There’s something refreshing about how Netflix‘s Degrassi: Next Class underplays Yael’s coming out as gender-fluid. Though the reveal was one of the most heavily teased parts of the teen dramedy’s fourth season, it plays very much as a B-story through the 10 episodes dropped on Netflix Friday.
This isn’t to say Yael’s story is minimized in any way: Their process is well-paced, and their eventual revelation feels earned. But Degrassi smartly doesn’t play the storyline for heavy, overwrought drama — and in the process, it crafts a graceful, intelligent story about personal discovery that feels like a vital addition to the stories about queer and gender non-conforming people that are being told on TV today.
As depicted in the preview clip Entertainment Weekly debuted before the season’s premiere, Yael (Jamie Block) does eventually come to terms with their gender-fluidity in a conversation with their friend Lola (Amanda Arcuri). But the seeds of the story are sown much earlier, when Yael struggles with their breasts. At first, Lola assumes they’re just wearing the wrong bra for their size, and helps them find a better, more comfortable bra.
But the new bra brings a lot of unwanted male attention Yael’s way, and thus doesn’t solve the problem. It’s only when they try on a breast binder that they finally seem at peace with their body. Block communicates a tremendous amount of emotion — relief, excitement, happiness, etc. — in one shot.
The series drops additional hints about Yael’s identity — not wanting to shave their armpits or legs, growing uncomfortable with gender-based jokes — in the next several episodes. Additionally, their relationship with boyfriend Hunter (Spencer MacPherson) grows strained; though he’s initially supportive, after talking openly with Yael about their journey, the changes confuse him.
Yael’s full coming out happens in episode six, complete with a Lola makeover that transforms their look into something more gender-neutral. Yael is thrilled, but Hunter is overwhelmed.
“I want you to be happy, but this is too much for me right now,” he admits. Yael is hurt, but rejects Lola’s offer of a change of clothes.
“This is me,” they say. “If he loves me, he’ll come around. I’m not going back — not for him, not for anyone.”
Hunter’s discomfort remains a common thread throughout the rest of the season, and never quite gets to a resolution. Yael angrily telling him that “There is no normal!” when it comes to gender is the last thing we see regarding this particular story thread. But Yael never questions their new identity. They’re comfortable, perhaps more than ever, and the show celebrates that.
Degrassi is not short on characters exploring their distinct, complex personal identities. That’s been a hallmark of the franchise since its inception. So there was little reason to doubt Yael’s story would be handled well. Still, gender-fluid characters are a rarity, even as queer and trans characters pop up on an increasingly high number of shows. To see this coming-out narrative told with such sensitivity and grace is important, and should be a guidepost for other stories like it going forward.
Degrassi: Next Class is available to stream on Netflix now.
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