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.