'Degrassi' Breaks Down Walls -- Again -- With Transgendered Character
by Stephanie Earp, posted Aug 11th 2010 3:00PM
I remember when 'The Kids of Degrassi' first aired back in the early '80s -- I'm pretty sure I saw it in the classroom, the last refuge of an exhausted teacher in my downtown Toronto public school. I recognized the streets and even some of the kids, since my father lived in the area, and my mom was always sending me to artsy after-school programs. Even at that tender age, I recognized that 'Degrassi' was different from other television shows. Mostly I noticed that the kids weren't rich, good-looking or well-dressed.
Hey, in television that's already pretty out there.
But as we all know, 'Degrassi' has gone much further than simply showing us kids wearing K-Mart classics to a run-down school. They've shown us teens confronting sex, drugs, abortion, rape, sexual assault, cutting, abusive parents and homosexuality, and all without the after-school-special endings one usually expects from episodes dealing with these issues.
In the world of 'Degrassi' these things are a constant, as much a part of teenage life as cliques, homework and fashion dilemmas, like it is in the real world. Some critics have lambasted 'Degrassi: The Next Generation' for repeating some of the storylines from the older 'Degrassi' franchises, but personally, I'm OK with it. For one thing, in what universe do people deal with drugs, rape, and abortion only once in their lives? For another, as 'Degrassi' celebrates 30 years on the air, it truly is a new generation watching.
And this season, 'Degrassi: TNG' added a transgender character to the show, Adam. He is a female-to-male transgender played by actress Jordan Todosey ('Life with Derek'). While Adam will be on the show for the entire season, this week will have his storyline at the forefront as he copes with bullying. For any other show, adding this character would have been a major news story. But for 'Degrassi', which is always ahead of the curve, it is actually expected.
On fan forums, posters expressed pleasure at Adam's addition to the cast and many said they were just waiting for 'Degrassi' to add a trans character, that it was only a matter of time. That's pretty amazing, when you stop to think about it. Can you imagine a similar reaction to any other teen show? "Oh yeah, there's a trans character on 'Gossip Girl' this season -- but I was expecting that." To quote my teenaged self: "As if!"
The only other place on TV that I can imagine audiences expecting to see a wide range of gender identities is on reality TV -- mainly 'Project Runway' and 'America's Next Top Model'. 'Runway' -- both Canadian and U.S. editions -- is a particular favourite of mine in this regard. It has got to be about the only place on mainstream TV where straight people are the exception, and where sexual orientation is so beside the point. The struggle to come out, to be true to one's self is usually part of the backdrop of a 'Project Runway' contestant, but it takes a serious back seat to talent, charm and an ability to sew.
If I have any concerns about Adam's residency on 'Degrassi' it's this -- that Adam's trans identity will be his only identity. The struggles of trans kids are immense and important, and I'm glad 'Degrassi' is tackling it, but I sincerely hope that the writers take some time away from their research and interviews with the trans community to give Adam life beyond those struggles. I hope that Adam has talents, passions, and relationships that are outside this central plotline.
Because overall Adam needs to human, not just for the sake of good television (which you know I consider of the highest importance), but for the sake of the people watching this groundbreaking moment. For the sake of the trans kids watching, maybe stuck in the middle of nowhere in a rural town, wondering if anyone else has ever felt like they feel. For the sake of the parents of that kid, wondering if their kid is going crazy, if it's just a phase, or if this is for real. And for the sake of the hundreds and thousands of kids who will meet a trans kid one day and maybe, thanks to Adam, be braver, be kinder, and be a friend.