Teen television has evolved in striking ways from the days of Growing Pains to the current era of Riverdale. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the genre’s general skittishness around abortion, a third-rail topic that’s often addressed only once on most teen-centric shows, if at all. Unless, of course, that show has the word Degrassi in its title. The enduring Canadian TV franchise has tackled abortion four times over the course of its nearly four-decade existence, and — amazingly enough — never in the same way twice. “Each of those stories was the same topic, but very much influenced by the social and political backdrop of the day,” points out Linda Schuyler, who co-created the very first Degrassi series, The Kids of Degrassi Street, in 1979 and has overseen every iteration made since, from Degrassi Junior High to Degrassi: Next Class, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
The first Degrassi student to choose to end her pregnancy was Erica Farrell (Angela Deiseach), who walked through a crowd of anti-abortion protesters into a Toronto clinic in the two-part series premiere of Degrassi High in 1989. Three years later, Tessa Campanelli (Kirsten Bourne) opted not to carry her baby with fan favorite Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) to term in the post-graduation telefilm School’s Out. Jumping ahead to 2004, a Next Generation Degrassi student, Manny Santos (Cassie Steele), chose to have an abortion with the full support of her mother in a pair of episodes that famously didn’t air on U.S. television until 2006. And just last year, the Degrassi: Next Class cameras followed Lola Pacini (Amanda Arcuri) into a clinic where a doctor gently explained the procedure to her in terms that teens in the show — and, more important, at home — could understand.
“I never could have done a scene where Lola’s got her feet on the stirrups and the doctor is talking to her in the ’80s,” Schuyler marvels now. “We just could not have done that! It was a time of political unrest, so we had our girls have to fight through demonstrators outside abortion clinics. The fact that we got away with what we did back then is quite astounding.” It was astounding to the kids watching at home as well. I was 11 years old and living in Toronto — only a few neighborhoods over from the real Degrassi Street, in fact — when I watched Erica enter her local clinic tightly clutching the hand of her twin sister, Heather, while a crowd of furious adults screamed at them. The final freeze-frame, with the sisters going through the clinic door while a protester holds a small plastic baby aloft in the foreground, is an image that has been seared into my brain ever since.
Erica’s bravery in the face of that fury resonated with me, and I came away from the episode fully understanding why she made her choice — the same way I understood why Erica’s friend Spike made the choice to have her baby in the previous series, Degrassi Junior High. Among kids my age, both of those Degrassi shows (as well as the tie-in novels that I voraciously read as extracurricular activities) could be relied upon to impart information about sex and its consequences in ways that were more tantalizing, and less awkward, than public school sex-ed class or the dreaded “talk” at home.
Schuyler is well aware of the impact Degrassi had on us ’80s and ’90s teens. “You have to remember there was no internet back then, so we had a mandate to not only bring up these issues, but also provide a lot of information because there were precious [few] other places that people could go. In fact, in the early days, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High were sold extensively to school boards and used as part of the health and sex-ed curriculum,” she says. “I think schools have gotten a lot better about it today, because I’ve heard that people sometimes will reference Degrassi still in the classrooms, but it doesn’t get brought in as part of the curriculum.” To this day, she’s accustomed to people (like me) telling her how much Degrassi played a part in their education as teenagers. “When I went to pitch Degrassi: Next Class to Netflix, one of the executives said to me, ‘I want you to know that I’m Canadian and got all my sex ed from Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High,” she recalls, chuckling.
Abortion and sex may play an important role in Degrassi’s past and present, but it’s intentionally never been a single-issue series. As part of Yahoo Entertainment’s “Why Teen TV Matters” series, we chatted with Schuyler about three other key Degrassi episodes that wrestled with serious subjects without talking down to its teen audience.
“Bad Blood, Parts 1 and 2” (Degrassi High, 1990)
At a time when misinformation about HIV and AIDS was still pervasive, Degrassi confronted the illness head-on in a two-part episode in which Joey Jeremiah learns that his frequent rival Dwayne Myers has been diagnosed as HIV-positive.
“I was particularly proud of the story that we did on AIDS. We actually had real guys who were living with AIDS come into our classroom and talk to the kids, and part of our storyline was that one of the guys who had it was a straight guy. So we weren’t just pushing the envelope in terms of bringing awareness to HIV, but we were also showing that it wasn’t just something that [impacted] the gay world,” Schuyler says. “We took one of our favorite characters, Joey, and put him in contact with the boy who had HIV. They got into a fistfight and Dwayne has to tell him to back off by saying, ‘Don’t touch my blood.’ Those were very unlikely characters to be put in that situation, and I think that had a lot of appeal to our audience. At the time, it was really, really important to me, but I didn’t realize until much later how groundbreaking that was.”
“Time Stands Still, Parts 1 and 2” (Degrassi: The Next Generation, 2004)
Five years after Columbine made school shootings international news, Degrassi brought a gunman into its hallways in the form of troubled teen Rick Murray. After being publicly humiliated, Rick comes to school carrying his dad’s gun and fires it at the classmate he blames for the prank — basketball star Jimmy Brooks, played by a certain future hip-hop star.
“It’s interesting because, as you probably know, school shootings are not as numerous here in Canada as they are south of the border. It doesn’t mean we’re immune to them, and we do have some isolated incidents, so we felt that we really wanted to tackle it,” Schuyler says. “We got in touch with Barbara Coloroso, who wrote the book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, because we wanted to look at our story from all those perspectives. The person we chose to be the victim was the athletic star of the basketball team, and he was shot, but not killed. Instead, he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, so his hopes and dreams were dashed. That character was played by somebody we now know as Drake, and it became a standout moment for him. The incident happened in Season 4, and then we spent the next four seasons with him as a major character in a wheelchair going through therapy and whatnot, so we saw the long-term impact this shooting had. That’s the other thing that’s important to us in storytelling — we don’t just take a topic and deal with it for one week and then it’s over.”
This interview was conducted in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, so we asked Schuyler if she’s been inspired by the wave of student activism brought about by that tragedy, including the planned March for Our Lives protest on March 24.
“When I heard Donald Trump say that what we need to do is arm the teachers, I just felt so nauseous. I couldn’t cope. It’s just so wrong. I am thrilled that this march is happening. The fact that these young people have found themselves a voice makes me feel so good,” she says. “But I’m not hopeful. I mean, with your current administration I just don’t know that this story is going to have a happy ending. It’s a bit like the #MeToo movement; these people are really holding on to their voice, and if they can do that and keep gaining traction, it’s not going to move as quickly as they want, but let’s hope they can keep some momentum happening.”
“#BreakTheInternet” (Degrassi: Next Class, 2017)
Moved by news reports about Syrian citizens suffering during that country’s prolonged civil war, Schuyler welcomed two refugees into Degrassi‘s student body in the third season of Next Class: Rasha and Saad, both of whom are poised to remain major characters when the show returns for its fifth year.
“One of the things we try very much to do is be inclusive with our storytelling, and that means having diversity in your casting. And I don’t just mean black and white, but also sexually, economically, and politically,” Schuyler says. “I’m a great believer in the more we understand and respect each other’s differences, the more we’re able to get rid of bullying and have a more compassionate understanding for one another. Having Syrian refugees come into the school put a face on refugees instead of just looking at them being bombed in Damascus. We put a human face on who these people are.”
Degrassi: Next Class is streaming on Netflix.
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