Words by Madison Wilde
Both Degrassi High and Degrassi: The Next Generation are now time capsules of dated styles and catchphrases. The franchise’s latest addition, Degrassi: The Next Class, debuted on Netflix in January. It is shamelessly aimed at the post-millennial generation and features a trendy intro, a remixed theme song, and hashtag-derived episode titles. Hip elements of this latest generation will ultimately become as comical as the cell phone in the previous generation’s opening credits. One thing remains consistent throughout every generation—its dedication to accurately portraying teen issues. Degrassi in any form is essentially an after-school special, or an ABC TV-movie from the 70s to 90s about social issues targeting pre-teen and teenage students. Despite the resemblance, Degrassi somehow presents itself in a more believable manner. This may be due to the fact that Degrassi has entire seasons to develop characters, whereas after-school specials only have 60 minutes on average. Degrassi’s tradition is to mimic changes of Western social climate to create story arcs that aim to demystify and normalize.
Degrassi is most impressive when comparing it to other high school series. We have come to expect glamorized shows starring models in their twenties experiencing melodramatic problems that usually do not exist in the real world, like in the immensely popular Gossip Girl. Within the teen series battle for ratings, less-sensationalized shows that face relevant issues like My So-Called Life often get cancelled prematurely. Degrassi has characters of varying races, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic classes, and all other demographics that inevitably contribute to defining an individual. One of the most admirable aspects of Degrassi, though it should really come as expectation, is its usage of characters beyond their marginal status. In Hollywood, most gay characters are only gay characters just as most black characters are merely black characters. Beverly 90210 had to borrow a black actor when skimming race issues since its main cast did not feature any people of color. Even its reboot lacks representation, only having one prominent black character. Most teen shows add insult to injury, as they not only provide an insincere portrayal of certain topics like eating disorders, but they can also passively inspire and perpetuate these issues through unrealistic depictions or ignoring their consequences. Degrassi works hard against this, but it is not perfect. The franchise sometimes mimics mainstream requirements of representation, or rather lack thereof. Some of my account of Degrassi is contradicting, reflecting Degrassi’s occasional opposing goals.
Degrassi Junior High debuted in 1987, concluded as Degrassi High in 1991, and covered a wide range of social topics in between. No issue seemed too trivial to appear, not even tween shoplifting or male versus female sports rivalry. Degrassi was not exclusively heavy in its content, but the writers definitely gravitated towards controversial material. One of the most interesting aspects is their multitude of offered perspectives. When Dwayne contracts AIDS, some characters react ignorantly, fearing to catch the disease as one would a cold, while others fight to end the stigma. Degrassi pairs judgmental characters, who reflect society’s realities, against those who challenge for change. Still, they allow their marginal characters to experience the journey themselves. We get to hear Dwayne voice his fear of death and his parents’ reactions. Naïve responses and organic fears humanize characters and, as a result, legitimize their taboo issues. Nevertheless, neither Degrassi Junior Highnor Degrassi High are an immaculate model. While minority characters frequent the main cast, their plots seem secondary and less significant. This tradition spans over all three generations.
For the most part, the content of Degrassi: The Next Generation is similar to its predecessor. Some topics discussed include teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and mental disorders; these are all problems that continue to plagues teenagers today. This generation introduces similar issues through a more modern lens. The pilot shows the ramifications of the World Wide Web when Emma discovers her Internet friend is actually a middle-aged predator. Later in the series, Darcy has an Internet stalker and a few characters experience sexting scandals, problems unique to the 21st century. Another millennial novelty dissected is the school shooting epidemic. In their arguably most famous story line, where a character more commonly recognized as Drake becomes confined to a wheelchair, Degrassi delves into motives and the aftermath of a school shooting. Around the time of 9/11, an Islamaphobia-centered plot was featured. Problems that had never existed before needed to be carefully and accurately represented, and Degrassi was one of the few shows to present these topics in such a diligent manner..
Degrassi: The Next Class’s plots are obvious constructs of this post-millennial era. The first season begins with social media self-depiction and ends with a contemplated school shooting. Demographic representation seems fairly good, but their unspoken main characters appear to be Maya and Zig—a cisgendered white heterosexual couple. This judgment is admittedly based off watching a few episodes and reading episode summaries. The show works to prove its social relevancy by including new age feminists and a doxxing story arc. Even though Degrassi’s creators said their Netflix platform would be less restrictive, its topics are relatively tame. I would have enjoyed a police brutality plotline or another transgender character, since they killed off their first and only through texting and driving. Overall, Degrassi’s progressive record gives promise that this next class will work to inspire social change through the discussion of hot button matters.
An Analysis of Marginal Characters
The LGBTQ Community on Degrassi
Degrassi has come a long way in terms of its relationship with the LGBTQ community. On Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, some of the only gay representation is a rumored-to-be-lesbian teacher and the single episode story arc of a main character’s gay brother. In this single story arc dedicated to a gay character, Snake’s brother Glen, not much is solved. The episode begins with the AIDS spreading, safe sex inspiring game often played in health classes. In case you are unfamiliar with it, one person is chosen to have AIDS but is kept ignorant of this fact. Students are given a few minutes to interact with their peers. After, the person with AIDS is revealed and it is presumed everyone they communicated with contracted the illness. Students randomly selected to have had safe sex are protected from AIDS. When traveling down the line of interaction, most of the classroom eventually ends up with hypothetical HIV. That subplot is supposed to be related to the coming out of Glen, but its purpose seems muddled in a contemporary context knowing that the disease does not have a sexuality. The episode ends with Snake semi-accepting his brother while their parents disown Glen. Snake calls the situation weird, his brother agrees, then the episode ends and the problem evaporates.
The Degrassi franchise did not receive a recurring gay character until season two of the second generation. It took a long time to get him, but Marco Del Rossi made the wait worth it. He is one of very few character to simultaneously be exciting, lovable, and unproblematic. Degrassiprovided a dedicated portrayal. They reminded us that someone is more than their sexuality, but that fact is still integral to their identity. Marco came out to many people throughout the series and, unsurprisingly, was not always met with open arms. His dad took the news with disappointment, his good friend Spinner took it with disgust, but many did accept it. Marco was a successful introduction to the community and the writers took note of that. Eventually more gay characters, lesbians, bisexuals, and a single transgender male are accounted for.
In this new generation, gay characters are very prominent but discussion of their sexuality is not. It is not a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” situation; sexuality is no longer scandalous. Gay marriage is legal in all fifty American states and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is an open supporter of LGBTQ rights. Bigots most certainly still exist, but apparently not within the walls of Degrassi Community School. Being gay in the show is now a secondary character feature, not a defining plot guide. Miles, one of the main non-heterosexual characters, is portrayed as erratic, manipulative, and selfish. He also runs for school president on the fetishizing platform of “Your Gay Best Friend,” assuming this is serious because Degrassi has never expressed an understanding of satire. His negative traits are balanced out by Tristan, another gay character. Tristan is characterized as a hopeless, desperate romantic and good friend. Romantic tendencies of Miles and Tristan are somewhat insulting, as both exclusively engage in unhealthy relationships. So far, this generation does not show any successful same-sex couples. Still, differing priorities of Miles and Tristan further personalize the characters and humanize the LGBTQ community. When looking at how far Degrassi has come one realizes society’s inspiring transformation.
Race on Degrassi
Successful racial representation is a difficult feat. Often, two sides of the spectrum compete: minority groups exclusively in suffering, powerless positions or those with perfect lives and de-emphasized experiences. Neither of these are appropriate or accurate. Degrassi has always done comparatively better on racial representation; white characters serve as a majority and receive more primary plots, but other races are still featured with multiple dimensions. One of my favorite characters of the entire franchise is Lucy, a mixed-race main cast member of Degrassi Junior Highand Degrassi High School. Throughout the series, Lucy is given storylines that show her evolving maturity and complexity. It is important to make note that though Lucy is of mixed race, she is light skinned. BLT, anotherDegrassi student of color, has race-driven plots. Still, he is just a supporting character in these story lines. In season three, his seasons-long interracial relationship with Michelle is introduced. BLT asks Michelle to a dance, but her parents do not approve because of his skin color. The ensuing plot raises questions about race, like Lucy talking about her experience getting condemned from both sides due to her mixed race identity. The plot is ultimately about Michelle discovering the prevalence of racism when it should have been a portrayal of BLT’s experiences with discrimination.
Degrassi: The Next Generation has many people of color on its main cast throughout its run. On of the most prominent is Liberty Van Zandt, both a type-A achiever and a statistic in the teen pregnancy epidemic. She is one of only four characters to experience overt, plot-planned racism within all three generations. When she begins college, Liberty is accepted to a sorority completely based on a race quota. Other black characters face non-racial – though still significant – hardships, such as Jimmy Brooks becoming paralyzed or Connor DeLaurier’s Asperger’s Syndrome. Hazel is one of the most interesting characters on the show because of her lack of noteworthiness, despite being a prominent cast member for six seasons. According to the woman who portrayed Hazel, Andrea Lewis, this is not an accident. Supposedly, Degrassi’s producers only wanted the black actress to be a prop motivating white characters’ stories. This is a very believable and familiar problem. Hazel has one plot during her whole run, featured in season two. Amidst a time of Islamaphobia, Hazel attempts to conceal her Muslim background. The episode is both powerful and necessary, but the topic ends as soon as the credits begin. What follows is seasons of a character stripped of intricacy and forced to be the sidekick to the school’s it-girl, Paige. This is an upsetting reality, and is still very much alive in mainstream television. On a somewhat optimistic note, Degrassi appears to be more willing to facilitate dialogues about unfair representation in the present reality.
From what I have seen, there are no overt racial plots in Degrassi: The Next Class. Maybe writers erroneously assume Canada is in a post-racial era. Racial justice is a popular, crucial topic right now. Black Lives Matter is a growing movement, and is also present in Canada. Yet, even when police brutality is becoming a mainstream recognized phenomenon,Degrassi: The Next Class ignores all traces of it. These issues were overdue to reach the forefront of societal thought, so it is essential forDegrassi to have a serious conversation about them now that they have arrived. The new generation is rumored to eventually discuss racial discrimination. This generation is a mere ten episodes in, so there is still a great chance they will delve further into racial topics as the series goes on.
In terms of social climate change, is impossible to discern if media influences broad societal trends or vice versa. Whether you believe life imitates art or art reflects life, it is critical that they each act as a good role model. Most people exist somewhere in the middle; works of fiction come from actual realities, but powerful entertainment has the ability to shift opinions. The most reliable way to ensure society’s progression is by placing an emphasis on modern justice, especially when it contradicts the past world. Media needs primary goals: to make impressionable minds tolerant, to provide accurate representation of marginal groups in both quality and quantity, to destigmatize, to develop with the times, and to push against debilitating social stances. The Degrassi franchise does not always immaculately achieve these goals, but they are one of few teen shows consistently trying.