The Degrassi fandom was the first one that I ever officially joined. I would commandeer the family television on Friday nights, equipped with my dinner, and wait eagerly for my weekly dose of Canadian drama and gorgeous boys (I was as gross about attractive TV stars then as I am now, and unabashedly so). As soon as the end credits began to roll I would jump online and log onto the fan site, where I would connect with other enthusiastic fans like myself. The experience introduced me to a lot of things that are now so common in fandom and viewership behavior: fanfiction, hate-watching (via my younger brother, who always had a handful of slick commentary, yet somehow found a spot right next to me each Friday night), online fan communities, and celebrity crushes. I created serious bonds with people, thanks to that experience. In fact, I’m STILL friends with one of those fans to this day, over a decade later (*waves emphatically at Melissa*).
The show also dealt me my first major fictional loss in the death of one of its main characters, J.T. Yorke. He wasn’t necessarily my favorite character (that honor belonged to Jimmy “Soon I’ll Be a Rapper Non-Ironically” Brooks), but there was still a lot to mourn. From the brutality of his murder (he was literally stabbed in the back and left to die in the street) to watching his death – and life – deeply affect each of his classmates for episodes to come, it was hard not to feel emotional about the loss of a character that you watched grow before your eyes for years. I remember immediately logging into my little online community to debrief about the tragedy, expecting the scene to be a fecund cyberland of recaps and exclamation points.
What I saw was genuine mourning and consoling from fans that covered an impressively wide range of ages. There was certainly discussion about the event itself, but what grabbed my attention more were the many and varied testimonies of how much this character genuinely marked their lives, whether it was through his humor or his loyalty to his friends. With millions of viewers worldwide, many had the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, relate to his bumbling mishaps through puberty, and find humor even when life made laughter difficult. Also, his death came after Degrassi High had seen its share of tragedies, from domestic violence to school shootings. This was the first time we were reminded that our beloved characters weren’t altogether invincible and that alone served a shocking blow to our collective guts. When you consider all this you begin to realize that loyal viewers like myself invested so much more than thirty minutes on Fridays (or Tuesdays, if you lived in Canada).
And that’s always been part of the beauty and charm of art, right? It’s in that privilege to elevate certain work beyond mere escapism (not to say that there’s anything wrong at all with keeping something within that particular realm). It’s in our ability to adopt these characters into our families and to carry their purpose with us. Its in the way that we dig past superficial attraction and hatred and find attributes that we wish to see (or avoid) in others. That personal attachment is what keeps good television, film, music, theater, comics, and art relevant. A friend of mine managed to encapsulate this sentiment beautifully on Twitter just recently:
So it’s important to understand that a character’s death can amount to something bigger than a simple cast turnover for some, or how the passing of a musician whom we’ve never met can trigger deep, abiding sadness in others. Amy Winehouse entirely revolutionized my relationship with music as well as how I view and relate to my own pain, so arriving home from my honeymoon to the news of her death is a moment that I will not soon forget. I’ll also remember how the expression of said sadness was not only shared by so many of my friends, but also met with the skeptical cries of those who hadn’t developed quite the same attachment with her. “None of you knew her! There’s so much tragedy in our world today that deserve our attention! Why focus on this one person you don’t know?” What they didn’t understand is that the focus was not just on this person, but this person’s impact and how the loss of her also signified the loss of that connection we had forged between our own intangible emotions and something so damn beautiful. That shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
That’s why my lack of familiarity with Grey’s Anatomy didn’t lead to some jaded write-off of the passionate response to one of the most monumental deaths in television history. When you get to know and feel for someone over the course of eleven years – fictional or otherwise – a sudden change like that is harrowing. It’s a sign of personal relevance and if you’re unable to understand that, than maybe that instance is simple not meant to be understood by everyone. That’s okay. It doesn’t make it any less important.
I say all that to ask this of anyone who may be reading this: make the effort to understand why the death of a make-believe doctor, a comic book superhero, or charismatic Canadian student on a teen drama might be received with more than a few tears. Understand how the loss of a pop icon may be deeply mourned for a while by someone who may never have shared the same space with them. Hell, try to understand why some people are still super upset with the How I Met Your Mother finale or the departure of a band member. Just understand that, like you, there is much more than meets the eye.
And if you still can’t understand any of it, then that’s more than fine. Just…you know…don’t be a dick about it.