Within the past fifteen years, Degrassi has become a household name. Its recent revival—whether you’re talking about The Next Generation, which debuted eleven years after its predecessor, Degrassi High, or the more-recent The Next Class—has gained the show a staunch cult following, allowing the show to reach a wide range of diverse audiences and demographics. This isn’t atypical for a show as omnipresent and unprecedented as Degrassi, however.
The core value of Degrassi is to discuss the taboo in a conventional manner. Ubiquitous issues such as racism, pregnancy, and peer pressure, along with less-discussed topics like terminal illnesses, date rape, and child abuse, are dealt with and discussed in a non-exploitative manner that is easily accessible to teenagers. Each episode is focused around a different character, thus allowing for a diverse range of subjects to be laconically tackled within a twenty-two episode season.
Although its later seasons similarly deal with radical and progressive issues, the first six seasons have a certain uniqueness to them. When The Next Generation first began to air in the early 2000’s, taboo subjects were often avoided in media ushered towards adolescents; zeitgeist television shows seemed to be devoid of pertinent and relevant issues that teenagers needed to be exposed to. Degrassi’s unnervingly accurate depiction of the teenage experience and pioneering exploration of pure human emotion through the keen eyes of a child was a different approach to teen-marketed entertainment. It offered something that seemed to be missing from television.
Degrassi has always been a lexicon of angst. Its earlier seasons had a certain rawness and realism to it; the actors that portrayed the characters were of the same age, which avoided an off-putting factor of improper age casting that detracted from the believability of defunct teen-dramas such as Glee or The Vampire Diaries. Real kids playing real kids. Degrassi’s showrunners rarely allowed for impracticality to infest its content. Even though its melodramatic nature and campiness occasionally detracted from the overall impact of the subject matter, the characters and their plight were not infeasible; the normalcy of the characters (unlike The O.C. or 90210, whose adult-portrayed teenage characters were closer to Carrie Bradshaw than your sophomore-year lab partner) created a larger platform for their messages to be preached from—kids are going to listen to and learn from a genuine character they identify with. Degrassi rarely sugarcoated the human condition; it wasn’t forgiving and afraid to delve into the uncharted and the unsung.
However, being that the majority of Degrassi’s plotlines are driven by the zeitgeist, the message of some of its earlier episodes have inevitability grown obsolete or irrelevant as time has progressed (namely, the threat of Emma’s online predator boyfriend, who attempted to kidnap her in the first two episodes, now comes off as absurd and illogically inflated in a current social-media driven culture). This poses the problem of continuity; has the general discussion of issues that deemed The Next Generation progressive in the aughts upheld its relevance over time? Has its messages translated well into the modern age?
“I think it has,” said college student Tatum Pratt, a devout fan of The Next Generation since she was twelve. “I feel like everything has stayed the same besides what they wear and the technology they use. Aside from a few circumstances, the general message and implication within each episode hasn’t really changed over time. Manny’s abortion, Craig’s abuse, and Paige’s rape will always be relevant and that will remain unchanged, but Emma’s predator boyfriend and the spreading of Manny’s nudes appear to be arbitrary because that sort of thing has become normalized over time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that they’ve become outdated. It’s inevitable.”
“I think when you’re pinpointing very specific issues, especially ones impacting teenagers, there’s bound to be certain areas that only correlate to the era in which it was filmed. Art that reflects social and cultural problems may not achieve timelessness in minor details—because technology is an ever-changing phenomenon—but it does in how sensible they are in approaching it. Sure, there may be a few cringeworthy moments in how they talk about the rise of the internet and online messaging—something completely normalized now—but the fear of technology advancing beyond our capability is something still present in today’s atmosphere as it was centuries ago. If Degrassi’s core purpose was to highlight the ‘scariness’ of AOL and not so much the resentment we have for new ways of communication, then I do think it missed out on an opportunity to connect with its audience on a deeper level.” Rachel Riddell, a sixteen-year old Toronto native with a limited knowledge of The Next Generation, commented.
Relevant or not, the dramatization of plotlines is one of the most obvious imperfections that detracts from The Next Generation’s relatability. It often seems like the far-fetched ideas discussed on Degrassi are directly birthed from the adult writers that attempt to conjure a teenager’s mindset to depict their plight in a realistic manner. At times, it appears that the writers doubt the intelligence of their audience, therefore creating a detachment from the show’s believability and its loyal viewers.
“The adult writers make some issues appear to be more threatening than they really are because they are writing from a teenager’s perspective instead of coming from an actual teenager. The only way they are able to figure out what goes on in high school is through the grapevine—headlines, wives’ tales, gossip. It makes sense that Emma’s predator boyfriend was written into the show because all parents thought that their children were being stalked on the Internet in the early 2000’s. In reality, that shit was never happening. It’s some sort of sensationalism.” Pratt said.
Riddell, however, offered a different perspective: “As an adult, I think you grow less sympathetic towards your younger self. The problems that plagued you lose their gravity when you have to worry about paying rent and university tuition. Although it’s crucial to include teenage voices in our media, I believe retrospect can allow you to reflect on certain times in a more clear and collected sense. Thus, adults writing teenage narratives shouldn’t be immediately condemned. Teenagers—I speak for myself—have the tendency to sensationalize everything. I don’t say this with pessimism because I think that same youthful wonder makes for beautiful art. But we are insanely emotional and hormonal beings and sometimes that hinders us from seeing things from how they really are. Adults can offer cynicism when covering rather mundane parts of adolescence that I would personally glorify.”
Degrassi’s expertise at exploring the facets of human emotion has given it a reputation as a highly-influential show. Episodes are notoriously shown in schools to warn students about the dangers of drug abuse, the tribulations of teenage pregnancy, and the strain of puberty. With this sort of power, the writers gamble with the threat of having a detrimental influence on their audience (in 2004, a group of teenage girls in Quebec with cuts on their arms reported to have imitated Ellie aggressive habit). For a show whose slogan is “It goes there!”, can it ever go too far?
“It depends on the context. Because Degrassi is known for pushing the envelope, it seems to have permission to have more of their issues be pushed under the rug. Less-progressive shows do not have this advantage.” Eighteen-year old Harmony Milligan said.
For Pratt, she doesn’t find Degrassi to be insensitive or overreaching. “I’m not necessarily hypersensitive to television, so I can’t really speak, but I don’t think it can ever go too far. That’s in the hands of the audience. There’s a divide between the content you consume and the way you act. If you think that you should start selling drugs because you saw J.T. do it to earn money for his kid, you need to separate yourself from things like that and reevaluate your gullibility.”
Whether or not Degrassi’s recent incarnations have served their purpose by being a generally positive influence on their culture-chameleon audiences, it certainly has entombed itself into pop culture history. Although its instrumental role in the coming-of-age of the millennials who grew up with the characters is apparent, did it really teach anything to its audience or change the way they thought?
“I never really learned anything from Degrassi, but the impact is still there. I remember experiencing a lot of unfamiliar emotions for the first time because I genuinely empathized with the characters and what was going on with them. Like, it was my first time seeing a character being beat down by his father and a gay character condemned for his sexuality. And I know the clip of Jimmy being shot has been satirized for years, but that specific scene was brand-new to me. I’d never seen anything so raw and unadulterated. It was the first exposure I had to issues that weren’t being shown in television shows marketed to children and teenagers. Degrassi may have misrepresented and misconstrued the reality of an authentic high school experience, and it may not have changed the way I thought or acted, but the impact is still there. It’ll always have a soft spot in my heart.” Pratt commented.