03 Feb Creator/EP of “Degrassi” Discusses the Introduction of Syrian Refugee Characters and What That Means for the Show
While there are numerous quality programs to choose from on television, few shows really strike a chord with the universal audience and thus stick around for multiple decades. But Degrassi is a special case. This show has achieved success due to its ability to observe and comment on the real-world issues that young people face at home and at school, such as struggles with identity, family, sexuality, discrimination, relationships, bullying and education. And over the last four decades, it’s challenged viewers to engage with storylines that tackle abortion, rape, mental health and school violence, and ask difficult questions about them. There are shows that glaze over these hot-button topics in favor of a quick answer to something complicated, but not Degrassi. It puts you right there in the firing line, and offers multiple perspectives to show the complexity of human emotion.
Now, the current season is exploring the experiences of Syrian refugees integrating into the school community. This is relevant to the world today, as millions of refugees have had to flee their country to escape the civil war in Aleppo. A huge number are children and teens who have lost their families and had their education interrupted, or have been forced to work for a measly wage to support their families while living in dire circumstances. It’s fairly impossible to imagine the conflict in Syria without having some direct access to it, but the characters of Rasha and Saad in Degrassi give a welcoming glimpse into another culture — allowing us to see that, at the end of the day, we can all find something to relate to within one another.
Here’s our chat with Creator and Executive Producer of Degrassi, Linda Schuyler:
You’ve been the executive producer of the Degrassi franchise for 525 episodes and almost 4 decades! What has that journey been like, and how has it felt to see the franchise evolve from generation to generation?
The first Degrassi went on air in 1980, and there was no sense that it would have the kind of longevity that it’s proven to have. There’s just been something wonderful in the makeup of how we’ve designed the show that seems to allow itself to be reborn. Even though we get new generations of viewers, we’ve been able to keep the same core intent of the show, which is to talk about what it’s like being a child becoming an adult and what happens in that very critical four years of life when you’re in high school and it’s a time of sexual and political awakening. It’s such a critical time in people’s lives, so as the audience keeps refreshing itself and the world keeps changing, we’re able to look at similar issues and topics from different perspectives.
Degrassi is no stranger to pulling from the headlines, and since Canada has settled almost 40k Syrian refugees in the last 2 years, it makes sense that you’ve chosen to explore the experience of young refugees adapting to a new environment. Can you tell us how the decision came about to tackle this subject?
Sure, the interesting thing for us is that when we start a new season, we have a big brainstorm session with the writers and we talk about where we want to take the show, and we start with a lot of topics that are ripped from the headlines. But then our job is to take it out of the big global context and bring it right down to the hearts and the minds of teenagers, which is where we get empathy and understanding. Particularly in this day and age where there’s Islamophobia, we want to seriously look at the reality of a teenager who’s living the experience of being a refugee. It’s the same approach we take to any topic, whether we’re looking at abortion or sexual fluidity; it’s all about making it personal and putting it in the mind of an individual character who hopefully will have resonance with our audience.
You’ve introduced not one, but TWO new Syrian refugee characters who are different from each other (because, as Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None points out, “Why can’t there be two?”) Can you talk a little bit about this and your avoidance of tokenism?
Well, it was really important for us to show different shades of what it might be like for somebody coming from Syria. With the Rasha character, we have somebody who came from a very liberal middle class background and didn’t even wear a hijab when she was in Syria — she said she was only forced to wear it once ISIS started getting a hold. But her family was liberal, she talks about wearing bikinis on the beach, and she’s a city girl, so she brings that with her. Whereas with Saad, he’s seen the ravages of war, which we know from the photos on his phone. He has siblings who he’s often the caregiver to because both his parents are working minimum wage jobs, and he’s not adjusting as well as Rasha is. We just thought it was very interesting to show these two different perspectives.
Representation matters, and Degrassi is one of the only shows on TV offering this kind of representation. Has this always been a priority for the show?
Prior to becoming a television producer, I was a junior high school teacher for eight years and it was a real eye opener for me when I got my first position in the inner city of Toronto. This was back in the 70s, when more than 50% of the students were not white. In fact I made a documentary with my students called “Between Two Worlds,” about what it’s like for these kids to come to school and be part of Canadian culture during the day, and go back to a home where often there’s another language spoken and different cultural customs and expectations. When I had the opportunity to start Degrassi, that experience as an inner city school teacher very much stayed with me and the idea of giving a voice to representation and diversity is something that’s been very critical to me.
The message is really to celebrate our differences and accept others for who they are. What do you hope audiences take away from this?
I’m hoping that it’s going to put a human face on young Muslim people, because I think the rhetoric these days can be so painful and stereotypical. We’re trying to break down the stereotypes and encourage people to accept others; you don’t have to like every person, but please take the chance to get to know them. These are living, breathing, beautiful human beings who just need an opportunity to be heard instead of judged for where they come from. I love having the opportunity to tell these kinds of stories, and that’s what has kept me going for so long with Degrassi.
You mentioned that you were a junior high school teacher and you made a documentary; did you make other short projects during that time as well?
Yes, because as a teacher you have wonderful hours! You have your summers off, and so I was also studying film and television in summer courses and making my own short documentaries. Ultimately I was able to marry my two loves; media and young people.
Have you had role models or mentors who have encouraged you in your career?
I’ve got to say, the pickings were pretty slim… in terms of actual role models seeing people doing what I have done before me, they weren’t really there. I think that because I’ve been driven by such a strong sense of needing to tell stories, I’ve been fortunate that I can just press on.
What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to get into TV writing or making films?
You have to be fearless, and if there are things that you want to talk about, you’ve got to find the strength to put those feelings and thoughts into words without being concerned about pleasing other people.