In a Degrassi: Next Class recap, a few social issues the show addresses stand out: women’s rights, racism, and mental illness.
Like the previous Degrassi franchise incarnations, Degrassi: Next Class has always offered up plenty of teenage drama. It has also tackled a number of social issues, commenting on them with emotion and nuance.
Touching on these issues is one of Degrassi’s greatest strengths. Here’s your Degrassi: Next Class recap of some of the biggest social issues the show has addressed so far.
“I had seen firsthand how women are treated differently. For me, it was just small stuff like catcalls at shows. But the harassment I’ve gotten lately, it all comes from the same thing. It’s people saying, ‘I’m allowed to do this to her because she’s just a girl.’ Words like slut and rape, they matter. They make us feel devalued and threated. They choose words that inflict pain and then they tell us it’s our fault for getting upset about it. These words are meant to silence us.”
Season 1 of Degrassi: Next Class took us on a feminist journey. It addressed consent, cat calling, and rape culture. Maya Matlin is at the center of these issues. As she deals with the men in her life — her boyfriend, guys at her music performances, and anonymous trolls online — she comes to identify herself as a feminist.
Maya and her boyfriend Zig deal with consent when their communication about sex breaks down. The first time they had sex, Maya had taken drugs and felt like she wasn’t in control. She’s nervous to have sex again or to even talk to Zig about it.
When she opens up, Zig tells her he never wants to feel like he’s forcing her. He asks if he can sit next to her. He asks if he can kiss her. Maya learns to say an enthusiastic yes to the things she wants, and Zig learns to listen.
Maya also deals with men talking down to her when she performs with her band at a bar. One guy mansplains to her how to set up her own equipment. Another rudely interrupts her by talking on his cell phone. Many others catcall her, yelling sexual things to this seventeen-year-old girl on stage.
To deal with her frustration, Maya writes a song about catcalling called “Not Okay” in which she explains that these actions aren’t okay. These experiences lead her to join the feminism club at Degrassi.
Later in the season, Maya starts receiving hateful messages and death threats online. When the threats prevent her from performing her song “Not Okay” (which has become an anthem for the club) at a feminism club event, she Skypes in to share her message.
She addresses how threatening words matter. Her experiences show us that words do matter. And violent words can lead to violent actions, as they do when the SWAT team shows up at Maya’s house due to a bomb threat.
Maya’s journey to accept the title of feminist shows a progression many women can recognize in themselves. She learns to stand up for herself. Those around her learn to support her. Catcalling is not okay. Only yes means yes. Words matter. These messages are empowering.
“Turns out the [zero tolerance] policy is not always applied fairly … It turns out that a white male student is three times more likely to be exempt from the policy than a nonwhite student. Six times for girls.”
“So the policy is racist?”
In season 2, one of the central social issues was racism. Two story lines interweave to show the repercussions of racism. Here’s a Degrassi: Next Class recap of those stories and what lessons they can teach us.
In a prank war against a rival volleyball team, Frankie Hollingsworth paints an unflattering banner of caricatures to hang in the other team’s school. The school is nicknamed the Zoo — because it is in a poor, black neighborhood — and the team members get painted as Zoo animals.
Frankie paints the team captain as a monkey. The painting is racist, but Frankie refuses to admit her wrongdoing. She gets defensive and only apologizes by saying, “I’m sorry you were offended.” Her only punishment is having to sit out some volleyball games.
When Frankie’s car breaks down weeks later, a black man stops and offers to help her change her tire. She instinctively locks her car doors. Only after this encounter does she realize how racism is ingrained in some of her instincts, even if she never meant to hurt anyone. She finally makes a real apology and vows that she must do better.
Another story line has one of the school’s black male students getting suspended from school for a week. Tiny Bell gets into a fight outside of school one day when someone punches him. The school’s zero tolerance policy against violence immediately gets him suspended.
His punishment is compared to Frankie’s (a rich, white girl) and seen as unfair. His girlfriend and fellow students hold their own Black Lives Matter protest, which ends up opening a dialog about racism.
These story lines show that racist actions don’t need to have racist intentions. A history of oppression and violence are what make racist actions harmful, even if that’s not the intent. Frankie’s reluctance to accept that her actions were racist and hurtful are too common in our society. Unfair standards against black men are, too.
Frankie’s eventual acceptance of her harmful actions prove that its possible for all of us to step up. Degrassi’s willingness to talk about Tiny’s treatment gives us a vehicle to talk about it too.
Like the show acknowledges, talking about race is hard. But it’s also important to acknowledge when it impacts how we treat others.
“Getting better is going to take time. It’s a mountain, but not one you’re going to climb in a day.”
Many characters in Degrassi’s history have struggled with mental illness. A Degrassi: Next Class recap of mental illness story lines has three prominent additions to that list. Miles Hollingsworth, Hunter Hollingsworth, and Maya Matlin struggle with mental illness in the first three seasons of Next Class.
In the first season, we see Miles struggle with his anxiety. He articulates that he can’t breathe when forced into situations with his abusive father. Tightness in his chest and trouble breathing are very real physical symptoms of anxiety, but his symptoms are brushed away by his family.
When he can’t find a healthy way to cope, he turns to pills to self-medicate. Miles eventually suffers from panic attacks, is hospitalized, and turns to professional counseling for help.
Maya experiences PTSD and depression after a bush crash at the end of season 2. She expresses to her school counselor that she feels like she’s drowning, even though her responsibilities aren’t overwhelming. She tells her friends that she doesn’t even feel sad; she just feels numb.
No one believes that her feelings are more than typical teenage stress. She turns to online videos of violence and taking morbid pictures just to feel something. Eventually, she attempts to commit suicide and ends up in the hospital.
Hunter has trouble with managing his anger throughout season 1. He sends violent threats to others online. He writes a kill list and brings a gun to school. When he crashes his brother’s car in season 2, his parents send him to the hospital for help.
He’s reluctant to accept it, but eventually realizes he doesn’t want to keep pushing others away. He goes through treatment and eventually is able to continue on an outpatient basis.
One of the things I love most about these story lines is how these characters don’t magically get better overnight. Many shows address mental illness as an event. A character has a manic episode or a depressed moment, then they swing back to deal with the other drama like nothing ever happened.
Degrassi: Next Class follows these characters through their deepest pain and their road to recovery. Miles and Maya both go to therapy. Hunter even has an extended stay at a psychiatric inpatient facility. They share their struggles and the healing process with their loved ones.
This openness creates dialogue between characters in the show about mental illness. More importantly, it offers that same opportunity to viewers of the show. It lets people know they are not alone in their struggles. It shows it’s okay to ask for help and that dealing with a mental illness is a process. That is a powerful message. Degrassi tells it well.
There’s your Degrassi: Next Class recap of some of the most important social issues the show addressed in its first three seasons. With season 4 dropping this week, what else do you want to see the show address?