07 August 2012

the degrassi paradigm.

In the very first of episode of Degrassi Junior High, Stephanie Kaye (nee Kobolowski) starts her year in 'Grade 8' (the Canadian rendering of 8th Grade) by revamping her public image. Previously dressed in long prairie skirts, sexless striped oxfords, and bunchy sweaters, Stephanie decides to show off the gifts pubescence has bestowed upon her with a radical new look, incorporating neon tube tops, electric blue miniskirts, garish costume jewelry, ratted-out hair, and enough pink makeup and banana clips for an entire 80s girl group. In other words, she would likely have to dodge middle-aged businessmen driving up alongside her on the way home from school asking, 'How much?'—if she didn't change her clothes in the school restroom everyday to escape the opprobrium of her mother, who would probably fall on a sword if she knew her precious daughter were dressing like an underage Vietnamese prostitute in Ms. Avery's social studies class.

The chief difference between DJH and other shows of the middle school ilk is that DJH didn't generally bludgeon its viewers with the (negative) consequences of Stephanie's (or other characters') behaviors. In fact, Stephanie gets away with her jailbait aesthetic for quite a long time until her mother catches her tarting up for an implied fuckfest with one of her classmates, an ugly schlub of a boy called 'Wheels' (for no discernible reason). Even after she's caught, DJH doesn't really wallop us over the head with the sin-punishment correlation; instead we are likely to think Stephanie was just unlucky that she didn't cinch her robe tightly when her mother suddenly returned home. 

I'm trying to recall the specifics, but I don't think Stephanie ever resolutely learns her lesson. At one point, she swears off the trappings of sluttiness, giving away all of her clothes to Alexa, but I think she later returns to her old ways, despite nearly being raped by a television soap star and earning a reputation as the playground tramp. 

So. In the first episode, Stephanie reinvents herself, alienates her old friend, the marmish, gypsy-like Voula Grivogiannis, and uses her wiles to win the election for school body president. She seals the deals by agreeing to kiss all the boys who will vote for her, so a line forms in front of the school where the guys wait their turn for a (mostly chaste) kiss and good look down her cleavage. Needless to say, this doesn't win Stephanie any points with many of the girls, especially the ugly ones.

But you know what? Stephanie wins the election, she effectively becomes the most popular girl in school, and she is sought after by every boy except that black gay one. Now from the vantage of a middle school aged girl, where's the downside exactly? 

This is what's so striking about DJH—the absence of rigorous moralism that those of us raised on Afterschool Specials had come to expect. If you acted in a way that was disapproved of by the adult world, you would not only be punished, but also come to understand the direful repercussions of your behavior in no uncertain terms. Things didn't work that way at Degrassi. Spike, the punk girl with the chemically damaged fountain of hair, actually gets pregnant in junior high by Shane (who later ODs at a rock concert); though we trace her story from conception to motherhood and we come to understand how frustrating and limited her pregnancy proves to be, all in all Spike ends up a well-adjusted, competent mother. It's a very measured portrayal of teenage pregnancy—which isn't to say that it encourages girls to go out and get knocked up ASAP, but that it doesn't pretend it's the end of the world either.

When I watched DJH in the 1980s, I didn't understand how the show could get away with this ambiguity. Kids regularly drank and got drunk, and although there were incidental consequences from time to time, usually they got away with it. Meanwhile, Kathleen is a horrible, neoconservative bitch, but she manages to maintain friendships and have an abusive relationship of her own. If we peel away the surface, yeah, there's some intimation that her low self-esteem has brought her to these ends—but so what? Her boyfriend never throws her down a stairwell so that she's hospitalized. Bad things happen, and life goes on. As in the real world, many of life's lessons fall on deaf ears.

Why weren't Canadian parents picketing the television station in order to put an end to this moral ambivalence, I wondered. In the sequel series, Degrassi High one of the characters actually kills himself in a bathroom stall, but one of the interesting choices of the series is that the kid isn't very likable, in general. It's not some sympathetic, troubled loner who offs himself, but a pretentious twat with weird facial hair and a penchant for half-assed social activism. (I think when he vandalized a building in the name of social change, he fled the scene and let his girlfriend get caught—but don't quote me on that one.) There is a terrible burden for a television show directed at young people to show that a suicide victim has plenty to live for, if he'd only recognize it. The problem is that we—the viewers—don't recognize it either. This makes the world of Degrassi as problematic as real life, I think. 

Recently, the New York Times reported that the body of Neil Hope, the actor who played Wheels, Stephanie Kaye's first romantic interest, was found in a boarding house in 2007, but it remained unclaimed for four years until his family finally discovered what had happened. The actor's death became public only this year. Isn't this also like real life? Many of the lessons of poor decision-making aren't apparent until many years later. That prick you went to high school with may have had it pretty good in that cinderblock building where the rehearsal for life takes place, but his comeuppance may arrive only decades later—when nobody's around to observe it. Or—maybe there is no comeuppance at all. Maybe we can drink heavily and dress like prostitutes and do drugs and be shitty to people and nothing bad will ever happen to us. And maybe that's the most harrowing lesson of all. 


  1. Have you read my paper on native peoples?

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  3. you are right: amazingly, degrassi wasn't really challenged at all here in canada. in general, parents, teachers, and tv critics all seemed to think that reflecting a more authentic experience was the key to its success. having spike get knocked up when she was 13, and not having the baby magically disappear meant something to everyone. and we'd "known" spike since before she was spike: as you probably know, the series of shows started with the kids in grade school, then they had the junior high series, and finally the high school.

    we saw some of the kids graduate from show to show, growing up alongside us, and an assortment of the degrassi high people were prom dates at my high school, including the girl who played caitlyn, who i think was arguably the most popular girl on all three series. one of the guys took the same bus as i did to high school. a few others transferred to my school because it was semestered, in my final year of high school, the year the series finale "school's out". i used to bump into the twins in greek town at a little ouzeri i'd go to. eventually, when i took an african history course, there was yet another girl from the high school series. everywhere you went, there they were.

    it was weird to see them in real life: while they were so immediately accessible on tv because of how the show presented them, in real life they were, as a rule, pretty haughty. when it came out about wheels, people regarded him as cursed, as if the way he departed the show, sealed his fate, superstition, a counterpoint to everything that degrassi seemed to teach us about life -- if the show doesn't promise comeuppance, people will wish it on you, especially since they'll never be able to distinguish an actor from the character they played like when you're in the grocery line behind joey jeremiah and you have to restrain myself from singing zit remedy songs. if you are ever in toronto, you needn't visit the street. it's not really exciting. :)

    p.s. i think i can confirm that claude let his girlfriend take the fall. :)

    1. ZOMG! Annabel Crane, I love you! I can't believe you've had so many Close Encounters of the Degrassi Kind! I was kind of obsessed with the show when it was originally on. Sorry to hear that most of the actors were uppity in person, but I guess I'm not surprised. Did any of them manage to go on and do anything else? (Anything else successful, I should say.)

      That stupid Zit Remedy song. Can it really be called a song when it's only twenty seconds long? It was like a jingle.

      When I was writing this, I was trying to remember the name of the band everyone was going to see in that concert--the one where Shane ODed.

      Oh. Do you remember when Ms. Avery got bitchy and mean toward the end of the series? That scared me. It's always troubling to see a normally mild-mannered person go off the rails.

      And correct me if I am wrong, but didn't Joey Jeremiah have a bare butt scene in one of the last episodes of DJH or DH? This also seemed odd to me considering that these were underage actors and (it seemed to me) that the series was also intended as a tool for classroom discussion...

    2. seriously. you should've just come on a field trip to toronto back then. you couldn't go anywhere without bumping into one of them. degrassi: the next generation (which i've never seen) brought a bunch of them back. nobody from the original series ever really made it big, no. they must've been pissed when they saw people like neve campbell (from another canadian show called "catwalk"), and ryan gosling ("breaker high") climb up and away. snake, and joey still got roles in canadian tv shows, outside of next gen. blt has done some guest spots in the US -- i remember people telling me excitedly when they saw him on lost. hilariously, i just looked up caitlyn's wiki bio, and apparently she and spike dj at the bar around the corner from my apartment every saturday, spinning 80s tunes. would you like me to do some reconnaissance?:P

      i have this friend that was edged out by wheels (as the character griff, not wheels) on the first show, and he's still a little choked by it. i should remind him that nobody went very far with that show tucked under their belt.

      yeah, we absolutely saw joey's naked butt. which i completely forgot about, thanks for haunting me with those memories. i think it was during sexy time with tessa during school's out. remember yick becoming a stoner: i couldn't believe it! and then he was hitting the bong hardcore in the movie. that movie was a really strange entry in the series. i don't know if they were just jamming everything in because they thought it was over for good, or what.

      shane's od episode was with melanie, who was the girl i went to university with. she was super nice, and i was always chatting her up, and then somebody told me she was a lesbian and i should stop sending her mixed signals. she left to travel right after that, so i never did find out whether that was true but secretly i've always been happy about the whole thing. :P

      anyway, i thought it was gourmet fungus, the band? but i just looked it up and it's gourmet scum. much tastier. :)

    3. I've never watched Degrassi: The Next Generation either. It's not my generation, so I think I would just end up hating all those kids.

      You went to school with Melanie?? You're a superstar!

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