Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ode to Degrassi

Zane and Riley in the latest Degrassi
It's time to come out about my love affair with Degrassi. Me and the Canadian teen show have been seeing each other for almost a decade: when I'd babysit in high school; at home on breaks from college alongside my similarly addicted sister; and now whenever I want, with the genius of DVR.

For the uninitiated, Degrassi is different than your average teen drama show because it uses actors who are actually high school age (or very close to it), delves into issues with more subtlety than many others who heavily moralize (7th Heaven, Glee), doesn't just focus on rich and fancy students (90210, The O.C., Gossip Girl), rotates the cast so that they stay in high school rather than the awkward forced transition to a college-centric show (Saved by the Bell), and--my favorite part, obviously--Degrassi has multiple well-developed LGBTQ characters.

Alex and Paige from the mid-2000s
Degrassi began in the mid-80s and ended in the early 1990s. Then some brilliant producers reintroduced the show in 2001, calling it Degrassi: The Next Generation. Paige, Dylan, Marco and Alex all came out as L, B or G and there were a variety of subplots that focused on these characters--some whose main focus was their queerness and in others the characters' queerness was incidental. Marco in particular was drawn with care and subtlety, and was one of the lead characters of The Next Generation.

The latest reincarnation of Degrassi in the last couple of years features a quasi-closeted football player Riley Stavros, out and proud Zane Park, and an FTM student Adam Torres. (Ahem, still waiting on some female-identified queer characters though, new Degrassi...) Riley's sexuality is the focus of most episodes he's in whereas Adam's trans status is the focus of a couple episodes, but there are also many where his gender identity is not discussed and he is just seen being a good friend and going through the regular motions of school.
Adam Torres, one of Degrassi's new characters

The ones that do focus on Adam's gender identity include some of the usual trans tropes (boy in a girl's body, someone ripping open his shirt) but is overall really well done. We see Adam with his very supportive brother, his mother who is tolerant but not fully accepting, his friends who are confused but want to be there for him, and transphobic students who bully him in different ways and Adam's ways of addressing it.

The episode in which Adam is outed as trans earned the show a Peabody Award and a Creative Arts Emmy, and since 2001, Degrassi has been nominated for a GLAAD media award four times.

At the moment, the show is stalling when it focuses on some of its straight students (Jenna, K.C., Holly J and Declan are all very flat stock teen characters) but I have no doubt that Adam, Riley, Clare and Eli will pull it back up on its feet, especially in the episodes that deal with gender and sexuality.

Soldier on Degrassi, I look forward to many many more happy years with you.

Marco and Dylan from the early 2000s

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