Sunday, February 5, 2012

Analysis of Boy Meets World, 1st Season

I decided to bring my analytical skills to one of my favorite shows of all time: Boy Meets World. It makes sense to do as Lewis Carroll wrote and start at the beginning, so I’ll look at the first season first. Hmmm.

Well, I don’t really like the first season that much. I mean, it’s fine, but it’s nothing special. They changed the show around so much in the second season that the first season feels like practically an entirely different show just with the same character names. It can be summed up as: Loud, obnoxious upper middle class boy Cory Matthews lives next door to his teacher Mr. Feeny, and though he wants life to stay the same, is forced to confront the prospect of growing up and liking girls.

The first season instrumental theme song is just annoying, and on the DVD set, they decided to put it in the background of every single menu. Gah! The opening sequence is a cutesy montage of characters smiling while their actors’ names are displayed at the bottom. It’s done with a lot of special effects with the videos flying around Cory along with bundles of paper and various school-themed stuff. I get the impression that this was an impressive use of technology when it first came out, but it’s nothing special nowadays. This coupled with the instrumental makes it come across as just annoying and way too long. I got into Boy Meets World when it aired in syndication on the Disney Channel. On Disney, they decided to use the fourth season opening instead, and I think it was a good decision.

One of the biggest problems with the first season is that I just don’t like the main character. He’s a jerk. He’s supposed to represent the average boy or the kind of boy everyone wants to be, and that’s kind of an insult. As one of the popular crowd at Jefferson Elementary, he assists in humiliating the geeks. In “Cory’s Alternative Friends”, a bad attempt at hair-straightening sends him to the weirdo table, and he learns respect for those he used to make fun of, but that doesn’t last. When the episode ends, he goes right back to harassing Minkus, the resident smart kid. Though Mr. Feeny clearly doesn’t approve of it, harassment of Minkus is a big source of humor throughout the show, placing the viewer in the position of the bullying kids.

Though in “Model Family” they make fun of Leave it to Beaver, this season of Boy Meets World actually doesn’t stray that far from some of the 1950s sitcom’s themes. It emphasizes how Cory should respect his authority figures, specifically his parents and Mr. Feeny, and it strives for a sickeningly sweet sentimentality. It’s definitely a ‘90s show, though. Even though the message of respect is there, it still has an irreverent quality in between Cory learning to respect Mr. Feeny et al. And though quite conservative sometimes, it has a few liberal messages in there.

Generally, you can consider there to be a scale of liberalism and conservatism with Mr. Feeny on the far right, the Lawrence family on the far left, and the Matthews family in the comfortable center. Though Mr. Feeny is a figure to be respected, he is sometimes portrayed as too old to really understand what’s best for the young generation of the ‘90s. In the episode “On the Fence”, Mr. Feeny encourages Cory’s father Alan to make Cory work to build character as Mr. Feeny’s father did with him. Seeing Mr. Feeny as the old grouch he is, Alan does the opposite and has Cory stop working. One exception to the conservatism surrounding Mr. Feeny is the Marxian idea where Minkus believes it’s a problem that a baseball player makes more money than Mr. Feeny because teachers provide a more valuable service, as he describes in “Teacher’s Bet”. This is a faulty comparison because the baseball players get their paychecks from private enterprise, people freely paying to see them perform, and not government. People likewise pay a lot for private school teachers, and Mr. Feeny is a public school teacher, so the blame lies with government bureaucracy rather than people valuing entertainment over education. The Lawrence family, seen mostly through the youngest daughter Topanga, is a group of hippies regarded as weird by Cory and the show by extension. Topanga, whose name comes from a canyon in which a writer got stuck in traffic, subscribes to some strange New Age beliefs that involve reading auras and summoning demons. I’m sure it’s nothing like the real New Age belief system, but I don’t know enough about it to comment on its portrayal. She and her family are political strawmen, used to present a ridiculous mockery of the left in order to discredit it. When, in “Cory’s Alternative Friends”, Topanga advocates her family’s custom of referring to parents by their personal names instead of the traditional respectful titles Mom and Dad, it automatically is treated with scorn because of the nature of the character, reinforcing the message of respecting parental authority. Cory’s family represents a happy medium, respecting authority while still being enlightened by the politics of the modern era.

When it comes to feminism, the show is so-so. It’s male-oriented, but it doesn’t really need to be otherwise considering its premise is about a boy learning how to grow up from the men in his life. Cory’s mother Amy is a housewife, but she also has a job. Whether this job is at an art gallery or selling real estate is dependent on the episode—continuity not being this show’s strong suit—but it sets the tone of Amy having the comfortably traditional maternal role as homemaker while still coming across as progressive to some extent by also having a job. Cory’s sister Morgan is a little girl who is generally traditionally feminine, and in “Cory’s Alternative Friends”, Amy does explain to her how one of her Barbie dolls has value for being a career woman and not traditionally feminine in the way the dolls usually are. Later in “Boys II Mensa”, Morgan defies stereotype by dressing up as a gruesome zombie for Halloween instead of a princess, which her parents support in defiance to a snooty educator.

However, femininity is often denounced by the guys in the typical fashion of glorifying a certain type of masculinity and deriding those who fail to meet its specifications. In “Father Knows Less”, Cory and Alan champion bad eating habits, while Amy’s insistence on nutrition is cast as an annoying feminine element they wish they could ignore. The idea that an important aspect of masculinity is eating tasty but unhealthy food to excess is pervasive in American culture, and femininity is frequently degraded along with it, as is seen in the Miller Lite “skirt” commercial. In “Boy Meets Girl”, Cory—and by extension the show—sees Topanga’s father as incredibly weird because he cleans the house instead of his wife. When Cory attempts to re-curl his hair after the straightening disaster in “Cory’s Alternative Friends”, his older brother Eric uses the way Cory appears feminine when using the hair products to blackmail him in an unspecified way. In “It’s a Wonderful Night”, Mr. Feeny dresses up in women’s clothing when babysitting Morgan, which is cast as funny for more than the articles clashing with his current ensemble, and he later is seen as some random kook by a masculine guy when he forgets to take off the earrings before talking to him. It is repeatedly demonstrated that boys or men acting in a way characterized as feminine is considered bad as a matter of fact, in contrast to Morgan’s zombie costume being seen as a strange but positive transgression of gender roles. This is an example of how femininity is still seen as less dignified than masculinity and as such that girls and women acting masculine is seen as positively feminist, while boys and men acting feminine are only degraded.

Additionally, there’s the double standard where girls are allowed to use force against boys without being seen as too harsh, due to both boys being seen as tough enough to take it and girls seen as weak enough to not be threatening. This is seen in the pilot episode where some classmates get into a fight, and in “Cory’s Alternative Friends”, Topanga forces a kiss on Cory. Were Cory a girl and Topanga a boy, the scene in which Cory frantically tugs on his handcuffed wrist (it makes sense in context) while Topanga shoves him against the locker and kisses him would invariably be seen as sexual assault. Instead, it’s played only as a cute romance. And then the description of misandristic force is allowed in “Class Pre-Union”, where Topanga is a straw feminist. She chooses her future occupation to be President of the United States, which wouldn’t be a well-sought-after title after women bring about world peace by enslaving the men. Given the way the audience cheers, I consider this line to be placed in there for the purpose of giving the female viewers an empowering joke, making this a case of writers not understanding feminism—similar to the writers of Stargate SG-1 bringing us “Hathor”. It’s not empowering. It’s sick. The more this straw feminist humor is used, the less respect real feminists are given, and the real issues get ignored. Please, everyone, stop it.

To get back to the whole ‘respect for authorities’ thing, I generally dislike it. While Cory is often an idiot and in need of some authority figure to help him get on the straight and narrow, I find the authoritative spirit just as often to be ageist in nature. In “On the Fence”, Cory is told to seek out work to pay for an expensive water gun, and due to inexperienced mistakes ends up owing $8.00. Alan decides that kids shouldn’t work and tells Cory to be a kid. This idea of childhood being an age without work is relatively recent and restricted to wealthier families. Cory was actually good at doing the job Mr. Feeny hired him for, was proud of his work, and then failed only because he made an oversight based on inexperience. If he were to do it again, he would most likely not make the same mistakes and be successful. As a kid, he does have the privilege of getting to be bailed out, but the message shouldn’t be that he shouldn’t work at all. It comes off like i love bees condescending army recruiter telling Jan it’s a privilege she can’t join up until she’s eighteen. Being able to work gives Cory power, and he shouldn’t be denied it because of his age. For a different example, in the pilot episode, Cory denounces romantic love because he sees it as doing nothing but making people act irrational and cause each other pain. Mr. Feeny thinks his perspective is flawed because he hasn’t experienced love himself, while Cory thinks he has a better perspective. The argument is cut down by Mr. Feeny yelling that Cory’s too young to know what he’s talking about. While Mr. Feeny has a valid point and is probably right, the notion that older persons of authority automatically know what they’re talking about is ageist and wrong.

A general Boy Meets World theme is that of friendship. Season one has less of this than the others, but Cory does have Shawn (and to some extent Topanga). I get the sense that Shawn became a character because they couldn’t find a good set of friends to sit at Cory’s table and continuously came back to Shawn to play some part. While in the series in general, Cory and Shawn are best friends forever, Shawn starts out as just a reoccurring character, and it takes until “Santa’s Little Helper” for Shawn to be labeled his best friend. In “Model Family”, Topanga sarcastically suggests that Cory marry him, setting off the series-wide trend of gay jokes about the two of them. While arguably a bit homophobic, I like that it focuses on them feeling awkward rather than a furious dismissal of homosexuality as often happens with that kind of joke in other media. I’ll comment on the general trend in a later analysis.

Though Cory has a love interest in Topanga, their romance is not a big theme. It’s more like boys acting awkwardly around girls without the reverse happening. In “Boy Meets Girl”, Cory is always nervous around Topanga without any sign of Topanga being nervous too. Topanga does get a crush on Eric in “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not”, but she handles it with grace. It sort of makes sense, though, as the show is from Cory’s perspective. He doesn’t understand girls and so doesn’t see them as similarly awkward.

Actually, the parents have almost as much of a romantic focus. Boy Meets World is interesting for not straying away from the subject of the protagonist’s parents having a sex life. In “Father Knows Less”, Cory catches on to the implications of Amy’s flirting that she’s going to have sex with Alan, and he seems fine with the knowledge. On the other hand, in “Once in Love with Amy”, Cory is grossed out by the notion of them having sex. This is portrayed as an immature response, and Eric is cast as superior for supporting them having an active sex life. In “Risky Business”, though, all the boys (Eric, Cory, and Shawn) are cool with the parents’ romance, just critical of Amy’s cheesy poetry-writing skills.

The main appeal of the season is how it portrays the daily life of kids in elementary school. It’s stagnant and boring, and the teachers are puzzling. In “Teacher’s Bet”, Cory tells his friends how his teacher Mr. Feeny is so predictable, describing his routine. After Mr. Feeny performs it, he accurately states Cory’s response to a usual question and calls him predictable. That sometimes hostile but familiar relationship is relatable. Cory has a relationship with Mr. Feeny that is often negative in nature because Mr. Feeny causes him some manner of suffering every day even as he performs a service in education, but Mr. Feeny cares for his students’ well-being, and that comes through. In the season finale “I Dream of Feeny”, Cory wishes Mr. Feeny would get sick but feels bad when he ends up in the hospital. Cory ends up forging a positive relationship with his teacher, thanking him for his work in providing the gift of knowledge.

The acting skills of the cast vary. Generally speaking, the older actors are better than the younger actors, though I think Ben Savage was directed to be over-the-top as Cory, so he’s harder to judge than, say, Rider Strong as Shawn. William Daniels does a great job as Mr. Feeny, and he brings some depth to the character. I like the scenes where Cory and Mr. Feeny sit and talk. I really get a sense of Mr. Feeny as having an interesting life he’s not talking about and being someone Cory could really learn from. Without a doubt, Lily Nicksay does the worst job as Morgan. Though surprisingly decent in the pilot, she is awful thereafter. She just kind of says her lines quietly or loudly without a hint of authenticity. It makes the scenes in which she’s supposed to be cute just painful to watch. They should have just stuck her in the background or replaced the actress, as they ended up doing in a later season.

The season’s jokes are often kind of stupid and unfunny, despite the loud laugh tracks trying to convince us otherwise. On the other hand, I was surprised by how many jokes I ended up laughing at. Boy Meets World has some characteristically random humor I tend to like, and the first season has a couple examples. In “Once in Love with Amy”, Minkus discovers the secret to time travel lies in understanding that moments repeat randomly. That moment then repeats randomly, but Minkus changes his mind and erases the equation. In “I Dream of Feeny”, Topanga shares some psychic tips that inspire Cory and Shawn to erase Minkus from existence. Though you would think it to be non-canon, the joke is rendered much funnier by Minkus not returning the next season (of course, he later makes a cameo in the fifth season).

Well, that’s Boy Meets World, season one. I’ll try to do the next one soon.

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