Cory Matthews – You’re honest, loyal and decent. Cory, that’s you.
The titular Boy Meet(ing the) World, Cory Matthews is a character who’s ‘average’ in all areas, apart from his faith, devotion and loyalty to the people he loves.
The original show ran for seven seasons in the ‘90s (then three seasons of the rebooted sequel ‘Girl Meets World’) and covered Cory Matthews’ life from sixth grade until college, introducing us to a shifting cast of characters that include his family, friends and long-time mentor and teacher, Mr Feeny.
The conceit of an average middle child is one that gradually stretched over seasons, and several aspects of the show were retooled or phased out. Characters often shifted depending on trope demands (for example, Topanga Lawrence, introduced in S1 as Cory’s first girlfriend, goes from a nonconformist hippy child to a much more conventional girlfriend figure, and with this, their past was altered from their onscreen relationship in the first season as new friends to having known each other since infancy.) With his shift to a more comedic character, Cory in later seasons can be prone to being insensitive or over-reacting. However, the one aspect of the show that never shifts is his close relationship with Shawn Hunter.
Shawn Hunter – You’re Shawn Hunter, you were raised by wolves, you’re my friend! What else do you need to know?
Shawn is the only character other than Cory who features in every episode of Boy Meets World. Cory’s best friend, Shawn is slowly established as having a troubled homelife. His family struggle for money, and his parents are loving but unreliable, causing Shawn to become the more rebellious of himself and Cory. As Shawn grows older, he can be self-destructive and push others away, but he’s grounded by the people he loves, particularly Cory.
Shawn goes from portrayed as comically dim in early seasons, to a talented writer in later episodes (reversing Cory’s brother Eric’s arc, who goes from a popular high schooler to a goofy idiot as the show progresses) but even in the early seasons, Shawn is like Cory, a particularly emotionally literate and sensitive friend, with a loyalty to Cory surpassing even Topanga. A fatalistic cynic to Cory’s romantic idealist, Shawn can be dramatic, but is self-aware and approaches his problems with humour.
The pairing - It’s always been you and me, it’s you and me now and it’s gonna be you and me forever.
Cory and Shawn are often characters that mirror each other, not only in their beliefs and approaches to situations, but as a plot point. While they struggle due to differences such as class (Shawn’s family live in a trailer park, in comparison to the Matthews, who seem to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle) and socially (Shawn is more popular, and while he associates primarily with Cory, Cory is aware that Shawn, Topanga and his brother Eric are more traditionally good looking, while he views himself in earlier seasons as a ‘geek’); Cory and Shawn tend to copy each other. For example, Cory initially wants to date only because Shawn becomes interested in girls. Likewise, Shawn begins his first serious relationship in an effort to be ‘like Cory and Topanga.’
They influence each other (to a degree Cory’s father finds threatening) and can easily persuade each other into foolish actions (Cory even mentions jumping off a bridge because Shawn asked him to.)
They mirror each other also, swapping costumes and identities (at one point, Cory imagines Topanga dressed in Shawn’s clothes), naming their pets after each other, adopting each other’s phrases, and even sharing dreams. At one point, Mr Feeny reprimands Cory. Cory argues ‘That wasn’t me, it was Shawn!’ to Feeny’s dismissive ‘Same thing.’
Dreams even become a theme in their relationship – in S5, Shawn dreams he’s killed everyone around him (in a homage to the then recent release ‘Scream’) except Cory and Topanga.
In S6, Cory, worried that his upcoming marriage to Topanga will ‘change things between (Shawn) and (himself)’ dreams that he’s killing everyone around him except himself and Topanga.
In S7, Topanga, post-marriage and a fight in which Cory reveals he’s envious of her over-achieving and that she’s ‘killed (his) spirit’ dreams that Cory (with the ever present Shawn egging him on) has killed her in revenge for her ‘perfect’ ways.
Cory and Shawn are familiar with each other’s dreams (including an unknown ‘clown’ nightmare both are mentioned to have; and a repeated dream Cory has in which he wins Miss World) and even share a few onscreen (such as a fantasy in which Shawn kisses a girl while lying at Cory’s feet, as Cory eats grapes; and a fantasy in which they begin their senior year surrounded by girls, while Topanga is worshipped by several jocks.)
As expected for a 90s sitcom, the show can walk the line between portraying a close m/m relationship and homophobia, and this is interestingly expressed both comedically and seriously from Cory’s father, Alan, who worries about both of his son’s sexualities (Eric, like Cory, has extremely close relationships with his friends) and at one point even asks Amy, their mom, if Cory ‘enjoys’ kissing Topanga. Cory has an early interest in journalism, and prompted by a class reading of ‘Black Like Me’, suggests cross-dressing as a woman, to Alan’s instant: ‘Nope. Don’t want you to.’
An episode in which Cory and Shawn get drunk for the first time is punctuated by an angry Alan shouting that he’s sick of overlooking ‘the influence you have on my kid’, to which Shawn, ambiguously, retorts that Cory wanted ‘to feel good, and I showed him how.’ (You could find a real deep read on this with regards to Alan, who identifies strongly with Shawn, and mentions to Cory that he had a friend, Richie, who was the Cory to his Shawn, and whom he sometimes led astray. It should also be mentioned that despite Alan’s worry, he views Shawn as a member of his family, and ‘the best friend my kid ever had’.)
Eric, too, states ‘I want my own room’ after hearing a conversation between Cory and Shawn.
Jokes which skirt around an incestuous and/or familial subtext sometimes appear (Cory refers to ‘raising Topanga’, Eric admiring a ring Cory has purchased for Topanga remarks: ‘We’re brothers, it would be wrong!’) and in context of that, it’s interesting that both Cory and Shawn refer to being both brothers (in fact, Shawn views Cory as ‘more’ his brother than Jack, his half-brother that he meets in his late teens) but also each other’s parents.
Both Cory and his father mention to Shawn and Cory respectively how they ended up ‘In a room. With you.’
Cory adopts the nickname of ‘Shawnie’ when addressing Shawn that Shawn’s parents, Chet and Virna call him.
When Cory fears Shawn will not attend college with himself and Topanga, he says ‘If I was your father, Shawn, I’d spank you, because that’s what you deserve, a big spanking. Now take down your pants!’
Likewise, when Cory and Topanga, post-marriage, look for a new dorm, they crash with Shawn and Angela, acting like spoilt children and demanding food, to which Shawn and Angela reflect: ‘I hate the kids.’
Other themes including closets and lockers which the pair constantly hide in (I made count at over a dozen), and references to gender reversals and/or confusions.
Shawn lurks in the girl’s bathroom, claiming to be tapped into ‘the girls network’, and has thought ‘before’ about what name he’d go by as a girl. One episode plays off the Cyrano trope, as Shawn aids a bully in wooing his girlfriend by proxy. Both Shawn and Cory police each other over acting appropriately masculine (‘guys don’t ask guys that’) as does Topanga, who upon watching them hug, exclaims ‘Stop it, you’re boys.’ They refer to each other by neutral endearments (‘darling’, ‘my Shawn’, ‘babe’), and come up with feminised codenames for themselves (‘Dawn’ and ‘Dory’), both expressing confusion about their role as men (‘We do what men do!’ ‘Right. What is that?’)
Even within Cory and Topanga’s relationship, Cory often seems to long for a more traditionally feminised role, referring to himself as ‘up here in my dress’ at their wedding, telling her ‘I’m through with men’, pleading with her ‘Never take me there’, calling her ‘the man in this relationship’ and mentioning how he’ll be her ‘first lady.’ He also pictures Topanga in Shawn’s clothes, and imagines her kissing a rival, Lips Roosevelt, with a POV shot of himself in Topanga's place and Roosevelt kissing him. While dressed as his feminine alter ego for his school article, Cora, he flirts with both Topanga and Shawn.
Shawn seems similarly conflicted, sometimes reminding Cory when efforts such as Cory bringing him flowers is ‘not (appropriate)’, at other times, viewing not only Cory, but also other males as viable romantic partners (he mentions admiring ‘big hands’; hands a jock a bouquet of flowers, which the jock views as a genuine approach; and talks about how his mailman sent him a Valentine and the social expectation he feels to return one.) In S6 he breaks up with his girlfriend Angela, in part because he wants to see ‘other people’, and this is a preceded by a running joke in which Cory is afraid to enter a unisex bathroom. A visitor to the bathroom, a nude man, enters, and each time we’re met with a ‘Wow’ reaction from an impressed bathroom inhabitant, the first being Topanga and the next being Shawn.
Topanga – A Guy Can Do No Better Than Topanga Lawrence
Topanga was introduced in S1 as a hippy, flower-child type. (The S1 cast also included a ‘geek’ character, Stuart Minkus, and while Topanga is presented as a potential first love interest for Cory, she’s also often paired with Minkus, who has a crush on her.)
When taking on a more central role as a regular, Topanga was rebooted into a more everygirl figure, then as the show developed further, an academic star.
Continuity varies on Cory/Topanga – in S1, she doesn’t even know Cory has a brother, by S2 they’ve known each other since infancy. This is partly retconned in later episodes (Cory claims Eric told him not to play with girls), however this idealisation of the past could be seen as in fitting with the pairs’ characterisation (both mention several different ‘firsts’ such as kisses, dates and fights) as a pair who desperately crave conformity. (This is also paralleled with Cory and Shawn’s past – S1 mentions them as being friends since their playpens, S3 that Shawn has been in ten schools and was born in Ohio, and S5 has Cory and Shawn meeting aged six.)
In early seasons, Cory’s pursuit of Topanga seems larger about social norms – he mentions a desire to keep up with Shawn; as well as wanting to ‘walk through life’ with someone ‘because that’s what you do’. In S2, he dates a girl called Wendy, who he alternately is intimidated by and comforted by, as she views their relationship as a life-long commitment, and he fantasises about a future in which they’ve stayed together into old age (interestingly represented by a dream sequence of him and Shawn as elderly men, with Wendy herself offscreen.)
Likewise, Topanga has longings even in her first season for a more traditional approval from her peers, particularly males. She develops a crush on Eric, and when he compliments her for being intelligent, she offers 'I don’t have to be'. She also refers to her enjoyment of a compliment as ‘superficial’, and how she hopes to change from a ‘caterpillar to a butterfly’. A flashback in 'Girl Meets World' to Topanga’s younger self suggests she sacrificed individuality in order to gain more success, both academically and professionally (she eventually becomes a ‘shark’-like lawyer) as well as personally (Mr Feeny suggests at one point her desire to marry Cory early and reject an Ivy League education in favour of him is perhaps a repressed fear of wider spheres and competition outside the little pond that is her high school and college experience.)
Angela – You’ve got a beautiful, honest, sweet, loving woman that loves you.
Angela Moore was introduced in S5 as a love interest for Shawn. Angela’s an interesting character, mirroring Shawn, both in her cynicism versus Topanga’s romanticism, as well as her desire not to commit to a relationship (due to her past as an army brat.)
Shawn dates her, but according to his own self-inflicted policy, ends it after two weeks. However, when he finds a lost purse, he decides he’s in love with the girl who owns it; which turns out to be Angela. (There’s a certain level of depersonalisation to Shawn and her relationship, here, lampshaded in the Girl Meets World episode in which Cory and Topanga’s daughter Riley comments that ‘He fell in love with a concept. It was doomed from the start.’ There’s also an attempt for Shawn and Angela to have common interests; but Boy Meets World, for all it’s good points, was never particularly interested in fleshing out their female parts, and only vaguely commits to Angela having outside interests, which by S6 have been boiled down to…being black; a poor treatment of the character which was sadly matched by actress Trina McGee's on set treatment by cast and producers.)
Angela’s refreshing, as she represents a normal friendship as opposed to the co-dependency of both Cory/Topanga and Cory/Shawn – she urges Topanga to hold off on marriage not from envy, but because she believes they’re too young (a viewpoint Cory and Topanga eventually see as at least somewhat valid in later seasons, as they struggle to move from their luxurious dorms to married college accommodations.) At Cory and Topanga’s wedding, while Shawn weeps and rails; Angela is upset at the idea of seeing Topanga less; but upon Topanga’s ‘Do you want me to call it off?’, Angela rallies: ‘I want you to be happy.’
Cory and Topanga can prioritise their relationship slightly over their friendships (Topanga hurts her roommates Angela and Rachel when a prank war results and she immediately favours the boys; while Cory even into 'Girl Meets World' tests Shawn: ‘Ask me who I like more - you or Topanga?’), however they both struggle with envy over said friendships – Topanga often refers to having bitterness over Shawn and Cory’s bond; and Cory can be resentful of Shawn’s relationships with girls right up until Girl Meets World. However, interestingly, neither Shawn nor Angela ever get envious of the other one’s closeness or loyalty to their friends.
Their relationship can be one of informed attributes by the narrative, however – while in S5, Shawn puts large amounts of pressure on their relationship to match Cory and Topanga’s, and in S6, breaks up with her in order to ‘be free’; in S7, this is reversed, and Angela is blamed by both Shawn and her father for deserting Shawn, who has decided he would like to reconcile.
Angela leaves in the penultimate episode of the show, to travel with her father, which Shawn encourages (in perhaps his first unselfish act in their relationship, which primarily focused on his needs), despite knowing it will probably be the end of their own relationship.
She returns for an episode of 'Girl Meets World', and the narrative again centres Shawn, describing him as ‘the one who gets left’ (even comparing Angela to Katy’s husband, who abandoned her and their child in poverty) and arguing that Angela left him because she ‘wasn’t ready’.