Heartstopper: The show I wish I had growing up
Heartstopper was released on Netflix on April 22, 2022. The show is based on the webcomic and graphic novels created by Alice Osman. Heartstopper has reached the top ten TV English titles on Netflix worldwide following its release. The graphic novel has become a top-selling children’s bestseller in the UK, and many songs featured in the show has increased in streams and chart sales.
This coming-of-age romance follows protagonist Charlie Spring, an England schoolboy who is already out. While experiencing bullying and ostracization from his classmates for the past last year, he secretly meets with Ben, an upperclassman who prefers kissing Charlie and ignores him in public in order to protect his [Ben] own popularity status. Simultaneously, Charlie is assigned to sit next to Nick Nelson in his new form (I’m almost pretty sure “form” has a similar meaning to homeroom, but I’m a bit of an ignorant American). Nick, described by many peers, is the star rugby player and a year older than Charlie, who soon develops a huge crush on him. As Charlie’s close friend Tao Xu once said, Nick Nelson is a Golden Retriever but in the form of a teenage boy, so it’s not hard to see why.
The story follows Charlie, who learns to stand up for himself, and Charlie’s friends Tao Xu and Elle Argent. Protective of Charlie and suspicious of Nick, whom he views as an embodiment of the straight ‘lad’s lads’ kids who picked on Charlie last year, Tao has an aversion to change. Elle, a trans teen, is adjusting to her transfer from an all-boys school, where she had a steady and supportive friend group, to an all-girls school. Undoubtedly, she is now unsure where she exactly fits in.
If you have not seen or finished the entire series yet, pause here unless you would like spoilers
Representation: Characters of Multiple Identities
This show (and webcomic and graphic novel series) is an amazing form of representation. There are several different sexualities represented in this single story. Plus, every character is at a different stage in their journey.
For starters, Charlie has been out for a year. While he has been bullied because of his sexuality, he is in an unhealthy one-sided relationship with Ben who has been consistently hinted that he has internalized shame about his undeclared sexuality. Abiding by Ben’s wishes to keep their relationship a secret, Charlie excitedly meets him when requested. In public, Ben treats Charlie very poorly by acting as if he has never met him before. Here, you may wonder why Charlie accepts this, and it is because of his low self-esteem. His story is about realizing his self-worth and discovering that he deserves someone who treats him with love and respect, not someone who treats him as a secret to be ashamed of.
Now speaking of someone who treats Charlie with respect, Nick begins to spend more time with Charlies, which leads him to questioning his sexuality. Gradually, he becomes confused since he has liked girls before, but now he likes Charlie. As Nick soon realizes he is bi, his journey is not only examining and researching his identity as well as feelings for Charlies, but also coming to terms with them and debating whether he would like to disclose his sexuality despite the consequences.
Shifting the focus to someone who has proudly embraced their gender identity, Elle, at the start of the show, has already opened up about her transexuality. As the new girl at an all-girls academy, she feels out of place and faces difficulties in finding friends. Within some time, she befriends Tara Jones and Darcy Olsson. She also realizes she is developing a crush on her friend Tao, which she resists because she wants to protect her friendship with him, while also being aware that he is afraid of change. At the same time, her character is often the sage and voice of reason for others, which is very refreshing to see. As she stands firmly on her identity, her struggle centers more on life changes and falling in love with her best friend, which are universal and non-threatening in the way many trans characters in shows seem to be. Thankfully, no one misgenders her or forces her to be a spokesperson for her community on-screen. She is just a normal teenager living her life, and I’m HERE for it.
While viewers see Elle embracing their gender identity, they also see Darcy who has been out since childhood and is very comfortable in her sexuality. Darcy secretly dates Tara who later posts about her relationship with Darcy to the world. She receives homophobic remarks from her classmates and begins to question whether coming out was the right choice because of the way people are beginning to treat her differently. Darcy and Tary represent two different stages of what may be the same path: potentially facing backlash butt realizing that the people, who judge you, don’t matter in the end. Instead, only the loved ones, who accept you as you, are those who matter. All of the LGBTQ+ (and yes, they hit almost every acronym in ONE show) representation is beautiful. No two characters are the same, because queer representation isn’t a cookie cutter story. Everyone is in a different stage in their journey to facing conflicts associated with their sexuality then accepting themselves. No character is portrayed as encountering struggles solely only related to their identity. Essentially, each character is multi-dimensional (say goodbye to the sassy gay friend stereotype here); while they identify with the LGBTQ+ community, they are more than just their sexuality and gender identity. Ultimately, this is such an important message to teens who are especially at different stages of their journeys. As they may be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, this would be just one part of their lives. Oftentimes, adolescents are faced with peer pressure, fear of change and falling out with friends, which is also important to see on screen, not just the coming out and acceptance.
A Perfect Show?
At the time of writing this, Heartstopper has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. Not only is the soundtrack killer (which it is), but the actors look and act so much like the webcomic and graphic novel characters. The characters are whole, multi-dimensional people, not just walking stereotypes. The conflicts are not only related to their sexual identities but also about the struggles of growing up and dealing with change. Their experiences aren’t universal of course, but the show in no way tried to make it seem like a universal experience.
As a bi writer, I can only fully speak for the bi representation, but I found it very relatable. I didn’t know about bisexuality until I was well into my twenties, so I had always assumed I was straight since I’d had crushes on guys, right? I wish I had a character like Nick when I was younger. Maybe I could have figured out my identity and also realized why I was so obsessed with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie sooner. With that said, I also wish I had also seen a character like Tara, nervous about coming out and didn’t have the rainbows and butterflies after doing so Hence, showing that it is very valid to question whether coming out was the right decision. I know I’m going to sound like an old lady when I say this, but the youth these days are lucky in the fact that they have more representation. Hopefully, the next generation will have even more representation. Although this show centers on teens, I resonated with it because I found myself (past me and current me) in this show as I watched it. This show gave me hope that maybe there will be more shows, similar to Heartstopper, released: more LGBTQ+ shows that focus on all aspects of life, with dynamic characters, a killer soundtrack, and a hopeful message. Altogether, please find the show on Netflix, and you won’t regret watching it.