Tuning In: The healing power of rock on Degrassi: The Next Generation
Recently, Caitlin at Dark Room asked if I watched Degrassi. She specifically inquired about the second installment of the Canadian teen drama, The Next Generation. I've only caught random episodes of both series with friends who either rented the DVDs or watched marathons on The-N.
She drew attention to season two's "Shout," which focuses on date rape and a teen girl survivor working through the aftermath. I was told that the episode also highlights girls playing together in a band. Suffice it to say, I was interested. I haven't been able to watch much beyond "Shout," which will be the focus of this entry. However, I don't think I could ask for a better entrance into the Degrassi universe.
Though the tone of the series is a bit earnest for me, I think I'm just acclimating to a particular sensibility. I applaud creators Yan Moore and Linda Schuyler's efforts. The sizable, diverse ensemble is comprised of age-appropriate actors playing characters who inhabit multiple identities. These characters are put in topical yet believable situations. They also interact in varied, character-specific ways that read as actual teenagers' responses to their environment rather than how a writer's room might hope a gaggle of high school students behave.
This brings us to "Shout," a two-part episode which aired in the states in 2003. Its main storyline does an admirable job addressing date rape and how it impacts girls. Popular cheerleader Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) meets soccer player Dean (Shawn Roberts) during a game and thinks he's cute. The two meet at a party and seem to hit it off. They go to a vacant bedroom for privacy, but things escalate too quickly and Dean forces himself onto Michalchuk.
The remainder of the episode focuses on Michalchuk processing the trauma. First she's in denial, repeatedly asking her friend Hazel Aden (Andrea Lewis) to quit asking what happened at the party. Dean conceptualizes her flirtatious behavior prior to the rape as indication of consent, and brags to peers that they had sex. She exhibits clear discomfort with personal contact, jumping when Spinner Mason (Shane Kippel), a classmate who has a crush on her, sneaks up behind her at her locker. He deems his misconception of her actions as slutty, for which she slaps him.
Michalchuk also breaks down several times while rehearsing with her band Paige Michalchuk and the Sexkittens, or PMS (!). First she confides to singer/tambourine player Aden, who labels the encounter as rape, encourages her friend to get tested and seek counseling, and offers her support. Keyboardist Ashley Kerwin (Melissa McIntyre) is at first unaware of guitarist Michalchuk's situation and writes anti-rape anthem "Poor Thing" in an effort to provide more substantial material to their repertoire. Michalchuk wants Kerwin to cut the song from their set list and, when Kerwin assumes she knows more about rape because of research she conducted, Michalchuk reveals the truth and Kerwin drops the issue and comforts her bandmate.
Then the episode takes an empowering turn. I was of the impression that date rape and the band were handled separately. Thus, I was thrilled that Michalchuk uses music to channel her pain into something creative and affirming. Not only do PMS perform the song at an event, but Michalchuk strums her guitar and takes over vocals to confront Dean through song. In this moment, Michalchuk reclaims her voice and begins the healing process with the band as her allies.
Finally, I wanted to mention Michalchuk's sexual orientation and posit how it may link up with her role as PMS's guitarist. In later seasons, she is involved with classmate Alex Nuñez (Deanna Casaluce), who is a lesbian, and begins identifying as bisexual. I don't want to suggest that all female guitar players are queer, nor do I want to assume the storyline is inherently progressive. But, I would like to point out that several virtuosic lead guitarists are also lesbians, including Kaki King, Tegan and Sara Quin, Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, and Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster.
Some may attribute their presence to a butch or masculine attitude many guitarists feel pressure to project and assume lesbians are better suited for this kind of gender performance. I'm more inclined to read certain queer women's affinity for the ax as a means of showcasing the erotic potential of the manual dexterity involved in playing an instrument modeled after a curvy feminine torso. As this is the assumed domain of riff-savvy straight rock gods like Jimmy Page, I read these instrumentalists as reclaiming this sort of mastery for themselves. I don't want to suggest that bisexuality informs Michalchuk's guitar playing. However, I'm happy that, through music, one teen girl character learns to claim her sense of self.
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