Human civilization is bound together by a few universal truths without which we would crumble. One of the foremost of those truths being: we all love Winona Ryder, and, for many of us, the place that love began was when she was Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice. A young, moody goth with a knack for photography and zero figs to give, Lydia had most of the best lines of the film. If you were a teen in 1988, the year this film was released, you probably thought this character was directly based on you.
I wouldn't know what that was like — I was 5 at the time. Unsurprisingly, my parents didn't think it was suitable for a small child to watch a movie about ghosts trying to terrorize living people and an undead maniac trying to marry a teen girl, so it wasn't until a few years later that I finally watched the film. In the meantime, I had Beetlejuice: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1989 and ran until late 1991. This show was on for slightly longer than two years, and the team behind it produced a whopping 109 episodes. It was produced by Tim Burton and featured a slightly re-orchestrated soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The animated series was a surprise success, considering that it was based around a film that most young children wouldn't have been able to watch due to its mature content.
The cartoon has some key differences from the film. It encourages kids to engage in weird, gross behavior like picking your nose and storing actual living beetles in your pockets, but it's different in other ways, too. Notably, Beetlejuice trying to marry Lydia has been thankfully stricken from the record; instead, they're best friends. The cartoon is based on Lydia, bored and alienated with her ordinary life, traveling between her world and The Neitherworld, a dimension of monsters where everyone speaks almost exclusively in puns. Beetlejuice, a jerk with a heart of gold, serves as her guide, while Lydia serves as his moral compass.
The main characters of the film, Barbara and Adam Maitland, are nowhere to be found in this strange take on the Beetlejuice mythos. Instead, Lydia's parents are slightly altered to resemble them. Lydia's dad, who was mostly a terrible person in the film, is instead portrayed as a clueless, middle-class guy, fumbling his way through life. Lydia's step-mom, memorably played by Catherine O'Hara in the film, is never referred to as her stepmother, and is instead assumed to be her mom. Both are made much more sympathetic for the cartoon. Her mom is still a sculptor—but on Earth, her pieces are the object of scorn and ridicule. In the Neitherworld, where they appreciate true genius, Lydia's mom is a beloved artist and her work is admired far and wide.
Generally marked by its utter strangeness, the animation was on point for a cartoon of the early '90s. In comparison to many other cartoons of the time, Beetlejuice looks positively advanced. Bizarre visuals dart across the screen, such as Beetlejuice's head disconnecting from his body and turning into an array of party balloons in one episode. The scripts call for constant motion and ever-changing scenery, and the animation team lives up to the demands of the job.
The person that brings us here today, though, is one Lydia Deetz, who also saw some changes in the cartoon. For instance, her personality is significantly cheerier than it was in the movie. While Beetlejuice remains consistently cynical and uncaring for the most part, Lydia is always quick to point out the upside of every situation. When Beetlejuice's car Doomie falls in love with his nemesis, the mayor's car, Beetlejuice does everything he can to keep them apart. Lydia undermines him at every turn, trying to help Doomie with the other car's love, spouting off sentimental lines all the while. This character turn is in line with continuity set in the film, though, where we saw a happier, more positive Lydia right before the credits rolled.
However, in episodes where Lydia is shown to have a love interest, she always chooses to stay single and work on herself, which is a very important contrast to nearly every other female character of my childhood. In the “Prince of the Neitherworld” episode, we are introduced to Prince Vince, a character so emo and moody that even his own subjects refer to him as “a bummer” multiple times. He hires Beetlejuice as his jester, then asks him how to win Lydia's love. Beetlejuice urges him to ask her to a movie, which Prince Vince does, but then becomes terribly jealous when Lydia accepts because he's convinced Vince is trying to steal his best friend. With Lydia and Vince's friendship blooming, Beetlejuice is left alone in an empty castle. Ultimately, when the prince asks Lydia to be his princess, Lydia gently tells him she only wants to be friends. Vince falls into his throne, a cloud appearing over his head as he shouts, “Love's labor lost!” Lydia is unswayed, and their relationship remains platonic.
The cartoon sees a supporting cast of other teen girls to flesh out Lydia's school life, including two nerdy, well-meaning friends, and a stereotypical “rich mean blonde girl” named Clare, who gets her comeuppance on the regular, usually served up by Beetlejuice who becomes annoyed by her treatment of his friend. Very seldom do we see acts of spite from Lydia, so most of the time Clare is the one to trip herself up, and Beetlejuice's horde of demon friends serves as her constant foil.
One of the best episodes of the series is Season 1's “Laugh of the Party,” in which Lydia's mom takes over a small gathering in Lydia's name, unknowingly inviting Clare. Being a mean girl, Clare is inexplicably mean to and focused on ruining Lydia's day for no apparent reason. Lydia's mom dresses her up like a bunny, and Lydia's response is to look incredibly depressed about the whole thing, which is one of the most relatable things I've ever seen in a television series. Later, optimistic Lydia refashions her costume to look more like a wolf, and, when Beetlejuice pops open “party in a can,” the situation turns around. Of course, the party-goers are all monsters from the Neitherworld, but it's still an underdog success story, and I am here for it.
While the Beetlejuice outfit didn't change much from the live-action to animated versions, Lydia's got a whole new redesign—probably due to the fact that an all-black outfit wouldn't translate well to dynamic animation over an often-mostly-black background. The updated black leotard with a red spider web shawl defined my concept of fashion for about the first ten years of my life, and created countless little goth girls like me all across the country. Whoever designed Lydia's look for the animated series did great, even doing one better than the film. People are still cosplaying this outfit decades later, so its influence has been further-reaching than the show creators probably could have foreseen in 1991.
Having shed the willful despair that defined her character in the film was a necessary change for a children's show, but Lydia Deetz will always be the alienated goth girl that lives inside us all, and I'm thankful for the cartoon that gave me this hero and showed me the goth girl I knew myself to be deep down inside.