‘Degrassi’s’ Surprisingly Insightful Portrayal of Sexual Assault

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It is nearly impossible to convince people to take Degrassi seriously, even the ones who are already fans. There is no way around it: Degrassi is an utterly ridiculous show, a juggernaut cockroach of a teen drama that is currently about halfway through of its 13th season (341 episodes within the show’s canon, plus a handful of “specials”). Degrassi can definitely be a joke — just look at Kroll Show‘s “Wheels, Ontario” sketches or any comment section on a Drake story — but there’s a reason the show has lasted for so long. It tackles the same basic subjects as dramas of similar ilk, but sometimes Degrassi will inject a little more reality into plots, particularly when it comes to heavier topics such as sexual assault, and craft a careful and impressive episode.

Granted, Degrassi does have a flair for the dramatic and, more often than not, will tend to go the nonsensical route — this is the show that had a character go to the hospital after eating a weed brownie and another character burn down her dorm because she was stressed out at college — but what teen drama doesn’t? What sets Degrassi apart from the rest, aside from its longevity and Canadian accents, is that it knows when to go a little quieter and more nuanced. It also benefits from the sheer volume of episodes; storylines tend to reoccur throughout the series, with new generations of characters, and it gives the writers chances to experiment with different outcomes.

Take last week’s two-parter “Unbelieveable,” an episode that actually ran with a disclaimer about disturbing content revolving around a student’s sexual assault. It’s not the first time Degrassi has done this; longtime viewers will remember Paige Michaelchuk’s crush raping her in Season 2 or Darcy Edwards getting roofied and raped at a party in Season 7. In “Unbelievable,” relative newcomer Zoe is the victim. Again, we’re at a party — this is the unfortunate common thread for all three — and Zoe wakes up from a blackout without her clothes.

At first it’s reminiscent of Paige’s storyline (both involve athletics and occur at a party, and both girls are characterized as bitchy by classmates) with some shades of Darcy (both were blacked out, aren’t sure what exactly happened the night before, and have no idea who it could’ve been — Darcy never found out), but it soon strays from the familiar path.

“Unbelievable” is Degrassi‘s version of a “ripped from the headlines” story and a mirror of the Stubenville case. An intoxicated Zoe is put aside at a crowded party, and later finds out details of her assault through the photos and videos that have gone viral. The episode includes an anonymous person (she accidentally spreads wrong information that incriminates two innocent guys) who wants justice for Zoe. There is also a link to the school’s athletics — we quickly learn that the assaulters are on the basketball team, though we’re unsure which players they are, and it causes the school to cancel the pep rally, which leads to anger from both team members and the general student population.

What’s interesting in “Unbelievable” is that it shifts the focus to other characters besides Zoe. We get the viewpoint of Becky, the strict Christian girl who sets out to do a report on teen drinking but learns what happened to Zoe and becomes obsessed with finding the culprits. It’s a little too detective-y for this serious plot when she pulls in Imogen and Drew to help investigate, setting up a crazy wall of photos and connecting strings (and they do this all without consulting Zoe herself). Still, it’s a welcome character change for someone like Becky, who normally wouldn’t ever associate with Zoe.

It also adds in a deeper conflict: one of Zoe’s assailants turns out to be Becky’s brother, Luke, and she has to choose between keeping his secret or sending her own brother to jail. “Unbelievable” focuses on Luke, too, as he freaks out to his partner about being found out and later pleads with Zoe to keep quiet so it won’t ruin his life. The episode shows Luke’s (selfish) regret and worry but never paints him as a sympathetic character.

When “Unbelievable” does return to Zoe, the writers do so thoughtfully and carefully. There are small moments throughout, like when she struggles to throw herself into a side activity or confronts the guy who left her drunk and alone, and when, at the doctor’s office, she learns more of what happened. It’s harrowing to watch, but necessary.

The detective subplot and the talent show (Zoe runs off the stage, exactly as Paige did in her episode) are too distracting, as is the annoying C-story about Miles and Maya fighting over their own relationship while putting a still-traumatized Zoe in the middle. But these distractions don’t take too much away from the episode as a whole. The mentions of Zoe’s drinking or clothing choice are quickly shut down by other characters, in a nice manifestation of how Degrassi rightfully gives no credence to any victim-shaming.

It feels strange to praise a Degrassi episode so highly because the show has such a silly, jokey reputation behind it, but “Unbelievable” was done in a surprisingly effective and controlled way. It was real and affecting, and it really cared about its characters, and it’s a shame the series will never get the credit it deserves.