Netflix's Heartstopper showcases the queer joy the world needs right now
‘Hi,’ says one boy to another as he sits down for the first day of school.
That’s how the unexpected love story of Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson begins. Innocent, pure and kind.
The relationship between these two boys is at the heart of Netflix’s new LGBTQ+ young adult series Heartstopper (minor spoilers ahead). Based on the webcomic of the same name, created by Alice Oseman, the show is set in the UK and is a poignant coming-of-age tale about queer love.
Now, the show is by no means a ‘first’. We’re lucky that there are now many diverse TV shows and films, like Euphoria, Sex Education, and Love, Simon that have explored life for queer teens in school.
But what sets Heartstopper apart from shows that have come before is not just the range of characters featured in it, but also the way the series centres and celebrates queer joy.
It is so rare – and powerful – to watch two boys fall for each other or see a lesbian couple happily together (without one of them dying in a season finale cliff-hanger). Unlike many shows where their single queer character feels tokenistic, Heartstopper brings together characters from just about every part of the rainbow.
In the sixth episode, there’s a triple date featuring a lesbian couple, a gay and bi man, along with a trans girl and her straight male partner. What’s so ground-breaking about this you ask?
It shows that queer people have queer friends, and our lives don’t revolve around educating straight, cis people about inequality. A fact that many shows miss when they just shoehorn in an LGBTQ+ character to check a box.
Heartstopper is a rarity in that it rejects victimhood and shows audiences that happiness and joy is not just a possibility, but can (and should) be an integral, radical part of queer communities. It’s why I would have given anything to have had a show like this in my life when I was young.
I felt so lucky to be the LGBTQ+ consultant on it, which meant I got to read through the scripts to offer notes on the characters from marginalised groups and make sure the language used was accurate. I also worked with the cast and crew on creating an inclusive set and talking about what life is like for LGBTQ+ students today, so they could bring that into their work on-screen.
I can only imagine how transformative it would have been for me to see that I could be accepted as a young, gay person – that I was worthy of love and there were others like me out there.
Let’s not forget that 20 years ago, Heartstopper couldn’t even exist. Section 28 – the law that banned schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ – was still in place across England and Wales. Students couldn’t ask, teachers couldn’t tell. It was a dark time that left many young queer kids to suffer in silence at school.
In many ways, Heartstopper shows how times have changed for the better. You have the art teacher, Mr. Ajayi, speaking openly to Charlie about whether he has a ‘secret boyfriend’ or ‘straight boy crush’, while wearing a rainbow pin badge. Elle Argent, a Black trans girl, finds friendship and acceptance in her new girls school (from two cis lesbians, no less).
However, it’s not always sunny in the Heartstopperuniverse. The series doesn’t shy away from showing the real-life challenges LGBTQ+ young people face.
You watch as Charlie endures homophobic bullying from his peers and learn of the transphobic abuse Elle endured while at the boys school. This mirrors the fact that nearly half of LGBTQ+ pupils (45%) are bullied in British schools and 46% of all students ‘frequently’ or ‘often’ hear transphobic language.
These are not character-defining storylines, but rather brief moments that give nuance to the characters and makes the joy you see all that more meaningful.
One of the most moving storylines is the journey Nick goes on in accepting that he’s bi. He worries about if his friends (who have teased Charlie about being gay) will accept him. His experience is reflective of how three in 10 bi men believe they can’t tell their friends about who they are.
Heartstopper shows the power and authenticity that comes from putting LGBTQ+ people in the driver’s seat to tell our stories. Much of the show’s cast and crew are part of the LGBTQ+ community, including the writer and the director. Not only did this help create an inclusive environment on set, but it also meant the cast are able to bring more depth and authenticity to the characters and storylines.
It also really matters that Heartstopper will get meaningful exposure on the world’s biggest streaming service. We’re living through a rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes globally, where countries like Hungary and parts of the United States have banned discussions of our identities in schools.
In the UK, a bigoted debate rages on about LGBT-inclusive education, instigated by a wave of transphobia trying to stop schools talking about trans identities and supporting trans young people.
Heartstopper offers a timely reminder that whether or not schools talk about us, we’re still here fighting for our humanity to be recognised. We cannot be put back in the closet.
In such difficult times, the characters of the show may well be a lifeline for many young kids struggling and are finally seeing themselves reflected for the first time.
But representation has its limits. As historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker says: ‘Having positive representation can only succeed in changing the conditions of life for [LGBTQ+] people when it is part of a much broader movement for social change.’
Stories change minds, but it’s what people do (or don’t do) with that new perspective that really matters.
There is still a lot that needs to happen for LGBTQ+ people to feel safe at school, home, work and on the streets. I hope people who watch and fall in love with Heartstopper channel that energy into defeating policies that dehumanise our identities, uplifting diverse people and supporting charities that provide vital services to our community.
We need to take Heartstopper’s messages of love, kindness and compassion out of our living rooms and into the real world.
That’s how we can all work together to better the lives of LGBTQ+ people off the screen.
You can read Metro.co.uk’s (five star!) review of Netflix’s Heartstopper here – the show drops on Netflix from April 22.
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