Shangela: Tokenism in ‘Boy Meets World’Posted: August 16, 2012
For reasons fully understandable to me, though deeply, deeply shameful, I stayed up until 3 in the morning watching old episodes of Boy Meets World.
Actually, I should be more specific.
Some kind soul decided to upload and string together in an old-fashioned, homemade kind of way every significant clip of Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong), Cory Matthew’s troubled best friend, and Angela Moore (Trina McGee-Davis), Shawn’s first major girlfriend. The YouTube clips run 12-14 minutes each, and they are eight parts in total. Official Kxren, the dutiful uploader, explains why there is, as of now, no part 9:
LIFE IS HECTIC AT THE MOMENT, WILL FINISH IT ONCE I GET SOME SPARE TIME. THANKS FOR ALL YOUR COMMENTS AND PATIENCE.
That didn’t do me any good though, so I ended up using Wikipedia as my ad-hoc TV guide and watched the pertinent season 6 and season 7 episodes until I saw the end of their relationship to its forced, unnatural conclusion.
I know exactly why I spent three hours watching Shawn and Angela. It’s the same reason I have occasional, overwhelming longings to watch Something New. But I’ve already done that blog post.
Instead, what I want to address is the racial dynamic of Shawn and Angela’s relationship. It’s a strange one. Like so many other elements of this very unstable sitcom-cum-soap opera, the writers oscillated between acknowledging Angela’s blackness or acting like it didn’t exist. Most of the time, they opted for the latter. It’s ’90s tokenism at its weirdest.
Angela first appears on Boy Meets World in season five, which aired in 1997. 1997 was a banner year for multi-culti talk. (I have no real evidence for this except for the Spice Girls. 1997 was their breakout year and Scary Spice was a reassuring mocha brown, an emblem for New Britain.)
We first meet Angela when Shawn is breaking up with her. Shawn is supposed to be a lothario, despite, or I guess, because of his adorableness in the strictest, most literal sense of the word. (The flippy hair, the lips. IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. Back then, I never got the Shawn Hunter appeal.)
Anyway, Angela has some crazy Bantu-twist like braids going on. She’s also gorgeous. Unquestionably black, but in a ‘non-threatening’ way. Like Aisha Tyler, she works the Caucasianoid nose. She is also 28 years old in this first episode. I know this, not just because I wikipidaed it, but because, back in my A Different World phase, Angela shows up in a 1992 episode, looking exactly the same. And I remember thinking this was not possible. But Angela, or really Trina McGee-Davis, has that Stacy Dash thing going on, where she looks insanely, perenially young and it is amazing. Their black truly doesn’t crack.
Anyway, Shawn doesn’t date any girl for more than two weeks at this point in his life, so he’s like, ‘peace out angela,’ and she’s like, ‘peace out shawn.’ But then Shawn finds this purse and he discovers that the owner likes Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (doesn’t everyone?) and poetry and Van Damme movies. The whole thing is highly ludicrous, but anyway, turns out that the purse’s contents belong to Angela and then suddenly Shawn realizes he really likes her and their relationship goes from there.
At first, it is hard to appreciate their beauty together in the first season of their love, because their bodies are wrapped in bulky, unflattering, faded ’90s teenager uniform, but then you begin to see it.
It also quickly becomes apparent as you watch more episodes that the writers were essentially trying to create a buffer from the inexorability of Cory and Topanga-ness (Danielle Fishel). Very quickly, Angela and Topanga become best friends and many lackluster episodes–saved only by Savage and Strong’s genuine chemistry together–become gender wars. The girls do this and the boys do that.
Then, there are a few moments, especially in season 6 and 7–the last two seasons where the whole gang is in college, where Angela will say something like, “I’ve got to get some black friends” or Shawn will say something like, “You need a break from your three very white friends” or Angela will say, “I’m studying white history, your people did a lot of stuff,” in a totally non-ironic way or Eric (Will Friedle), Cory’s older brother, will find a bunch of books and read the titles: Native Son, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the books will belong, (naturally!) to Angela.
Those moments of odd, very contrived ‘racial awareness,’ for lack of a better term, are telling. It’s like the writers knew that their casting of Angela was somewhat unorthodox for ’90s TV, when sitcoms tended to be really balkanized, but at the same time were reluctant (because it was a kid’s show? because it was the ’90s? because they were scared?) to fully embrace the issues that would have realistically come up if Shawn and Angela were dating in the ‘real world.’ (At some point I would love to rewatch Saved By the Bell again, to watch Lisa Turtle in action, but that’s for another day. )
In Season 7, when Angela is rocking the black braids with blond highlights, Shawn tells her hair looks nice. It’s a flyaway comment, designed to placate her (for reasons that are never really clear, she doesn’t want to date him, but she loves him and all that good stuff), but it was so emblematic of the show’s strange obliviousness to me. I kept thinking about that scene in Something New, (I know, forgive me), when Simon Baker grabs a few locks of Sanaa Lathan’s weave and asks her if it’s real. The genuine awkwardness there is one of the things I love about that movie. (The illusion that the hairstyle Lathan sports afterwards is ‘natural’, less so. )
What would have happened if these ’90s shows had really gone there? Sure, occasionally you had the my-ancestors-owned-slaves- moment (Saved by the Bell) or The Very Special Episode where we learn that discrimination is wrong, but it was really these shows’ inability to take on the little gaffes, the things born out of ignorance and not hate that made these shows so tokenist.
As a black kid who lived in predominantly white places most of her adolescence, it’s always about the little stuff. The’ do you tan?’ questions and the pink flesh-colored microphones for the school musical moments, that let you know it’s strange that you’re there.
This isn’t to say that I think tokenism is all bad. It’s not ideal, but I do think there is something to be said about trying. I’m a very visual person. And sometimes, especially if you’re a young impressionable kid who gets a lot of cues from pop culture, just seeing someone that looks like you on television can make a huge difference. It can be oddly validating. You know?
*There is so much ’90s-ness in this video, what with the song and the hair and the clothes, I could not pass it up. If you actually want to watch Shawn and Angela, Their Story, here’s part 1.