Degrassi, ’tis of thee
Or, how a Canadian TV show became a beacon for American youth
According to the five high-school students subject to weekend detention in the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club, adults forced 80s teens into restrictive stereotypes. “You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” Judd Nelsons character John Bender dictates. “…a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?”
Sadly, Judd, it does. As a high school student, I was trapped in director John Hughes 1980s nightmare, one Chicago suburb away from the movie locations for Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink. We met stereotypes for a reason, and I was hardly an enviable character. Thank God and PBS for the Canadian television series Degrassi Junior High. Because if I couldnt be Molly Ringwald, at least I could be Voula.
On February 28, about 200 similarly liberated Degrassi fans turned out for the “Degrassi Boys” speaking engagement at the MacEwan Centre for the Arts. Part talk show, part R-rated stand-up comedy shtick, the event featured Pat Mastroianni (Joey Jerimiah) and Stefan Brogren (Snake), now 33 and 32 respectively, sharing behind-the-scenes lore, screening scrapbook video montages, and updating fans on the casts latest projects. The national speaking tour celebrates Degrassis 25th year on Canadian television, beginning with CBCs The Kids Of Degrassi Street from 1980 to 1985, followed by Degrassi Junior High (1987 1989) and Degrassi High (1989-1992), and, currently, by the new CTV series Degrassi: The Next Generation.
To appreciate Degrassi from an American perspective, you have to be familiar with the old After School Specials. ABCs answer to the obstinate rise in child viewing patterns in the 1980s, the American networks After School Specials preached satisfactory conflict resolution to presumably troubled youth. In each episode, a pre-teen would chaperone the issue du jour through the prescribed format to a predictable conclusion. A heavy partier would decide to attend AA. A young girl with an eating disorder would seek help. The actors on these specials were always unknown and a bit awkward, and, unlike sitcom stars, they looked their age.
I initially assumed Degrassi, filmed in East Toronto but set in an unnamed North American city, was another After School Special. Perhaps from Minnesota. I didnt know it was Canadian until my mother noticed the kids sounded like our local figure skating coach. It made sense. Because unlike American TV kids, Degrassi kids seemed vulnerable. And unlike After School Specials, Degrassi kids left issues unresolved.
“It was raw. There was no sweetness to it,” fan Chris Touring, 38, from Leduc, said of the Degrassi Jr. High and High before Mastrioianni and Brogrens appearance. “It was very realistic that way.”
Degrassi provided young viewers with a thematic and visual authenticity not often present in American TV. Whereas other teen shows proffered simple solutions and happy endings, Degrassi focused on the characters process of discovery, no matter how painful.
Degrassi also confronted controversial issues shunned by American networks. “What other shows deal with wet dreams and lesbianism?” Touring asked.
Throughout the years, Degrassi characters experienced critical issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, drug abuse and alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and later, interracial dating, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and suicide. Each episode was also buffered by a lighter subplot that confronted teenage crushes, school dances, and puberty.
Replacing Very Special Characters
Furthermore, Degrassi successfully evaded teen stereotypes. It was as if the kids attending Degrassi (because they lived in Canada?) had never seen a Hughes movie. This appealed to brother and sister Huai-Yang Lim, 28, and Amanda Lim, 20, of Edmonton. Main characters may represent a minority group, but their difference never defined their identity. “If they see theres a disabled person, he or she is as much a person as anyone else,” Huai-Yang said after the Mastroianni/Brogren performance.
Dr. Michele Byers, assistant professor of Media Studies and Cultural Studies at St. Marys University in Halifax, said that shows like 90210 often employed secondary or “Very Special Characters” that appear temporarily to confront an issue such as racism or homophobia. In Degrassi, however, familiar characters faced these controversial issues in addition to other multiple storylines. Degrassi writers and producers, Brogren said, are “willing to take those main characters that people love, and screw with them a little bit.”
Did these value differences portrayed on American and Canadian television reflect cultural reality? In other words, would I have had an easier time growing up in Canada?
“Theres never been a definable Canadian identity in my perspective,” said Byers, who is currently finishing a three-year research study on Degrassi, television and Canadian youth culture through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
In fact, Jr. High and High resonated with international audiences in over 40 countries, including China, Australia, Greece, Germany, and Israel, demonstrating that its issues and values were not merely Canadian.
Instead, Byers, who is the editor of and a contributor to the forthcoming Fall 2005 edited collection Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity, and Youth Cultures (Sumach Press, Toronto), stated that TV, like any text, can be analyzed for its deliberate display of identities and narratives. The older popular image of Canadian youth portrayed in historical dramas, for example, tended to romanticize the turn-of-the-century myth that situated white Canadians in a pristine, rural landscape. Degrassi, on the other hand, focused on the lives and issues of diverse urban youth.
Leg warmers, without irony
Although she hesitates to suggest the production of Degrassi was stylistically “Canadian,” she added that budgetary and production constraints gave Degrassi a grainer, grittier texture that was rarely seen on glossier American film stock.
“Our budget was, like, a buck ninety-nine,” Mastroianni joked. Wardrobe, often purchased from Goodwill or Zellers, sat along a schoolroom wall in plastic milkcrates. The children did their own make-up, and often wore their own clothing.
For Gareth Jones, 21, of Edmonton, the Degrassi kids mannerisms and speech were indeed Canadian. “Theyre a bunch of kids in Canada, in a city much like Edmonton, going to schools just like us. You just related to the characters because you probably knew your friends were a bit like that,” said Jones, who catches old Degrassi on cable. In fact, he said, Degrassi had a unifying, almost patriotic effect. “It brought the country together on sort of one show. When were so bogged down by all the American shows that we did watch but didnt relate to… it spoke for the youth, I guess. It was our show.”
To Brogrens surprise, Jr. High and High achieved cult status. After the success of the 1999 Jonovision cast reunion, producers Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood created The New Generation.
“There are worse things you could be associated with,” Brogren said. “It was kitschy and campy and so forth… but its still really fun to watch, you know?”
But what about those clothes?
“I remind you it was bad in the mid-80s,” Byers explained. “We wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way… In retrospect we want to pretend that it wasnt like that, but I think it was.”
Personally, Ill continue to pretend.