I have never been to Canada. But, I have always had this weird fascination with it. It sounds odd but as a 12-year-old watching over my sister’s shoulder, the Canadian world of Degrassi was captivating. My liking to Canada has grown as my concept of national healthcare and legal marijuana has developed, but it all started with Degrassi on Teen Nick. I wasn’t allowed to watch it when I was little. My sister, Nora, being three years older than me, was. I would try to watch it whenever I could sneak it. I thought all of Canada was like Degrassi. There were kids in high school going through real problems. It was dramatic but in the best way possible. I have rewatched the show and my interest in the plots and characters have not changed.
Degrassi has had many names. In fact, it is the longest-running Canadian show of all time. It began as the Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979 and then expanded to Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. In 2001, it made its rebuttal as Degrassi-The Next Generation (TNG), then just Degrassi. After 14 seasons of TNG/Degrassi, it was bought by Netflix and became Degrassi- Next Class. The content of the show focused on the day to day life of an ensemble cast of high schoolers in Toronto. The list of issues covered in the show is very long. When counted, somebody actually did that, Degrassi has discussed over 239 different subjects. This list includes having your first period, getting a boner in class, cutting yourself, incest, cancer, drugs, the list goes on and on. While this sounds extreme to the point of laughing, Degrassi actually accomplishes this without being redundant. It is a little cheesy at times, but these are things that do happen. Imagine every bad thing that could possibly happen to you as a teenager is all bottled up and shipped to Toronto. Degrassi creates a fictional world of high school, and everyone could relate to at least one thing.
This might sound extreme, but a monumental moment in my childhood is when I saw Rick bring a gun to my fictional high school. In Season 4, Episode 7 and 8 of the Next Generation, a bullied kid shot basketball star Jimmy Brooks and then was killed himself. Jimmy Brooks, a later paralyzed character, was played by Aubrey Graham. Also known as Drake. (You used to call me on my cell phone Drake). I remember staring at the screen, a jar of peanut butter in my hand, with my mouth wide open. I didn’t know that could happen to a school. But it does and Degrassi brought real issues to light. Now, it wouldn’t be a shock if a school shooting was a part of a soap opera or teenage show. Glee, for example, featured this storyline in 2013. But just 5 years after the Columbine shooting, Degrassi’s inclusion of this topic was ground-breaking.
Besides parents warning their children not to watch the show because of its mature topics, Degrassi has had a generally good reception in Canada, as well as in the U.S. The New York Times called it, “Tha Best Teen TV N da WRLD” (The best teen TV in the world). It was very popular among Canadian adults as it was the most-watched drama programming for 18 to 49-year-olds in the history of Canadian television. When on the air, the show received around one million views per episode. The majority of the time, I was not watching live. As I was a little young for the main bulk of the reboot, I started watching reruns around 2013.
When Degrassi had a big episode, like one I remember being called, “The Boiling Point”, they would replay every single episode since 1979. It probably started on a sick day at home when I binge-watched the series. I think this was the case for many girls my age (based on my interviews I have been unable to find a male Degrassi fan). Their parents would advise against it, but they were still intrigued. One of my best friends, Emma, for example, said that her parents told her that the show was inappropriate and gross, even when she was the correct age for viewing. She said that after iCarly or another American TV show on Teen Nick was over, Degrassi would sneak on her TV. She wouldn’t change it because the show had the ability to hook from the first moment. However, she told me that her parents would change the channel if they noticed the Canadian soap opera on their family TV. Taylor, another friend, prides herself on being a fan of Canada. I asked her if she liked Degrassi and she said it was too dramatic for her as a child. When I asked both friends if they would rewatch the show now, they both said yes.
Other Canadian Media
Besides Degrassi, many other celebrities and popular entertainment have come from Canada. “Canadian” can be a notable characteristic of these celebrities. Although, they are often confused as Americans rather than Canadians based on their success. Most entertainment is usually only classified as “made it” when it has become popular in America. Seth Rogen, for example, has made his fame doing countless movies and series in the States. Drake’s popularity skyrocketed after leaving Degrassi and beginning a music career in Los Angeles. Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling are both Canadian actors but are famous for portraying “American history” in The Notebook. Canadians come to the States to make their fame, but it is rarely the other way around.
Canadian media can often fail to be popular in the States while having huge success in Canada. Bryan Adams, for example, is a hit recording artist in Canada but is considered a one-hit-wonder in the U.S. He is often referred to as “Canada’s off-brand Bruce Springsteen”. The Tragically Hip is a band that has been popular in Canada since the 1980s but has never been popular in America. I asked my friends and parents if they had ever heard of Tragically Hip and everyone responded with no. The Canadian entertainment industry has had huge success recreating spin-offs of American shows. Canadian Idol, Canada’s Next Top Model, and Big Brother Canada are just a few of the Canadian centered but American originated shows.
Kurtis Conner is a Canadian comedian that brings to life a bunch of Canadian kid’s TV shows on his YouTube Channel. The videos focus on analyzing strange television programs that never made it out of Canada. The American viewers in the comment section are watching the series for the first time. Conner notes that he had access to all of the classic American children’s programming with the additional Canadian options.
The success of Canadian stars and entertainment seems to be reliant on breaking the boundary between the two countries. The reasons some Canadian stars achieve countless success in Canada rather than the US could be attributed to Canadian quotas. Canada has television, film, and radio standards set in place to regulate the media in the country. The provisions are in place to give a chance to Canadians without being overshadowed by American creatives. This makes it much easier to dominate the Canadian market. The quotas for a film to be labeled as Canadian include, “the producer, director, and scriptwriter are all Canadian, at least one of the two lead actors is Canadian, 75 percent of all paid production and post-production staff are Canadians.”
American’s attitude towards Canada (and its media)
Americans’ attitudes towards Canadian media might be found in the U.S.’s sense of nationalism. Canada is usually the victim of conservative attacks as the country has had more historical progress in the way of liberalism or social democracy. However, the sentiment against Canada goes beyond politics. The media within America is focused on domestic production. Canadian TV shows and music often have trouble making it into the U.S., Degrassi being an exception. This is because the American entertainment sector is such a huge industry it often overshadows Canada’s media. The U.S. ranks higher than Canada in every media category.
The rejection of quality Canadian media in the U.S. could also be due to the influx of Canadian stereotypes in America’s pop culture, especially that of boringness. Jeet Heer, a Canadian journalist, outlines the differences between the two countries in a popular Twitter thread. He discusses the stereotype of Canadians being bland. He argues that the people judging Canada for being boring, do not really know Canada. Americans often focus on these stereotypes and base their opinions on hockey and maple syrup and boringness. After analyzing the stereotypes of Canada, I believe that the opinions Americans form about a “less interesting America” contribute to the lack of influence Canadian media has.
And that’s why dramatic Degrassi was the exception.
Why Degrassi worked
Degrassi wasn’t boring (like Americans thought Canada was). It was a dramatic rollercoaster that established its characters and storylines. I googled “Canadian Teen Television” and showed the search results to my friends. The only one they could recognize was Degrassi. This is because it broke the mold. America didn’t have anything similar, so we needed to steal Canada’s. When researching, no American TV show compared to Degrassi. Freaks and Geeks, Gossip Girl, and Glee were suggested comparisons but nothing truly matches up. Soap operas for teens that hit this many issues were hard to find.
It wasn’t the typical American view of “Canadians”. It broke the stereotypes. It is rumored that the directors and creators of the show would encourage the Canadian teen actors to practice their “sorries”. This way Americans wouldn’t be too turned off by the Canadian accent. The creators of Degrassi worked hard to make a global series. Elana Levine is a media scholar who researched the international market of Degrassi.
Her work states, “Yet research on the global media industries contends that any product that too fully embraces the local specificity of its point of origin will have little chance of success on the international market; it will suffer a ‘cultural discount’ that will fundamentally devalue it”. There were also so many episodes as seasons featured up to 44. This meant it was mass-produced and reliable for viewers. The ensemble cast allowed for a multitude of concepts and diverse characters. Degrassi created a formula to insert itself into America. Americans were able to look past the origin country and adopt the show to our entertainment arena.
Americentrism is the belief that American culture is more important than the culture of other countries. This term includes viewing the world with a U.S. centered perspective. This tendency is relevant to Degrassi and Canadian media as Americans often reject the media of other countries because it is foreign. Americans are often scared of what's different. There is an Americentric bias present in the American entertainment industry.
As Americans, we shouldn’t just focus on our own domestic forms of entertainment and production. We should not shut things out because they would be perceived as boring or different or foreign. This analysis brings in the topic of American nationalism and the rejection of other countries as a whole. In the end, how different are we really? We shouldn’t base our opinion on a specific country based on a couple of factors or stereotypes. Individuals are not defined by their location. People in Buffalo, NY probably have more in common with those in Toronto then they do people in Miami.
It is important to question our own national opinions. Canadian entertainment can only make it into America if it adapts. Why is this? A critical analysis of why we think the way we do is necessary to allow our perspectives to grow. As Americans, we are very selective and bias to our own country, whether we notice or not. Being aware of this domestic preference can help Americans be more open to other countries and create a more global world! In the age of the internet, our world is becoming more connected. A global perspective creates an environment for growth and knowledge. It also helps people become more accepting of other groups. So next time you pick a movie, don’t be scared of that new film from Senegal! Or take a look at the global charts on Spotify to find a new cool Russian rapper! It’s important to branch out to other countries to create a world where cultures do not have to compete.
And remember, Canada is pretty cool! The country is more than maple leaves and hockey. It has highschool sex, too!
“It’s easy to say that Degrassi is uniquely Canadian for we Canadians, because it’s been a part of our consciousness for so long, but is it really? When we see and hear how teens around the world (and not just in English-speaking markets, either) react to DTNG… the argument could be made that the show totally transcends any nationalistic considerations.” (Singh, 2006)
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