Say the word "Degrassi" to anyone 35 or younger in Canada and she'll know exactly what you're talking about. The iconic television show has gone through many incarnations: "Degrassi Junior High," "Degrassi High," "The Kids of Degrassi Street," and most recently "Degrassi: The Next Generation," but has always dealt openly with the issues that kids face growing up. What makes the series unique is the writers' and producers' willingness to deal with issues that make most adults, let alone teens, cringe. Since its debut in 1987 the show has dealt with frankly with abortion, homosexuality, child abuse, rape, teenage pregnancy, AIDS and other complex topics.
I remember rushing home from school as a kid to catch the latest Degrassi episode. At the time I was educated rather than shocked by the topics that they covered. When a punk character named Spike became pregnant after sleeping with her boyfriend, she wrestled with whether or not to continue with the pregnancy, how to tell her boyfriend Shane, and how to tell her parents. As a young girl, this was likely one of the first times that I had heard of the subject "teen pregnancy" and I watched in fascination as someone that was close to my age made one of the hardest decisions of her life. The show presented situations realistically enough for me to wonder, "what would I do?"
"Degrassi: The Next Generation" keeps alive the tradition of dealing with controversy. It has several openly gay and lesbian characters, characters questioning their sexuality, and all of them trying to make the choices about their own sexual experiences. I am well past the target audience's age group, and yet I continue to tune in. If I had a child, I would sit down with him or her and watch the episodes together in order to start a dialogue about difficult subjects.
Pop culture today is saturated with sexual images, and youth are bombarded with contradictory messages – sex is something you should only do in marriage, or at the very least in a "committed and loving" relationship; at the same time, supposedly, "everyone is doing it." It is refreshing to see that issues that affect youth so deeply can be addressed in such a meaningful and teen-centered way. Instead of preaching, Degrassi lets youth be in charge of their future by making choices that are the best for them, and not catering to the wishes of parents or other authority figures.