#TBT on Sexuality, the Rumor Mill, and Degrassi Junior High

Originally posted on May 1, 2015

It always catches me off guard when I learn that a close friend has managed to reach adulthood without Degrassi Junior High. I first saw this 1980s Canadian after-school series on a rollaway TV cart in sixth grade health class, and ever since I have to resist busting out into the opening theme whenever I see lockers, spiral-bound notebooks, or acid-wash jeans. If you ignore the obtrusive B-minus acting, it really isn’t a bad watch if you crave good messages about growing up and find the larger part of TV-dom wanting. On the surface, the show feels antiquated—a laughable relic of daytime TV set to the beat of the ’80s—but hang on past the awkwardness and you’ll find that this little show has covered some big ground for teenage girls.

Back in my late-’90s health class we all laughed at the punk-pandering title song, not to mention the Canadianisms that pepper the dialogue. (Grade sevens?) Being of Canadian stock myself, I gave the show a pass and settled in to watch for whatever brainy message our teacher was using TV to trick us into absorbing. What I came away with was not a bad primer on the old bildungsroman of girlhood.

One of the first episodes we watched was “Rumor Has It,” from Season 1. It stuck in my mind, in part because it dealt with a mum topic while grappling with the universal teen law of the grapevine. It explored a rumor about a teacher and a full circle of what to watch for when teenage chatter leaves the rails. I remember this one pretty clearly because it dealt with a central conflict that, in our small-town public school, was somehow more taboo and mysterious than drugs, teen pregnancy, and bullying combined. The episode opens on a dream sequence (I know—stay with me) wherein middle schooler Caitlin is having an awkward moment with a teacher, Ms. Avery, whom a few students think is a lesbian. Ms. Avery is giving a lecture about how a lot of exceptional women are often silent in the history books because it’s a male-dominated field, and a student, Kathleen, pegs the teacher down—out loud and in front of everyone—as a lesbian. Caitlin wakes from the dream in a terrified sweat and begins to question what these seemingly innocent dreams really mean.

So, Caitlin talks it over with her friends. Kathleen is every bit as brazen in real life as she is in the dreamscape, saying without a doubt that Ms. Avery is definitely a lesbian, that she saw her holding hands with a woman, and that she has never been seen with a man. The balanced voice of reason Melanie ask why it matters if a person is gay. Kathleen and a friend giggle, asking Melanie, “Why? Are you a lezzie too?”

Caitlin has enjoyed Ms. Avery’s lectures and defends her heterosexuality to Kathleen, only to garner suspicion that she’s gay herself. Her dreams later morph into depictions of Kathleen leading the class in chanting that Caitlin is a lesbian too, and even Caitlin’s best friend Susie takes a step back for fear of being seen as “that” kind of woman. Caitlin deals with relational aggression (the name calling), cliquiness, sexuality, the “good girl/bad girl” trope, silencing, and anxiety of authorship—all too common threads of girlhood—all in one episode.

When I pick this episode apart today, I see a lot more than I did back then. On first watch, it felt embarrassing that everyone was talking about Caitlin that way just because she enjoyed her teacher’s lectures, and I was sort of happy that Ms. Avery didn’t turn out to be “a lezzie” because this meant that it was the kids who were in the wrong for spreading rumors. After all, a hunky male teacher rolls up in his ’80s ride at the very end to take Ms. Avery away, calling her familiarly by her first name. The message back then seemed less like a pro-LGBTQ sentiment than a tract on tact—don’t believe everything you hear, plain and simple. When I revisit today, after fifteen years spent navigating the Real World and scrupulously underlining things in women’s studies texts, I see some things I missed back in my teenage days, when all I knew for sure was that boyfriends are the first step on the way to getting married, having babies, and achieving a lasting seal of social approval. I can see now all the criticism and positivity that, for me, used to hide under a moral about undue name calling.

For starters, I’d totally missed a lot of what Ms. Avery and Melanie had to say, and I think it’s because their point of view wouldn’t have held much water in heartland America, where our fathers would laugh quietly about lisping men and our mothers stopped watching Ellen after her little announcement. Here, in Ms. Avery and Melanie, was a great, big voice of reason that’s hard to miss now—being gay is not bad, and it’s totally no reason to judge someone. I see now that in Caitlin’s dream, she is happy and carefree at her teacher’s attention until everyone starts pointing at her and calling her “lezzie.” After the dream, she confides to her teddy bear that she might or she might not be—all she knows is that she doesn’t want her best friend, Susie, and everyone else to treat her like she’s different because of it.

When Ms. Avery confronts Caitlin about her sudden skittishness in class, the two talk, and it comes out that Ms. Avery is not gay, although she describes how common it is for a teenage mind to try to make sense of sexuality in adolescence. What’s more, she shares with the girl that being single or defying scripts on what it means to be a woman (Ms. Avery is not married, and she often kisses her close girl friends on the cheek) does not have to label a person as something outside of the norm. In short, Ms. Avery is teaching Caitlin that she doesn’t have to be marginalized.

The final note comes with a heavy hand and reinforces the message clearly. “I’m sorry I thought you were gay,” Caitlin says with true 1980s TV supplication.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Ms. Avery replies. “Besides, would it make any difference if I were? Would you think any less of me?” Caitlin shakes her head, smiling. Even though I missed it when I was in middle school, the point was not that you shouldn’t go around saying defamatory things about perfectly straight people, but that it shouldn’t be cause for alarm in the first place. Caitlin can be gay or straight. It doesn’t matter at all.

After Prop 8 and the recent ping-pong of marriage equality cases in higher courts (and even in the Supreme Court this week), it’s interesting to me both how far LGBTQ dialogue has come since this episode’s airing in 1987 and how much still needs to change. While the ’90s and 2000s ushered in a stronger push for gay rights, I still run into people almost on a daily basis who consider themselves open minded but titter when they find out that a star or a casual friend might be gay. After all we’ve been through, the world still feels like a junior-high classroom when it comes to sexuality.

For all it’s worth and for any messages I still may have missed, I have to say that Degrassi Junior High is bringing it Sassy-style when it comes to informing girlhood and smashing unhelpful tropes. This particular episode even goes so far as to tacitly question the maleness of gay discourse by putting women and girls at the center, and it’s telling (to me, anyway) that the whole debate came about because of female characters who don’t have a love interest, are intellectual, and enjoy kicking around bookish ideas with other females instead of talking about boys (Caitlin is Ms. Avery’s star student, and open-minded Melanie is fashioned after my own band-nerd roots). The rest of the series is pretty great too—they tackle teen pregnancy with a lengthy, multi-part discussion on abortion, adoption, paternal involvement, and safe sex practices—and it won’t be long before I strap down my friends, one by one, and make them watch. Call it a fun throwback, or an education. Either way, it’s worth a try.