I think everyone can remember the moment feminism entered their lives; perhaps they had a strong feminist in their home, or maybe they experienced an act of sexism that motivated them to look for it. For me, it happened first time I saw Topanga Lawrence. She was beautiful, smart, powerful, independent, and most importantly – she was a feminist. She wasn’t written as the typical high school girlfriend, and none of us wanted her to be that. She single handedly made Boy Meets World my favourite show, and it remains that to this day.
For the early 90’s, Topanga was very progressive. She was body positive, fought against sexism, and demanded respect and equality in her relationship with Cory. She also tackled female sexuality and rape culture in, what I consider, the three most important episodes of the series.
Episode 1: “Wake Up, Little Cory”
In English class the kids are studying Much Ado About Nothing. Just like most kids, they can’t get into it and think of it as totally outdated. They think we’ve moved past the culture talked about in the book, and that a rumour couldn’t be as powerful as Shakespeare made it out to be. But as we all know, we haven’t really come that far.
Cory and Topanga fall asleep while working on their assignment, and the whole school assumes they had sex. At first Cory doesn’t confirm it, but he definitely doesn’t deny it either. He becomes “THE MAN!” and is immediately popular, and guys who would have never talked to him before are now calling him a God. As usual, while the guy gets praised for his sexuality, the girl gets criticized for hers. The rest of the episode focuses on slut shaming, and how damaging a rumour can be for a girl even if it’s not true.
There is such a distinction made between how Cory is treated after that night versus how Topanga is treated.
Tired of being told what kind of person she is, Topanga decides to take control of her sexuality. Everyone already thinks she did it, so she goes to Cory’s house and offers herself to him. Of course, he doesn’t accept, but the gesture is really powerful: she isn’t going to let a rumour dictate how she sees herself, and while her confidence isn’t shaken, she wants her reputation to be true and representative of her, not some pubescent boy’s desire for popularity.
Episode 2: “Chick Like Me”
The set up for this episode is Topanga’s friend Debbie talking about a guy she went on a date with. Dinner was nice, but then he was aggressive and wouldn’t listen to her when she asked him to stop. She has a serious conversation with Shawn, who thinks that girls just don’t make their intentions clear, and then she shuts him down.
He asks if she’s interested in making out on a date, and she says: “Maybe I am and maybe I’m not, but it shouldn’t be expected. You’re too busy planning your next move to hear us say no.” It becomes clear that Cory and Shawn have no idea what is going on in girls’ heads, so they decide that Shawn should dress like a girl and go on a date to figure out what it’s like.
Shawn (as Veronica) ends up going on a date with the same guy Debbie did, and he’s shocked to have the exact same experience. He makes it very clear that the guy is crowding him, and that he doesn’t want to be touched, but the guy doesn’t listen at all. Shawn goes back to Topanga freaking out, because he feels violated. Topanga tries to drive the point home by saying: “Naybe you sent him a signal,” like so many women are told every day. At that moment, Shawn finally understands. He repeatedly told the guy to back off, but he didn’t listen and even suggested that Shawn was asking for it based on the way he was dressed.
It’s a pretty bold episode for a teen sitcom, but the message is incredibly important. Unwanted physical contact is never okay, no woman has ever been ‘asking for it,’ and there is no signal that a woman could give that would justify sexual assault.
Episode 3: “Everyone Loves Stuart”
This episode occurs after the gang goes to college. Their new professor Stuart is young, hip, and attractive, and everyone loves him. Stuart shows up at Topanga’s dorm to talk about her paper. It’s never stated, but it’s definitely implied that Topanga has a crush on this guy. Because of that, she doesn’t immediately kick him out of the dorm and doesn’t catch on to what’s happening right away.
The paper they’re discussing is about morality and ethics, and Stuart uses that to his advantage. He throws out scenarios to see how far he can go before crossing a line morally and ethically. He touches her and says he wants to get to know her outside of class. When she asks him to leave, he says: “That’s not what you want,” again making the point that women are seen as incapable of setting their own boundaries.
This episode is important because it addresses sexual pressure placed on women. This is a guy in a position of authority taking advantage of a girl, knowing he has all of the control. If she rejects him, her academic career could be in jeopardy. When she tells him that she’s going to come clean about what happened, he threatens to turn the tables and say it was her that initiated it. It’s impressive that the show acknowledges that sex can be more complicated for women in our society than it is for men, and that men often have the upper hand, and can use that advantage in an immoral way. But creating an open dialogue about it, and showing scenarios where they don’t get away with it, is important for women. It works to eliminate the shame that keeps women from speaking up about anything that makes them uncomfortable.
I won’t say the show is perfect, but it definitely tried to give some really valuable lessons to kids at the exact age they needed them. Watching Topanga say what she wanted and what she didn’t want gave me the confidence to do that myself. You don’t have to play the role of the quiet, submissive woman we’re always told to embody: say no when you want to, and say it fucking loud.
– STEPHANIE ASHE
Blogging about feminism, cats, and TV – all at the same time if I’m really on my game.