Degrassi: The Next Generation: Television's Best Portrayal of Gay Teens

Degrassi: The Next Generation:
Television’s Best Portrayal of Gay Teens
by Jake Surette, April 24, 2006

The most recent incarnation of one of Canada’s most well known franchises is Degrassi: The Next Generation, the lovechild of Degrassi Junior High (originally airing in the 80s) and Degrassi High (continuing the series’ success through the early 90s), both of which are still in worldwide syndication today. Some of the original characters from the first series (both of which were controversial’ in their own right) are back, now parents of the kids in Next Generation. For instance, one current teenage character is the result of a Degrassi teen’s pregnancy back in the 80s.

The latest Degrassi again features ongoing stories of real-life teen dilemmas–including intense gay and lesbian storylines–and does it without the righteous, “On a Very Special Blossom” endings that many teen dramas and sitcoms thrive on.

The show’s treatment of the gay characters avoids being heavy handed or reducing their characters to little more than clichd archetypes, such as the tragic’ one, or the funny side kick’, or the bitchy’ one. Nor are these characters just the colourful friends and unpaid therapists of the straight girl. As much as we all love the antics of Jack on Will and Grace, Degrassi has a broader vision, less about the stereotype and more about the realities of growing up gay. This depiction is certainly pink, but without being rose colored.

The show’s main gay characters, Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) and Dylan (John Bregar), are clever takes on old cliches, if perhaps not at first glance. Marco is the younger, more fashionista’ type of the pair, something that networks were skittish about, thinking that he was too stereotypical.

We didn’t see it that way, explains James Hurst, Executive Producer and writer of the show. We wanted to let Marco be Marco and we saw him as a guy who loved to dance and loved Britney and fashion and really cared about his friends. What’s wrong with liking fashion and Britney anyway, adds Hurst. Is that something to be ashamed of?

However, the networks concerns weren’t lost on the show’s creative team. Executive Story Editor, Brendon Yorke, tells AfterElton the writers, directors and Ruggiero himself were cautious about Marco acting in a stereotypical gay’ manner that is often seen on other, specifically comedic TV shows. And radically counter to stereotype, it’s Marconot his jock boyfriendwho wrestles with his sexuality.

As Marco’s character developed, the writers and Ruggiero became deeply committed to creating a character that is more than just a positive representation. Gay, straight, whatever, Yorke says. Obviously there are universal teen experiences that don’t hinge on one’s sexual preferences. I suppose there’s an underlying desire to portray a gay character as normal, and not all about “being gay” during every waking moment of life.

Marco deals with his sexuality as early as the second season. But it is not until season three that his character discovers he has a crush on–and starts dating–one of his classmate’s older brothers, Dylan. Ironically, Dylan is big hockey star; out, proud and ready to take on anyone that might try to mess with him.

We wanted Dylan to be comfortable in his own skin, says Hurst. We wanted him to be a kind of role model for Marco, for gay kids in general. Hurst understands that coming out in high school is brutal but sees Dylan as an emblem of what it can yield. When you get through that you might come out the other side happier and more confident and fully formed, says Hurst. That’s Dylan.

Still, the character is far more than a poster boy. He’s not perfect, adds Hurst . He’s a big slob and a bit of a slut at heart, but he loves Marco and wants to make it work .

And the work that they face isn’t specific to gay couples. A lot of the storylines involving the relationship of Marco and Dylan cover universal themes of heartbreak, jealousy, etc., that are present in any relationship, says Yorke.

Dylan goes off to college and Marco discovers him making out with a classmate in the dorm, forcing the star-crossed lovers to realize love might not be enough. Indeed, they decide to split up. The show then segues into a larger discussion of non-monogamy with Marco and his friends.

It’s a relationship issue, explains Yorke. Not just a gay issue. When conceiving of a Marco/Dylan episode, we think of it in terms of any relationship. Obviously, there are some unique challenges, but at the core, love is love.

As for the actors themselves, Ruggerio hasn’t confirmed his sexuality one way or the other. But Bregar told The Advocate, I’m a straight actor playing gay. Most fans don’t care one way or the other, although Ruggerio has been the target of some name-calling. When he does hear from viewers, however, it’s positive far more often than not with his having received hundreds of letters from gay kids thrilled to see themselves represented on the television.

And, in season five, it’s not only gay teenage boys who have seen themselves on Degrassi. Lesbians have avidly followed the burgeoning relationship between two girls, Paige and Alex. Unlike the sexual innuendos about Marco and Dylan’s relationship, the Paige and Alex connection was a little fuzzy.

It was more a matter of negotiating the murky waters of defining one’s self in the high school jungle, rather than what goes on behind closed doors, says Yorke.

We didn’t want to be too salacious, agrees Hurst. We wanted to let them be happy and do their thing. Alex is a confirmed lesbian and may have a new girlfriend down the line. Paige is, like most people, interested in love wherever she can find it.

It’s this sensibility that has won praise from critics and viewers, gay and straight, alike. Degrassi has received nods from the GLAAD Media Awareness Awards as well as winning the award for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming from the Television Critics Association in 2005.

SPOILER ALERT

Although season five (still airing on The N in the U.S.) has concluded in Canada, the Degrassi obsessed should stop reading here as there is this juicy spoiler ahead: Marco will reconnect with-you guessed it–Dylan, who has come back from being away at university. He admits that he is still in love with–and needs to be with–Marco.

Allowing Degrassi to again prove that gay teenagers are mostly just like their straight counterparts.

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