For Black History Month, writer Britt Julious pens a weekly column examining pop culture moments that deepened her understanding of her self and identity.
I don’t remember when I first saw Jodie Landon, the only black female character on MTV’s Daria, but I do remember the feeling of seeing her on my screen: relief. I was a nine-year-old when Daria first premiered—not quite a child, but not old enough to understand the complexities of high school. Still, she represented an identity I was only then beginning to understand. I was a black girl in a mostly white world. I was an overachiever desperate to be accepted and frustrated that I seemed to work harder than many of my white peers. I was confused but wise. Jodie, in turn, was intelligent, witty, and woke before woke was even part of the mainstream lexicon.
She was, in essence, the perfect manifestation of the quiet, suburban black girl struggle. Jodie was as much a glance in the mirror for black girls like me who could code switch in less than a second, as she was a glimpse of the future struggles this constant splintering could bring. By high school, black girls are already made intimately aware of our blackness, and how that identity is purposefully shut out from the mores of white American life, from social politics to cultural rhetoric to beauty standards. I recognized in her what I might face in my teens, and I was fascinated.
Voiced by Jessica Cydnee Jackson, Jodie first appeared in episode two of Daria, when the two meet at a house party. Although Daria only talks to Jodie for a few moments, she leaves a sizable impression as someone a little smarter, more put together, and more reasonable than her peers. Jodie was a model minority, too. "I’m president of the French Club, vice president of Student Council, editor of yearbook, and I’m also on the tennis team," she told Daria. Jodie was also a little frustrated by the limitations of the stereotype, a feeling that continued to grow and manifest as the show progressed.
I recall only months after Daria first premiered, a girl asked me why my nose was so "big and ugly." She had been a friend, or so I thought. I yelled at her, threatened to hit her, then spent the rest of the day crying. Later that evening when I told my mother what happened, she said the girl was wrong to call my nose ugly. I had my mother’s nose. "Do you think I’m ugly?" she asked me. No, of course not, I thought.
But this incident would not be the last time someone made a point of denigrating my black features, my mother told me. "You’ll have a lot more mess like that living here," she added. "You’ll have to get used to it. You can’t let it stop you."
The "mess like that" meant systemic prejudice, which would include everything from biased teachers to viciously passive-aggressive classmates. Their actions—conscious or not—would play a role in how I navigated the world, convincing me that I needed to do whatever necessary to rise above. The unspoken game of the suburbs seemed to be: Do your best, and maybe they won’t think to say and do the worst. High achievement was the only perceptible solution to prejudice. And even if the things I did left me unsatisfied, they were always, in the front of my mind, a means to an end.
I attended a diverse, racially-progressive high school right outside of Chicago. Nearly 3,600 students attended my high school in my time there, making it easy to blend in or find a group of one's own. But it was still a high school, and there was a social hierarchy I felt I needed to actively climb in order to feel satisfied with my prospects and time there.
I could snuggle close to the power of acceptance by making the "right" choices, like joining the school’s all-girl volunteer charity or succumbing to internalized racism by choosing to dance on the mostly-white drill team instead of with the primarily black cheerleaders. These activities were visible markers of the type of person I wanted people to see me as, and the type of woman I wanted to become: pretty, well-liked, prosperous, and good.
But I also knew that despite the weight of those social choices, I could only climb so far up the ladder. I was resentful for my participation in the charade, the limits of my race, and the fact that any of it mattered. There was a bubbling undercurrent of irritation that grew as I got older. By the end of high school, the performance of perfectionism wore thin. How much longer could this last? I saw that same simmering rage in Jodie.
There was a weariness to Jodie’s words. She had played an overachieving, extra-curricular participating, performative perfectionist role for too long by the time Daria met her. And Jodie’s quiet apathy only grew more pronounced the older she got and the longer the show aired. She knew (from her own experience and her parents’ nagging) that she had no other choice but to try and be the best—that she had to be twice as good to get half as far.
Jodie craved a break from this pressure—or even a summer off—but her parents wouldn’t budge. It made sense, then, that her friendliness to Daria and her best friend Jane could only go so far. Daria could spend hours doing nothing, hating the hierarchies and caricatures of high school, and still make something of herself if she ever chose to do so. The same was not true for a young woman like Jodie, the only visible black girl in the show’s universe. In the season two episode Gifted, Jodie tells Daria, "At home, I’m Jodie. I can say or do whatever feels right. But at school, I’m the Queen of the Negroes. The perfect African-American teen. The role model for all of the other African-American teens at Lawndale. Oops! Where’d they go? Believe me; I’d like to be more like you." Daria and Jane had to do very little; Jodie had to do it all.
Eventually, Jodie "escaped," choosing to attend an all-black college instead of an Ivy League school like her parents wanted. She found a way out of the Model Minority stereotype by living and learning among people who looked and maybe even thought like her. Jodie found her freedom. It would take me years after high school and even college to find mine—or even acknowledge that I needed some form of freedom at all. Coming into yourself takes time and effort, but in the back of my mind, I would always recognize the power of an animated black girl, not unlike myself, paving a path for herself, on her terms.