Read This: Growing Up Degrassi
Non-fiction edited by Michele Byers (Sumach Press)
REVIEW BY Jodi-Ann Smith
Michele Byers’ Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity and Youth Cultures (Sumach Press) is a collection of 16 essays contributed by both scholars and fans of Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, and Degrassi: The Next Generation. For 25 years Degrassi has graced television sets across the nation, and this book explores the successes and failures the show has encountered along the way. Although rewarded for its contribution to Canadian culture, the show is more often critiqued for airing controversial topics. For over a decade, it has addressed subjects that many other series would never discuss—AIDS, abortion and drug use—leading to petitions to get Degrassi off the air.
Growing Up Degrassi is a remarkable effort. Containing a variety of voices, its aim is to show the role that the series has played in shaping the identity of Canadian youth. It achieves this aim, and goes beyond.
The introduction, “Creating a Classic in Television History,” zooms in on the impact that Degrassi has had on the teenage demographic, as author Mary Jane Miller reminisces on the long way that the series has come. From The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979, to Degrassi Junior High in the ’80s, followed by Degrassi High and now Degrassi: The Next Generation, the series has earned the title “revolutionary” for being the first ever aired to specifically target the teenage demographic in Canada.
Though there were creative differences between the producers Kit Hood and Linda Shuyler, writer Yan Moore and CTV’s American funding partners—which the book’s editor, Byers, addresses in her essay, “Revisiting Teenage Truths”—the goal of the show was always to speak to teenagers in a voice that was authentically their own. Byers then takes a closer look at the subject of national identity and explores the factors that distinguish the series as being “Canadian” rather than “American.”
Drugs, sex and money in Degrassi are all confronted in Bettina Spencer’s essay, “Everybody Wants Something.” Spencer critiques US counterpart shows, such as Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210, for lacking a realistic approach to teenage issues. Degrassi, on the other hand, is so realistic it almost seems unscripted.
At first glance the book appears bland—a textbook-like cover and a lack of photographs throughout the publication. Nonetheless, the contents prove that the old adage is true about not rushing to judgement. Growing Up Degrassi consists of powerful and edifying compositions, touching on topics that can only be understood by true Degrassi devotees.