") and references to or appearances by characters from past seasons. It follows, therefore, that the writers would try to determine how Daria, Jane, and co. have been altered by their past experiences. Through the story arc, a device which did not exist on "Daria" until this season, we can now watch our favorite characters go through a whole sequence of changes, from start to finish, with a clear purpose in mind. It's what many of us fans have clamored, and now we're getting it.
Yet now that the once-subtle changes on "Daria" are starting to mount, fans watch and worry with anxiety. What's going to happen?! Will Daria and Jane's screen time continue to be sacrificed to more grating characters like Kevin and Brittany? Will they change beyond all recognition? Will the writers, who seemed so certain of their path in Season Two when they first began these changes, lose their way?
Everyone seems to have found an episode that has made him/her all but swear off "Daria." For some, it was "Partner's Complaint." For others, it was "I Loathe a Parade." For many, many people, it was "The 'F' Word." For me, it was "Of Human Bonding" -- which, ironically, I disliked because it did not present enough change, at least not the positive change I had hoped for. Change that would push along some very stagnant plotlines. You know to which I'm referring.
I, too, watch "Daria" with some anxiety. It's the fourth season; by now, certain patterns ought to become more fixed. Season Three threw us all off a little in terms of linear progression from Seasons One and Two, thanks to the smattering of fantasy and parody episodes. Shouldn't Season Four now restore our faith? I, who cherish character development and who had Jane flirt with conformity in "Outvoted," watched her cheerleader turn in "The 'F' Word" with a queesy stomach. How could I interpret it?? Were the "Daria" writers failing to deliver the character development that they had seemed to promise us? Or was I simply unhappy that they weren't developing Jane in a way I thought she should be developed?
After several hours of stewing, I reached this bottom line: the characters are changing on "Daria." But we don't know how much, and we don't know whether it will be in a way that will satisfy each of us, with our very specialized expectations. Will Daria stay cynical? Will Quinn ever challenge Sandi? Will Trent leave Mystik Spiral? Will Jane become a complete conformist? That is for the writers on "Daria" to decide. Everything the writers write is canon, which means that "The 'F' Word" is now a part of the canon, which means that Change itself is woven into the very fabric of "Daria."
Will Glenn Eichler and co. send "Daria" spinning downhill? We don't know. We won't know until the rest of the season unfolds. Or until we see what happens next season. Or see if there are seasons after that. Nor will we know if Glenn sold out to MTV. So why worry about it?
One thing I do know, is that it's ridiculous for us to be in denial at this point. To treat episodes like "The 'F' Word" or "Partner's Complaint" as abominations that don't exist. Well they do exist. I mean hey, if we go with that attitude, we might as well just erase from our minds any episode of "Daria" we didn't like. "The New Kid"? Never aired. Same with "Malled," "This Year's Model," "Just Add Water," or "Jane's Addition." Why not just pretend that there have been no seasons beyond Season Two?? Beyond Season One?? Swear ignorance at the very suggestion that Daria might have gone out with someone who wasn't Trent, or that she ever had a lapse in judgment, or that she ever went soft on a member of her family. Let's pretend that Daria and Jane are perfect beings who are always right and are impervious to the weaknesses of society.
We can pretend all we want. But it won't change the fact that these episodes exist. And yes, that includes "Depth Takes a Holiday."
These sentiments extend to fan fiction. Fan fiction has been used since Season One to fulfill our desires, always with the expectations that while the show would continue to be of high quality, there was no way it could realistically cover as much ground as we wanted it to. It has not, however, been used as a substitute for the show. Nor should it ever. If fanfic authors feel that the quality of the show has lapsed, that it has reached a point where they can no longer watch without disgust, then they should stop writing. It is absolutely counter-productive to use one's writing talent to "save" the show or "change" the show. "Daria" is not a rain forest.
It is also not a country, in which its citizens, the fans, can protest and expect to see the leaders, Glenn Eichler and the rest of the "Daria" writers, fold to our desires. As we fret, they are already deep into production for Season Five; our protests will fall on deaf ears.
The fact is that in spite of all of our conjectures, we have no idea what Glenn Eichler has in mind for "Daria." We never have. So why complain that he who was once the Holder of All That is Good has betrayed us?? Eichler has not betrayed us. We were never, ever on intimate terms with the preparation and the planning and the ideology that went into the creation of this show.
Those who call themselves "Daria" fans: I suggest that if you intend to remain fans, you'd best let go of the over-inflated hopes, expectations, and hysteria. They won't get you anywhere. Just accept the fact that "The 'F' Word" happened, and it happened to Jane.
May 8, 2000
The next two essays I have planned will kick off an exploration of Daria and her world:
Where Have All the Bullies Gone?: A look at the seeming absence of dark forces at Lawndale High, and how that might affect Daria's cynicism, or lack thereof.
Everyone But Daria?: An examination/defense of my continuum, and how it might relate to the ensemble episodes of Season Four.
For the time being, other essays I've mentioned have been put on the back burner...