I had hoped to perhaps pitch this story somewhere, but as the time from Heartstopper‘s release on Netflix gets farther away, I expect the chances on that equally diminish. And thus, is my blog resurrected.
I’m going to start talking about Heartstopper by talking about Beautiful Thing, because that’s the best way I can think of to explain why Heartstopper, despite not being particularly “revolutionary” in its content, hit me like a truck.
[Minor spoilers for series 1 of Heartstopper follow]
In 1997 I was in college at the University of Wisconsin, a sophomore, barely into being 19. I had been out “officially” (i.e. had done the dramatic scene with my parents) for three years, at that point. My time at UW had all the earmarks of “young queer finally on their own:” being just a little too aggressively gay, sometimes, just because you could be. Spending a lot of time at the campus LGBTQ bookstore (shout out to Madison, WI’s A Room of One’s Own). Going to Ten Percent Society meetings on campus. That kind of thing.
Beautiful Thing is a movie I saw that year. It’s a British film, adapted from a play by Jonathan Harvey. The story follows two high school lads from council estates on the east side of London; Jamie is a “normal enough,” if slightly withdrawn, kid who is increasingly aware of being queer and is deeply smitten with his friend Ste, a rugby player and one of the guys.
Because it was a coming out teen romance in 1996, queers of a particular age bracket can probably guess how the story goes without having ever seen the film. Jamie and Ste grow closer, Ste slowly realizes he also has feelings for Jamie, there is a climax where they show affection physically (it involves peppermint foot lotion, which is a detail I will never forget). Cue Ste panicking about this new revelation, especially because he’s surrounded by homophobic fools and the idea of coming out, or being queer at all, strikes him with not-undeserved unholy terror. The two would-be lovers are split apart by Ste’s sudden need to distance himself from what’s perceived as the source of this terror, sometimes in hurtful ways.
Eventually, though, Love Wins (sorry). Something brings Jamie and Ste back together and they bank everything on their care for each other, pitting it against the disapproving world in quiet but resolute defiance. The whole thing ends with a deliberate public display of their affection for each other, a little pride parade of two. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re slow dancing in your apartment building parking lot.
It sounds a bit like I’m making fun of it, but during that nascent baby queer period of my life, this movie hit me like a wrecking ball. It was 100% what I craved at the time: bittersweet, relatable, and quietly defiant. As I’ve said, though, this particular story framework was not rare in this period. So many queer stories in the media, especially those aimed toward younger audiences, involved this intense will-they-won’t-they where one of the leads, upon realizing they might be queer, snaps back so hard in the other direction it almost ruins everything.
Alright. Now, having established our baseline, let’s skip forward to 2022’s Heartstopper.
The show is an adaptation of a graphic novel/webcomic by Alice Oseman, and is the story of Charlie Spring, a year 10 at an all-boy’s school in the UK (I believe Oseman has said the fictional city the comic is set in is near Kent, where she herself is from). He’s given an assigned seat in form (for my fellow US peeps, this is a bit like a combo of “homeroom” and “school year group”) next to Nick Nelson, a year 11.
Charlie is smart, friendly, but obviously shy and struggles with his sense of self-worth. Nick is bright, pleasant, “fit” (as the Brits say), and the captain of the rugby team. Sound familiar?
It certainly did to me, when the show started. I felt like I had this awful, Cassandraic vision of how this 9-episode series was going to play out: Charlie would crush on Nick, they would slowly grow closer, Nick would realize he liked Charlie back, have an identity crisis that results in him hurting/rejecting Charlie (probably because of them being “found out” by a hateful jerk), until they finally reconcile because Charlie’s love overcomes Nick’s fear. The setup just felt so rote. Gay nerd crushes on rugby lad, ructions ensue, or whatever.
I was prepared to be very tepid on this show because in my head I’d seen it a thousand times already…
…and boy howdy that is not what happened, by a country mile.
There is no will-they-won’t-they in Charlie and Nick’s case; by the end of the second episode it’s intensely obvious that Nick likes Charlie back. By the end of the third episode they’ve had their first kiss. The story that results isn’t about Nick having a crisis (well, sort of) and pushing Charlie away out of fear. Quite the opposite; the core conflict of the show is that it is extremely obvious to Nick that Charlie makes him happy in a way nothing else in his life has to that point, and vice versa.
Yes, Nick does have what he calls “a full-on gay crisis,” but not because he’s afraid of what he might be. I think it’s pretty understandable, if you’ve believed yourself to be straight your whole life, to perhaps have a bit of existential instability when you have your first gay kiss! Nick’s response to the revelation that he’s at least queer (and eventually fully understood as being bisexual) is that he wants to understand it. The constant is that he knows Charlie makes him happy and he wants them to be together, for that very reason.
This isn’t to say there isn’t fear in the show. It exists. After that fated first kiss, Nick asks Charlie if they can keep things a secret, until he figures it all out. Charlie, however, both understands and is quietly hurt by that thanks to Ben, another boy at their school who basically used Charlie to make out with and did not in any way acknowledge Charlie as a person or even a friend. A thread that runs through the entire show is the internal tension that Nick actually wants to tell people and is certain he’s hurting Charlie by needing to stay in the closet. Shout out to Nick’s actor, Kit Connor, who does the most amazing faces of agonized indecision/internal pain on this show.
There’s also Tara, who attends a nearby girl’s school with her girlfriend Darcy and Charlie’s friend Elle, who has newly transferred there from the boy’s school after being treated very poorly there. When the show starts, Tara and Darcy are largely quiet about their relationship, but midway through they post a picture of themselves on Instagram kissing as a very deliberate coming out move.
The result is that many of the girls in her school suddenly reveal a homophobic streak Tara had yet to experience to that point. Eventually the weird Insta comments from straight guys calling her “too pretty to be a lesbian” and her classmates whispering stupid little microaggressive phrases, as teens do, get to be too much. The focus there is not on Tara saying “I wish I weren’t gay,” though. Instead, she talks about how she wasn’t prepared for things to change so much, and is overwhelmed by the scope of it, while Darcy reminds her that they will face that together.
Recurring throughout the show is the overall theme that the out queer characters are perfectly happy with themselves. It’s not them that’s broken; it’s the world. When Charlie finally hits the point toward the end of the series that he wants to break it off with Nick, it’s not because Charlie is gay and Nick might not be. It’s because Charlie feels like Nick is leaving behind too many things for the sake of them being together, precipitated by Nick having a fight with his mates over one of them (Harry, which: the most trope-y character on the show, be prepared to loathe him) saying some stupidly homophobic shit out of nowhere.
Charlie’s crisis does come from his rough self-esteem — and boy, did the scene he had with his sister at the start of episode 9 feel a little too real for yours truly — but his queerness actually isn’t the source of that. He is happy being gay; much as it is with Tara, it’s other people who are the problem. Charlie has friends and a family who are supportive and accepting of him.
I’ve noticed, in the commentary on Heartstopper on Twitter and such, that younger queer viewers did not find this show particularly revolutionary or special. Once I got over my fan-ish defensiveness (“how dare you“) I realized: of course they wouldn’t.
This show, like Beautiful Thing, hit me like a hammer to the face… because I’m 43 years old.
Alice Oseman, the comic’s creator, was born the year I came out to my parents in high school. By the time she was a high school teenager, attitudes toward queerness had shifted dramatically from where they were in the early 90s. She, and the young queer audience for her work, grew up in a time when being queer and out in high school was not really a big thing, for the most part. It’s not that homophobia and transphobia disappeared in that time, but the cultivation effect slowly set in. Everyone knew someone queer, now. They were just another weave in the tapestry.
I cannot overstate how very much that wasn’t the case when I was the age Charlie and Nick are in Heartstopper. I was one of the first out kids in my high school and boy, did I feel it. Being out and queer was kinda scary in the 80s and 90s (and earlier, obviously). We’d lost so much of a generation to a disease people in power didn’t seem to care about, and the evangelical right felt like an unstoppable juggernaut sometimes.
We survived that, though. Things changed because we survived it and thrived in spite of it.
I’ve talked before about how intense it is to look at the place queerness has in our culture and our media landscape and realize how much of that change has happened in my lifetime. I got to see history happen in real time. It’s probably something that someone in their 20s won’t grasp for a while yet.
Of course someone in their teens and 20s now looks at Heartstopper and goes “why’s that weird? not a big deal.” If anything, I’m overjoyed at that reaction. It’s evidence of that change I got to see for myself.
Obviously, this current historical moment has plenty of fraught issues for queer people. Marriage equality lulled cis white gays into a false sense of security that led to them abandoning their trans siblings, even as the power structures of heteronormativity pivoted smoothly to making trans people the next target. The past 6 years or so have seen the terrifying rise of a regressive side of culture that feels like it is hell-bent on making queer people simply cease to exist that feels especially frightening, and that’s alongside attacks on women, on people of color, on the poor. I’m not saying the world is perfect and fixed, by any stretch of the imagination.
So yeah… I can imagine, to a younger audience, Heartstopper‘s story might seem a little… plain, possibly even out of place given the state of the world.
To me, though… it was a reminder that none of this hate is permanent. That we’ve survived before, and we’ll push through this, too. It said “a queer love story where nobody hates themselves for their queerness, where all the major characters have strong support networks, including people in positions of authority? You would never have imagined that being real in 1994 when you came out.” Yet… here it is.
And that is, well… a beautiful thing.