By Kerensa Cadenas
As a teenager with every new crush–I’d remember swooning around my bedroom listening to my current favorite love song from Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” to The Ataris “I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone.” They were assigned to the current boyfriend of the time–the shy, Star Wars loving, sweatpants wearing boy from seventh and eight grade or the bad boy, pot smoking skateboarder of tenth grade.
I remember being crushed every time that it didn’t last “forever.” As you grow older and gain more perspective, the forever feelings seem to subside, the margin doodling of hearts and married names come to a stop and you realize that the majority of the love songs you danced around to as a teenager were more about heartbreak than finding the “one.”
However, these are lessons that you usually learn through a string of broken hearts, wallowing and realizing that Romeo & Juliet isn’t an ideal romantic outcome.
Romantic plots always have a major hand in teen television. It’s a time period where hormones are going crazy, you are learning about yourself and what you want. With previous shows like Square Pegs and James At 15, crushes and romance play roles but there’s not that “forever” relationship–the one that is apparently fated between two people–and they’ll go back and forth–in love and out of love, friends or more than. Most of the time it seems to waver between passionate and annoying.
It’s Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper.
The Wonder Years is a show that is pretty universally loved by all. While it’s very much a teen show–the six seasons it aired beginning in 1988, follow Kevin starting at age 12 in 1968 to 17 in 1973, it is also a show that transcended being solely a teen show–winning an Emmy in 1988, a Golden Globe in 1989 and TV Guide named it one of the best shows of the 1980s.
The show dealt with historical narratives of the late 1960s/early 70s but was also very rooted in the coming of age of Kevin from his embarrassing interactions with girls, his nerdy best friend Paul, his relationships with his family and most of all his relationship with Winnie.
Winnie and Kevin have been life-long neighbors and friends. Off the bat, the show immediately sets the pair up as fated. And it takes us through the tropes of the “forever” narrative.
First off, Winnie and Kevin are just friends and neighbors. She’s the bespectacled girl who will catch the football during a street game because Kevin didn’t and she’s also the one he won’t notice until the glasses come off when they hit junior high. After that the looks grow longer and when the wind blows in Winnie’s hair it’s much more noticeable. In the pilot, Winnie’s older brother is killed in Vietnam and she’s devastated. When Kevin finds her crying in the woods, the two end sharing an unexpected kiss–the first for both.
That kiss clicks in motion the forever narrative for Kevin and Winnie. First the two continue to be friends but with that kiss–the one that they didn’t talk about–looming over their heads both finally admit that they have feelings for one another.
As with any first relationship, especially at the age of 12-14, the two are best friends that share tater tots, inside jokes and ride the bus together as opposed to make out partners. However, that changes in season three’s “Night Out” where they are invited to a make out party. The party ends up being anxiety inducing for both of them and when Winnie leaves abruptly without kissing Kevin, he freaks out. Winnie later tells him it was because she felt uncomfortable there and it wasn’t the right moment. When they do finally make out it is the right moment for both of them. The Wonder Years explores the highs of first love–the first time those words are uttered, first anniversary gifts, double dates and that deep bond the two share.
But it also explores the lows like the first breakup. In season four, Winnie breaks up with Kevin for a brodawg at her school, a pattern that continues for Winnie’s taste in men, with the exception of Kevin. In the episode “Denial,” Kevin tries in vain to get Winnie back by pretending it was a misunderstanding to throwing a party and trying to make her jealous. In a feelings hurricane, Kevin tells Winnie that their relationship never meant anything to him. She’s obviously beyond hurt and leaves the party. Later on Kevin goes and apologizes and the two remain friends. However, that friendship with its prior relationship status and undercurrent of tension continues on and off throughout the series.
While The Wonder Years very much plays into these tropes that are familiar to the forever narrative–on rewatch they now are mainstays on many teen shows. But what The Wonder Years, unlike other shows, does is complicate the forever narrative with two (possibly inadvertent) major factors. Last week here at This Was Television, Cory wrote about The Wonder Years for the Best Episodes feature. And the one thing that he said majorly defined the show for him was that Kevin Arnold is an asshole.
He’s completely right.
While in many cases, we could chalk up a lot of Kevin’s behavior to being an annoying teenage boy, he really tends to surpass that. He’s continually terrible to Winnie–simultaneously putting her on an untouchable pedestal but then will take her completely for granted. As Cory points out, the show also limits Kevin’s responsibility because a lot of the time he never faces consequences for his actions. But Kevin is just the worst–he’s the sensibro, wrapped up in his “I’m a nice guy” wardrobe who at his core is an unsupportive asshole.
And this is where The Wonder Years subverts the forever narrative–while Kevin and Winnie clearly care about one another and have a ton of history–the older they get the more apparent it is that these two are TERRIBLE for each other. All they do is fight over little things or discover one another in lip locks with other people. And Kevin certainly doesn’t fit into Winnie’s bro preference. In the series finale, Kevin catches Winnie kissing her co-worker. He punches the guy and leaves the resort they had been working at. Kevin’s Raging Bull incident gets Winnie fired and both end up hitchhiking home–ending up in the same car.
All they do is argue about what happened at the resort, which of them can be blamed for it and get kicked out of the car. They make it to a barn and Winnie finally tells the truth that they won’t end up together. It’s a truth that had to be told despite its bittersweet nature. And when Winnie tells Kevin, “I don’t want it to end,” and the two make out–it’s sad and heartbreaking because it still is their first love and they’ve carried on this being “together forever” thing for years. But ultimately it is the right decision and one that is enforced by Kevin’s closing voiceover informing the viewer that while he and Winnie did exchange letters every week for eight years while she was in Europe, he went with his wife and newborn son to pick her up from the airport.
Watching this as a kid is heartbreaking, you wonder why Kevin and Winnie couldn’t be together. Seeing it as an adult, you think back to those sweatpant clad or skateboarding boyfriends, the ones who you questioned why you didn’t spend “forever” with at 14, 15, 17. Now you can pinpoint those exact reasons, but you can look back and appreciate the doodles, love songs and defining moments.
The Wonder Years certainly wasn’t the first or the last to have a forever narrative but it is one that actually allows for a realistic outcome.
Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood, Forever Young Adult and Bitch magazine. She was the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. You can find her on Twitter discussing the bro community.
Previously on Teen Dreams: Degrassi-34 going on 15