Degrassi: Next Class is the Teen Drama Your Kids Should be Watching (SPOILER WARNING)
2/12/2017 by Zaitouna Kusto
Like its most famous alumni, Aubrey Graham, the long-running Canadian teen drama Degrassi also started from the bottom. Originally debuting in 1979 as The Kids of Degrassi Street, and continuing on through the 80s as Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, the show has always focused on topical and serious issues facing teens. In the 80s incarnations of the show, it dealt with divorce, death, and even teen pregnancy—a very racy subject for the time. The show laid dormant for the duration of the 90s, but in 2001 it was rebooted as Degrassi: The Next Generation, with the child of the pregnant teen from the 80s as a main character. This is the incarnation most people are probably familiar with because the aforementioned star alum, Drake, played a character named Jimmy Brooks, who became wheelchair-bound after a school shooting.
This was a pretty big deal at the time, and the show made its bread and butter off of hot-button issues like this. In fact, the show’s tagline for a while was “Degrassi—It goes there.” One of the most sensitive issues that came up on Degrassi: The Next Generation, was that of abortion. However, it’s worth noting that the episode “Accidents Will Happen” only aired in Canada, and was banned from US distribution. The show ran for 14 seasons, filtering in and out new and old characters fairly seamlessly. They covered pretty much every subject in the book, from HIV to joining a cult. It even featured a transgender character, and spent several episodes dealing with trans issues in probably the most responsible way on television to date. And while the show was certainly topical and very much progressive, there never seemed to be a political stance affiliated with the show. Yes, they condemned homophobia and things of that nature, but they sort of left it at a liberal middle ground, where bigoted characters would either just learn they are wrong in one episode or they would agree to disagree and drop it.
All that has seemingly changed with the latest continuation, aptly named Degrassi: Next Class. After 14 seasons, MTV Canada and TeenNick cancelled the show, only to have Netflix swoop in and salvage it in time for a next season. In the old Degrassi, episodes were named after song titles. In the new Degrassi, episodes are hashtags of whatever relevant events are happening. Streamlined into 10 quick episodes per season, the show is able to pack a powerful and digestible punch of social justice.
The first season focused on consent issues and male fragility, with a major #yesmeansyes and #notallmen campaign. They even touched on the #gamergate controversy, which involved male gamers harassing and doxxing women. This new standard of social commentary was strengthened by their relentlessness on these issues, not simply ending them after one or two episodes—they devoted literally a whole season to this (and other things). The cinematography, production values, writing, and acting also reached a considerably higher level. Unlike most other teen shows and movies, the actors on Degrassi have always been actual teens (some of the writers now are even teens), which has both strengths and weaknesses. But all traces of bad child acting have somehow been eradicated from the new show, leaving it with a much more authentic feel.
Next Class returned for an even stronger second season. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Degrassi decided to focus the entire season on BLM issues at the school, particularly the dehumanization of black people and imbalances in the justice system. It it really unprecedented to see a teen show taking this on. One of the best aspects of this season is the character Frankie, a wealthy white girl who helped draw a racist banner of a rival school’s mostly black girl’s volleyball team. The show never lets her off the hook, nor does it let you empathize with her. She gets called a racist by the whole school and has a pity party for herself, but no one feels bad for her. They don't make her out to be the victim. She is rightfully mocked and corrected. But the best part is, she DOESN’T learn. She apologizes, somewhat half-heartedly, and still doesn’t see what the big deal was. She’s perplexed as to why her apology alone doesn’t change what she did, and more importantly, it didn't change how she thinks. Her one black friend, Shay, rightfully abandons her for the whole season. Even when they patch things up, Shay looks at her differently, and their friendship is never really the same.
It didn’t seem possible to top the quality of the second season, but somehow they managed it. The third season of Degrassi: Next Class, which was released in January of this year, is without a doubt the best season of television creators Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn, have ever produced. It is also easily the best season of any teen drama ever. The overarching focus of the season was on Syrian refugees—many have come to the school in Canada, fleeing the war. Again, this is an example of how they are not simply taking a moral stance to do an after school special type program, but rather, are taking a pointed political stance—that yes, we should take in refugees with open arms. But it goes even deeper than this. With the influx of Syrian students, most of whom are Muslim, it also deals with Islamophobia from students and teachers. In one of the best scenes of the season, Rasha, a queer Muslim girl from Syria, is talking with her Canadian Muslim friend, Goldi, about wearing a hijab. Goldi is from a very conservative family and is deeply religious. One day, Rasha decides not to wear her hijab because she was angry with Goldi for saying that being gay is a sin. When Goldi confronts her, Rahsa explains that she never really liked wearing the hijab that much anyway, and that back home in Syria, she never was forced to wear one until ISIS came—she goes on to talk about how Syria, under Assad, was far more progressive and free before western intervention. When a teen drama takes a better political stance than mainstream news on an extremely complex international issue, you know they are doing something right.
The other major highlight of the new season is the character Lola. She started coming into her own in the second season by showing that it’s okay for girls to masturbate (I swear that pun was not intentional). In season 3, she get pregnant, but she knows having a child is not right for her. So, she decides to have an abortion. She doesn’t feel like she can tell her best friends, because they will judge her, so she ends up taking an Uber to a clinic with a rival named Yael. Yael says she doesn't know what she would do in Lola’s situation, but knows that Lola knows what’s best for Lola. After arriving at the clinic, Lola speaks with the doctor in the examining room, with her legs in the stirrups, as he calmly explains the procedure. He says it will only take about 10-15 minutes. She asks if it will hurt, and he says it will feel similar to a Pap smear, nothing more. The most beautiful moment of the entire show comes when Lola asks, “Am I the first 16 year old you’ve done this on?” And the doctor responds with a reassuring smile, “You’re not my first today.” He then proceeds to giver her the procedure, and they keep the camera lingering on them long enough for you to get a real impression of what it is actually like.
How they handled it after the fact was also spectacular. Lola didn’t feel bad or like she “killed a baby.” In fact, she felt guilty for not feeling bad about it! But she refuses to feel bad about it and decides to vent in a youtube video, saying that while, yes, an abortion can be a big deal for some people, it’s not for everyone—it isn’t always some horrible, tragic decision that someone must make. The show really challenges this tired narrative by normalizing abortions as safe procedures that can actually help someone not potentially ruin their life by having a child before they are ready. This is starkly different than how abortion was handled on the previous show, or really any show, and is a breath of fresh air.
There are numerous other examples of how this show has taken leaps and bounds on the forefront of social justice, from normalizing menstruation to condemning drone bombing. The show has always been pretty diverse, but now, queer characters nearly outnumber straight characters. Yes, there is still the drama, but now it seems to have a purpose. High school is a tough time for kids, and shows like this can be really valuable for marginalized teens who need images in pop-culture to relate to. And while representation is great, education is better. Degrassi has always done that—they’ve always shown what is happening in high schools. But now, more than ever, they are showing young people how to think about what is happening in the world around them.
Degrassi: Next Class returns to Netflix this July, and yes, Mr. Simpson is still there.
Zaitouna Kusto is a writer, activist and Political Blogger for CSuiteMusic currently living Brooklyn, NY.