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Daria - Episode-by-Episode Analysis

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Gifted

So how do you measure intelligence? IQ is the most common answer, but this measurement can't help but feel reductive. A score on a test does not necessarily imply success in the real world. Nor does a high IQ have anything to do with whether or not a person is ethical.

One of the most famous studies on intelligence is Genetic Studies of Genius. Here, Lewis Terman, a psychologist, tracked the progress of 1,528 individuals (dubbed Terman's termites) with high IQs. The study began in the 1920s and continues to the present day.

What's notable is that many of the "termites" ended up leading successful but relatively mundane lives. Only a few reached any kind of fame. None won Nobel Prizes. And, of course, some turned out to be screw-ups.

Melita Oden, an associate of Terman, compared the 100 best-off and the 100 worst-off "termites". These people all had IQ in the same range. Where they differed was in qualities unrelated to intelligence. The 100 most successful had confidence, resilience, and tended to receive a lot of family support.

Intelligence is a tool. But a tool's no good without a capable wielder.

I mention all this because the obsession with intelligence and IQ still casts a shadow on the American educational system. There's always the assumption that the smart kids will do well even if the facts don't necessarily bear this out. At the same time, there's a cultural distrust of intelligence. Smart people are seen as arrogant, aloof, or mentally unstable. In fact, one of the reasons that Lewis Terman conducted his study was to argue against this perception; he wanted to show that intelligent people could be happy and successful.

The idea of intelligence plays a major role in Daria. One of the ways that Daria defines herself is through intellectual pursuit. She reads classics, studies the masters, and easily earns top marks. For students of a similar bent, watching the show was like receiving manna from heaven. Though smart characters aren't exactly rare in popular culture their intelligence is usually limited to the technical sphere. The liberal arts tend not to receive a positive portrayal, if they are portrayed at all.

Even Daria limits itself in this regard. While there are a lot of references to classical literature and art, they tend to be in the background. I don't mean this as a complaint. Rather, I say this to emphasize how difficult it is to build a show around relatively niche cultural elements.

Whew, that was a long preamble. I wanted to discuss the idea of intelligence, and how the show treats it, because the concept is put front and center in "Gifted".

Superficially, it might seem like Daria as a show about the smart versus the stupid, with one's worth as a person depending on where they stand. This is not actually the case. Consider Kevin: he's stupid, but he's not a bad person. Upchuck, on the other hand, is frequently portrayed as quite intelligent. He's also loathsome.

Daria herself is ultimately a critic. No society, person, or situation is perfect, and she's the one who points out the problems. As I stated in my write-up of "The Lab Brat", she doesn't hate Kevin for his stupidity so much as she resents him for his unearned privilege. Simply being smart is no way to get into her good graces.

The kids at Grove Hills actually do treat intelligence as a line drawn in the sand. Simply being smart isn't enough—one has to be as smart as them. They define intelligence through metrics like IQ, test scores, and obscure knowledge.

Like Kevin, these kids have a lot of unearned privilege. Worse, they're actively cruel in a way that Kevin is not. Just consider the way they shun David, who did not score as highly as they.

Two of the students, Laura and Graham, both describe being ostracized for their intelligence, something with which Daria is familiar. Their reactions could not be more different. Laura and Graham both cling to a victim narrative, nursing their resentment and using their pain as an excuse to inflict cruelty on others.

While Daria is sometimes resentful, her experiences taught her to understand the human folly in the schoolyard. She saw how any society punishes those who don't fit in (consider her statement in "Camp Fear"). Laura and Graham have simply recreated the same system that treated them so poorly. The only difference is that good grades take the place of athletics.

Daria uses her brainpower in a different way. Her critical nature means she'll probably never fit in that well anywhere. However, we need people like her to point out the excesses and absurdities of society. Grove Hills simply treats intelligence as a status symbol.

All this, and I still haven't talked about Jodie.

Jodie was mostly a bit player in the first season (and for much of the second). "Gifted" is where she's given a chance to shine, and shine she does.

While Jodie's also aware of flaws in the system, she knows that you must sometimes go along to get along. Despite this, she's no mere social climber. She still has her standards, which she shows when she tells off the Grove Hills crowd.

The scene where Jodie talks about her personal situation is one of the episode's best. As one of the few black students in Lawndale High, Jodie is pressured to excel in all areas so as to set a good example. This is an enormous responsibility to place on the shoulders of one so young.

This puts her pragmatism in a new light. It's not so much that Jodie thinks that things are great and thus happily goes along with it. She sees the flaws as surely as Daria does. However, Jodie can't voice her criticisms. Rocking the boat carries risks, not just because she's a minority but also because the Landons are much more demanding of her than the Morgendorffers are of Daria.

At the same time, Jodie isn't some closeted cynic. She's more willing than Daria is to give people a chance. What's nice here is that Daria and Jodie are able to state their views and respect each other despite their disagreements. It's a mature way to approach such matters and a good contrast to the venality of Grove Hills.

Notes:

  • The grown-ups have the funniest moments in this episode. I'm specifically thinking of Helen's parenting-through-payouts early on, and the awkwardness with the Landons later on.
  • Speaking of which, the elder Landons are among of the very few explicit examples of black conservatives shown in popular culture. Dr. Hibbert, from The Simpsons, is the only other one I can think of.
  • Quinn's B-plot felt pretty detached from the main story, so I didn't comment on it. However again shows her remarkable perception in knowing that Jane's a safer bet than any of her friends, despite their limited interaction in the series so far.
  • I am curious as to what Tiffany expected Quinn to say, however.