Whatever it Takes: The Queervolution of Degrassi (yeah…I went there.)
Originally published on my defunct Tumblr. Feel free to read it here, there or everywhere. Note that it was written five years ago and I've not updated it since. Should anyone like me to tackle the happenings of Degrassi: Next Class, I'll gladly do so, but I wanted to keep this piece in original form for now.
This article looks at Degrassi’s 35-year shift from teaching tool to representation for its queer audience and ends its scope with season 14 of the original remake.
When the Degrassi franchise began, its queer characters were shown through a straight lens. Their compadres, outside of dates, may still mostly be straight, as is the unfortunate side effect of television. However, their lives are no longer about how their friends cope with their queerness. Now, Degrassi’s queers’ queerness is still a step above incidental, which is fitting, considering the after-school special nature of show. However, Degrassi’s queer characters now have active voices and agency. Degrassi has reached a point where it has stopped telling audiences, straight and otherwise alike, that it’s okay to be queer, because they just assume- no expect- they know and have started telling stories.
For better or for worse, Degrassi has featured its fair share of the path not-so straight and narrow through the years. This goes all the way back to Degrassi Junior High’s 3X06 “He Ain’t Heavy”. Even then we were treated to an after-school special about the Future Mr. Simpson’s (Stefan Brogren) gay brother. It is very typical 1980s fair. In this gem of an episode, we even learn that not just gay people get AIDS. Good old Archie has to be reassured that he won’t turn out gay just because his brother is. Because that would be awful. At the end of the episode, Simpson’s parents essentially decide to disown their super-star athlete gay son. And while he may have not handled the news with such grace originally, knowing this particular facet of Archibald Simpson’s backstory enriches the current generation of stories. It proves the point that people who have experiences with minorities or minority situations (i.e. teen pregnancy) are going to be more empathetic to a given situation. Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes. Of course, it’s not uncommon for a modern day educator in a large city to be so chill with lgbtqia issues, but when The Next Generation (TNG) launched, I was a high school student in California’s San Francisco Bay Area and even there, things were not as lax as they are now. Degrassi has, more so than a lot of other television programming, done a fairly good job in reflecting the societal “pulse” with regard to queer issues.
Simpson’s gay brother as the franchise’s introduction to anything queer is pretty in keeping with anything up through the 1990s. At least in the United States. I don’t know much about Canadian programming in the 1980s and 90s beyond The Kids in the Hall, which was quite progressive, but arguably for a much different audience.
Let’s now flash forward to TNG. In our first three seasons, we’re introduced to two gay threads- one major, one minor. I’ll address the latter first. One of the show’s main characters, Ashley (Melissa McIntyre) finds out her parents split because her dad is gay and cheated on her mom with a man. Ashley may not be homophobic, but this probably feels like a huge betrayal to her. At the very least, it’s an adjustment. One’s parents getting a divorce is difficult no matter what. Finding out it ended because one of them cheated is also tricky. Add in recalibrating what you knew about their sexual orientation? So, our first two queer Degrassi franchise stories are about how a central heterosexual, cisgender student deals with their family being ripped apart by a family member coming out of the closet as gay. Of course, Ashley eventually learns to see her father through this new lens, as we can assume Simpson did with his brother if his school policies are any indication.
How would Ashley’s storyline play out now or would Degrassi even bother with it in 2015? Would she be more understanding, or less so? As we progress in time, it’s generally easier to come out in Western society, so would there be more judgment on her part? Or would a child, more equipped with knowledge of queer issues not take several seasons to come around to the idea of having a queer parent? Will Degrassi ever feature a kid who just casually has two moms or dads and no other parent?
Unsurprisingly, the first major queer thread featured on Degrassi is that of a white cis gay boy,Marco del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero). And, boy does he face a lot of "it goes there” drama due to his homosexuality. Like, so, so much. And sometimes I wonder how much his narrative reflected the times in his particular culture and how much of it reflected the landscape of television at the time. Full disclosure, I was coming up, and out, during TNG. Sometimes watching Degrassi, it doesn’t feel like I am watching a show taking place in a urban area. That can be a good reminder that “liberal big city” doesn’t equal utopia. My point isn’t necessarily that Marco is unrealistic, but that perhaps his boyfriend, Dylan Michalchuk (John Bregar), is a better example of life in a big city. Marco was the every-gay. Marco and Dylan are like two sides of the “It Gets Better” project before Dan Savage made that a thing. Dylan is The Gay for whom it got better. He also got significantly less screen time as a result.
I’m actually going to press rewind a little bit on Marco’s story, because the very beginning of his storyline was really not even his, but that of his “girlfriend”, Ellie (Stacey Farber). Parts of the story come off as a guide for girls questioning if they’re dating a closeted boy. A lot of it is about her not feeling attractive. Ellie has to be the one to nudge Marco out of the closet and toward Dylan. He is so afraid of coming out that he would have happily pretended to play couple with Ellie for quite some time.
In Marco’s big coming out episodes, “Pride" (3X04, 3X05), Dylan and several others discuss whether Marco is straight or gay without any possibility of an option between. At this point, this doesn’t feel like the show commenting on bi-erasure. This is erasure. It’s never checked. Degrassi is a lot better about this now. I actually had a hard time going through some of the older episodes for all their outdated-ness. Good reminder to be grateful for our progress.
Upon learning that Marco is gay, his best friend, Spinner (Shane Kippel), pens “Marco is a fag” on the boy’s bathroom wall. Marco discovers this shortly after he’s been gay-bashed. Spinner asks him why he can’t just stop being gay. Marco replies that he cannot in a manner that implies he just might if he could, that gay is the non-preferable way to be. This is in stark contrast to the current Degrassi meme- that queerness is just a different way to be. When Spinner and Marco’s mutual friend, Jimmy (Drake), first comes upon the bathroom graffiti, he asks Spinner if he’ll next write something about Jimmy’s blackness. Which shows that the writers and producers were aware of the similarities between those two types of discrimination. And yet, were they to have implied that Jimmy had any desire to gain acceptance and privilege in society by trading his black identity for a white one, somehow I don’t think that would have gone over so well…
The majority of Marco’s storylines were about his being gay. That is perhaps the biggest difference between TNG and the new incarnation of Degrassi characters. And, also very of its time. Queer characters were coming out stories “back in the day”. We are with Marco as he gets broken up with for not coming out. We are still with him when he comes out to just about every important person in his life. Of course, we follow him through just about every-teen milestones as well. For that reason, it would not be quite fair to call Marco a token. He was also too important to his time and to too many people, but I don’t think the story has aged well. I do think that our current generation of loveable goofs stand on his shoulders. I mean, look at this vs. this vs. this.
During the Marco years, we were introduced to Alex Nuñez (Deanna Casaluce). Alex is the resident tough girl who hangs out with the bad kids and does bad things and is maybe just a little mildly homophobic. She even threatens to out Marco at a school election. But things start to shift as she grows ever closer to Dylan’s-yes, that Dylan-sister, Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins).
“Palex" was the show’s first attempt at a queer female storyline, a lesbian, non-monosexuality, and a queer person of color (qpoc). Alex remains the only main queer woman on color (qwoc) to have been featured on the show. The show has only regularly featured one other qpoc since. And they definitely deserve credit for it, but they never really gelled for me. I never felt the relationship was given enough screen time after they got together. Now, no relationship on Degrassi is going to be particularly healthy, so there’s that. One thing that could have been fascinating was Paige’s constant refrain of “I can’t like girls. My brother’s gay.” How much of that was deflection to not deal with her girl-on-girl feelings and how much of that was a true wish to not burden her parents with two queer kids, I don’t know. I wish we could have gotten into her brain more. But from what we did get, it does show, that one can internalize homophobia beyond the rational. Paige is 200% supportive of her brother, of Marco, but in every “on” of her “on-off” with Alex, she must deal with accepting that it’s okay for her to be with a girl. It was cool to see how two siblings raised in the same environment could have such vastly different reactions to their own queerness. Not that we necessarily saw Dylan’s initial dealings with his gay identity.
Alex, on the other hand, doesn’t have much compassion for Paige’s drama. She pretty much jumps head in. The only insight into Alex’s possible internal struggle is some “mild” homophobia on her part, which she later tries to prove is not a thing as she grows closer to Paige. However, for all her misgivings, she perpetually takes Paige back. Most likely due to the television and semi-realistic high school problem of lack of queer dating options.
They eventually part ways over non-queer related problems. By the end of their relationship saga, Alex comfortably wears the mantle of lesbian. Paige is still undefined as Alex is the “only girl [she’s] ever liked.” During one of their many fights, Alex tries to get Paige to claim the label of “bisexual” but she never bites. So that marks Degrassi’s first unlabeled non-monosexual. The “Palex” storyline was very popular and remains so to this date. Alex was certainly an evolution from Marco in that most of her struggles revolved around her socioeconomic status and not her queer identity. I’d imagine those issues would only have intersected more as she grew up, but Alex aged out of the show. Many of her fights with Paige were specifically about issues of money and of life ambition.
It’s now 2008. Enter Riley Stavros (Argiris Karras). Our next archetype. The gay jock. And boy does he have anger issues. He is a hot mess. By this point in the Degrassi-verse, another Marco-type character would have a hard time staying in the closet, at least to his Degrassi friends. To do another coming out story, which is still where to television world is at this point, I imagine the show needed to create a character that fell into the trappings of hyper-masculinity, or rather hetero-conformativity. In his first season, Riley misreads a moment and plants one on his hetero male best friend. To cope, he spends the rest of the season harassing and beating on a gay lifeguard because he caused him to pop an erection in class and making out with a future alcoholic lesbian.
However, that moment when he kisses his friend, Peter (Jamie Johnston), opens up a door for him to let someone in. When Peter doesn’t reciprocate, Riley shuts down, ignores the kiss and reverts to full-blown homophobe. It’s easy for Riley to hide in his homophobia, considering his world. Football is a legitimate interest of Riley’s. He plans to make a career out of it. However, he also seems very concerned with “how men act” in a way that I don’t remember Marco being. Marco may be sensitive about his sexuality or even being taking seriously as a male, but he isn’t as protective of his masculinity as a concept the way that Riley is. Marco and Riley both try to date girls, but Riley’s coping mechanisms become much more violent and scary. In that sense, he has more in common with Alex. Although, it’s taken a step further. There are times in his relationship with his “girlfriend”, Fiona Coyne (Annie Clark), where his anger is too close to intimate partner violence. The scene when he tries to get physical with Fiona is a little too grabby to be comfortable. He turns to steroids to maintain his edge in football and because he thinks they’ll make him straight. At the end of his first major arc, he does come out to Peter and sign up for anger management. But this all comes after from sage advice from his gay-bashing victim.
The high standards Riley sets about what it means to “be a man” don’t seem to extend to his partner. Riley gets his very own boyfriend character brought on the show just for him. And as with Dylan and Alex before him, Zane Park (Shannon Kook) is not really happy dating someone in the closet. I think that everyone who can be, should be out of the closet. When they’re ready. I think the closet is a terrible, lonely place. However, I’m not sure Degrassi is aware that it’s inadvertently sending the message that you should always come out. Coming out right now- or ever-is not the right choice for everyone. Especially in high school. Not everyone has the choice to stay in the closet, but some do and their partners shouldn’t shame them for their choices. Of course, that doesn’t mean someone has any obligation to remain in a relationship with a closeted person. So, when Riley ultimately breaks up with Zane because he (Riley) isn’t ready to come out, it is arguably the most mature thing he does in their entire relationship.
Zane. What an odd duck. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that he’s Degrassi’s second and most recent qpoc. He is also: yoga, zen master. Football kicker. Art aficionado. A man with no storyline of his own.
Let’s move on to Adam Torres (Jordan Todosey), perhaps the biggest game changer on this list. Adam is the first (and to my knowledge still the only) scripted male identified trans teen on television. Degrassi won a Peabody for its depiction of Adam, which may not have been a perfect portrayal, but still deserves props. Todosey is a female-identified actor. When she auditioned, the role was planned to be a butch or androgynous lesbian character. Along the line, Degrassichanged the part to be a trans boy.
We don’t find out about Adam’s trans status for a couple episodes, although because it’s Degrassi, some hints are dropped that things may not be “as they seem.” In the big “reveal” episode, Clare (Aislinn Paul) discovers Adam with some tampons and is quite confused. Clare asks him some awkward questions for the sake of the audience. Her lack of any understanding of trans issues never rang true to me. She may be cisgender and straight. Trans issues may be something about which even members of the lgb community are often woefully uninformed. But, it seems Degrassi Community School and Clare Edwards would be one step above, “Does that mean you’re gay?” But…maybe not…
In Adam’s next big storyline (10X15 “My Body is a Cage”), his grandma comes to town and his mom, Audra (Ramona Milano), asks him if “Gracie” could maybe show up to greet her instead. Now, this storyline notwithstanding, Mama Torres may actually be my favorite Degrassiparental unit. But, whoo boy, not cool. Adam goes through with her awful, selfish plan for a nano-second. However, the pain and pressure of presenting as female causes Adam to begin self-harming, something he’d done before coming out. The episode ends with an affirmation of his male identity and a bonfire of his “girl” things.
Through his run on this show, Adam does get physically harassed and face issues for his trans status. However, not all of his story lines are about being transgender, which would be a really easy trap to fall into for such a touchstone character. The more specific nuance to Adam’s life as a trans person is that he wants to be taken seriously as a teenage boy. The way that the show honors and celebrates that is by, well, writing a teenage boy character. I’ve seen some criticism that it would perhaps have been better had the show spent more time giving Adam trans-specific storylines, especially regarding being misgendered. I can see the need for that and since a lot of that criticism comes from transfolk, I will defer to them on this. Unfortunately, Degrassi, for all its wonderful elements, is often a relationship drama at the end of the day. And Adam is a straight, teenage boy. I believe this is part of why Adam’s transness gets pushed aside for “regular” old straight teen relationship drama. Unlike with characters with queer sexual orientations, the show can have their cake and eat it too with Adam.
That being said, Adam’s desire for a girlfriend is a key element to his character. And, obviously, it can’t be untied from any insecurity he has about his trans identity, along with any other teen angst. First, he tries unsuccessfully to date Bianca (Alicia Josipovic), who flips out and outs him as trans to the whole school when she realizes he has boobs. In his next foray into dating, Fiona uses him in her journey toward coming to terms with her sexual identity.
Then, Adam meets Becky (Sarah Fisher), the show’s resident conservative Christian. Recent transplant from sunny Florida. She’s immediately drawn to him, but when she realizes “he’s a girl”, she can’t date him. However teen hormones win out, she gets with the program and realizes he’s not a girl. Her parentally mandated reparative therapy only reinforces her heterosexuality and they’re mostly kumbaya until Adam is killed off because the actress wanted to leave the show.
There’s an episode during Adam’s run where Clare is very excited for him because he “passes” and it struck me as odd. I realize that must be very important for some people and as I said, throughout Adam’s run, it’s very important to him that he be taken seriously as a boy. But “passing” is not the same thing as being taken seriously as male. In fact, when Adam first appeared, he did more awkwardly stereotypically macho things and had shorter hair. As if he had something to prove. It seemed as if later, he just fell into himself. I in no way want to equate gender and sexual identity, but I think sometimes people with queer sexual identities do similar things with their gender expression at the beginning of their self acceptance journeys. Swinging so far to one end or the other of a spectrum, until they fall somewhere to where they truly are. Or not. But this part of Adam rang true.
Let’s talk about Fiona. Lesbian number two, slightly more feminine than Alex. Word on the street is she was not intended to be a lesbian from her introduction, but it definitely fits in retrospect. Fiona is a rich fraternal twin who transfers from New York City. She deals with typical Degrassi fare at the beginning of her tenure: intimate partner violence, almost-incest, and dating a gay guy. As her life gets more complex through all of this, she turns to alcohol to cope. After she deals with her demons, Fiona has a relatively easy coming out, because on Degrassi, lesbians don’t have a hard time coming out.
Fiona’s first true girlfriend is too much for her to handle as she’s still dealing with her alcoholism so she lays low for a bit until she and Imogen Moreno (Cristine Prosperi) start to hit it off. Fiona’s introduction to the show is as “spoiled rich girl” and even after she comes out, her main function is still “spoiled rich girl”. Up until this point in the show, there really hadn’t been a gay character who’d come out with such relative ease.
Imogen has her queer awakening after spending some good time chasing after Eli (Munro Chambers). Imogen and Fiona become very close doing schoolwork after Fiona gets held back from graduating. And Fiona, not imagining her crush could ever be reciprocated, pushes her back toward Eli. Of course when they do back together for a hot second, Fiona’s jealousy rears its ugly head.
After some micro hesitation and “what does this mean” Imogen and Fiona get together, but the start of their relationship is mainly from Fiona’s POV. Their relationship is pretty low-key in the sense that it doesn’t face drama from a third party. We don’t have a dramatic coming out. Imogen’s father has his own issues (dementia) and her estranged mother’s reaction is “I didn’t know you were a lesbian.” While Imogen doesn’t correct her, the only comment we ever later get about her orientation is that she’s “into people.”
Fiona and Imogen break up when Fiona finally graduates her super senior year. Imogen and Adam have a flirtation, but because he’s still with Becky, nothing happens. Until he and Becky get into a fight. Then Adam and Imogen hook up right before Adam texts and d®i(v)es. After that, Becky and Imogen become really close and to her everlasting credit, Imogen does not tell Becky what had happened between her and Adam. I’m thinking their run on the show may come to an end without this reveal ever seeing the light of day, as people acknowledging Adam’s existence has sort of ended. If you’re counting, Imogen brings the un-labeled non-monosexual tally up to two.
Let’s now backtrack to season eleven, where we meet Tristan Milligan (Lyle Lettau). The boy with no coming out story. And when I say no coming out story, I mean, zero. In 11X34 “Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Part 1,” Tristan’s fourth episode, we get confirmation that Tristan is not straight in a conversation he has with his brother, Owen (Daniel Kelly). This also happens to be when we learn the two are brothers:
Tristan: We were going to take over grade nine together. Power Squad. The play. Everything. And now all she wants to do is go to the stupid skate park with stupid Zig. Owen: So. Go to the skate park. Sounds like something fun normal people do. Tristan: Normal people? Owen: I mean normal teenagers. Not straight people. Jeez.
Well, okay, that’s a lot to unpack there. Tristan is jealous because his best friend Tori (Alex Steele) has begun spending more time with her new boyfriend, Zig (Ricardo Hoyos). So, he asks Owen- Degrassi’s resident homophobic bully-for advice on how to break them up. Tristan is going through a very normal teenage problem here. And yes, it’s compounded by his queerness. Notice how quickly he jumps on the word “normal”? But, the majority of the issue is due to general lack of willingness to compromise. This trait is probably part defense mechanism, an adaptation built up after years of being the odd man out. In some ways, it’s just something Tristan will need to work on as he grows, if he wants to maintain better personal relationships. This is progress. Back in the beginning of Marco’s era, most of his flaws were in totality linked to his homosexuality.
In Marco’s era, even a character as recognizably queer as Tristan would have required an epic coming out story, because straight was considered default. Sure, a character such as Tristan could be straight. However, the framework under which Degrassi now operates dictates that assuming someone is gay is not a bad thing. I believe this is why no one is chastised for correctly guessing Tristan is gay.
However, this context doesn’t mean Tristan doesn’t deal with some very interesting, queer specific issues. I find it unfortunate that he’s an oft-sidelined character, because he often gets accused of being a negative stereotype. I believe this has more to do with internalized homo/effemiphobia than anything the writers are doing.
However, just because we don’t see a character’s first coming out story, or their initial understanding of their sexual identity, doesn’t mean they don’t have one locked away. For someone as “obviously gay” as Tristan, there is a lack of safety and agency in his identity, as he doesn’t often have the control to decide when to come out. Especially at his age, he may not be ready to deal with his gayness, but it’s ready to deal with him. Tristan’s experiences with bullying are not as intense as those who came before him. He definitely deals with a lot more micro aggression. I’ll jump to an example two years into Tristan’s tenure. When he has to room with Miles Hollingsworth III (Eric Osborne) and Winston (Andre Kim) in Paris, they immediately peg him as gay and tease him about it when he tries to hide it. Because they don’t have any hate in their intention, they don’t perceive that what they’re doing is hurtful. However, Tristan no longer feels safe, due to probably every life experience he’s ever had. It’s a very common feeling, especially for minorities.
The majority of Tristan’s arcs, however, aren’t gay-specific, but are enriched by the fact that he is gay. He wants love and is consistently searching in the wrong place. His best friend, Maya (Olivia Scriven), essentially dates every boy he likes. Sure, the boys he likes mostly turn out to be straight and that’s part of the problem, but the Tristan and Maya competing for boys stories, at their base, aren’t that different from the gazillion other love triangles on Degrassi. However, underneath it all is Tristan’s sense of dire loneliness that is at least in part triggered by being very visibly gay and out in high school. Again, something he has no choice about. Which isn’t to say that he’s angsty about being gay, more about the circumstances around it. He seems perfectly aware the problem isn’t him. He’s never expressed it’s something he’d want to change about himself, but that doesn’t make his life sunshine and roses. It’s his challenge. Just like everyone on the show has one. It’s part of what makes him a perfect target to be groomed and molested by a teacher.
Tristan also spends his first two seasons fairly overweight. This is an uncomfortable experience for a lot of people, but again, he’s hit with the double whammy of gay and fat. He stops eating and ends up in the hospital, another one of the growing number of boys suffering from eating disorders.
My biggest complaint about Tristan is that he’s such a side character that often the cattier, more selfish side of him gets seen over what is essentially a naive child. There’s a lot to celebrate about this character. Ten years ago, he might not have gone beyond his patented “Oh my lady Gaga.” And certainly if he did, we’d have had to watch him date Maya for two seasons instead of getting to watch him date her ex-boyfriend.
Now enter Jack Jones (Niamh Wilson), super lesbian, into the Degrassi queer family. Jack is a fake polyamorist, amazing dancer and casual pot smoker (but hey, no pressure, man) who uses words like heteronormative. She and Imogen quickly pair off in the “Who else am I gonna date on this show?” fashion.
As she and Imogen grow close, dearly departed Adam’s ex, Becky, decides she wants to try to date Imogen because she’s afraid of losing her best friend. When they try to date and realize it’s not going to work, it’s a great triple reinforcement of identity: Adam’s as a boy, Imogen’s as a girl who likes people, and Becky’s as a girl who likes boys. In this equation, Becky and Imogen can both like Adam, but not each other. It’s an incredibly nuanced scenario for kid’s television. And I hope it was read as such. So, Becky checks her jealousy and Imogen goes on to date Jack.
Imogen and Jack have very opposing views of feminism and queerness. Imogen is at first very taken in by Jack and her attitude of putting it out there. In some ways, the persona Jack presents to Imogen reminds me more of a college student than a high school junior. Imogen’s quirkiness can grate at times, yes, but she reminds me of a lot of (queer) theatre nerds I knew in high school. There’s also a sense of budding feminism in her. Take her takedown of the sexist school dress code, for example. She just doesn’t necessarily know what to do with all of it.
On one hand, Jack is a cool hipster lesbian, more likely to attend NYU than Eli. On the flip side, we have Queen Bee wannabe Power Cheer Jack who doesn’t have any ethical qualms about selling boobie-shots to boys. In fact, she sees it as feminist. Imogen sees it as cheating. In this way, it’s easy to see how she’s younger than Imogen.
Now we get to Miles III. Incidentally, the show’s third non-monosexual queer who doesn’t wear a label. He is also the first non-monosexual male in the show’s history, outside of a webisode. When Miles is first introduced to the show, Tristan and Zoë (Ana Golja) speculate over which team he plays for, i.e. gay or straight. Maya insists she doesn’t think he’s “into guys.” There are several hints (thanks chnandler-bong3, thedegrassiauthority) throughout Miles’ first season that he may be bi. Plus if his wardrobe isn’t coding, I don’t know what is… When he and Tristan end up getting together at the end of that season, it does feel earned, even if it could easily be surmised as rebound. Because, whatever strength of emotion Miles may feel or not feel for Tristan or Maya doesn’t negate his physical attraction to Tristan. We have already been shown that he has a clear attraction to girls. And really, that’s all I care about here.
Miles, like Tristan, deals with prejudices that are very endemic to the queer community. These issues are not spelled out as blatantly as previous generations of Degrassi queer stories. I would never go so far as to attribute to word “subtle” to Degrassi, but there are some very queer-esoteric issues here. Many people seem quick to write off the Tristan/Miles relationship, especially considering it ends with Miles ostensibly admitting he still likes his ex-girlfriend, Maya. Even if by acknowledging this, he were admitting he had never had feelings for Tristan, this doesn’t necessitate that he had never been sexually attracted to him. I can’t imagine that the writers would be that irresponsible on a show like this that, considering what that would imply. When people of monosexual orientations rebound and that rebound relationship ends, their entire orientation isn’t questioned. A bisexual character needs to be allowed these same experiences. Miles (and other non-monos) need to be given the space to ping-pong back and forth between characters just like the Spinners and Mayas and the Clares. So, while perhaps the show is giving them this space, other characters in the show-or maybe the audience- aren’t yet. I support the show’s efforts whole-heartedly. But, please, effyeahdegrassiwriters, if that boy doesn’t label himself bisexual soon, I will throw something.
Miles, however, may be the most (self)-destructive queer character Degrassi has had since Fiona and Riley. And this definitely comes from his home life. Miles is super rich like Fiona and also has a politician father. However, his father is a verbally abusive jerk who transitions into physical abuse in the most recent season finale. We get little hints that when he was younger, his father would shut down anything slightly less than masculine in his life. Dance class? Nope. Pressure to play basketball starter? Check. karydegrassi of Degrassi blogging fame has had some beautiful commentary about Miles and his dad this past season. He’s talked about Miles using his relationship with Tristan, a good thing, and turning it into something to use against his dad. The idea of Degrassi coming this far that one of its characters may be actually weaponizing their queerness is kind of far out. And again, as Kary has pointed out, Miles’ dad doesn’t take his son seriously in the least. (Welcome to being bi, Miles.)
However, Miles’ father isn’t the only character who does not take him seriously. From the beginning of the character’s existence, Miles’ feelings are constantly invalidated. Many people around him tell him that his problems aren’t real or are not that bad, because he has money. They tell him to keep his behavior in check because he’s got a great girlfriend. He’s told to work on his relationship with his dad, to meet him halfway. His siblings don’t even believe him about the abuse until it happens to one of them. So, choosing to make Miles a member of the oft-invalidated non-monosexual community is actually quite genius.
When Miles and Tristan first kiss, Winston catches them in the moment:
Winston: So what, are you gay now? Bi? Miles: It felt right. And kind of fun. Winston: Dude. You’re a mess. Figure out what you want before you hurt someone else you care about.
Winston’s first response is actually, on the surface, pretty chill. However, when Miles doesn’t dismiss the kiss and instead, affirms his actions, Winston’s immediate reaction is to cut him down and invalidate what he just told him. Sure, it may be wrapped up in advice, but it’s actually pretty harmful language to hear from your decade-old best friend. The first time Tristan and Miles talk about their kiss, Tristan asks him if it was about Maya. Which, isn’t actually necessarily biphobic and says a lot about Tristan’s own sense of self-worth. However, it may not be the best thing for Miles’ self esteem either. Maya thinks Miles dating Tristan is about her, Zoë makes fun of him, a few of the boys tease Maya about turning Miles gay, and his father thinks he’s doing it to mess with his mayoral campaign. Luckily, after a few eye rolls, his siblings get with the program pretty easily. However, he and Winston have to have yet another conversation about his relationship with Tristan so that Winston understands that, yes, Miles enjoys the physical side of it.
Miles’ queerness is difficult for those around him to understand in a different way than Marco’s is. The contrast in the harassment they each receive reflects that. In Marco’s time, people are either accepting or they’re homophobes who must learn to grown beyond that (if they’re not the Big Bad of the week). In Miles’ time, it’s more complicated. All of the people teasing him would probably say they support marriage equality when it came down to it, but their minds can’t seem to get around the fact that a dude can genuinely beg for his girlfriend to skinny dip with him one month and then skip class to make out with a boy the next. For example, Zig, by now good friend of Tristan’s, is comfortable enough with him and his gayness to give him sex advice. However, since he doesn’t particularly like Miles, nor does he seem to understand the concept of non-monosexuality, he has no problem making fun of Tristan’s and Miles’ relationship. In a way, this could be seen as Miles being used as a “teaching tool” character. However, Miles’ queerness is only one small part of his character. His main storyline line in season 14 is about his family and his dad’s emotional and eventual physical abuse. Mile’s queerness and relationship with Tristan have served as excellent contributions to his larger arc. Again, it’s all enrichment. As season 14A progresses, Miles falls deeper into depression and begins to self medicate with marijuana. He stops going to class because school is where the “judgy idiots” are. So, while a large part of his depression is coming from his father’s abuse, clearly the reaction to his coming out has affected him.
To highlight how much of a better place things are, representation versus didacticism wise, by time that we’ve gotten to the era where Imogen, Jack, Miles, and Tristan are the resident Degrassi queers, let’s look at episode 13X36, “Out of My Head,” as an example of the culmination of this. Every single plot features a queer character. More importantly, none of the plots are specifically about the characters being queer. The “A” plot revolves around the reveal of Tristan’s “relationship” with his teacher and the implosion of his friendship with Maya when she does the right thing by informing Mr. Simpson about it. In Tristan’s desperation for romantic love, he cannot accept Maya’s declaration of platonic love and pleas to realize that he deserves romantic love from someone appropriate. Instead, he sees a target. Someone who has “gotten” every boy he’s ever wanted. Someone who doesn’t have drama at home. Over in girl on girl land, Imogen is working on a fashion show and changes her designs last minute because Jack says they’re “nice,” which she interprets to mean “meh.” Miles makes a cameo in the “C” plot to drop some knowledge on his sister.
None of these plots is inherently queer, but because the characters are, the stories intrinsically become queer stories. You could easily shuffle a few things around and drop any given character into their stories. However, the queer sexualities of these characters inform their life experiences and worldviews and supplement these stories. Tristan has that deep-seated loneliness that allows him to be manipulated. As one of the few gay boys around, he sticks out like the magical platinum blonde gem he is. It’s been implied that Tristan’s parents are on the outs and let’s consider that his brother, Owen, who may have protected Tristan from other bullies, has definitely shamed him and bullied other gay kids. That’s going to stay with someone. Imogen is embarking on her second relationship with a girl. She may be surer of her identity this go around, but Jack is also a more “established” lesbian than Fiona was and this may be bubbling under the surface. Lastly, Miles may not be out at this point and his queer feelings may even still be latent (We’ve not been given insight into much of his feelings about his orientation). However, his advice to his sister, Frankie (Sara Waisglass), is more poignant with the information that he is not straight:
Miles: Who cares what they think? If people wanna make fun of you, they’re gonna find a reason. Too rich. Too poor. Too fat. Too skinny. Frankie: That’s depressing. Miles: Or liberating. Just live your life.
Degrassi has just earned its sixth GLAAD Media Award nomination. It was first nominated in 2004. GLAAD may not be the best litmus test for representation, but I could also argue that Degrassi’s one of the few children’s programs to receive the honor of habitual nomination. Degrassi has obviously changed a lot through the years and has made many missteps along the way, but I’m glad that I’ve stuck with it to see how far it’s come. When I was Marco’s age, watching Marco-even that little peck he and Dylan first shared-was amazing to me. Now watching their scenes seems so outdated. I expect so much more from these shows now. The fact that that this past season essentially focused on Miles and that he is character that the show is pushing as its latest heartthrob…
…and that he is queer…
….says something huge in and of itself.
Watching Miles and knowing, as an adult, what perspective and strength children draw from television programming, I need him to be handled correctly. I’m proud of the characters Imogen and Tristan are becoming. Sometimes the way in which Degrassi tells stories may be cheesy, but that somehow doesn’t make the messages any less powerful. Whatever it takes, indeed.