The Phoenix Zine

Degrassi: Presenting Disability and Chronic Illness to the Next Generation


I have a confession to make.  I’m twenty-seven years old and I am a huge fan of Degrassi: The Next Generation.

Degrassi is a tv show that started with its first incarnation The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979.  From there, yearly or quarterly episodes became weekly when Degrassi shifted to Degrassi Junior High in 1987.  Once the main characters had graduated from Junior High the show became Degrassi High,  and the show ended in 1991.  When 2000 came along, Yan Moore, a writer for Degrassi, realised that the child (Emma) unwed mother Christine “Spike” Nelson had while attending Degrassi Junior High, would be just the right age to start Junior High herself and thus Degrassi: The Next Generation began.

After having watched all the reruns of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, except the notorious series finale School’s Out, I was thrilled when Degrassi returned during my last year of high school.  The focus of the show is to delve into the lives of everyday teens, exploring the issues they face and the choices they make.  Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler has a special talent for keeping her shows relevant and controversial, covering such topics as rape, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, suicide, sexting and violence.  As Kevin Smith wrote in his introduction to the book, Degrassi Generations, Degrassi “was a school so tough even the bully was reduced to tears.” 

In its earlier incarnations, Degrassi featured story lines about cancer (leukemia), epilepsy, and HIV.  However, such plot lines rarely lasted more than one or two episodes.  With Degrassi: The Next Generation came three major plot lines featuring disability and chronic illness: Teacher Archie “Snake” Simpson’s leukemia, Jimmy Brooks’ paralysis due to a gun shot injury, and Gavin “Spinner” Mason’s testicular cancer.

Archie “Snake” Simpson, alumni of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, teacher at Degrassi Community School and relatively new step-father to Emma Nelson, begins season three with what seems like a cold.  Kicked out of the house by his wife Spike so he doesn’t give the cold to their new baby, Snake stays at his friend Joey’s where he gets a nosebleed and passes out.  Soon after he is diagnosed with leukemia and undergoes chemotherapy.  The whole family is relieved when the chemo is successful and Snake enters remission and stays there.

What I liked about the Snake/leukemia story line was how it highlighted the effect of cancer on the whole family, not just Snake himself.  Emma’s relationship with her boyfriend Sean ends because he can’t handle how much time she has to spend at home.  Spike’s nerves are frayed with worry over the cancer itself, but also how Snake is handling things.  I also liked how Snake’s friends rally around him, making him and his family dinner and taking him out to show their support and try to cheer him up.  Snake has moments where he doesn’t know if he has the will to make it, but eventually things turn out.

In season four, Rick Murray has been bullied and ostracised at school and has finally had enough.  After one particularly humiliating episode, Rick brings a gun to school and shoots Jimmy Brooks in the back, paralysing him from the waist down.  The show chronicles Jimmy’s journey from shock to acceptance, and he works hard to build a new normal for himself.  Jimmy’s story line covers issues of independence, identity, and sexuality, as they pertain to disability. 

There are many excellent episodes in the Jimmy/paraplegic storyline, but my favourite ones are episode 415, entitled Secret, Part Two and episode 604, Can’t Hardly Wait

In Secret, Jimmy’s been staying a rehabilitation centre, adjusting to his new life with a wheelchair.  His dad is nervous about Jimmy coming home so he delays it, and Jimmy is understandably disappointed.  As an act of rebellion, Jimmy and his friends sneak out of the rehab centre to attend a Kid Elrick concert.  At first, Jimmy feels awkward in his chair, this being the first time he’s been out in the real world since the accident, but he comes into his own by the end of the episode and ends up regaining his sense of independence and normalcy as well.  He may be a paraplegic now, but he’s still a regular teenage guy, which Degrassi does a wonderful job of exploring.

In Can’t Hardly Wait, Jimmy is trying to pursue a intimate relationship with his girlfriend Ashley Kerwin.  Since the shooting though, things haven’t been the same in that department.  Incredibly discouraged after a failed attempt at making love, Jimmy goes to the doctor to explore his options.  In a frank discussion with his doctor, Jimmy confesses his fears about being a virgin forever or having to be a sex ‘robot’ with an implant to assist him.  The doctor prescribes Viagra, and when Jimmy tries it with Ashley it is unclear whether the drug doesn’t work  because it just doesn’t work for him or because he’s so stressed out.

As a result, Jimmy tries to end his relationship with Ashley because he doesn’t want to disappoint her.  Ashley tells him making love is about more than sex, but Jimmy says he knows that and to him it’s about being the man he wants to be.  They stay together, but their relationship ends in season seven when Jimmy meets a woman named Trina that he connects with at physio and falls in love with.

Also in season seven, Spinner Mason finds himself feeling like he pulled a groin muscle.  The pain escalates, and though he is embarrassed, he is forced to have it checked out by his female doctor.  Turns out it’s testicular cancer and Spinner not only has to have one of his testicles removed immediately, but he has to start chemo and radiation therapy as well.  He reacts with violence, and Jimmy has the best lines in the entire series when he tells Spinner he knows what it’s like when your body lets you down, but Spinner can’t beat cancer with his fists.  Another favourite Jimmy quote of mine is when he tells Spinner having cancer doesn’t give him the right to be a jackass.

Spinner’s dealing with a lot though.  His dad died from lung cancer and he’s dealing with feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and fear.  Beating on others provides him with distraction, a sense of power and a place to channel his anger and grief.

In 2006, when the Spinner/testicular cancer story line aired, I was two years into heart failure.  I was shocked by Spinner’s reaction to cancer, but also kind of jealous.  His reaction to illness was everything my reaction wasn’t: messy, emotional and honest.  His story inspired me to become more honest about my experiences with illness.

Degrassi‘s portrayal of disability and chronic illness is sensitive, brave and believable, though at times overly dramatic.  And the reason why Degrassi holds my interest after so many years is simple.  Despite everything these teens go through, the message is universal and contained eloquently in the lyrics of Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s theme song, “Whatever It Takes”:

Whatever it takes,
I know I can make it through
If I hold out,
I know I can make it through
Be the best (Be the best I can, and I say to you)
Whatever it takes (I know I can make it)
I know I can make it
I know I can make it through

As someone dealing witha chronic illness, this song inspires me every time I hear it.  To me “Whatever It Takes” is just another way of putting Albert Camus’ famous quote, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”  With family, with friends, with myself, with tv shows even, I know I will make it through anything life has to throw at me.  I love that Degrassi provides an endless array of characters who don’t always make the best choices or have the most integrity but still maintain a strength of character.  They’re not perfect, they are real, and that is what makes the show so compelling and powerful.

Degrassi: The Next Generation began its tenth season on Friday, July 16th with Degrassi Takes Manhattan, a mega episode to kick start the season.  After beginning on CBC, then moving to CTV, Degrassi’s new home is on Much Music, with four new episodes a week.  Episodes are available for viewing online on Much Music.

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