‘Jessie’ vs. ‘Girl Meets World’ — A Frank Talk About Tropes in Tween Television

Image: Disney

“Kiddo, do you see the difference between the kids on Girl Meets World and Jessie?”
“Yeah, they’re different actors.”
“But, look at Farkle, see how even though he’s talking to girls about liking them, he doesn’t touch them and doesn’t make them uncomfortable? That’s different from Luke on Jessie. He kisses Jessie without asking her permission. And he keeps touching her and making comments about kissing her.”
“Well, is it ILLEGAL, mama?”
“It–”
“No, Mama, is it ILLEGAL?”
“In some –”
“No, Mama, if it’s not ILLEGAL it’s ok.”
“But, it can be. It’s called sexual harassment. You need to know that it is never.ever.ever ok to kiss a girl or touch her without her permission. Repeat what I just said.”
*Loud burdened sigh*
“Never touch or kiss a girl without her permission.”

Popular culture reflects and influences societal beliefs. As the mirror into which people peer, it can show them the world in which they live. However, when done correctly, people can look into that mirror as though it were a magical looking glass showing them what the world should be. Both Jessie and Girl Meets World have the ubiquitous “boy character who pines for the girl.” Girl Meets World makes Farkle an off-putting but ultimately lovable, respectful character. Jessie, by contrast, makes Luke nothing more than a fictional representation of rape culture.

In the first episode of Jessie, Luke is set up to be the unrequited love character but also the typical handsome, spoiled, not-smart rich kid. From the first time that Luke sees Jessie, in the first episode, he’s entranced by her looks. What is troubling is the following scenes in this first episode:

Luke: (runs in, apparently was spying) Mom! Can I date the new nanny?!
Christina: Let me think about it. No!
Luke: Oh well, ours will be a forbidden love…
Jessie: Starting now. (They leave the kitchen.)
(Scene changes to in the hallway with the children’s and Jessie’s bedrooms. Only Luke is there)
Luke: (knocking on Jessie’s door) Hey, babe! (Jessie opens the door) Ready for our date? (Produces flowers from his tux)
Jessie: (takes the flowers and puts them in a vase) We don’t have a date.
Luke: But I instructed Bertram to make us boeuf bourguignon!…with extra boeuf!
Jessie: Just hold your boeuf! (Emma walks in, holding a plate of food and her phone) From now on, we’re all going to have dinner together…
Emma: Hey!
Jessie: …as a family!
Emma: Eww, no, I can’t eat and look at Luke at the same time!
Luke: And Jessie, don’t you think having a bunch of kids on our date is kinda gonna kill the mood?
(Jessie just stares at Luke for a moment, then turns to Zuri’s door)
Jessie: Zuri, time for dinner!
Zuri: I’m already eating dinner with my friend, Milly the Mermaid!
Emma: (to Jessie) Zuri has imaginary friends.
Luke: Well, I like my friends real, especially my lady friends… (Smiling at Jessie, Jessie pushes him away)
Jessie: (to Zuri) well, if Milly can flop downstairs, she is welcome to eat with us.
Zuri: Thank you, but she won’t do that. Luke makes her uncomfortable. (Everyone stares at Luke)

In comparison, Girl Meets World sets Farkle up to be the annoying, smart but awkward looking character who is also completely enamored with both Riley and Maya equally. In the first episode, Farkle is introduced thusly:

Farkle: I’ve been in love with Riley since the first grade. But I’m also equally in love with Maya. Some might say the great mystery of the universe is who’s gonna be the first Mrs. Farkle.
Maya: (Turns around) You don’t want this.
Farkle: Bring it on.
Riley: I always thought that he’d wind up with back-of-the-class Brenda. (Everyone turns around)
Brenda: (Waves)
Farkle: (Disgusted) Yuck!
Cory: Actually, the great mystery of the universe is how you can love two women the same who couldn’t possibly be more different.
Riley: We’re not so different.
Farkle: (Raises his hand) May I overstep my bounds, sir?
Cory: You always do. (Switches places with Farkle)
Farkle: (Flips over the name tag on Cory’s desk so it says “Farkle” instead of “Mr. Matthews”) Riley, is the sun. Warm and bright and lights up my whole day. Maya, is the night. Dark and mysterious. And the night has always been a mystery to me. Because I go to bed at 7:30. How can I love these two different women? How can I not? (Bows) Thank you, I am Farkle!
Cory: So, we were indeed trying to find out who we were, as a people. Who am I? What should I be? History shows that bad things happen when you don’t know who you are.
-next scene-
Maya and Riley: (In unison) Farkle.
Farkle: Interesting lunch line dilemma. (Looks at Maya) Sloppy joe, (Looks at Riley) or chicken pot pie? (Looks at Maya) Or sloppy joe, (Looks at Riley) or chicken pot pie?
Maya: Is that all you got?
Farkle: That’s it! Same time tomorrow! (exits)

While Jessie sets up an uncomfortable relationship between the viewer and Luke, Girl Meets World manages to shift those exact same narratives making Farkle bumbling, sweet, annoying, but ultimately respectful and likable. In the span of approximately five minutes of television time, Luke’s mom tells him his romantic interest is in appropriate, Jessie tells him no verbally twice, once she gives him a “look” assuming to ignore him since he didn’t listen to her “no”, and his little sister has an imaginary female friend whom he makes uncomfortable. All of this is narratively positioned as humor. In comparison, Farkle interrupts class to declare that his love of both girls is related to who they are as people and this is reinforced by Riley’s dad, Corey.

Both shows differ in how they approach the impact of the authority figures on the boys. Jessie uses the absent horrible parent trope to undermine every attempt to end rape culture. When the mother tells her son his sexual harassment is inappropriate, a laugh track belies her statement. In doing this, the show’s narrative is that authority figures have no impact on the boy’s behavior and are, in effect, laughable. This portrayal mirrors the real life dismissive attitude of Brock Turner’s parents to his rape conviction. By laughing at Luke ignoring his mother’s admonition, the audience is encouraged to laugh at his highly inappropriate behavior, not take it seriously and recognize it as unacceptable and in need of real correction.

Rape culture and white male privilege are insidious. They don’t hide in the darkest corners of society but are often veiled under laugh tracks and seemingly innocent jokes.

By contrast, Girl Meets World sets up Corey as an involved, caring parent/authority figure focused on communication. When Farkle interrupts the class declaring his love for Riley and Maya, Corey allows him to explain himself which results in a discussion of the girls as people, not as objects. Corey is positioned as a male authority figure who supports the girls and focuses on respecting people. In Jessie, society sees the disrespectful treatment of the parents reflecting mainstream culture and inculcating the next generation. In Girl Meets World, however, not only does Riley respect her father, but he models the kind of non-objectification respect that helps end rape culture. This difference in how authority figures are posited is the first step in showing how tween shows can help move past tropes that lead to rape culture.

In reviewing these two scenes side by side, it is also important to focus on how others view the Luke and Farkle within the context of their shows. If play is children’s way of expressing their emotional development, Zuri, Luke’s little sister, having an imaginary friend whom he makes uncomfortable should make viewers uncomfortable.  Zuri saying that her female imaginary friend is uncomfortable around Luke should trigger adult follow up with why. However, in Jessie, this becomes a joke. By covering this narrative in laughter, rape culture is once again seen as the silly “boys will be boys” norm.

Farkle in Girl Meets World generally annoys people as the irritating know-it-all, super-overachieving character, but he never oversteps physical or verbal boundaries in a way that would make girls uncomfortable. Girl Meets World specifically shifts his attempted flirting innuendo-esque language from looks to personality and removes the laugh track aspect of the comments. Moreover, Farkle’s “sloppy joe” versus “chicken pot pie” comment is left hanging. Although innuendo underlies the joke, Farkle stops before the girls get uncomfortable around him. His character knows when to walk away. The girls eyeroll Farkle, but they never feel he is making inappropriate or uncomfortable advances. In later episodes, Farkle often shows up in Riley’s bedroom window while Riley and Maya are talking on the window seat. This would be seen as creepy if the show had not shifted away from the sexual innuendo narrative. The girls see Farkle simply wanting to be a part of the in-group’s hijinks. This means that the other characters view him more as a friend, not as a sexual predator. This difference in how the characters view Luke and Farkle underscores the important message that even when a boy likes a girl, he can do so in a way that doesn’t make her uncomfortable around him. While Luke doesn’t know when to stop, Farkle knows how to pull away and models the perfect balance between flirtation and respect needed to overcome rape culture.

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Most importantly, the shows differ in how they approach women having voice and a right to say no. Throughout her show, Jessie is silenced. She says no to Luke twice, only to be ignored. He has no repercussions for his actions. She stops verbally responding to his onslaught of inappropriate harassment because he ignores her and no one else speaks up to support her. Finally, instead of saying “no” again, Jessie just ignores Luke. This is precisely what women have been taught to do. Walk past the cat callers, ignoring them. When a man gives you an unwanted compliment, just smile. Jessie, like every other female, is silenced into accepting harassment. Even worse, she is ultimately the only disciplinary figure in the whole show. By never giving him a consequence for his treatment of her, she tacitly complies with his sexual harassment furthering the narrative that women deserve to be treated this way even if they are in positions of power.

In Girl Meets World, the narrative is precisely the opposite. When Farkle makes the inappropriate comment that the mystery of the world is who will be the first Mrs. Farkle, Maya turns around, gives him a withering look, and tells him that he doesn’t want this. She shuts him down with three words. This is how empowerment of young girls is done and how television shows can shift the narrative from supporting inappropriate sexual overtones to giving women the power. At no point are Riley or Maya shut down by Farkle. He may not stop attempting to flirt with them, but they put him in his place. Moreover, despite the innuendo regarding choosing “sloppy joe” versus “chicken pot pie”, Farkle stops speaking because the girls are not interested in furthering the conversation. He respects them and respect the boundaries. The girls retain power over the conversation. This is the most important lesson for both boys and girls watching this show. For girls, they can learn that when they speak those words have meaning and power. For boys, they see a boy back off when a woman says no. This is how popular culture can empower young women and teach young men how to respect women.

This last point is what matters the most. Whereas in Jessie the ongoing gag is that Luke makes Jessie uncomfortable, in Girl Meets World, the ongoing gag is that Riley or Maya shut Farkle down. By giving the girls power and not the boys, this narrative shift helps television change the next generation’s social values.

These kinds of shows target a specifically impressionable demographic. Tweens (and those younger) are decidedly unable to make the subtle distinctions between Luke and Farkle on their own. They are not psychologically mature enough nor worldly enough (hopefully) to be able to recognize or articulate these messages. Thus, by reducing all of this harassment to nothing more than a running gag, Jessie undermines the work women have done to help call attention to rape culture.

As parents, we have the responsibility to help our kids see these differences. I can’t keep telling my son to stop watching television shows that I think reinforce social norms that I want to see changed. If I did that, let’s be honest, I’d have to be up at 5:30am on a Saturday when he’s watching television to monitor what he’s watching. It’s safe to say we all know that isn’t going to happen. What I can do, indeed what I need to do, is have the conversations like the one that started this post. I can ask him to look at the differences between the good shows and the bad shows. It is my responsibility to teach him to look for the inequalities, to analyze the nuances. As a parent, my job is to prepare him to be a better person than I am. He can continue to watch both Jessie and Girl Meets World. But if he does continue to watch both, he’s going to have to put up with the annoying Farklesque mom who’s going to be right about what’s wrong with Luke.

Karen Walsh is a part time, extended contract, first year writing instructor at the University of Hartford. In other words, she's SuperAdjunct, complete with capes and Jedi robe worn during grading. When Karen isn't teaching, she is a freelance writer who works for a variety of marketing clients focusing on a variety of topics, including InfoSec and parenting. She works in order to support knitting, comics, tattoo, and museum membership addictions. She has one dog, one husband, and one son who all live with her just outside of Hartford, CT. She can be reached on Twitter: @kvonhard and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GeekyKaren/