Teen soap gets serious
By David Bauder
Cheerleader Paige runs through several emotions after being date-raped at a party by a high-school soccer player.
At first, she denies she’s been raped. She’s angry with herself, and angry with her friends, before directing her fury into trying to prevent her assailant from striking again.
The rape and its effect on Paige and her circle of friends is the centerpiece of a 90-minute special episode of “DeGrassi: The Next Generation,” airing 8 p.m. Friday on Noggin, a spinoff cable channel of Nickelodeon.
The teenage soap opera, produced in Canada, is the most popular prime-time show on Noggin, which is seen in 34 million homes, mostly to satellite and digital cable customers. Its programming is for preschoolers during the day and for youths age 10 to 17 after 6 p.m.
“As much as I would like to believe that no one in our audience would have to deal with this issue, the statistics bear out that there is a certain percentage that will,” said Sarah Lindman, Noggin’s vice president of programming.
“DeGrassi” has tackled tough topics in the past, including drinking and drugs, coping with the death of a parent and the decision about whether or not to have sex.
That decision is taken away from Paige, portrayed by actress Lauren Collins. She’s among the large cast of eighth- and ninth-graders in the mythical DeGrassi Community School.
Paige is smitten by Dean, an older soccer player from a nearby high school. He invites her and a friend to a party. Eager to get to know him better, she asks for some privacy and they head to a room upstairs. That idea backfires when they start kissing, Dean ignores Paige’s pleas to stop and takes out a condom.
In the aftermath, Paige had to be convinced she was raped. She questions whether she was to blame, through her pursuit of Dean.
While the film doesn’t dwell on this, the scene illustrates how it’s important that teens not place themselves in situations where date rape can happen, said Dr. Martin Fisher, director of adolescent medicine at the Schneider Children’s Hospital on New York’s Long Island.
The rape happens early in the movie, so much of the time is spent on how Paige and her friends deal with it.
Paige is in a band with some friends, and she initially refuses to sing lyrics to a song from the perspective of an abused woman. But when the band plays at an event where Dean unexpectedly shows up, she spits out the words with such vitriol that he leaves.
To write a realistic story, the show’s writers extensively researched the topic, including speaking to some women who had been raped, said Linda Schuyler, “DeGrassi” executive producer.
“It’s obviously a cautionary tale,” Schuyler said. “Kids are playing a really adult game when they start becoming sexually active and there are risks associated with that. We hope it will be a preventive message.”
Paige waits six months before deciding to take the case to authorities, which would lessen the chance of a conviction. The movie ends before a resolution, and Lindman said it’s not clear whether future “DeGrassi” episodes will go back to it.
There are things for boys to learn in the movie, too, beyond the obvious message of “no means no.”
One valuable thread of the story is how Spinner, a boy who wants to date Paige, reacts to the episode. At first, he’s hurt and mad at Paige, not realizing sex with Dean was nonconsensual. Later, he tries to beat Dean up at a basketball game.
The movie’s final scene shows Paige and Spinner making a date.
A notable, even glaring, omission in the movie is any involvement by Paige’s parents. Fisher, hired by Noggin as a consultant, noticed that, too, and it was at his urging that a scene was inserted in which a counselor tells Paige that she will have to involve her parents if she goes to the police.
Schuyler said the omission is somewhat in keeping with the show’s tradition of spending little time on adults.
“We chose to go this route because there are a lot of kids who don’t have the kind of parents that they could go to,” she said. “We chose this because we thought it would be of more help to kids.”
Noggin is offering parent guides on the Web, with tips and questions about the issues raised on “DeGrassi” to use for discussion starters.
The film’s momentum is also slowed by a secondary story about a boy who comes out as gay, angering a friend who wanted to be his girlfriend. The plot line is not developed enough to be more than a distraction. Producers say that’s because the 90-minute special was really three, 30-minute series episodes compressed together, robbing the second story of context.
The special is being used to kick off a new season of “DeGrassi.”
Lindman said July was chosen as a good time to air it because, with school out for the summer, more viewers will have the time to devote to it.
Overall, Fisher said he believed the special will be valuable to those who watch it.
“I think they took a very difficult topic and handled it very well,” he said.