Content Warning: I will be delving into fictional depictions of both abortion and suicide. And there will be spoilers!
Anyone who really knows me knows this: I love Degrassi. I love it so much that I’ve brought it up in my past blog posts. Though many people in this generation only know Canadian teen TV classic Degrassi as the show that launched international superstar Drake, it has pushed boundaries and comforted young audiences for over four decades. The Degrassi franchise has had five iterations, ranging from 1979’s The Kids of Degrassi Street to the most recent Degrassi: Next Class, which released its final episode in 2017. It is notable for this longevity as well as its choice to cast real, normal-looking young people in its main roles. Fans, like myself, were ecstatic to hear that a new series was in development, but our dreams were dashed when the production of the series was cancelled by HBO Max. When considering how groundbreaking Degrassi has been and how willing its creator’s have been to depict tough subject matter in a meaningful, educational way, this is extremely devastating news. To cope, and to make a case for its continued relevance, I decided to look back at some of the ways that Degrassi has taken on touchy subject matter, namely abortion and suicide, in different ways throughout its run.
Degrassi Takes on Abortion
Degrassi: The Next Generation – “Accidents Will Happen” (Season 3, Episodes 14 & 15)
Manny, known for her powerful storylines, chic fashion sense, and for being one of the OG Next Generation characters, was the first character on Degrassi: The Next Generation to get an abortion (it was previously tackled on Degrassi High). “Accidents Will Happen” inflamed immediate controversy upon its release when the American company responsible for distributing Degrassi in the U.S. refused to broadcast the episodes, seemingly for their honest portrayal of abortion and their pro-choice overtones. This was met with backlash on all fronts, with actors, producers, and audiences expressing their disappointment at the decision. Eventually, Next Gen’s abortion plotline was broadcast to American audiences, but it took over two years and a deliberate choice on the part of Manny’s actress, Cassie Steele, who selected it as one of her favourite episodes during a Degrassi special in the States which ran in 2006.
This kind of intense debate about the abortion plotline mirrors the abortion discourse depicted within the episode itself. While she weighs her options, 14-year-old Manny is given opinions from everyone in her life, many expressing horror that she is even considering abortion in the first place. The most powerful moments in the episode come in the moments of support, when her best friend, Emma, decides to let go of her own beliefs and fight for Manny’s right to choose or when Emma’s mom, a young mom herself, takes Manny to the abortion clinic after she reveals that her family may disown her if they were to know about her premarital sex and resulting pregnancy. Despite its controversial topic, “Accidents Will Happen” tackles abortion in an authentic, heartfelt way, emphasizing the importance of allowing people the autonomy to make decisions about their own bodies and giving them the protection and encouragement to do so despite the backlash they may face.
Degrassi: Next Class – “#IRegretNothing” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Over a decade later, Degrassi once again confronted the topic of abortion, this time focusing on 16-year-old Lola. If “Accidents Will Happen” was groundbreaking for its pro-choice messaging, “#IRegretNothing” takes it even further by depicting elements of the abortion process not shown on Degrassi at any point prior. Where Manny’s abortion storyline ends in the clinic after it is clear that she has made the decision but before she has undergone the procedure, Lola’s storyline takes us inside the room, depicting interactions between her and her doctor which act to inform and comfort both her and the audience, actively demystifying abortion in the process. What is so powerful about Lola’s abortion plotline, other than the non-judgmental and accurate depiction of the procedure itself, is her absolute confidence in her decision. When it is revealed to her classmates that she had an abortion, Lola, refusing to let others make her feel ashamed for the decision she made, films a vlog telling her story and posts it online. Once again, Degrassi demonstrates its ability to depict contentious subject matter with care and tact, proving its continued power, even after all these years.
Degrassi Depicts the Aftermath of Suicide
Degrassi High – “Showtime” (Season 2, Episodes 10 & 11)
In our current age, comprehensive content and trigger warnings are incredibly common and are a part of mainstream television discourse. But back in the early ‘90s, they were vague and often impersonal. That’s why this episode’s inclusion of both a pre- and post-show warning from two Degrassi High actors is incredibly shocking, innovative, and quite poignant. Audiences are told before the program about the impacts of suicide and the warning signs to look for, and they are given resources, such as helplines, to use when they or their loved ones are in crisis. This pre-show warning immediately sets the tone for the episode, communicating two important qualities: 1) suicide will not be exploited on the show in order to increase dramatic shock value and 2) suicide is serious and there is help available if you feel that you or a loved one may be suicidal. For young audiences, these messages are extremely important and allow the following fictional portrayal to read as that much more impactful. Within the episode, the focus is placed not on the act itself, but on the trail that it leaves behind. Blame, guilt, sadness, post-traumatic stress, anger, all of these emotions are felt by students as they respond to the situation in different ways. Rather than exploiting or glorifying the tragic situation for dramatic effect, like other teen shows have done, Degrassi was careful to portray suicide for what it is: a permanent choice which can leave pain and suffering in its wake. Episodes such as these truly demonstrate Degrassi’s ingenuity and much needed place in the contemporary televisual landscape.
Degrassi: The Next Generation – “Bittersweet Symphony” (Season 12, Episodes 31 & 32)
Campbell Saunders, an immediately beloved character who was introduced at the onset of Next Gen’s twelfth season, gave us one of Degrassi’s most impactful moments when he took his own life. Similar to the depictions of suicide on Degrassi High, the focus was much more about the lead up to and impact of his decision to take his own life than on the the act itself. However, unlike in “Showtime,” we as an audience are not once shown Cam’s body, blood, or any details of the process, instead learning about the tragedy through the reactions of other characters. This choice further accentuates the care with which Degrassi treats its characters, subject matter, and young audiences.
In contrast to Claude, the minor character who took his life in “Showtime,” Cam was a prominently-featured character throughout his run on the show. We were shown his struggles in moving to a new school for hockey, the pressures he felt to win for his team, the bullying he faced at the hands of his teammates, and the depression he fell into as a result of all of these factors. Though the concept of toxic masculinity was not as understood within the public consciousness at the time (over a decade ago), the show depicts it as existing clearly within Cam’s world of elite hockey, as he is encouraged by his teammates to objectify women and to forgo emotional expression in favour of not seeming ‘weak’. This only leads him to further bury his problems, to the point that suicide seems to be the only solution. In Canada, suicide rates are three times higher for men than women, and the demands of toxic masculinity are a likely culprit for this discrepancy. Degrassi made a powerful statement in choosing to depict Cam’s life in this way, emphasizing not only the potential tragedy of suicide but also confronting the dangerous, patriarchal cultures of elite sport and toxic masculinity which can fuel it.
Though there was no pre-show or content warning, Much Music hosted a talkback with the cast immediately following its release, which allowed audiences, both in studio and online, to open up a dialogue about the content of the show, as well as their personal emotions and experiences involving suicide. I think that this talkback perfectly represents the essence of Degrassi as a series: it always provides a space to open up difficult conversations. Degrassi has never just been about entertainment, but always has a message for the young target audience, whether that was about sexuality, bullying, mental health, or, in this case, suicide. It teaches young people that they are not alone in their struggles, that there are places they can go to talk about their issues, and that they can overcome the challenges of adolescence, no matter how great they may seem.
Degrassi: It Goes There
Whether it is carefully tackling teen suicide and its aftermath, demystifying the process of abortion, dispelling shame around sexuality, or confronting cultures of masculinity in sport, Degrassi has never been afraid to ‘go there’ or to continue the conversation after the show has ended. But, there is still so much that it has yet to explore. Not only are the issues of the past series still relevant, but they have transformed in the social media landscape, requiring new conversations, conversations which Degrassi is uniquely poised to undertake. I patiently await the release of a new Degrassi series, so that the next generation can have what Degrassi has been bringing audiences for decades: a chance to see themselves on screen.
You can watch Degrassi High and Degrassi: The Next Generation on YouTube in Canada, while Degrassi: Next Class can be found on Netflix.
Featured Image Credit: Epitome Pictures, Bell Media, Alliance Atlantis
Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!