The plot of last night’s hour-long episode of Degrassi is most likely familiar to you, and that’s the point. The teen soap known for using “ripped-from-the-headlines” social issues as the crux of their story arcs aired an episode about sexual assault last night that borrowed heavily from the recent Steubenville, Ohio rape case, and in doing so opened up a dialogue about sexual assault, drinking, and consent. In short, this is the episode that health teachers need to show their students.
For those unfamiliar with the Steubenville case, on August 12, 2012, two teenage football players at Steubenville High School, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, sexually assaulted their classmate, 16-year-old Jane Doe while she was intoxicated and incapacitated at a party. The men filmed their assault on Jane Doe and shared the video with friends. When Jane Doe reported the crime, she was met with harassment from peers, many of whom blamed her for “ruining” the lives of her rapists, who were, by all accounts, popular students and star athletes — obviously not rapists. The victim-blaming didn’t stop with Jane Doe’s peers — news sources like CNN and Fox News also expressed sympathy for her rapists.
On last night’s Degrassi — episode title “Unbelievable” — the character Zoe Rivas (Ana Golja) stands in for Jane Doe. Zoe attends a party where she gets drunk and ends up being dropped off, alone, in a secluded area of the party. Two of her classmates — later identified as two stars of the Degrassi basketball team — assault Zoe while she’s in her intoxicated state and film their crime. The video circulates around the school.
The writers consciously picked a character that the audience might not naturally place as a victim — the tough, flirtatious, and, oftentimes mean Zoe Ravis. There were a number of girls on the show that the writers could have put in Zoe’s place and the story line would have worked. However, by choosing Zoe — a not-so-nice girl who we’ve already seen get wasted at several parties and have consensual sex — it shows that there is no “right” victim of a crime, and that past behaviors do not undermine the significance of an assault. It’s also important to note that Degrassi didn’t show Zoe passed out, but rather had her conscious yet still visibly intoxicated, slurring words like “Do you think I’m sexy?” while still very much incapacitated, as a way to showcase how consent cannot truly be given when a person is heavily intoxicated.
It would have been easy to write a sexual assault episode told primarily from the perspective of the victim, but Degrassi offered a more complex take on a very important issue by showing the perspective of the victim, the bystander, and the assailants. Yes, there were bystanders who stood by Zoe and fought for justice (including a character who was an obvious allegory for hacker group Anonymous, “The Watcher,” who assisted in the investigation but also accidentally spread false information) but most characters reacted in ways that were very similar to how Jane Doe’s peers did. Zoe’s best friend shames Zoe for her pre-assault party behavior and her sexual history, stating that since she slept with another guy, she must have wanted to hook up with the two guys at a party, regardless of how drunk she was. When the video shows two boys in yellow basketball jackets committing the assault, the basketball team goes on the defense saying that they will protect their own. It’s a sad episode and a sad reality for many sexual assault victims.
The show gives the players who assaulted Zoe a point of view as well. The reaction from the assailants is very similar to the reaction that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond had to being accused of their attack on Jane Doe. One assailant pleads to Zoe to forget about the entire thing — it will “ruin his life,” and since Zoe doesn’t remember what happened (she blacked out after the assault), they should all be able to “move on.” The show is smart about the portrayal of the assailants — one is a self-proclaimed “good, Christian guy” and the other is planning on leading the basketball team to victory. Just as anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, we must also believe that even the people we respect the most are capable of assault.
I’ve been a fan of Degrassi forever (Did I mention that I’m in my 20s? Yeah…) but I was particularly happy with the way that they tackled this sensitive topic. Yes, Degrassi tends to get a little bit soapy and often preachy when it comes to social issues, but this one was particularly smart and nuanced, not to mention rarely discussed in such a sensitive way. How often do we see a show where a drunken hookup — even one in which one party is taking clear advantage of the other’s intoxication — is seen as a romantic mistake, rather than an opening for a discussion on consent? Teens (and, also, everyone) need to learn the meaning of consent and the dangers of victim blaming so something like Steubenville doesn’t happen again. I’m glad that Degrassi opened the discussion, and I hope that the media continues it.