Malled/This Year's Model
This will be the first write-up to incorporate two episodes. It's fitting, since both episodes revolve around the theme of adults exploiting teenagers. In "Malled", the exploitation is commercial, while "This Year's Model" has adults exploiting the dreams and bodies of young people. Both episodes also show Daria objecting to this exploitation, establishing that there is some idealism beneath the cynical exterior.
One wonders how Lawndale's Mall of the Millennium might look in a hypothetical Lawndale of the 2010s. Is it still a bustling jam-pack of franchise stores, combed through by shoppers eager for the next deal? Or is it a ghost town, its patrons lured away by the low cost and lower hassle of online shopping?
Malls don't have the same cultural presence they did in the '90s, to the point that it's easy to forget how big a deal they were back then. However, "Malled" sets its sights on consumerism rather than on malls per se, so a lot of the satire still rings true.
The highlight of this episode is when Mrs. Bennett takes the students to a meeting with mall executives, under the pretense of learning about business. In reality, the execs just want to use the teens for market research. Jodie's the first to question this, while Daria and Jane expose the whole façade by revealing observers taking notes behind a two-way mirror.
Daria repeatedly satirizes the way in which marketers attempt to co-opt youth culture in order to make a sale. The irony is that this is essentially the platform on which MTV itself was built. For all the talk of being a place for teens, MTV was run by adults who'd gotten quite good at making money by doing this.
And as "Malled" shows, it's pretty easy to do. After all, both Jodie and Jane are happy to accept the $20 worth of coupons that the executives offer as bribes in return for their silence.
In "This Year's Model", the exploitation comes in the form of the Amazon Modeling Agency. Fashion prizes youth and beauty, and the Lawndale students have plenty of both. What they don't have is the maturity or experience to realize that they're being used. What's more, they're being used in a decidedly creepy way.
This is reinforced in the casual cruelty of Claude and Romonica. One of their nastiest moments of this episode is when they use a homely student (named Diana, according to The Angst Guy's Backgrounders site) as a decoy to give the impression that everyone has a shot at modeling. In reality, only people like Kevin or Quinn have a real chance.
It's no surprise that they'd target Quinn, and a pleasant surprise that it backfires on them even without Daria's help. Insecure and status-obsessed though Quinn might be, she's still smart enough to sense that she's being used. Despite her initial enthusiasm, she's the only student to balk at the creepy "make-out" fashion shoot. Even in the first season, Quinn's strong enough to establish her own boundaries.
While Daria's objection to the mall execs was pretty half-hearted, she goes all-out on the Amazon Modeling Agency. There are a couple of ways to view her actions.
In one, her hostility stems from her hatred of all things superficial. Modeling fetishizes beauty and turns it into a product that influences how others behave. Plus, interfering gives her a chance to dash Quinn's hopes.
This isn't a particularly flattering interpretation. While the episode's critiques of the modeling industry are trenchant, one must also remember that Daria may be angry simply because modeling celebrates qualities that she doesn't think she can attain. Assuming the industry were less corrupt, why shouldn't people be able to make a living off their looks? Jodie highlights this early on in the episode, when she criticizes Daria's cynicism toward modeling.
The other interpretation is that, at least on some level, Daria's looking out for Quinn. That'd certainly explain why Daria goes through the effort of getting General Buck Conroy to show up and reveal that Principal Li was getting kickbacks for allowing Amazon onto campus.
I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. People can take comfort in exclusion. Those who are excluded by their peers may instead take a contrarian position in order to save face. Consider Daria's awkward behavior back in "The Invitation", or her hypocrisy later on in "See Jane Run".
But adolescence is also when we grow, and learn to put ourselves in others shoes. Daria cares about Quinn, even in Season 1 when she refuses to show it. If she truly didn't care, she probably wouldn't be so upset about Quinn refusing to admit their sisterhood. In this sense, Daria's behavior in "This Year's Model" shows her starting to grow, even if she doesn't totally realize it, and definitely wouldn't admit it.
Consider also that, in "Malled", Daria eventually gives up on her objections and goes to get a Doodad—whatever that is. In "This Year's Model", the stakes are higher, and she stands her ground. She will do the right thing, so long as there's motivation.
- '90s Reminder: The Fuzzy Wuzzy Wee Bits is a clear satire of Beanie Babies, which had gotten popular at around the time of this episode's airing. They're apparently still a thing.
- Whenever anyone referred to the Amazon Modeling Agency, I'd automatically think of Amazon.com. How times change.
- Claude and Romonica felt a bit lazy as characters, broad archetypes stretched past the point of breaking. For this reason, I consider "Malled" the funnier of the two episodes.
- It's interesting that the rarely seen Mrs. Bennett plays a significant role in both episodes.
- Brutal Mercenary Magazine is a clear reference to Soldier of Fortune.