Sometimes we look back on the pieces of media we loved in our youth and wonder what we ever saw in it. Others become even richer when revisited as adults. I tried Girl Meets World when it first debuted in 2014 because I loved its predecessor, Boy Meets World. The first episode was clearly geared toward a younger audience so I accepted that it wasn’t for me and moved on. I enjoyed seeing clips of familiar characters when they visited this new world, but I had little intention of watching until two of my friends shared their feelings on the series. One is my age and like me, watched the reruns of the original series growing up. The other is a bit older and watches the series with her daughter, who is a few years younger than Riley and Maya. Despite their different experiences, both have found something to enjoy about the series and it prompted me to give it a second chance. I’ve spent the past month catching up on the series and though I may not be in the target audience, I’ve now joined the group of people eagerly awaiting new episodes.
Watching Girl Meets World has made me think back to my time spent watching Boy Meets World and the way I learned from Mr. Feeny just as much as I learned from my actual teachers at school. He didn’t just want his students to pass their tests and graduate. He wanted to give them a strong foundation that would carry them through the rest of their lives, not just academically but morally as well. He guided them and showed them that the most important thing was to be a good person who cared for others and who made a difference. I would imagine there are few fans of the original series who can look back on his final lesson of “Dream. Try. Do good” and not get a little teary-eyed.
It was a show that wanted to teach you something, even if the impact on you wouldn’t be understood until much later. Katie and I came across an episode of Boy Meets World a couple summers ago when I visited her. It was a very early episode that I must have seen several times before but this is the first time I’d seen it as an adult. Mr. Feeny was trying to teach the students about prejudice by assigning them the Diary of Anne Frank. Cory originally found the topic outdated, as surely the same hatred couldn’t exist now. Partway through the episode, he learned he was wrong. Eric’s girlfriend came to the house in tears because someone had called her a racial slur. It opened Cory’s eyes to a world he had never known because he had never been subjected to it. He admitted he was wrong and implored his fellow classmates to be aware and to do better. He encouraged them all to stand up and say something when they witnessed prejudicial behavior.
I don’t think I gave it much thought on my earlier viewings. I probably thought it was a nice message but that was it. From an analytical perspective, the message was probably a little heavy-handed. But this was never a series that intended to be subtle about the messages it portrayed. But on that day a few summers ago, I was stunned. I had forgotten this particular episode existed and I think for the first time, I really appreciated what this show was trying to do.
With this new perspective, I could look back and see other specific episodes or stories that looked at big ideas that I may have recognized at the time but didn’t think much about. “Chick Like Me” tackled sexism and the ways women are treated than men don’t notice. There was the role of faith and family in “Cult Fiction”, one of the best episodes the show produced. There was Tommy’s adoption arc, which looked at what it meant to love someone enough to let them go when necessary. In what may be one of the more memorable episodes of the series, “Seven the Hard Way” looks at the importance of friendship and how the people in your life shape who you are and the life you lead. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this show was opening my eyes to things and presenting a set of principles that was being incorporated into my own worldview.
This show believed that we have an infinite capacity for love and goodness. It believed that we can and should choose to do good in this world. It believed that friendship and family (both the one we were born into and the ones we choose for ourselves) were among the most important things in life. When looked at in that way, it doesn’t sound so dissimilar from two of my other favorite shows – Parks and Recreation and The West Wing. It wasn’t a show that aspired to the heights of either of those two other shows but the core belief in optimism and the ability to make a difference runs throughout all three shows.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the same ethos that runs through Girl Meets World. While it has made a point to recall Mr. Feeny’s final lesson on more than one occasion (including a banner in Cory’s classroom), the strongest lesson in this show is “people change people”. It picks up where “Seven the Hard Way” leaves off and turns that message into a series. While romance is by no means absent from the show, the emphasis is on the importance of friendship. Where the main relationship in Boy Meets World could have been between Cory and Shawn or Cory and Topanga based on your views and preferences, the main relationship on Girl Meets World is undeniably that between Riley and Maya. It is a relationship of such importance that it has not only been paralleled to their most obvious analogue of Cory and Shawn, but also to Cory and Topanga on multiple occasions. As Riley said, this is their extraordinary relationship. The love that these two girls have for each other is one of the deepest portrayals of female friendship that I can think of and I am excited that there is a generation of younger girls experiencing this as an ideal.
But portrayals of friendship on the show aren’t limited to these two. This entire group of friends – Riley, Maya, Lucas, Farkle, Zay, and now Smackle – is one solid unit that cares for each other deeply. In ways both big and small, we see them continually choose to support and love each other. There may be fights and occasional separations, but they always find their way back to each other because they have been irrevocably changed by the others’ presence in their lives.
Just like its predecessor, Girl Meets World isn’t afraid to tackle larger issues. This week’s episode “Girl Meets the Great Lady of New York” looks at heritage, what it means to learn your family’s story, and the idea that America is made stronger because of the many cultures that make it up. Some students, like Riley, find that there heritage is largely American. Their ancestors may have come from elsewhere, but they’ve been in the US for so long that their specific heritages aren’t known. Others, like Maya, learn about a heritage and family they’ve never known and find beauty and excitement in discovering a new side to themselves. Still others, like Farkle and Zay, learned that their families have known great trial and hardship.
Like Cory many years ago, the students don’t immediately take to the assignment. With the exception of Farkle, they are skeptical that it could teach them anything important. It isn’t until the students learn the story of an old woman from Cambodia who fled the country as a young girl during the time of the Vietnam War (I think, it’s never made explicit) that they fully understand why it’s good to know your own story.
Though the words are never used (presumably due to Disney Channel restrictions), Zay finds out that his ancestors were brought over from Ghana as slaves and Farkle learns that his father’s family was likely killed during the Holocaust. It’s a heavy bit of personal history to learn in the context of a school assignment and Farkle is particularly shaken by this revelation. In a display of the friendship this show has come to be associated with, it is his friends who he is eventually able to share this information with. Though Farkle can’t quite get all the words out, Zay understands what must have happened and fills the rest of the group in. He offers Farkle an opportunity to talk while Riley immediately wraps him in a hug. His world may be a different one than the one he knew the week previous, but his friends will be there as he figures out what this information means to him.
Just as that episode of Boy Meets World didn’t resonate with me all those years ago, this may not be an episode that resonates as strongly with the younger viewers of Girl Meets World. But it’s one they will be able to look back on one day with a newfound appreciation for what this show is trying to say. It is a show that is deeper and more sincere in its viewpoint than I originally gave it credit for and I’m so grateful that I gave it a second chance. If the legacy from Boy Meets World is to do good, I would say this show is doing a terrific job of carrying that legacy and creating their own.