• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #155: Gwendolyn "Winnie" Cooper


It's like she's doing a complex equation in her head.

The Wonder Years might have been about early adolescence in the late '60s and early '70s, but aside from fashions and home decor, it really wasn't all that different from my own teen years. The show debuted in 1988 when I was 13, and so Kevin Arnold's halting journey from boyhood to manhood paralleled my own (to the extent that I ever made it). But Kevin was always less interesting to me than his longtime friend and sometime lover, Winnie Cooper.

Ah, Winnie. Leaving aside that she was played with disarming vulnerability and charisma by the talented (and brilliant) Danica McKellar, Winnie was everything I thought I wanted in a girl at that age. Winnie was the fairy tale, the girl next door who grew into the woman of your dreams. Smart yet kind, pretty yet attainable, feminine yet tough. And she so clearly loved Kevin, even as he was too dumb or self-involved to notice or care. And when he did notice, he struggled with how to reciprocate or to nurture that love. We're so stupid when we're young. It's so hard for us to see over the horizon to tomorrow, let alone the years ahead, so we make terrible decisions, and we hurt the ones we love.

Winnie's story was often a sad one, from the death of her brother to the separation of her parents. At times that sadness suffused her, giving her a kind of premature weariness, a timeless ache in her eyes. Even her smiles were fragile things. Kevin was her white knight, despite his frequent lack of chivalry, and he came to expect that the role would be a permanent one. Yet she outgrew him. She found her own strength and identity, and became her own woman, defined not by a juvenile co-dependence but by her own dreams. The conclusion of The Wonder Years makes it explicit that there is no happily ever after for Winnie and Kevin, though there is one for Winnie and one for Kevin. We don't always wind up with what - or who - we thought we wanted. But we never really forget those early loves, those early losses. They teach us that it's all fleeting - youth, family, infatuation - and all we can really do is get by.

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