The importance of Topanga Lawrence to Boy Meets World cannot possibly be overstated. She was the female protagonist, the young lady who girls watching could look up to, and Cory’s soulmate from the beginning. Although, about that last point…look, part of the charm of BMW was the general lack of concern about continuity, or retconning or evolving characters to suit the overall needs of the series. Shawn and Topanga had siblings early on (with 3 sets of actors playing her parents through the years) that vanished. Mr. Feeny follows the main characters to EVERY educational stop in their lives, as so often happens in life. And Topanga and Cory were not soulmates from the beginning, and weren’t destined to end up with each other by the connection, or lack thereof, established between them through the first season.
The Topanga of season 1 is NOT the same Topanga that falls in love (and out, and in, and out, and in love again) with Cory before driving off happily ever after in the end (presumably; I didn’t watch Girl Meets World but I feel like I would have heard if Topanga and Cory were divorced co-parents). Her first big showcase involves a well-remembered interpretive dance, set to moody music and a poem read by Cory, which ends with her drawing a circle on her face WITH LIPSTICK. It’s incredibly bizarre and something that struck a chord of sorts with viewers. Plus it got the point across: she’s a weirdo, someone who’s “totally strange,” as Cory noted earlier (and not just in a “strange is in the eye of the beholder” way, as Mr. Feeny rightly tells Cory). He balks at completing a class assignment with her because of this, even though the timing was impeccable given Cory’s recent self esteem and image crisis.
The introduction of the original, free spirited Topanga not so coincidentally occurs in an episode where self acceptance and social pressures collide. Cory overhears two female classmates insult someone as “a total Brillo head,” which the egocentric 6th grader (is there any other kind?) immediately assumes is directed at him. When Cory inquires with his best friend about whether his hair looks good, Shawn proclaims, “guys don’t ask guys that question.” There was always an uneasy tension about the expectations of masculinity versus the seeming trappings of ‘modern men,’ but this sets off a chain of events that eventually show Cory it’s ok to be different (somewhat, since the show didn’t delve too deeply into true social outsider status).
After Cory tries straightening his hair and ends up with a helmet (with over-the-phone assistance from Shawn’s heretofore forgotten sister), he’s mortified. His family is understandably shocked as well, though neither his brother or father help the situation, each remembering a former acquaintance doing the same thing and ending up “bald as a cueball.” Cory insists he won’t go to school the next day to avoid the presumed humiliation, telling his mother “me, school, tomorrow, no,” before smash cutting to him in school the next day. He’s instructed to remove his hat by Mr. Feeny, and somehow develops a hat brim style straight line of hair, resembling a duck bill, which his classmates razz him for.
Cory takes his first baby steps towards a positive self image (and marriage with a girl he grew up in the same neighborhood as) when he refuses to sit with his friends and endure their teasing (including Yeah-Yeah from The Sandlot!) at lunch. His stint at the “weird” table expands his worldview a tiny bit, and he learns about a student petition to save a retiring librarian’s job. Cory feels his superficial difference impairs him for life and, as he’s “one of you all now,” he agrees to help organize a stunt to earn more signatures. His newfound peers are dumbfounded by Cory’s plan, exposing their differences by a lack of knowledge of Beavis and Butt-Head (a name drop that earns an unexpected whoop from the live, studio audience).
A failed attempt to re-curl his hair, with actual pink curlers (a process his brother photographs for future blackmail), results in Don King style hair for Cory. He’s crippled with embarrassment over another hair disaster, but is back in school for his planned civil protest as promised. He handcuffs himself to the others in a chain across the hall, blocking the “only exit to freedom” for their fellow students on the Friday afternoon (forcing them to sign the Mrs. Rosemead petition in order to pass). The plan works perfectly, after a brief threat of violence (by Spike from Little Giants, with a bitchin’ mullet!), and the elder librarian’s job is presumably saved (things tended to work out for the better, particularly early in this series). The need to stand up for what you believe in, and in not caring what other people think, is illustrated to Cory and the audience.
As Cory the hero reflects on his bold move, Topanga waxes poetic about bravery and the lack of importance of superficial beauty. She notes that neither of them has had a first kiss, and how it would be interesting if his first kiss happened “when you thought you looked weird.” The hormonally nervous Cory fidgets, handcuffed to the lockers still, as she continues that such a scenario would teach him that it’s “not what you look like on the outside that matters.” Topanga then plants a smooch on Cory, the crowd bellows, and our main character is left as awestruck as his shocked hair.
Cory doesn’t magically stop giving a fuck what people think of him, just because he has his first kiss and a few days with goofy hair. He’s able to restore his hair to its curly glory by episode’s end, and is back sitting with his original friends over the “weird” table. He was still incredibly self conscious and unsure of himself, like all kids that age are, and would still have crises of identity throughout his youth. But he learned the first of many lessons on living your life without concern for others perceptions, which is as difficult a thing to accept as any when growing up (or throughout life).
And Cory and Topanga kissed! For the first time!! And frankly it was fucking adorable. This was the defining couple and depiction of love for a generation growing up, and the beginning of that is a pretty big milestone. The show may have acted like the two were pre-ordained to be together forever in later years, and mysteriously forgotten Topanga’s bizzare, neo-hippie behavior early on. But there was always that spark and draw between them, at least, and this episode put an exclamation point on that introduction.