Degrassi and the Next Lesbian Generation
by Malinda Lo
Lesbian teens have become something of a staple in American primetime programming, appearing on teen-centered dramas like The O.C. and One Tree Hill in a coming-out storyline (then usually melting back into the woodwork). Despite these shows high school-age characters, the shows themselves are aimed at a slightly older audience. Programs that are actually targeted toward teens and their younger siblings, the tweens, have rarely engaged with gay or lesbian storylines.
Canada has taken the lead in this kind of teen programming. In 2003, the teen drama series Edgemont, set at a suburban Vancouver high school, featured a storyline about Asian-Canadian student Shannon (Grace Park, who now appears on Battlestar Galactica) who developed feelings for a new classmate, Laurel (Kristin Kreuk of Smallville). And last year, one of Canadas longest-running teen franchises, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which now airs in the U.S. on cable channel The N, introduced a gay storyline about two boys.
This fall, Degrassi is poised to debut its first lesbian storyline, centered on bad-girl Alex and queen-bee Paige.
Currently in its fifth season, Degrassi: The Next Generation is the latest in a Canadian television franchise begun back in the early 1980s with The Kids of Degrassi Street, a series about teens in Toronto that dealt with the troublesome issues of the time. Degrassi: The Next Generation even features some characters from earlier installments of the franchise, who have since grown up and now send their own children to Degrassi Community School. In addition to several related television series and documentaries, the franchise has also spawned books, CDs, and a website (degrassi.tv) that is heavily integrated into the current series.
The series has consistently tackled hot-topic issues including abortion, school shootings, drugs, and date rape. As series co-creator and producer Linda Schuyler stated in 2004, Part of making stories about the next generation involves tackling social issues relevant to todays adolescents, even if that means pushing the envelope of whats conventionally seen in youth-oriented programs.
In 2004, Degrassi: The Next Generation introduced the series first gay teen storyline with the characters Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) and Dylan (John Bregar). In the episode Its Raining Men, the two boys went on a date and even kissed on-screen, a first for the series.
Pushing the envelope has garnered the series many awards, and last summer the series critical and popular success was underlined when it won both the Teen Choice Award for Choice Summer Series and the Television Critics Award for Outstanding Achievement in Childrens Programming.
In an upcoming two-part episode titled The Lexicon of Love, Degrassi Community School students Alex Nunez (Deanna Casaluce) and Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) discover that they are attracted to each other, setting the stage for an exploration of coming-out and the fluidity of sexuality.
Part one of the episode, scheduled to air on Nov. 28 in Canada, centers on the premiere of a fictitious film, Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh? Jason Mewes (who plays Jay) and Kevin Smith (who plays Silent Bob) return to Degrassi for the premiere of their film, which was incorporated into an earlier storyline, and become involved in the goings-on at the community school.
17-year-old Paige, who is one of the most popular girls in the school, had previously planned to invite her recently single friend Hazel to the premiere party, but realizes that her friend Alex, who has never been to an event like this before, very much wants to go. So Paige decides to bring Alex to the event, and the two of them have a very good time that culminates in an unexpected kiss.
In part two of the episode, scheduled to air on Dec. 5 in Canada, it is revealed that Alex spent the night in Paiges bed, but Paige slept on the floor because she was confused about what had happened. Both girls have previously dated boysAlex dated the resident bad boy, Jay, and Paige has been engaged in a difficult relationship with a former student teacher.
Their kiss reportedly has different effects on both of them: Alex is okay with not knowing what it meant, but Paige begins to question her sexual identity and herself. She talks about the experience with a friend, who stresses to her that its not important whether she is a lesbian or bisexual; the important fact is that they care about each other.
This storyline highlights a significant change in teen attitudes toward same-sex attraction. First, many teens these days are not concerned about identifying as a lesbian or as gay, choosing instead to view sexuality as a more fluid experience. While older lesbians and gay men (meaning, anyone older than their mid-20s) may feel it is politically necessary to identify as gay or lesbian, younger teens these days dont feel that pressure to choose an identifier.
Though we dont yet know whether the Alex-and-Paige storyline will be extended throughout the season, the fact that it exists is another positive step in raising awareness about queer teens.
In addition, Alexs Latina heritage makes her character only the second teen Latina lesbian on North American television, following Buffy the Vampire Slayers Kennedy (Iyari Limon).
Also noteworthy is the fact that this storyline will be aired in the U.S. on basic cable network The N, also home to the new series South of Nowhere. This unprecedented eventtwo teen series, on the same network, including girls who are just coming outsuggests that homosexuality has made significant strides in mainstream acceptance, both for the teens who will be watching the shows and for the adults who produce them.