Many, many years ago, when Paul and I were much younger parents, we discussed how we were going to handle talking with our child about all things related to puberty and being a teenager. Paul did actual research into the topic, and ended up purchasing a copy of “It’s Perfectly Normal”. I, on the other hand, did exactly zero research and instead announced that I would just plunk Ben down in front of reruns of Degrassi Junior High, as is the tradition of my people.
Paul chuckled indulgently at me upon this declaration and did not believe that this plan would work for our American-raised child, especially after we actually did try to run the show for a ten-year-old Ben. Our then 5th grader announced that he hated the original episodes from the 1980s, and that this was the most boring show ever. He was marginally more interested in the 2001 reboot, called in true nerd homage style Degrassi: The Next Generation. Those kids at least had computers and the Internet and modern clothing, whereas the generation I grew up with were weird and boring!
Part of this problem was that the first generation of Degrassi kids were not consistently trained as actual actors, . Degrassi Junior High, as most Canadians know it, started in 1987 as a follow-up to the CBC “after school special”, The Kids of De Grassi Street, which ran from 1979 to 1986. Unlike the American shows though, none of the Toronto children who appeared first in in Kids, and later, in Degrassi Junior High, were really full time actors. They were Toronto kids, the same age as their characters, who showed up on weekends in a working high school to appear in what would eventually become a cornerstone of Canadian culture.
In contrast, the kids of the Next Generation, the reboot that started in 2001, were actors who could consistently project emotions. And while the first few episodes leaned heavily on the adults from the first generation (now turning thirty in 2001) to provide context and continuity, the show quickly transitioned over to the rising 7th and 8th graders, born in the late 1980s when the first generation was in junior high. Degrassi: TNG initially centered on one 7th grader girl who had been born to an 8th grade mom in the first generation of the show, but the plots quickly expanded to cover a dozen 12 and 13 year olds and their stories within the first few episodes.
Obviously, I didn’t watch TNG when it came out in 2001. I was a 23 year old grown adult, and even with the nostalgia factor, I had no interest in watching a show about teenagers. Therefore, when I flipped it on as a 40 year old grown adult, I was immediately engaged in finding out what happened to the characters I had grown up with. Ben, however, was very engaged in the story of the 7th grade boys, the pre-teens like him who were still focused more on goofing off than on chasing girls. This led to a lot of me yelling at Ben to shut up because I wanted to see what happened to Lucy after Wheels almost killed her drunk driving in the 1992 series finale, while Ben complained that the adults were getting too much screen time and he didn’t think we were seeing enough of the kids.
Unfortunately, we only had one season of the 2001 episodes that our then 5th-grader could relate to before the kids aged up a year. When we moved on to the second season, the actors and their characters aged up to grades 8 and 9…and four episodes in, the show took on date rape. And while TNG had already covered pedophiles on the Internet, recreational use of Ritalin, gay parents, taking Ecstasy, and Not Having Sex Before You’re Ready, those were still “light” issues compared to the physically abusive parent and teen date rape narratives that opened the second season. These traumatic storylines were more than Ben could process as a 10 year old, and as he was really just not that interested, we decided that we would take a break on the show until he was old enough to understand it. (Also, Paul was genuinely shocked by the intensity of these episodes. I think this was when he realized the show was just going to go for broke on every issue possible without sugarcoating or cutting away from very traumatic depictions.)
Cut to quarantine in Toronto this fall: with Ben and me in lockdown, I decided to take a second try at the show together. We re-watched the first season, and 12 year old Ben was much better equipped emotionally to connect with the narratives for both the 7th and 8th graders. When we got to the second season, he was able to process and take in the much more emotionally intense and traumatic situations the now 8th and 9th graders were facing. And suddenly, my seventh grader was very engaged with a Canadian government subsidized teen drama where every episode was a Very Special Episode. Also: baby Drake when he was a duckling!
Ben was so into the show that he and I started bingeing episode after episode while in Toronto in December. We continued when we got to Pittsburgh for the holidays, as I attempted to explain the show to my American in-laws. We kept going after the holiday break, watching two or three episodes a day even as the kids aged up into grades 10 and 11, and the issues became more complicated. I would use the subject matter to introduce topics to Ben, and then reference back to It’s Perfectly Normal to reinforce the biological aspects where necessary. I got to work in all the topics, across the major areas of Coming of Age. We hit everything from teen pregnancy to coming out, from gay bashing to drug use, from child abuse to gender stereotypes, from studying science to inappropriate boners. (side note: nothing I have had to discuss with my child has been quite as mortifying as explaining to him what the term “boner” refers to…except maybe the plotline where I had to explain how a character contracted oral gonnorrhea)
Finally though, as the characters became older, the scenarios became more complicated, and Ben and I were both concerned that he would not be able to relate for much longer. In Season 5, when a character considered plastic surgery for her acting career and I had to explain breast implants, we decided that these issues were too mature for a seventh grader. We had to find a new option to watch, where we could show kids Ben’s age again. Without a viable modern option, I opted to try again with the first generation. This time, despite the “weird” clothes, and the complete lack of technology (not even an Apple IIe!), we discovered that kids had the same problems in the 1980s as they (probably) would in 2020 (if there wasn’t COVID!) Kids still struggled with being accepted! Kids still struggled with pregnancy and drugs and drinking! And most of all, high school kids still struggled with being honest and vulnerable thirty years ago! Who would have thought that being a GenX teenager was every bit as emotionally challenging as being a Gen Z teenager?!?
So after retreading the stories of Canadian teenagers born in the 1970s (ME: “Ben, these kids are only a year older than your dad! This is what high school looked like for us!” BEN: “MOOOOOM NO STAWWWWP”), we had covered even more issues: abortion, being sexually confused, the stigma around AIDS, and teen suicide. The original Degrassi Junior High was light-years ahead of its time with a commitment to covering genuinely uncomfortable issues, and some episodes that addressed homosexuality or abortion were even banned in the United States. The first generation featured real-looking teens who wore their own clothes and did their own makeup, and represented a wide socioeconomic range of East Toronto, and even if that was because CBC clearly had no money to pay for wardrobe or makeup, it made the show that much more authentic, especially compared to American contemporary shows like Saved by the Bell and 90210.
More importantly, Degrassi covered issues that were so relevant, I remember watching key episodes about pregnancy and AIDS as educational supplemental videos in Health class in Grade 10. Paul, wandering in and out as we plowed through the original Junior High in January, even remarked he was surprised how progressive the show was. I got to be a Smug Canadian (TM) about how my country subsidized this particular teen drama and brought issues to the forefront that are still underrepresented in American media. Degrassi Junior High reinforced the Canadian cultural mosaic message of the late 1980s by including first generation Canadian kids in their cast, covering both the stigma of the Vietnamese boat refugees as well as racial slurs against a Nigerian-Canadian boy, both within the first two years of the show. Junior High even worked in a storyline about accepting a gay older brother in 1988 (who would never be seen again), and featured a significant arc about de-stigmatizing homosexuality and AIDS in Degrassi High in 1990. These are all values our son takes for granted, as immersed as he is in the progressive ethics of Brooklyn, but as we keep having to explain, even as recently as the 1990s, these narratives were important to humanize the very real issues seldom shown on national TV.
Even starting over with the original kids only bought us a few weeks though and Ben and I eventually ran out of time with his age range as the 7th and 8th graders approached grades 12 and 13 (Grade 13 was still a thing in Ontario in the 80s and 90s). Ben decided he wanted to try again with the older kids in the newer show, so when the first generation ended with the School’s Out! movie, we resumed TNG already in progress with Season 5, taking a little extra time when necessary to discuss the challenges outside of Ben’s pre-teen frame of reference.
Throughout the series, Ben has related to some stories more than others, and has been more disturbed by some plotlines than others. He found it very hard to watch the infamous school shooting episode in Season 6, in which Drake’s character is shot in the back and paralysed. Still we’ve consistently kept watching, even as the show managed to veer into the ridiculous several times. As TNG picked up steam in the early aughts, the commercial network behind it began to syndicate the show to the USA, and needed new hooks to keep the audience growing. This gave us one of the worst and least realistic narratives when CTV brought in Degrassi superfan Kevin Smith to guest star in a half-dozen episodes across two seasons, under the premise of filming a fictional installment in his franchise called Jay And Bob Go Canadian, Eh!. This is only worthwhile because it led to this hilarious scenery-chewing cameo by famous Canadian Alanis Morissette:
Even as the show started to spin off from After School Special into into Teen Soap Opera style drama, it still covered what I just started referring to as VALUABLE LESSONS (TM). Every day, Ben and I would watch a few episodes and then I would quiz him on what valuable lessons he had learned. Every episode includes at least two plots, with Plot A featuring the Tough, Thorny Issue of the episode and Plot B being the lighter, more day-to-day story. Multiple plotlines means lots of conversation points to work with, almost all of which result in Ben eye rolling and mumbling “mommmmm, stawwwwwp” at me while I pause YouTube and inform him that if he wants to keep watching, he will listen to me sidebar about the relevant topic. I’ve even been been able to work in our son’s responsibilities as a cisgender male, which include:
- CONSENT. EVERY TIME. NO EXCEPTIONS.
- Don’t ever make another person feel like they need to consent to sex for you to like them!
- Watch your female friends’ drinks so they do not get roofied!
- If you get a girl pregnant, your role is to support her through HER decision!
- Be a good ally: stand up for your friends with less privilege than you!
We also learned other VALUABLE LESSONS universal to all kids:
- Tell the truth, because people will find it out anyways and then it will be WORSE
- Drugs are a bad idea every time, but prescription painkillers are significantly worse than marijuana
- Having sex before you’re ready will mess your brain up because hormones.
- If an adult is making you uncomfortable, trust your instincts, get away from them now and tell another adult you trust
- Do not be an idiot on social media because it will backfire and cause you to get socially ostracized or suspended from school or both.
- Do not sext or encourage other people to sext because naked photos will never go away and will end up being distributed to people you did not intend them for.
- Did we mention consent?
In both the first and second generation though, I believe that that the producers never meant for the show to run more than a couple years. In the first generation, the 12 and 13 year olds in 1987 ended with a made-for-TV movie centered on their 1991 graduation, and no new characters were introduced to keep the series going. In the second generation, the characters who were 12 and 13 in 2001 didn’t end their narrative until their first years of college (which allowed me to plug the Canadian university system)…and then the show had to contrive a plot to bring new 10th graders in for Season 7 to re-fill the cast. By Season 8 in 2008, the kids still aged up, and graduated high school, but the show stopped following graduates to university. Instead, new 9th and 10th graders would show up every season until the “Next Generation” kids from 2001 were completely aged out, and the show became just Degrassi in 2010. Around the same time, seasons went from twelve episodes to over twenty episodes and eventually to over forty episodes per season. The episodes are still 23 minutes, but there is just a lot more of them.
This extension into the “telenovela” production style is a byproduct of what I call “America Money”: the transition to MuchMusic in Canada and Nickeodeon in the USA. By 2008, the show was radically changed from the 12-episode season CTV-based series that started in 2001. Gone were the cheesy synthesizer soundtrack themes, initially replaced by in-show music clips from CBC3 indie bands, but then expanding to feature five or six songs from major labels per episode (I just heard Imagine Dragons on an episode Ben is watching). The show’s production values increased, with the school suddenly acquiring more elaborate facilities beyond the original handful of classrooms. More episodes means more commercial airtime money after all…but it also requires more drama to fill those episodes, and the show became a full on teen soap opera, ending Seasons 6 and 7 with made for TV movies that took the characters to US cities (Degrassi Goes Hollywood!, Degrassi Takes Manhattan).
Even with the format change and 200% more drama though, show still covers VALUABLE LESSONS, and features groundbreaking narratives for a mainstream TV show. Very few teen shows in 2010 would heavily feature the story of a FTM trans boy, but Degrassi had one struggling to just to use the boys’ washroom. However, the format change also means that Ben has been plowing through at least four episodes a day since he hit Season 9 because it feels like there is a never ending supply of teen drama to watch. We’re in Season 12 now and we still have at least a hundred episodes on the MuchMusic/Nickelodeon run before we even get to Degrassi: Next Class on Netflix. We’re also on at least the seventh teen pregnancy plotline, the second school shooting, and the third character with a self harm/cutting problem, so the show is retreading over its Greatest Hits pretty hard. The timeline has also only allowed for coverage from Facebook (“Facerange” in Seasons 9 onwards) and MySpace (“MyRoom” in Seasons 6 and 7) to date from the social media sphere, because we’re just not at Instagram or TikTok until Next Class.
After four months of watching though, I am still surprised by Ben’s interest as neither Paul nor I thought our son would be so enthusiastic about this show. He is genuinely engaged with these narratives and situations, mostly due to the effects of COVID. After all, Ben hasn’t been in a school situation for a year now. He misses being with other kids his age, the teens and tweens he’s used to seeing every day at school. Watching a TV show every day with kids interacting in a very authentically awkward (albeit scripted awkward) way makes him feel like he’s still able to pick up some of the social behavior examples he’s missing at school. Degrassi allows him to see a dramatized version of what social interaction looks like for kids in the grades immediately above him. He is so into the show that even the use of the over-dramatized situations as teaching tools for his parents to bring up HORRIBLY EMBARRASSING TOPICS is acceptable if we can just watch another episode. And Paul has acknowledged that this actually was fantastic parenting on my part to just plunk our kid down in front of a Canadian television show because it covered way more VALUABLE LESSONS, and with much more emotional impact, than my American husband thought a TV show could. (Canada: Telling Teens It’s OK to Be Gay Since 1986!)
Now, after almost 300 twenty-three minute episodes, we’ve covered teen problems from four years of GenXers (born 1965-1980) and twelve years of Millennials (born 1980-1995), and we’re just getting into the later Degrassi and Degrassi: Next Class years that feature members of Gen Z (born 1995 – 2010). Just as Paul and I are among the youngest GenXers, our son, born the year I turned 30, is one of the youngest GenZers. This is why it’s disappointing that Netflix canceled Next Class in 2018, just as the students started to include children born in 2000, but before the show could include children born after 2005. It’s also a strange parallel that, just as the original generation ended with characters born five years before I was, the Next Class ends with characters born five years before Ben was. The most time we’ve spent has been with the seasons featuring characters born in the mid-90s, halfway between each of our generations. But so long as they have cell phones and the Internet and their clothes aren’t weird, Ben can relate to them, and we’ll just keep on covering all the teen issues until we run out of time and only see these characters in Drake videos.
Finally, for those GenXers who followed the original generation: Snake is now the principal of Degrassi Community School, like he has been placed under a curse that prevents him from ever leaving the school. And he eventually married Spike, and became Emma’s stepdad, and stayed friends with Joey Jeremiah and yes, we did have to hear the occasional rendition of “Everybody Wants Something” even as late as 2004. (Thankfully, all the high school bands featured in the show since 2001, have been actual bands with more than one song.)
You can find all the seasons of Degrassi except for Degrassi High (1990-1991) and Degrassi: Next Class on the official YouTube channel (along with plenty of best/worst, first/last, etc videos https://www.youtube.com/user/epitomedegrassi). You can find the original Degrassi High and its finale movie Degrassi: School’s Out! on YouTube but you’ll have to hunt around for them. Finally, you can find Next Class on Netflix, although these kids all seem to be in their 20s like the producers decided to 90210-ify it. And no one seems to have a good source for the original Kids of De Grassi Street, which I 100% would have made Ben watch if I’d been able to find it when he was younger so HEY CBC GET ON THAT.
why dietland matters
Coming off of SaTC week, let’s focus on some very different television: Dietland. Based on the 2015 book by Sarai Walker, this show tells the story of a “morbidly obese” woman, Alicia “Plum” Kettle, who has put her entire life on hold until she is no longer fat. She denies herself more than just food: she denies herself feelings, love, sex, socializing, a career, her writing, baking, hopes and dreams. Her life is limited to a few blocks of Brooklyn (HI PARK SLOPE!) except for days she goes in to her employer, a Hearst Media style publisher in Hudson Yards (which is where L’Oreal is based in reality), where she ghostwrites for a glamourously thin editor played by Juliana Marguiles. By the third episode though, she’s realizing she isn’t denying herself life because she hates herself. She’s denying herself life because the world hates her.
Show protagonist Joy Nash – in “normal” joyful clothes as herself, and as the self-denying trying-to-be-invisible Plum Kettle
So far the reviews have been mixed: the show is well written, well put together, and different than anything else on TV, but tries to cram in a lot. The original material is almost hallucinatory in its surreality at times, so I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. The problem is that the sheer density of the book has resulted in reviews which speak too much to the crowded nature of the show, and fail to notice that this is the first show to openly talk about two important topics. The first of these is the way American society has, for years, taught women to enable and ignore poor behavior by men, while, at the same time, punishing and mocking women for behaving (or appearing, which seems to be considered a behavior in itself) in non-standard ways. The second of these is the national addiction to antidepressants, and the impact of long term use and withdrawal. Selling pharmaceuticals to one in four Americans is so lucrative than I’m genuinely shocked anyone called out that it might not be a good idea.
First of all, I’m incredibly impressed that this show actually depicts and narrates the constant pressure women feel in society to allow men to engage in the behavior that makes women feel bad, while simultaneously pressuring us to not engage in behavior that would make anyone else around us uncomfortable. It is the first time I’ve seen a show on TV that portrays a fat woman being sexually harassed for no reason, and acknowledging that she is reluctant to speak up or clap back because g-d forbid she she should make it worse. Dietland actually takes this a bit further, and not only calls out men’s shitty behavior, but actually tries to show us all how to hold men accountable for it, without putting all the pressure to resist on the women who are the victims of said shitty behavior. In last night’s episode, when a man harassed a woman in a convenience store, the other women in the bodega banded together to film and shame him. We do not all have to torture and kill rapists as the shadowy “Jennifer” organization does, but as a society, we do need to call out men who harass women on the street or who slut-shame them in convenience stores.
This is one of the reasons why Dietland matters. It shows men’s response to women who do not follow a socially acceptable code of conduct, which includes not only behavior, but appearance. Society should hold men accountable for making choices to “grab women by the pussy”, rather than giggling and infantilizing those choices as “boys will be boys“. And when a man bro’s out at the expense of a woman, making a comment on her weight or appearance for his own amusement (as a custodial worker does, mocking Plum to his buddy in an elevator), it is the responsibility of the other men to tell him he’s an ass.
The second reason this show matters is that it shows a protagonist going off anti-depressants and the consequences for doing so. There are many voices of reason that remind Plum she was on doctor prescribed pills, that she should, at the least, wean off them rather than go cold turkey. But antidepressant withdrawal is a BFD as we begin to discover that it is easy to reap initial benefits from medication, but difficult as hell to get back off said medication when it becomes ineffective. No one really wants to talk about how awful it is to try to come off antidepressants, a consequence that is not well researched and on which patients are certainly not well educated when they start the medication in the first place. It’s doubtful that I would have turned down antidepressants in 2005 had i known it would be such an awful experience to come off those drugs in 2018. However, I was not prepared for how awful the withdrawal would be, nor was I really prepared to face the fact that the antidepressants hadn’t been working for years. The NYT has been running a whole series on this recently, which is as much about the withdrawal as it is about the fact that no one is studying withdrawal. To have a mainstream TV show address the idea of antidepressant withdrawal feels extremely timely as we start to investigate what the real long term effects of these medications are.
I do wish Dietland addressed the proven fact that antidepressants rarely remain effective for more than a few years. In the book and TV adaptation, Plum is on Y, an antidepressant that seems to have successfully repressed her feelings ever since she began taking it to cope with rejection from a man she trusted with her feelings. The show addresses the ready willingness with which we sacrifice joy to avoid despair, the way we are encouraged to embrace antidepressants out of emotional risk aversion. It does not address the real challenge, which is that if an antidepressant is prescribed for real depression, we are very likely on borrowed time with it – and we must take ownership for hacking our own brains in anticipation of the day it no longer works.
So for these two threads alone – Dietland matters. It’s got its clunky parts, and can be jarring and unfinished in places. The reviews are not wrong in that it is trying to cram a lot of plot and theme into a single hour long episode. However, I believe this is important TV. The more we portray these issues in television, the more we address the way we, as a society, still choose gender inequality. This show reminds us that as women, our inequality is constantly reinforced through the beauty and body image standards imposed on us, both by men and by ourselves. The more we show the methodology in which women are made lesser, the more we can find ways to make us equal.
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Tagged commentary, diet, dietland, media, sexist, tv, wellbutrin