October 24, 2017
The Degrassi franchise (which first showed up in the late 1970s and includes several different TV shows) has continued its trend of tackling difficult topics relevant to teens. The latest season of Degrassi: Next Class, seen on Netflix, features the coming-out story of a nonbinary teen. This makes Degrassi: Next Class one of the first shows to have a main character identify as gender-fluid.
Yael, the nonbinary character, struggles with their gender identity before the episode where they become familiar with the terms “genderqueer” and “gender-fluid.” Earlier in the season, they begin to bind their breasts and question their identity as female. Eventually, Yael kisses their friend Lola, thinking their confusion may stem from being gay. After determining that they aren’t gay and still like their boyfriend Hunter, Yael explains to Lola, “I feel in between. I don’t feel like a girl, or what everyone thinks is a girl. I don’t like makeup and stuff like you do. I really, really hate my boobs. But I don’t feel like a boy either. And I’m definitely not gay.” Lola then introduces the words “genderqueer” and “gender-fluid” to Yael, explaining that they are for someone who doesn’t feel male or female. Yael is happy to have found names for the complex feelings they were experiencing regarding their gender.
Although many viewers were happy with the show’s willingness to feature a nonbinary character, some complained that Yael is played by cisgender actress Jamie Bloch. According to the show’s co-executive producer Matt Huether, the idea for Yael to come out as nonbinary developed once Bloch had already been playing the character for multiple seasons. He says in an interview with the online publication Vulture, “Yael starts out the series as cisgender presenting. To be honest, for the first couple of seasons we knew…that Yael would be uncomfortable with [their] own body and self, but we didn’t know what the endpoint was yet.” Huether elaborates, saying it wasn’t until the producers visited a Toronto high school’s queer–straight alliance that they found inspiration for Bloch’s character development.
Television has an awesome opportunity to destigmatize marginalized groups within our culture and bring about awareness and change. To viewers who may not identify as male or female, watching Yael’s experience and acceptance by friends may encourage others to understand their gender identity. Seeing nonbinary people represented in books, TV shows and other media can break down some of the barriers that prevent people from being open about their gender identity. It can also encourage all viewers to think critically about issues that marginalized groups, such as nonbinary people, face today.