Every few years I rewatch Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s the closest thing I have to a comfort item. I’ve rewatched it enough that at this point, I find the drama strangely calming. This time around, I decided to watch it with a friend who had never seen an episode. It’s been exciting to experience the series with someone for the first time. I’ve genuinely enjoyed our discussions, even if they’ve made me confront some of the series’s failings. Through the early seasons, I kept whining about how we hadn’t met my favorite character yet. I apparently whined enough that my friend had heard a lot about a character named Marco well before he was formally introduced in the second season.
When we began to get more episodes featuring Marco, I found myself getting anxious. I didn’t mind that my friend found flaws in Degrassi. I could handle being critical of something that I loved. Even so, I didn’t know what I would do if he didn’t like Marco.
Marco was unambiguously gay. This aspect of his character was very important to me as a baby queer kid. He was so unambiguously gay, he actually dated other boys and kissed them on screen. He came out multiple times and a fair share of his plots focused on the struggles and triumphs of being a part of the LGBTQ community. Marco was also a lucky (i.e. white) character, in that the writers gave him the chance to grow and develop into a fully realized creation. He bounces between different factions, one of the few characters who can maintain deep friendships from a variety of high school cliques, including the queen bee Paige Michalchuk and the punk reporter Ellie Nash. He also gets to embrace his Italian heritage while still trying to unpack the conservatism that can derive from it — a similar struggle to the one I was dealing with at home. After spending a childhood watching a lot of queer-coded Disney villains and my dad’s Italian mobster movies, Marco was one of the first canonical gay and Italian protagonists I could connect with.
Regardless of my fondness for Marco, I knew that my friend’s Degrassi experience was not going to include the same haze of nostalgia that mine did. I worried that he just might not be a character that really aged well, especially for a first time viewer in 2019. But I feigned confidence as we approached his episodes, hopeful that this part of Degrassi: The Next Generation wouldn’t let me down.
In Marco, my friend discovered a fictional character he proudly refers to as his “sweet, sweet boy.” Meanwhile, I was finding myself moved to tears on multiple occasions, shocked at how much this still resonated with me.
This time around, a lot of Marco’s early episodes made me cringe for reasons I never picked up on growing up. While it’s clear that Marco was always intended to be a gay character, it takes a while for him to come to terms with it. He becomes scared of his potential otherness as a gay person, trying to blend in with his male friends by making homophobic comments and putting girls down whenever he gets the chance. When he does comes out to his peers, most of his friends seem fine with his sexuality, aside from bully turned popular boy Spinner, who harasses him in ways that ranged from writing “MARCO IS A F*G” on the bathroom wall to calling him Marcy.
While we’re supposed to believe that Spinner is the only character who initially rejects Marco, none of the boys can ignore his otherness. They perceive him as more feminine, particularly because of his sensitivity. Marco is a voice of reason among the boys. He advocates for them to be kind and consider other people’s feelings, especially in romantic situations. The boys typically refuse to take Marco’s advice, instead choosing routes that typically fuel their own self interest and hurt the girls they’re involved with. When the boys sense that they are following Marco’s line of thinking, they balk. They fear accessing their feelings like Marco, because they are heavily coded as feminine.
However, Marco is resilient. He does not let the constant physical and emotional attacks demolish his sensitivity. Instead, he uses it to his advantage, whether he’s calling out a bully who calls him queer in the middle of a speech for class president or organizing a safe sex assembly despite steep opposition from a conservative student population within the school. Even with flecks of early aughts rust, Marco is a gay character who gets the chance to grow and has strong convictions worth cheering for.
As we wrapped up the third season, I asked my friend if Marco was worth the hype. My friend nodded and said that he absolutely was. I felt a wave of relief flow through my body.
On an objective level, Marco is still great gay representation and still worth watching, even if it’s been over fifteen years since Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered.
But personally, I know Marco means so much more to me than that. At one point, he was the closest thing I had to a gay friend. If he was able to make it through the seemingly cursed halls of Degrassi, then I definitely was going to make it through high school. I’m older, but he’s still helping me through, now allowing me to connect with a friend.