The Degrassi Franchise on the Teenage Experience

“Come on, give it a try at Degrassi Junior High”


The classic Canadian teen drama franchise has been on and off the air for the past thirty-seven years. One of the longest running scripted television series in history, Known for its slogan, “It Goes There,” the Degrassi franchise has tackled major topics in teenage culture, taboo (date rape, drug abuse, abortion) and overdone (crushes, first dates.) Created by executive producers Kit Hood and Linda Schuyler, the Degrassi universe started as after-school specials dealing with normal teen issues. As Ben Neihart wrote for New York Times Magazine, the kid characters of Degrassi “without much help from parents and teachers…try to figure out their lives, and kid viewers around the world second-guess them.” 1 Known for its casting of real teenagers as opposed to college-age actors in their twenties, the drama-filled franchise spoke to a generation of Canadians growing up – and around the world as well.

DEGRASSI: THE HISTORY

Even in its latest installment, Degrassi: Next Class, the show continues to push boundaries and tackle the issues of high schoolers in the modern era: gender fluidity, Islamophobia, and social media backlash. In its coverage of high school, it has also felt like the show closest to real life in its depiction of the high school experience. Sure, not all of us jet off to Paris on a summer class or star in Jason Mewes’s movie. But Degrassi understands the teenager’s perspective, using it to educate and support young people. As Schuyler said in an interview regarding Degrassi: Next Generation, “The whole key to Degrassi is that we are – the perspective of all of our stories is from the young person’s point of view who is at high school. These are the kinds of stories I couldn’t have imagined but this is part of the teenage world these days and it’s part of their world, we need to be telling stories about that.” 2

Executive producer Stephen Sohn noted this again in recent practice: characters are treated like actual teenagers. They don’t necessarily know the language or the difficulties of the situations in which they’re placed – and so the show is extremely careful about making these stories of identity ones that display truth in that. Discussing a recent episode in which characters discuss a friend who has come out as nonbinary, Sohn said:

“The scene I actually like the most is not one that Yael is in. It’s one where all their friends are expressing their own confusion about their gender: “Do I say ‘they’? Or do I not say ‘they’?” And they’re using the terms incorrectly and they’re sort of correcting each other. That’s the way we and our young audiences all are…. And if we’re going to make mistakes, they need to be intentional mistakes.” 3

Supporting its discussion of relevant, important issues, Degrassi is the rare teen drama that actually features teen actors at the helm. Sohn noted that “one of the reasons we’ve carried on for as long as we have is we cast age-appropriately. Our actors are always close to the characters they’re portraying in age, which is important for authenticity. But it also means the characters graduate and leave the show.” 4 In an era where pop culture teens grow up and mature faster than ever, Degrassi ends its experiences with high school graduation. Characters aspire to go to college, enter the workforce, or maybe have no plans at all – and while there have been several returns and effort to move past the boundaries of high school, the show never quite feels safe moving out of that territory. Bethonie Butler of The Washington Post wrote about the show’s ability to capture adolescence: “For all its soapy storylines, the show also captures the day-to-day challenges and emotions… Hearts get broken, kids make bad decisions (and often, good ones) and well-meaning parents sometimes miss the mark on understanding what their children are going through.” 5 It is the immediacy of their drama – the fast-paced, spontaneous, emotion-driven experiences – that cements Degrassi‘s place as the key to the essence of being a teenager.


“A Teen-Age Bill of Rights”

But what is the “essence of being a teenager,” and where does it come from? The concept of “teenager” as a specific life period is fairly new. Sociologist G. Stanley Hall’s monumental work of 1904, Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education, documented both the biological and social characteristics of adolescence, noting it as a time of “storm and stress.” As professor of psychology Jeffrey Jensen Arnett notes, Hall’s Adolescence noted traits such as “prevalence of depressed mood; adolescence as a time of high sensation seeking; susceptibility to media influences in adolescence; characteristics of peer relations in adolescence; and biological development during puberty.” 6 Establishing a foundation for the analysis of adolescent development, Hall’s work provided a framework through which others started viewing and describing youth culture and experience.

The American invention of youth culture as we know it today– a social construct and a response to its creation – came into being with the early twentieth century, as teens became seen as students rather than workers. Associated with trouble, youth culture had its own language, clothes, and behavior. With each decade’s problems, teens reacted strongly against adults’ and society’s attempts to control adolescents. Engaging in risky or dangerous behavior or subverting societal norms, teenage rebellion became an important part of understanding the essence of being a teenager as well. In a personal exploration of identity, youth embodied a certain self-confident expression of themselves.

Psychologist Erik Erikson built on Hall’s idea by claiming that not only was adolescence a distinct life stage, but it was a period in which individuals reacted directly to their society and time. As Thomas Hine wrote in “The Rise And Decline of the Teenager,” Erikson “also acknowledged that this identity [crisis] must be found in the context of a culture and of history.” 7 Part of being a teenager, then, meant figuring out yourself in addition to navigating the issues of the world around you.

Adolescence: Crash Course Psychology #20

Published in 1945 as an op-ed in The New York Times, Elliott E. Cohen’s “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights” represents a manifesto developed by parents to communicate this changing relationship between parents and youth. 8 While codified by adults, the bill of rights identifies much of what media like Degrassi would later use to communicate the confusion that is teen identity and culture. The editorial defines the rights of a teenager as the following:

· The right to let childhood be forgotten

· The right to a “say” about his own life

· The right to make mistakes to find out for himself

· The right to have rules explained, not imposed

· The right to have fun and companions

· The right to question ideas

· The right to be at the romantic age

· The right to a fair chance and opportunity

· The right to professional help whenever necessary

· The right to struggle toward his own philosophy of life

Reprinted across the country, this document recognized the existence of teenagers as a separate group, distinct from adults or children. Emblematic of a specific socioeconomic class, these types of freedoms as identified in the article noted specific rights and responsibilities with which teenagers could navigate the awkward period of growing up. Both within their homes (as Cohen’s op-ed speaks to) and in society at large, teenagers embodied these rights in their activities. Mass media portraying teen culture has consistently built on these histories and analyses of adolescence to make sense of the teen spirit.


Degrassi‘s Depictions of Adolescence

As Savannah J. Sicurella wrote in Affinity Magazine, “Degrassi‘s unnervingly accurate depiction of the teenage experience and pioneering exploration of pure human emotion through the keen eyes of a child was a different approach to teen-marketed entertainment.” 9 Drawing on this, each installment of the Degrassi franchise balances individual and societal levels of adolescence in its portrayal of teenagers. Schuyler noted, “We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re creating a television show, a dramatic television show, and our number one priority is to entertain…But what I’m hoping that at the end of the day, what is authentic is the emotional journey that we enjoy with our characters.” 10

Degrassi Junior High

The second series of the series of the Degrassi franchise, Degrassi Junior High aired from 1987 to 1989. 11 In the pilot, character Stephanie Kaye used her first day of eighth grade to present her new self-image as she runs for class president: wearing “mature” clothing, kissing boys, and avoiding her younger brother Arthur. Stephanie was one of an ensemble cast of middle-schoolers navigating through preteen and teen experiences, like going to the school dance and dealing with mean teachers.

This installment won an International Emmy in the Children and Young People category for the season 1 episode, “It’s Late,” in which 14-year old Spike suspects she is pregnant – a dramatic storyline that brought up issues of drug abuse, school protests, and teen parenting as it unfolded in seasons 2 and 3. Degrassi Junior High also addressed difficult issues such as bullying, child abuse, adoption, homophobia, racism, and divorce. In the show’s finale, “Bye-Bye Junior High” Degrassi Middle School burned down, showing the symbolic (and literal) shift to high school.

Degrassi High

Degrassi High (or Degrassi, Old School if you watched it in the United States) picked up where Degrassi Junior High left off, continuing for two seasons. Characters dealt with the day-to-day problems of being a teenager, like unrequited love and driving lessons.

Degrassi High also featured major problems and issues in the style of “afternoon specials” TV, but they were never one-episode issues. Characters lived with the trauma or experiences: abortion in the series premiere carried through to bullying and pro-life protests; an HIV diagnosis for a male character in seasons 2 leads to plotlines of blackmail and fighting; and one character’s suicide towards the end of the show plays out with the aftermath among the other students.

The show’s TV movie, School’s Out, served as the grand finale to the early Degrassi saga, making an even edgier take on teen spirit with drugs, alcohol, sex, and the first use of the f-word on Canadian television.

Degrassi: The Next Generation

The first Degrassi installment to reach over 400 episodes, Degrassi: The Next Generation ran from 2001 to 2015. Following students at Degrassi Community School through grades 7-12, the show addressed personal issues and social issues. Starting off with an episode about internet predators, the show updated its plot lines drawn right from current events and new technology. The show’s school shooting episode in season 4, eating disorders for boys and girls, and multiple suicide storylines reflect the newer issues relevant to teens of the 2000s. Most notably, the show depicted LGBT+ identities from the beginning, with characters exploring their sexual orientations and coming out on different terms. In season 10 introduced sophomore Adam Torres, the first scripted teenage trans man character in television history, as well as the first transgender main character in Canadian television history.

Multiple articles have been written about Degrassi‘s iconic episodes, with titles like “Most Devastating Degrassi Plots” or “”Heartbreaking ‘Degrassi’ Moments Guaranteed to Make You Cry.” (Here’s a list of all the issues addressed in this installment, managed by fans of the show. And another one by Vulture.) It’s no wonder that character Ashley Kerwin says in season 4, “This is supposed to be the best years of our lives, but it’s just been one disaster after another. This school is cursed.” Firmly diving into soap opera territory at times, this installment balanced its PSA-like nature of top storylines with typical teen drama like dating, friendships, parental relationships, and school clubs.

Social media on Degrassi: The Next Generation was very important, and evolved along with the show. While email and chat rooms dominated early storylines, parody platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp came later. Schuyler noted of the show’s evolution, “We have the consistency of our messaging…but at the same time keeping very on topic and respecting the fact that how [teenagers] communicate with one another changes. And we have to keep our show very relevant and very fresh to keep up with those changes.” 12

Degrassi: Next Class

Picking up directly where Degrassi: The Next Generation left off, this series launched internationally on Netflix in January 2016. As of June 30, 2017, 40 episodes have aired. Expanding and updating the show’s digital presence, Degrassi: Next Class seamlessly integrated elements of social media to continue discussing relevant issues of the 2010s. Though the seasons are shorter than ever, Degrassi: Next Class continues to speed through dramatic moments and life lessons to talk about the teen experience. As reviewer Kayla Cobb wrote, “Degrassi: Next Class is a very busy place full of self-examination, and you need to either keep up or get out.” 13

Addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, social media and mental health, diversity, and racism, this newest installment continues its connection to traditional experiences of adolescence while placed in the context of contemporary issues. Building on the success of the introduction of Adam in Degrassi: The Next Generation continues to explore gender identity with character Yael. Struggling with a complicated relationship to gender through sexism and misogyny in previous story arcs, Yael came out as nonbinary in season 4. Using they/them pronouns, Yael deals with not only body image but navigating the coming out process within their current romantic relationship.

The Degrassi franchise has regularly been noted for its ability to address taboo topics with respect and gravitas. Schuyler noted in an interview around the 300th episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, “We deal with what could be called sensational subject matter, but we’re really, genuinely not trying to sensationalize. At the same time, we’re not trying to brush it under the carpet or trivialize it. And that, to me, is when Degrassi is at its best.” 14 The characters of the Degrassi franchise tackle each storyline and issue that comes at them with the same diversity in response one might find in any high school. Whether dealing with contemporary issues or traditional high school ones, Degrassi defines itself by letting teenagers grow with their experiences and live by the rights and freedoms Cohen described in the “Bill of Rights.”


“Whatever It Takes”

Growing up, I watched Degrassi: Next Generation on The N, getting glimpses of what high school would be. While my high school experiences would never be as drama-filled as theirs, they introduced me to the complexities of teen life in the 2000s: the material but also behavioral culture, a language and activity that I never engaged with in real life. Introducing me for the first time to these ideas, Degrassi shaped and maintained this idea of what teens and teenage culture should embody.

Writer Emily Landau wrote this, too, about her experiences with Degrassi Junior High: “For teen audiences, it was comforting to see kids go through the same awkward, and sometimes devastating experiences…It made adolescence – an age where you feel as if no one understands you – less alienating. Its integrity and candour established a kinship between the characters and the audience, an intimacy that glossier teen soaps cannot replicate.” 15

Degrassi gets something right that other media seems to lack: the spirit of being a teenager. This feeling of immediacy, of finding oneself, of taking advantage of every opportunity with reckless abandon – the characters of Degrassi continue to construct and play with these ideas of what adolescence should be. Tying together these concepts that have long been present in youth culture and “rebellion,” the Degrassi franchise itself is documentation of youth culture. Watching each installment, viewers can view what has changed in youth culture – topical issues, behaviors, clothing, accessories – and what hasn’t – the emotional journey of adolescence.

And even now, as I am much older than the cast and characters, I watch Degrassi: Next Class with a sense of fondness – of the invincibility of the teenage spirit. This feeling of immediacy – that life is over or permanently changed with every decision, that high school is the end-all-be-all of life – has never felt more real or tangible than in watching this show. Life outside of high school doesn’t come along very often for Degrassi. Characters sometimes fade in and out, and colleges are always on the horizon by senior year. But the compelling storylines are firmly grounded in high school as a place, and teenage as a life stage. Just as in any high school, relationships come and go: dating, friendships, even families. Characters react impulsively, either for themselves or for the protection of others. By high school graduation, characters rarely have their lives figured out – but they have often reached a place of confidence and self-assurance that allows them to view high school fondly.

That’s not to say Degrassi is always good, or even consistent. But neither is high school. Rarely does a freshman enter the same way the end their high school career. At its core, Degrassi speaks to the teenage soul – its search for identity, changing friendships, and the fears we all face. Some characters and plotlines are better depicted than others, but chances are some moment or experience is one with which the viewer can relate.

Many articles can tell you that Degrassi lives up to its unofficial slogan, but few can explain why it continues to succeed. Recognizing its responsibility to educate and empower teenagers, Degrassi‘s integrity comes from embodying some of the same ideas that Cohen’s “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” articulated. Working in this space between adult writers and teen actors, Degrassi operates on the idea of teasing out the conversation of confusion. As it continues toward its fortieth anniversary, the Degrassi franchise continues to represent teen culture and document the rich history of adolescence in all its forms.

Works Cited

  1. Ben Neihart, “DGrassi Is tha Best Teen TV N da WRLD!” The New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2005, accessed August 22, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/20/magazine/dgrassi-is-tha-best-teen-tv-n-da-wrld.html?mcubz=0&_r=0.
  2. Amil Niazi and Christ Bilton, “An Oral History of ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’,” VICE, July 27, 2016, accessed August 22, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/nnkyn8/an-oral-history-of-degrassi-the-next-generation.
  3. Nivea Serrao, “Degrassi: Next Class EP on why this was the right time to explore gender fluidity,” Entertainment Weekly, July 7, 2017, accessed August 22, 2017, http://ew.com/tv/2017/07/07/degrassi-next-class-stephen-stohn-gender-fluid/.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Bethonie Butler, “‘Degrassi’ is on Netflix now. It’s still the realest show about teens.,” The Washington Post, January 15, 2016, accessed August 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/01/15/degrassi-is-on-netflix-now-its-still-the-realest-show-about-teens/?utm_term=.d66cd43511f3.
  6. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “G. STANLEY HALL’S ADOLESCENCE: Brilliance and Nonsense,” History of Psychology 9, no. 3 (2006): , doi:10.1037/1093-4510.9.3.186.
  7. Thomas Hine, “The Rise And Decline of the Teenager,” American Heritage, September 1999, accessed August 22, 2017, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/rise-and-decline-teenager.
  8. Elliot E. Cohen, “A ‘Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” The New York Times, January 7, 1945, accessed August 22, 2017, https://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/opinion/TeenageBillofRights_final.pdf?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article.
  9. Savannah J. Sicurella, “Are the Issues Discussed on ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’ Still Relevant Today?” Affinity Magazine, 2017, accessed August 22, 2017, http://culture.affinitymagazine.us/are-the-issues-discussed-on-degrassi-the-next-generation-still-relevant-today/.
  10. Hillary Busis, “‘Degrassi’: We interview creator Linda Schuyler before ep 300 airs,” Entertainment Weekly, October 25, 2012, accessed August 22, 2017, http://ew.com/article/2012/10/25/degrassi-300th-episode-linda-schuyler/.
  11. The first installment of the franchise, The Kids of Degrassi Street, aired from 1979 to 1986. While it focused more on elementary school children, reviewers noted the show for its realistic depiction of childhood experiences.
  12. Bethonie Butler, “How ‘Degrassi’ became the most digitally savvy show on (and off) TV,” The Washington Post, July 20, 2015, accessed August 22, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/07/20/how-degrassi-became-the-most-digitally-savvy-show-on-and-off-tv/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.f9d1928f9dfb.
  13. Kayla Cobb, “‘Degrassi: Next Class’ Remains the Wokest and Most Insane Show on Television,” Decider, July 10, 2017, accessed August 22, 2017, http://decider.com/2017/07/10/netflix-degrassi-next-class-is-the-most-insane-show-of-2017/.
  14. Hillary Busis, “‘Degrassi’: We interview creator Linda Schuyler before ep 300 airs,” Entertainment Weekly, October 25, 2012, accessed August 22, 2017, http://ew.com/article/2012/10/25/degrassi-300th-episode-linda-schuyler/.
  15. Emily Landau, “Teenage Dreams,” The Walrus, September 12, 2012, accessed August 22, 2017, https://thewalrus.ca/teenage-dreams/.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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22 Comments

  1. Hui
    0

    Degrassi is just lovely is every way. I honestly don’t see how someone could dislike it or hate it at all.

  2. Jack
    0

    I have watched the show on and off since the 1980s. I know! I know! It’s embarrassing, but true! My niece (who is actually in the target demographic) started watching it a few years ago and we would have very long (and surprisingly animated) conversations about the plots and the characters.

  3. Fuch
    0

    I’ll be honest. I do actually love Degrassi in a “god this is trash” kind of way. Such that I’ve seen every episode, and love creating detailed, possibly overcomplicated, headcanon over things I see.

  4. adeline
    0

    This show was my absolute obsession for years. I was on fan forums and livejournals and everything. I saw everything through season 10 I think, then watched some sporadic later episodes. I think the last episodes I saw where some of the ones with the hockey team.

  5. Tera
    0

    I’m ashamed to say that I watched this show for many years. Like, an unhealthy amount of years.

  6. MaxMale
    0

    I stopped watching maybe around 2003, and frankly I was probably too old for it by then.

    In the 3 years or so I watched, they covered STDs, teen pregnancy, drugs, drinking and driving, abusive parents, racism, etc. etc. etc…

    • Rocky
      0

      It pretty much has repeated itself, except adding in newer issues such as cyberbullying and more LGBTQ stuff.

  7. Jeanine
    0

    Great 90s nostalgia thing.

  8. Ingle
    0

    Honestly thought this show would go on forever. I think all the seasons from season 10 onward have like 40+ episodes, so saying 14 seasons doesn’t even give a full picture of just how much they churned out.

  9. Custer
    0

    This was one of my favorite shows when I was in high school (’01-’05) stopped watching years ago.

  10. Merlyn
    0

    I can’t imagine living in a world without Degrassi.

  11. Deon Felix
    0

    The first time I watched this show, I was around 12. I would occasionally watch episodes every now and then, but I never watched it in its entirety. Years later, I return as a 19 year-old college student and this show remains important, even today. It’s important because its one of the few shows that portray teenagers in a realistic, funny, and gripping way.

  12. Vick
    0

    Its a great show. I like the character Eli because i feel like a lot of people can relate to him.

  13. Emeline Shipp
    0

    Degrassi has always been a show that knew what it was and mostly succeeded in what it set out to do. Things don’t change with Next Class, and in some ways they even get better.

  14. Meacham
    0

    This has to be one of the most annoying things I have ever watched. The shows intentions were good, trying to teach young people about different social issues but I mean COME ON THIS IS JUST CRINGEWORTHY.

  15. Ngan
    0

    I’m an older viewer but a fan nonetheless. I really love the characters and the story lines.

  16. Leonarda Bueno
    0

    After watching 13th season of next generaton, I am quite shocked at the turn this series took from 1st season until today.

  17. Gannon
    0

    Haven’t seen it since my own high school years, where it was basically what we had instead of health class.

  18. Hubert
    0

    I used to love it in the early 2000’s. then it got stale

  19. zutt
    0

    I’m looking forward to Degrassi: Deep Space Nine and Degrassi: Voyager. But not Degrassi: Enterprise.

  20. Stephanie M.

    I particularly appreciate your analysis of how teenage culture and the definition of “teenager” have evolved. Additionally, I appreciate that shows like Degrassi are so fearlessly tackling issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis. Decades ago, teenagers wouldn’t be expected to know much, or care much, about that sort of thing. Not so in 2017; teenagers are more socially and politically active than ever, even if, as you point out, they find many constructs confusing. (As well they should; I’m still confused at times)!

  21. Munjeera

    Degrassi has always maintained its cutting edge and most importantly never talked down to teens. I think that really is what makes the show so good is that Degrassi never made it seem like being a teenager was easy and portrayed angst in an intelligent way.

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