freelance writer & illustrator

Why Do the Degrassi Writers Have So Much Contempt for Black and Brown Girls?

August 29, 2017

 

This critique does not cover Degrassi: Next Class.

 

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As a millennial who writes on culture—which includes representation (or lack thereof) in film and television—I feel it is my duty to discuss a little-known series called Degrassi. Now dubbed Degrassi: Next Class, it was known as Degrassi: The Next Generation when I watched it (aka in its golden era).

 

So why, as a late-twenty-something, am I writing about a Canadian teen soap opera?

 

Well, for one, the demographic the show-runners targeted was (and is) an adolescent and teen one. And I happened to be a part of it.

 

Two, the show-runners cast actors who were the approximate ages of the characters they played. This isn’t exactly common for teen dramas, whose casting directors seem addicted to casting twenty-seven year-old body builders as should-be-scrawny freshman boys (see, Teen Wolf).

 

Finally, because neither I, nor the actors, nor other viewers of the show have ceased to exist past the formative years during which we viewed it, the show’s messages about members of certain racial, religious, and gender populations need to be discussed.

 

These messages are not insignificant for the potentially lasting effects they may have and for what they tell young people about who they are based on what they look like and where they are from.

 

I don’t currently watch the show so I can’t comment on whether it’s made progress, but I hope to high heavens it has, because an entire dissertation could be written on the way the writers mince characters that are Black, brown, queer, and girl- and woman-identified.

 

It’s almost as if the writers of Degrassi use featuring “diversity” as an excuse to display their contempt for the non-white—especially non-male—characters they have created.

 

Because the show features only one main cast member who is trans, it is hard to say whether there is or would be a pattern of abuse of trans characters at the hands of the writers.

 

However, Adam (played by cisgender woman Jordan Todossey), who didn’t appear until 2010, was repeatedly misgendered by his mother and love interests early on. Moreover, upon not reciprocating their feelings for him, four of the girls Adam pursued romantically immediately wound up in committed relationships with his cisgender brother.

 

Adam’s fate is his untimely death by driving into a tree while in an emotionally toxic relationship with a Christian girl who constantly projects her personal discomfort with his trans-ness onto him.

 

As you can see, #progress and #transvisibility.

 

The writers of the show do something quite different with the Black girl characters, on the other hand. (And by “different,” I mean they create the teen soap adaptation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.)

 

That is, where there is an oversaturation of white female-centric romantic storylines, the Black girls are lucky if they get one relationship each during their tenures on the show.

 

Curiously, the Black female characters who are allegedly members of the main cast do not seem to actually be members of the main cast. I mean, if a character is absent from ninety-five percent of the show’s plot, can they really be considered anything more than a “glorified extra”?

 

This is how Andrea Lewis described her character, Hazel Aden, in an honest blog post about the racism she experienced during her six-year stint on Degrassi, during which she only had one major storyline, which was that she was secretly Muslim. (A character trait that was never mentioned again.) It’s possible that the plot Andrea Lewis was referring to was the one she had with Aubrey Graham’s character, Jimmy—as his girlfriend.

 

Yes, the one she shared with Jimmy was the only romantic relationship written for Hazel in her six years at Degrassi (despite the fact that she was allegedly one of the school’s most popular students). However, Jimmy was ultimately lured away from Hazel. By a white girl, no less (Ellie, played by Stacey Farber).

 

By the end of her time on the show, Ellie had had at least three fully fleshed out, long-running, romantic storylines under her belt. This is in addition to complex personal storylines about her mother’s alcoholism, her father being overseas in the military, her struggle with self-mutilation, her anxiety about having sex for the first time as a college student, etc., etc.

 

Did Hazel even have parents?

 

Hazel, like many of the other Black girl characters, acted as a sounding board and a constant shoulder to cry on for the multifaceted likes of the white female characters whose stories were gritty, real, and relatable.

 

She was there to spot the warning signs when Terri was being abused by her unstable boyfriend Rick, and the first one to give a name to what predatory Dean did to Paige: rape.

 

Then, there's Chantay Black, played by Jajube Mandiela: she was retconned to a dizzying extent. She first appeared in season four as a classmate of Emma and Manny.

 

While Emma and Manny graduated in 2007, Chantay managed to put off graduating until 2011. In season eleven. Mysteriously, without flunking courses or getting held back, as was customary for many of the white students in the main cast, who were constantly being cut breaks by school staff. (Remember when Mrs. Hatzilakos allowed Spinner back after he confessed to framing Jimmy for the prank that led to Rick shooting him?)

 

Despite Chantay’s extended (and unexplained) matriculation, the writers still managed to (impressively) avoid giving her any storylines except for one involving the boy she dates in her seven-season tenure and another wherein she successfully convinces the principal to allow the students to participate in clubs and extracurricular activities (during which she delivers a compelling monologue about the importance of community for young people—but still).

 

One Black girl. Seven seasons. Two storylines. One romance.

 

I’m not one for obnoxious punctuation but—somebody help???

 

Marisol Lewis’s character (played by Shanice Banton) is written with more personality—albeit shallow, judgmental and, at times, seemingly amoral: within the same season, she both participates in an affair with a boy whose girlfriend is forced to stay home to raise their newborn child and maliciously reveals her best friend’s eating disorder to the entire school.

 

Despite the fact that the boy she likes finds her boring—repeatedly saying so to everyone, including her white best friend, whom he ultimately ends up dating—Marisol winds up with the embarrassing, abject Muslim boy who is the constant butt of everyone’s fat jokes (a different issue, entirely).

 

Her only relationship, other than the affair, on the show.

 

 

So as far as the Black girl characters on Degrassi go, no romance, or, you know, stories. Because who needs stories when you’re an actor?

 

And what about the female Asian characters on the show?

 

You won’t find any iterations of the submissive Asian girl stereotype on Degrassi. Well, except for Leia, played by Judy Jiao, whose main storyline is that she’s so (insufferably) insecure about not fitting in with her boyfriend’s friends that she lies that Pete Wentz played her lullabies when she was a child. She is quickly expelled from the clique.

 

Manny (played by Cassie Steele), on the other hand, is repeatedly branded the “school slut” during her nine-season run—so much so that by the time one of the white female Christian characters revives the nickname in season five, Manny angrily replies, “You are the last person to ever call me that,” before grabbing the back of the Christian’s head. (It is worth mentioning that Manny’s nickname was originally coined by her Best Friend Forever, Emma, played by Miriam McDonald.)

 

Not only does Manny have the reputation of school slut locked down, but she also has an impressive record of public brawls under her belt.

 

This is in stark contrast to the unsullied likes of her wispy-headed, environmentally-conscious, white BFF, who constantly admonishes her when she is being shallow, undisciplined (never forget how Emma attempted to strong-arm Manny into an eating disorder), or a downright slut.

 

Ah, yes, virtuous Emma, who ho-shamed Manny, only to perform oral sex on a guy classmate (who, at the time, had a girlfriend). But that was okay, because Emma only did so in response to her problems. She was acting out. A phenomenon reserved exclusively for white kids, including white girls who, ordinarily, epitomize chastity and virtue. And should be viewed by Black and brown folk as examples after which they should model themselves.

 

Similarly to Manny, Alli (played by Mindy Shankar) is precocious, having sex at a young age and getting into very public physical altercations with her female peers—usually over who is or isn’t a slut.

 

On top of it, Alli’s boyfriends treat her like shit. Her first one sends her nude photographs to his best friend as an act of retaliation. Her second one cheats on her (with the girl she gets into a physical fight with over who is a boyfriend-stealer). Her third one also cheats on her (while she is away at a summer science program).

 

Like Emma does Manny, Alli’s best friend Clare (played by Aislinn Paul) chastises Alli about her boy-craziness, and it is clear that Clare has the right idea: at one point, two boys compete for Clare’s affection, and neither can express enough how willing he is to wait until Clare is ready to have sex, and how he wants her to fully understand that there is zero pressure to do so.

 

Because Clare has self-respect, she is worth their respect.

 

Manny and Alli, on the other hand, deserve zero respect from not only their dating partners, but also, from their closest friends.

 

Did I mention that unlike their white counterparts, all of the aforementioned Black and brown characters are members of the school’s cheerleading team? Hazel is the only one with a white best friend who, as the team captain, does not shame her for her oh-so airheaded obsession with becoming a part of it.

 

Clare’s character, like Emma’s, is “deep.” She’s into books, not cheerleading (how very Taylor Swift of her).

 

From the get-go, she’s shy. You can tell, because with that ponytail and those glasses, she’s not like the “other girls.” She doesn’t “care” about her looks. (All of which is very, embarrassingly She's All That).

 

 

Honestly, I am wondering what writer on the show was just dying to get it greenlit so their white teen girl fantasies could be fulfilled through bookish characters like Clare and Emma—the ones who finally win out over the brown, privileged likes of girls like Alli and Manny.

 

If you think I am kidding, the writers constantly draw from the vampire fan-fic well when writing Clare’s plot. It’s kind of uncomfortable knowing you are looking into the window of an adult white woman’s unfulfilled teen fantasies, most of which are apparently delineated in Twilight. A little too intimate, if you ask me.


So, just a recap: Manny and Alli are unable to control their physical urges—especially in the name of boys—either to have sex or to physically attack other women.

 

It would seem that, due to the obvious lack of representation (and bashing of) Black and brown girl characters—in addition to the tactless treatment of the sole trans character—Degrassi would be met with a chorus of critiques.

 

Of course, it is pretty gross that the writers of Degrassi claim that their goal is to portray the lives of teenagers realistically, only to (by their one-dimensional or racist portrayals of non-white female characters) make clear that complex and rich inner lives are the domain of white characters.

 

Thankfully, perusing the social media accounts of Andrea, Jajube, Shanice, Cassie, and Mindy reveals that they have all successfully moved on and appear to be living well, Black and brown and women and all.

 

Nonetheless, I really hope writers, producers, and casting directors are doing better by kids these days, because in all seriousness, representation matters. And with that, rest in agony, ghosts of racist Degrassi casting and writing.

 

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Selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in Culture, Equality, and TV in February 2019.

 

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