Degrassi fever

Michele Byers plans to publish the first major study of this great Canadian cultural export

Date published: 2006-04-13 10:13:14 AM

CBC’s award-winning Degrassi television series, known for its honest portrayal of teenage lives, is gaining popularity with a new generation of teenagers—not only in Canada, but around the world. At the same time, Michele Byers, a professor of media and cultural studies at Saint Mary’s University, is undertaking the first comprehensive study of this enduring Canadian cultural export.

The series, which tackles such issues as sex, AIDS, drugs, alcoholism, interracial dating and death, debuted in 1978 with The Kids of Degrassi Street and peaked in popularity with Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High in the 1980s. Close to three million Canadian households tuned in for the final episode of Degrassi High in 1991, along with viewers from 70 other countries.

Today, Canadian and international audiences are still watching Degrassi, both its new spin-off, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and episodes from the first three series. Byers observes that Degrassi’s longevity is truly remarkable.

“While Degrassi is original because of its direct approach to controversial issues, what is really amazing is that it’s been drawing in audiences for over 25 years,” says Byers. The show has certainly evolved over time, but it’s still developing the original inspiration. Whether in Canadian or American television, that kind of longevity is extremely rare.”

Byers was surprised to see that despite its long run, neither scholars nor journalists have written much about Degrassi. “We have so much written about the cultural importance of American television shows, but there are only a handful of books devoted to Canadian television,” she notes. “I think that Degrassi is unique enough to deserve its own focus.”

Byers will begin the long overdue process of understanding this landmark television series by preparing an anthology of essays. Contributors range from North American scholars and media experts to long-time fans, among them the designer of the first Degrassi fan Web site. The essays will explore such issues as the series’ portrayal of teen sexuality, multi-racial classrooms, and national identity as well as the experiences of the fan community.

“I wanted to create a space where scholars and viewers could reflect on why Degrassi was meaningful to them and to Canada,” says Byers. "Why was it relevant? Why did it resonate? How did it build ideas about Canadian identity?"”

In a separate book on Canadian youth culture, Byers will take a historical look at Degrassi’s place in Canadian television. In particular, she will look at the corporatization of Canadian television and how Canadian government policies like the Multiculturalism Act influenced what kind of characters were represented on the show. Degrassi’s multicultural nature was one factor that really struck a chord with viewers.

“I hear from my students every day how much they like Degrassi,” she says. “While they were much too young to watch the show when it was first aired, all the things that the kids went through—sex, relationships, racism, sexism—are still relevant today. Although the show clearly dates itself in terms of costume and look, it remains thoroughly contemporary in the issues it confronts and the ideas it asks its audience to consider.”

Michele Byers received her first SSHRC grant in 2001.