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Degrassi: Next Class EP on why this was the right time to explore gender fluidity

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After 38 years of the Degrassi High School franchise, the new season of Degrassi: Next Class sees a new first as a character comes out as gender fluid.

As seen in the clip EW had revealed earlier this month, Yael Baron (played by Jamie Bloch) expressed to their friend Lola that they felt neither like a girl or a boy. This led Lola to introduce the idea of being genderqueer, or rather, not identifying as either end of the gender binary. Yael instantly recognized that this term felt closest to their own experience.

With the Netflix show (which drops its entire fourth season today) threading brand new ground, EW spoke to executive producer Stephen Stohn to learn how Yael’s coming out came about.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show has always been topical in terms of the issues you guys have covered over the years, but how do you ensure you have a new approach every time you tackle it? Is that something you’re thinking about? Or is it more that you want to depict it for each new generation of viewer?
STEPHEN STOHN: It’s hard to say. At the end of every season, we sit down and our first reaction is, “Well, that’s it. We’ve told every story we possibly can. There’s nothing more to do. How can we carry on?” The writers are fantastic. They always surprise us. They come back after a month or two and we have our brainstorming sessions. There’s so much that’s going on in the world that the stories pop up in social media and in the news. One of the reasons we’ve carried on for as long as we have is we cast age-appropriately. Our actors are always close to the characters they’re portraying in age, which is important for authenticity. But it also means the characters graduate and leave the show. So new cast comes in, and it takes a while for the audience to bond with them, but they do. Then we can tell a story, and it may be a similar story or a story we’ve told in the past, which could be about something big like abortion, or it could be something small, like a first kiss. But it comes from a different point of view, and it’s portrayed by a different actor. It’s embodied in a completely different character who has a different life experience. So that allows us to carry on and explore different issues in a different way. Of course, by then, a few years have passed and society is different as well, and the context we’re telling it is different.

One of the things you touch upon this season is this idea of gender fluidity. When did you know that was a storyline you wanted to explore?
It’s an ongoing story. We’ve seen it in America. Not necessarily the kind of gender fluidity in and of itself that we are portraying, but the more non-binary kind of spectrum. With [what’s happening in North Carolina with the bathroom bill], and [more] people coming out as transgender, the whole discussion has really changed over the years and there’s confusion out there about what [being gender fluid] is. And not just it, there’s a whole bunch of different variations. The scene I actually like the most is not one that Yael is in. It’s one where all their friends are expressing their own confusion about their gender: “Do I say ‘they’? Or do I not say ‘they’?” And they’re using the terms incorrectly and they’re sort of correcting each other. That’s the way we and our young audiences all are. We know there’s something out there that’s different and we want to be supportive. But we can get confused about it. Of course, Yael themselves is completely confused about it.

Last season we saw that Yael was not comfortable with more traditional girly activities. Did you know, when you were expressing those aspects of the character, that they would actually eventually come out as gender fluid?
I don’t think so. In the earliest iterations of their character, they clearly were someone who was very different than Lola, who is a girly-girl. That was important because people are different. But it was really only in season 4 where they really start to struggle with their identity and we use Lola as both their foil in one sense and as their major support in another sense. So it was only during the writing of that season that the writers really started to say, “This is the ideal character where we can start to express this struggle with identity.” And in the end, show their journey, where for the first time, they can really feel authentic and confident being their own authentic self.

How do you know when to apply a storyline like this to an existing character, as opposed to, say, creating a new character who may be going through it?
The writers work with the actors and they’ll write something, and they’ll see how individual actors are able to capture the nuances in what is there. So they start to recognize the strengths and weaknesses, not just of the actor, but of the character that they’re developing. It becomes more defined. Jamie Bloch who plays Yael is a very good actress. They immediately recognized that she was able to carry out, not just embrace, the story that she was given, but carry it out and bring out the nuance and the confusion that she was going through.

What were some of the discussions you had to have with Jamie when you were telling her about this storyline?
I didn’t have the conversations directly; it was the head writer. But we were very clear with Jamie in having conversations so that she could go off and do her own research, as well as talk with the writers because it’s very important, of course, to get the terminology correct. And if we’re going to make mistakes, they need to be intentional mistakes. So if characters say certain things, and they’re wrong things, we need to know what we’re doing, and Jamie needed to understand what the Yael character was going through, as well. But she was great. She and the writers get along really well, and so they worked it out.

How are you applying the term “gender fluid” within the show? Is Yael more nonbinary, or are they varying between which gender they identify with more strongly on a given day?
We don’t actually use the word in the show, but we’re thinking of it in a more non-binary sense. But from Yael’s perspective, they’re struggling with it. They like boys. So, they know that. But they just don’t feel like a girly-girl. They understand this concept of fluidity. But I’m not sure the character themselves would necessarily even know the term non-binary now… This reminds me of Miles because in the past he’s never used the word “bisexual.”

And he used it so casually this season when describing himself, too. That was such a big moment for him.
Yes. The audience was saying, “Why doesn’t he come out? Are you biphobic?” But Miles is not a wise person who knows everything. All he knows is what he’s feeling and who he’s loving. So using the term [isn’t something he’s thinking of]. But eventually this season, he does come out and use the term bisexual. It’s similar to Yael, which is that Miles is just feeling these things and not necessarily labeling them.

Degrassi: Next Class is currently available to stream on Netflix.