Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

Late Night w/ Degrassi — An Inquiry into Values

July 9, 2008

Unable to sleep the other night, one of my roommates and I stayed up watching this Canadian teen drama called Degrassi: The Next Generation on cable.

It was a roller coaster of a show.

Really, I can’t stress this enough: it was absolutely insane.

This show is teen drama on steroids. Watching this show is like being beaten to within an inch of your life with the drama stick. Every scene is relentlessly awkward, thoroughly awash with gossip and secrets and fragile teenage bonds being tested on the mantle of everyday life; the adolescent joy, fear and sheer adrenaline in this show is palpable. You can’t help but be sucked in because every moment is a set up for the next — and you’re waiting for it with bated breath. Wow!

I mean, the popular teen drams when I was a kid were crude and quite obviously silly. But Degrassi is genuinely compelling and incredibly sophisticated. Not only that, Degrassi is edgy — the show deals with real issues! Gone is the saccharine world of Saved by the Bell, where caffeine pills are the hardest drugs out there. Now we’re face to face with complicated real-world situations. (For Peter Jackson nerds out there, I think it’s fair to say that Beverly Hills: 90210 is to The Muppet Show as Degrassi: TNG is to Meet the Feebles.)

Media educator Sharon Ross also happened to discover the show at random late one night and was immediately impressed with its depth and realism — she proceeded to watch episodes featuring “date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set? ”

To answer this question Ross took a trip to Toronto and talked to the creators of Degrassi TNG, the latest installment in 25 years of wildly popular Degrassi shows. “Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not ‘let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,’ but rather, writing to demonstrate that ‘if you understand your neighbor,’ you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate.” That’s right — TV that seeks discussion and awareness rather than simply consumption.

One sub-plot that I watched featured a girl who, after struggling to deal with a history of sexual abuse, built up the courage to have consensual sex with a boy she liked — who turns out to be secretly HIV+. When she tells her friends about it tearfully, one cries, “oh my god, did you use protection?!” to which she responded “of course I did! But there’s still a risk!” She then searched the internet for more information.

There you have it. Complex feelings (betrayal, fear, anger, etc.) frank portrayal and discussion of female sexuality (girls are both rational and enjoy sex), mixed with a positive public health message (*of course* I used protection!) In her book The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham cites Degrassi: TNG as a shining example of progressive media which serves to resist pervasive (and oppressive) stereotypes about women, girls and their sexuality. I concur!

And yet, amidst these claims that the show promotes ‘realism’ and ‘TV with values’ you have to ask, is all of this edge-of-your seat drama really an accurate representation of teenage life? Is it so progressive to portray a world where adolescent social hierarchy is the driving force behind the characters’ lives, then play 5-minute ads for super expensive acne cream between scenes?

My high school years were filled with boredom and frustration rather than non-stop anguish and romance. Teen dramas respond to this reality by implying that it is possible to be someone else, to live another kind of life altogether — and what better way to achieve this impossible goal than to go out and buy stuff? Ay, there’s the rub.

Claims that Degrassi is a new step towards “critically aware” television programming fail to understand that the show is borrowing from a long tradition of British soap operas. For example, the enormously popular and long-running show Eastenders has consistently portrayed normal looking working class Londoners living in council flats and facing real problems (drugs, AIDS, divorce, racism, bacon sandwiches) to critical acclaim and mass popularity. It is virtually impossible to find a British actor of the stage or screen who hasn’t appeared on Eastenders at some point or another. The most famous fore-runner of this kind of show is the ubiquitous radio show The Archers, which used to intersperse real farming tips with its episodes of drama among rural English folk as a public service. Realism, public service facts, and normal people — these are old hat to some markets (Canadians?), but very different generic conventions than the ones that American soap opera viewers are used to.

Portraying the world in a realistic way, such that sex and violence have real consequences, different characters have different backgrounds and perspectives, and everyday choices may have long-term ramifications, is good. But making a TV show that uses heart pounding drama to sell a conventional consumerist version of teenage values isn’t all that terribly progressive. Even with all the innovation and realism, Degrassi is still a soap opera — just an uncommonly watchable one.

Finally, part of the bizarre sensation of watching the show is this looming awareness that the marketing machinery behind it is aimed at the generation below me. My demographic is no longer the center of attention! That feels, well, kinda weird. Hmph!

Eve Ensler for President

February 5, 2008

Given that I’m a Wes graduate, perhaps I’m a little late on the uptake as far as this stuff is concered. Nonetheless, I went to see Eve Ensler speak tonight at The New School, the progressive university in Greenwhich Village.

So she’s not an intellectual…but outside of academia I’ve never heard someone talk so forcefully about the thick, interconnected, many-sided nature of oppression in every day life.

I mean she drew the structural connections between the patriarchy, genocide, capitalism, the ritual removal of the clitoris, the war in Iraq, and the climate change catastrophe. According to her, the cultural attitudes that permit violence against women are the same ones which generate racism, class-ism, the gender binary, and war.

She’s not Ghandi…but I’ve never heard a more forceful argument for nonviolence.
Basically, I can’t remember the last time I was so inspired. Here’s a vid of Ms. Ensler:

“The Vagina Monologues” and its language of empowerment for women has given rise to a new iteration of global feminist power called V-Day, something which I’m sure most people have heard about by now. What’s cool about it is the truly transnational form it has taken, emerging through networks of information rather than bureaucratic top down configuration. Women all over the world, even in the most doggedly rigid cultural environments, have spoken up against the vicious and largely unreported violence against women that takes place every day. Raising awareness and building solidarity are the first steps to real, structural change, and I’m excited to be a part of it in whatever way possible.

Yay vaginas!