[Originally posted on the Judgment of Paris Forum on October 11th, 2004.]
The past month saw the release of two DVD sets which offer viewers perhaps the greatest examples of timeless beauty ever recorded on film. The first is Federico Fellini's 1960 silver-screen masterpiece, La Dolce Vita
(which we will discuss here in a future essay), and the second is Season One of Degrassi: The Next Generation.
It may seem unusual to mention these two releases in the same breath, because they are so very different in nature. Fellini's film is a masterwork of world cinema--a searching exploration of the spiritual emptiness of European culture in the postwar period--while Degrassi is a half-hour television series which premiered in 2001. But what links these two projects is that they are entirely dominated by the presence of their curvaceous stars: Anita Ekberg and Christina Schmidt.
We have discussed Miss Schmidt and her role on this series before, but most of us only encountered Degrassi in its second season, beginning with the episode in which Christina's character, Terri MacGreggor, revealed that she was a plus-size model. But from the perspective of size celebration, it is Season One that contains the most affirmative statements about body image and delivers the most positive message to its young audience.
It would be easy to dismiss Degrassi as just another teen drama in the 90210 or Popular vein, except for one crucial element which elevates the show above its predecessors--and that element is Christina/Terri. Of many plot threads in the Season One collection, it is the Terri storyline that is by far the most compelling. And Christina plays the role to perfection.
In the early episodes of Season One, Terri falls into the familiar category of "insecure, full-figured teen." We have seen characters like this before--girls with low self-esteem and poor body image, who are the best friends/sidekicks of the ultra-skinny "prom queens" (one of which inhabits this series: a moral but self-centred girl named Ashley).
However, beginning with the third episode in the collection, titled "Eye of the Beholder," the show starts to use Terri to make progressive points about body image. Whether this direction was planned from the start, or whether Degrassi realized what a unique talent they had acquired in Christina and decided to capitalize on her singular gifts, the nature of the Terri character begins to change and evolve--entirely for the better.
Plot exposition makes for dull reading, but it is worth highlighting several episodes and scenes from the Season One collection that make a powerful impact, both visually and thematically.* * *
"Eye of the Beholder" is nominally a cautionary tale about the perils of restoring to alcohol as a confidence boost. One of the school's cheerleaders (Paige) feels threatened when a boy she likes expresses obvious interest in Terri. Paige leans of Terri's insecurities, and capitalizes on them to get her intoxicated before a school dance. Terri embarrasses herself publicly, and the boy's attention turns to Paige.
But the subversive moment of the episode occurs when Terri's friends persuade her--for the very first time--to dress in an exciting outfit. Up until this moment in the series, Terri "dresses down" in a pre-Mode manner--hidden beneath an abundance of fabric, practically invisible:
But garbed in a sleeveless, fitted top and a short skirt, Terri's beauty shines forth for everyone to see. "You look incredible," one friend tells her, and an astonished Paige--more threatened than ever by Terri's beauty--grudgingly admits, "Wow, you . . . actually do."
Right there, in that one moment, when the underweight cheerleader unwittingly acknowledges how intimidated she feels by Terri's looks, we see a dramatization-in-miniature of the cultural conflict that permeates contemporary society, between natural femininity and the artificial modern standard, and how the curveophobic media elite undermine the confidence of full-figured women . . . to whom they secretly feel inferior.* * *
In another episode, titled "Parent's Day," both Ashley and Paige learn that a Hollywood casting agent will be coming to their school. These two popular types dress themselves to the nines, hoping to attract the agent's attention, and even thrust Polaroids into her hand:
The agent gently dismisses their overtures and passes them by. However, as she is leaving the school, the agent catches sight of Terri (who hadn't even bothered approaching her) and is arrested by her remarkable beauty:
The agent immediately gives Terri a business card, saying, "If you're interested in acting, give me a call. You have an interesting look,"
(which frustrates her envious, skinny friends no end):
How progressive of Degrassi to show a casting agent favouring plus-size Terri over her underweight rivals! This is truly a glimpse of the future, a time when timeless beauty will return to cultural prominence and leave the androgynous look in its wake. And although the episode doesn't make this point explicitly, in the narrative of the series, it is reasonable to assume that the agent's "discovery" is what leads to Terri's future job as a plus-size model. In successive episodes, we see Terri gradually sporting more attractive hairstyles and wearing more glamorous makeup.* * *
A telling bit of dialogue opens an episode titled "Secrets and Lies." Ashley notices a locket that Terri is wearing and asks to see it. Inside the locket, she finds two small pictures of a man and a woman, which leads to the following exchange:
TERRI: My dad gave it to my mom on their first anniversary. She left it for me after she died.
ASHLEY: Terri, it's beautiful. Your mom--she's so pretty.
TERRI: My dad called her his "movie star." I know--it's pretty cheesy.
ASHLEY: No, it's sweet. You look just like her, you know.
Again, there is something subtly but undeniably subversive in indicating that of all of Degrassi's stars, it is actually the plus-size character, Terri, who possesses the look of Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Jeanne Crain, or any of the other renowned beauties of the silver screen.
None of Degrassi's predecessors ever acknowledged the beauty of their full-figured characters. Rather, they always played up a false binary opposing girls who were "skinny and pretty" with girls who were "full-figured but had a 'great personality'." By underscoring Terri's physical appeal, Degrassi makes greater strides towards size celebration than any film or television project of the past forty years.* * *
But the standout episode in Season One, and perhaps Degrassi's finest overall episode to date, is titled "Cabaret." Like "Eye of the Beholder," this episode focusses on Terri, but here we see the character's process of individuation take a significant leap forward. In fact, this episode broadly represents the general predicament of plus-size girls in contemporary society, as they shake off the negative brainwashing of the past and tentatively explore the freedom that the future will bring.
The episode begins with Terri still under the thumb of her friend Ashley and accepting her lead in everything they do together--in this case, participating in a duet for a school talent show, with a song that Terri dislikes. But as the plot progresses, Paige becomes involved and encourages the adoption of more colourful costumes and a livelier song.
Terri is caught in the middle, but finally sides with Paige. She stands up to Ashley, informing her that she has been taking her for granted. The episode climaxes with Terri and Paige performing the more dynamic number, perfectly choreographed and dressed in gorgeous costumes. The viewer is left with the impression that Terri is well on her way to discovering her undeniable attractions as well as her inner worth.* * *
Unfortunately, good as the writing was in Season One, the series began to lose its way in future years. Many fascinating elements of Terri's personality have never been explored, and although the plus-size-model storyline was a powerful one, the show has failed to capitalize on its tremendous potential. Having taken the Terri character from "size tolerance" to "size acceptance" (which already put it light years ahead of any comparable Hollywood series), Degrassi has lacked the initiative to progress to the final stage of "size celebration" and show Terri altogether breaking free of her culturally-imposed insecurities and achieving her full potential as an individual.
But at least the public can now enjoy the aesthetic and social merits of Season One, which will hopefully inspire young plus-size girls everywhere to realize that the only thing standing in the way of their happiness is their own self-doubt, and will prove to anyone watching it that plus-size actresses can be not just "as beautiful" but more beautiful than the waifs who dominate film and television today.
- Degrassi: Season One