Degrassi, Teens, and Rape Apologism

A recent plot line in popular teen drama “Degrassi: the Next Generation” featured what was, for all rights and purposes, date rape. Instead of taking the standard track for the show, “Degrassi” ignored the issue and made the abusive actions of character Declan all right to thousands of teens watching.

If you are unfamiliar with “Degrassi”, you can watch the episodes in question (Love Lockdown Parts 1 and 2) here

Oh, Degrassi. What hath thou wrought?

Background: Tackling issues that many teen dramas often avoid, or get wrong, Degrassi wins awards for its cliched and intense portrayal of high school life. Early years of the Next Generation saw several plotlines getting censored on American television: an abortion, a lesbian relationship, drug usage and consequences, school violence. Now Canadian and American networks work closely together to ensure that the programming is top notch and groundbreaking, including, earlier this year, the first transgender young adult on television (which was, by the way, handled incredibly).

The range of success in portraying teen issues varies, but ever since the original incarnation of ‘Degrassi Junior High’ in the 1980s, the show has been used as a teaching tool for social situations and family discussions. In the absence of after school specials about what the kids get into these days, it is shows like Degrassi that perhaps show youth positive options to problems they may face.

A History of Rape: Degrassi is no stranger to rape. In season two, bitchy cheerleader Paige was coerced by a guy she liked into an upstairs room at a party, immediately pushed past her comfort zone, and, while shouting ‘No’, held down and raped. As Feminist Music Geek notes, she used music to help overcome feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness to fight back, and testified against her rapist in court. Later, in season 6, uptight Christian Darcy decided to cut loose and go wild for a weekend: this backfired when her drink was roofied. When she woke up next to her boyfriend, she assumed they had engaged in consensual sex, which was, in itself, bad enough because Darcy had sworn to remain a virgin until marriage. Eventually, enough memory of the night came back (and Peter swore he had done nothing) that Darcy believed she had been raped. She got tested, had an STD, and began a downward spiral that involved a suicide attempt, and sexual advances toward a teacher who tried to help her. Both girls have slow healing processes, but they are shown to heal through extended plotlines, and the recurring issues that these involve(though Darcy is written out of the show so that Shenae Grimes could join the cast of 90210).

Demographics: Now. In addition to teaching life lessons, Degrassi has to drive an audience. The Degrassi audience is, for the purposes of this argument, comprised of 5 somewhat equal parts. Part one is loyal fans. These have seen every episode of every incarnation of the show, and will watch every week. They probably participate in some kind of fandom, whether it be following someone involved on Twitter or reading/writing fanfiction. Part two is new fans. These fluctuate with every ‘generation’ or group of students that go through. These are the screaming fangirls who tune in when their favorite character has a plotline but doze off at other times. Part three are casual viewers, those who stay on the channel if they have nothing better to do and generally recognize the characters. Part four are parents of teens watching the show, and educators. They might watch with intent to monitor their childrens’ intake, or simply to partake in family time. They offer commentary on the action and are a sounding board for questions that viewers have, stirred up by the episode. They might even be fans themselves. Part five is a wild card: friend of a friend who has to watch the new episode at a sleepover. Boyfriend of a part one. Someone who marathons the show for a week, but then encounters a mean fan and drops the show.

An ideal Degrassi episode will have something for all of these audiences: fanservice (read: hot guys or the couple du jour) for the flighty new group, the structured and dramatic plot that older fans have come to expect, something to keep casual viewers coming back, and an educational value for parents and educators.

Thesis: The recent two-part episode Love Lockdown failed on an moral level, one from which I am not sure Degrassi can recover, no matter how many successful episodes follow.

Background: Holly J and Declan began dating in season 9 when he convinced her that he liked her take-charge, sometimes-bitchy attitude and was willing to go the extra mile to find out about her life. Their relationship was often physical, and focused on financial aspects as Declan’s family is very rich and Holly J’s family became quite poor. During their summer vacation (Holly J’s internship) to New York City, Holly J engaged in a rivalry over Declan with his sister, which resulted in Declan’s fluctuating behavior: at first angrily siding with his sister and then dramatically requesting forgiveness on a live television broadcast.

Later, in season 10, Holly J and Fiona (Declan’s sister) have a new friendship, one that is consistently troubled with issues of purchased affections. It is no wonder that this spreads into the relationship between Holly J and Declan: he has been living in New York, and believes that smooth-talking and a beautiful necklace will reassure his place in Holly J’s heart. They go on a break.

In Declan’s absense, Holly J and Sav engage in a casual relationship: flirty and physical. They always appear smiling and happy. Towards recent episodes this might even indicate deeper feelings than their original ‘only until graduation’ pledge.

Love Lockdown Part 1: In Love Lockdown Part 1, Declan returns. His goal is to convince Holly J to get back with him. From the moment he sees her with Sav, he does not register Sav as a threat, but as an obstacle to be brushed aside. He just needs to get some time alone with Holly J, and then she will see. For most of the evening, she sticks to Sav’s side (to Declan’s frustration, the episodes are told at his perspective) until Declan creates the perfect distraction: set up a sweet DJ booth for Sav the aspiring musician at a party. This gives Declan the in he has been wanting, where Holly J promptly turns him down. “I’m not going to do anything tonight/at this party” “I have a boyfriend” are variations on Holly J’s replies to Declan’s pleading. He doesn’t get it.

Little sister to the rescue: Habitual drunk Fiona plays up her level of drunkenness for the sake of big brother’s love life, leaning heavily on her best friend and big brother. Holly J knows how to handle this situation and sends Sav home. Once Fiona is safely tucked in bed, Holly J and Declan are left alone, in the dark, on the sofa. A few words of concern about Fiona, and Declan’s agenda is back on the table. Holly J reiterates that she has a boyfriend, that she isn’t comfortable doing anything, that she doesn’t want to. Words that Declan ignores, kissing her shoulder, her neck. “We shouldn’t.” He kisses her cheek, turns her head, kisses her mouth, and she, reluctantly kisses back as the episode ends.

The reaction: Two definitive camps. Holly J was raped. No means no. And, If you think Holly J was raped you are stupid.

Most of the replies to this insisted that kissing and ‘spreading your legs’ do infact indicate consent.

Victim blaming. Rape only exists under certain conditions. Holly J wasn’t raped because she didn’t really resist. Real victims suffer for years, they are beaten, drugged, and really abused. Holly J is fine.

Love Lockdown, Part 2: The description of the episode: “Holly J feels extremely conflicted about what happened with Declan at his party”. This episode too, though not as much as part 1, is framed in Declan’s narrative.

Holly J and Fiona:
“Last night, I didn’t want things to go as far as they did”
“Like, as in sex? You and Declan have done that before.”
“No. Last night, I felt… pressured.”

Holly J and Declan:
“I didn’t want to. I told you that!”
“I thought that was because of Sav!”
“Does it matter why?”

Okay, so we’re on the right track, at least to recover from something atrocious. Right? And then, Holly J gets into Yale with Declan… and “I don’t know how I feel.”
“He thinks that you think he raped you.”
“I never said that.”

Holly J is backpedaling. Protecting herself from the pain she ends up feeling anyway. Rape is a stigma and a label that she obviously doesn’t want, so she denies it.

Part of the final scene, Holly J and Declan:
“I don’t… think you raped me.”
“Do you hate me?”
“I regret what happened.”

The reaction: A potentially facetious remark in tumblr RP, made to thedeclancoyne: “Congrats on not being a rapist.”

The results: Internalized rationalizations. If you were in a relationship once, there is always a chance to rekindle, even if you use coercion. If a guy is hot, you probably want it. If you dated a guy once, had sex willingly with him once, you probably want it again. If you say no, but then go along with it, you are saying yes. If you are smart and sassy under normal circumstances but don’t put those skills to use under duress, you obviously didn’t really feel threatened.

These statements fit in perfectly with contemporary culture’s view on rape, but not with what our youth should be learning. Take a look at a few of these graphics and campaigns.

Would it have been difficult for Degrassi to take a step back from the heart-throb Declan’s point of view for a moment, to truly examine the situation, to show viewers that Holly J was over-rationalizing, acting fearful and in denial, instead of staying in Declan’s view and getting a romanticized picture of potential future love? NO.

Love Lockdown Parts 1 and 2 is a plotline that asks viewers to side with Declan and apologize for his rape of Holly J. This is simply unacceptable.

And then, what prompted me to finally finish up this meta, teennick used this as a valentine. The lines he used – “back when he was with Jane” (quote @teennick) to initially hook up with her — while she was hesitant, and already dating Spinner. His tradition of claiming and power in relationships is long. And instead of punishing him, we get a Declan valentine.

As of the posting of this entry, Holly J’s plot has not been resolved or addressed.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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