Over the long weekend, two Polygon staffers spent their time watching an unlikely show: Canadian teen drama Degrassi: Next Class. In its first season on Netflix, the series broached a surprising topic. Reporters Allegra Frank and Julia Alexander reflected on how Degrassi handled one of this season's most controversial plotlines, involving both esports and cyber harassment.
Julia: On Jan. 15, Netflix released all 10 episodes of the newest Degrassi season. It marked a new beginning for a show that's seen more cast turnover than most soap operas. With that new beginning came a need to replenish the well of stories centering on teenage problems.
One of the story arcs the team of Canadian writers decided to venture down was online harassment in the world of social media and, even more interesting for the show, esports. What could have been handled poorly and with ridiculous exaggeration, as other shows have done in the past (see Law & Order: SVU's GamerGate episode), was cared for remarkably well.
Allegra, I know this is a facet of the show you noticed while watching the new season. What did you think about it?
Allegra: I definitely found that storyline to be the most striking of the myriad things going on in this new season. Degrassi has always prided itself on its willingness to "go there," and while its writers have a penchant for the melodramatic, I've generally found the show to be topical but not belabored, informed but not too preachy.
Delving into cyber harassment this season, that storyline definitely followed along those same lines. What surprised me was how it evolved into a Degrassi-fied take on this social issue; let's look at it from the beginning. It started out as a Z-plot in an episode, in which unpopular kid Hunter stumps — successfully! — for a school esports team. He makes a persuasive argument for getting Degrassi to support his interest in MOBAs. I especially appreciated that the subsequent Gamer Club he created was diverse and not stereotypically all-male or all-nerd.
What did you make of the introduction of that group, and its depiction?
Julia: I thought the way they were introduced was cartoonish at first, but as the writers figured out who they wanted this group of kids to be, they became less of a caricature of gaming culture. Instead, they took the idea of a "gamer club" and turned it into an actual sport that the school got behind and treated with a certain level of respect.
I thought the similarities between the acceptance and recognition these kids fought for definitely paralleled the strides esports has made over the years to be taken as a legitimate sport, which it now is.
I especially appreciated that the subsequent Gamer Club he created was diverse
I also agree with you on the actual group of kids, Allegra. It wasn't just a group of white 15-year-old boys. Instead, the core group of four was actually one of the more diverse group of friends that Degrassi's had in quite some time. While the show has always strived to represent diverse groups of kids and the backgrounds they come from, it seemed to hit a new peak with these four.
As their storyline progresses, the gamer club gets into a bit of trouble after a feminist club protests the misogyny of the video game. There's a heated debate about violence in video games and the representation of women in gaming that at times felt a little mishandled to me, but inevitably led to one of the season's better storylines.
What did you think of the, "feminist versus gamer" angle in the show?
Allegra: Great point about the diversity of the gamer group being a peak for the series. That's always been a cool aspect of this otherwise generally uncool show, that it makes a concerted effort to play against type and represent tons of different types of people.
As for the club vs. club storyline, it was the first time I'd seen this media firestorm depicted in a fictional series, since I don't watch Law and Order. While I felt it was often very, VERY basic — I mean, they're literally called the Feminist Club and the Gamer Club — its intentions were good and the storyline itself was a compulsive watch.
The language used shows that the writers did their research. The Feminist Club takes the Gamer Club to task for playing a MOBA in which the men are brawny warriors and the women are scantily clad. The head of the Feminists tore into Hunter for publicly displaying a game in which violence against women is "normalized;" that's the kind of intellectual, academic voice we haven't previously heard from in Degrassi.
Hunter's retaliation involved the use of both "trigger warnings" AND "social justice warrior," pointing to the fact that the writers definitely got familiar with the backwaters of Tumblr and Reddit. What struck me the most, though, was that Degrassi largely came out as a neutral party in all of this, despite escalating things to some truly bonkers heights.
Did you find the intensity of where the storyline heads after that first confrontation to be believable or out of its mind?
Julia: That's a good way of looking at how Degrassi handles every issue: as basically as it can. Credit where credit's due, Degrassi has always been great at delving into subjects a little bit deeper than most shows would. Abortion, rape, gay bashing, mental illness and school shootings are a perfect example. Whereas any of those topics would have been the culminating point of an entire series in the finale, Degrassi handled that with each episode.
All of which is why I wasn't surprised that after being taunted at school and having his club shut down by a group of "social justice warriors" his response was to start doxxing Maya, one of the key figures in having his club revoked in the first place. What I liked about this specific angle to the story was how much attention the issue received both from the school and local authorities. Doxxing and swatting (calling in a fake, violent crime to 911 that results in emergency teams showing up to the victim of the swatting prank's house) are treated like the serious crimes they are and not just waved off as something that's happening online and therefore couldn't be dealt with.
That's a good way of looking at how Degrassi handles every issue: as basically as it can
Like you said, Allegra, the writers clearly did their research and got the basic terminology down pat, but what I appreciated more than anything else was that this was a continued discussion over a couple of episodes that was handled as a serious threat and traumatic event that leaves those touched by it scarred. They could have handled it in one episode and done away with it, but they chose to explore it and in doing so, brought light to an issue some may not have been familiar with.
Now, as you mentioned, Degrassi does tend to sometimes take things to the extreme, and the finale was a perfect example of that. How did you feel about the ending? Was it justifiable or exaggeration for exaggeration sakes?
Allegra: It's weird that Degrassi is as watchable as it is when you consider that every episode is jam-packed with really intense issues like the ones you mentioned. That swatting moment, which happened during a livestreamed school assembly, was gut-wrenching, and it was only one of 8 million other events that were happening during the episode. Even while it's juggling a billion things, Degrassi does well by many of them by not just turning them into one-off "very special episode" topics, like you mentioned.
That finale, though: woof. So after Maya is cyber-harassed, doxxed and swatted, her burly boyfriend Zig (have no idea what that could be short for, but sure) figures out that Hunter is behind it all, along with the other gamers. The Gamer Club is eventually called out by the appropriate authorities, and Hunter's reaction takes a storyline that tried pretty hard to depict this issue with some credibility and exploded it into teen drama bizarro world.
Remember that classic Degrassi: The Next Generation episode about the school shooting? It took them four seasons to broach that subject. Degrassi: First Class got to that point by episode 10 of season one. I liked that Hunter, y'know, didn't actually attempt to shoot anyone — but it was beyond belief that he would respond to the Gamer Club shutdown by making a hitlist that had nearly every other main character on it. I'm not saying that doesn't happen, or that some people don't react like that, but to me it felt like the undoing of a storyline I otherwise enjoyed and appreciated the handling of.
One other thing that didn't sit so well with me: that the female member of the Gamer Club expressed no remorse, no misgivings about sending another girl into hiding. Was that a play at showing that men aren't the only harassers out there, or was it a misstep? What do you think Julia?
Julia: That's a great question, and was something I was scratching my head over, too. One of the undercurrent themes to this new season of Degrassi is people learning that feminist is not a bad word. Most of the girls are against being called feminists until they learn what the term actually means, for example. There are snide remarks made by just about everyone about the state of feminism and the word carries a negative connotation, which the sole female character in this group of gamers seems to apply with joy. She's more than okay with doxxing Maya and making her life a living hell as long as it doesn't affect her relationship with Hunter and her group of guy guy friends who are hellbent on taking Maya down.
It seems pretty unlikely that any woman would be okay with watching a group of men write vile comments about another woman online and gleefully watch from the sidelines as she was harassed. It was one of the more ridiculous aspects to the character that I wish the writers had explored a little more. Why wouldn't she have said something? She finally broke down and confessed to being a part of the group that was torturing Maya, but only after she was promised she wouldn't have charges pressed against her.
I think it was a misstep and one that they didn't think through clearly enough. It would have made the story that much stronger if this character was the one to tell Hunter that what he was doing was incredibly wrong. Or, even better, if she had been the one to tell Maya what was going on and who was behind it.
So just to wrap things up, Allegra, what were your general opinions on the way Degrassi handled esports and harassment online? Did they nail it or is there room for improvement?
Allegra: When it comes to Degrassi, let me tell you — there is always room for so, so much improvement. But its take on video games' intersection with mainstream culture, through esports and (sadly) cyber harassment, was one I enjoyed watching.
It worked on two levels: asserting esports' mainstream relevance, as well as examining some of the internet's more dangerous habits. Neither storyline descended to the levels of "Let's point and laugh at these nerds!" or "Gamers are terrible misogynists!" Although, there is one scene in which the Gamer Club dresses up in cosplay that gets dangerously close to mockery.
Things ramped up from 0 to 100 real quick — too quick. But I was mostly appreciative of how the story was executed. Final thoughts: your take?
Julia: Other than the lack of Drake references on the show (thank you for making one here), I thought it was actually one of the better seasons.
Of course, the acting is still atrocious and it's a basic teen drama, but I appreciated that Degrassi ventured into the world of online harassment, esports and doxxing when so few other teen shows do. These are important issues that need to be addressed, especially with a teenage audience, and Degrassi is one of the first, if not the first, to do it.
Like you said, there's always room to grow for Degrassi, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.
Allegra: As you and I both know, when it comes to Drake, I've always got you covered.