As general attitudes towards the LGBTQ community have started to change in the past couple of decades, the number of shows and films centred on teenagers coming-of-age who are discovering, questioning and exploring their sexuality and gender identities has increased. And of course those in school, college or university, must also try to juggle the hardships of bullying, peer pressure, puberty, schoolwork, thinking about their future, and of course love lives.
In the 90s we had Beautiful Thing and Queer as Folk, in the 2000s there was Skins and in the last few years we’ve had the likes of Ackley Bridge, Sex Education, It’s A Sin and if we’re talking international shows and films with similar premises, Love, Simon and it’s spin-off series Love, Victor. Now joining their award-winning ranks is Heartstopper. The eight-part show based on the webcomic and graphic novel series of the same name, has stayed within the top 10 list of most-watched content on Netflix since its debut on 22nd April, received a groundbreaking 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the first four volumes of the books are all among the top 10 best-sellers on Amazon.
Heartstopper follows the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Spring as he navigates his way through a new form during Year 10 at the all boys Truham Grammar School. On the first day back after the Christmas break he must sit next to Nick Nelson, the “star of the school’s rugby team” who is in the year above. I’m not sure when schools started mixing years in form but it’s a classic gay teen fantasy of awkward, introverted nerd meets and falls for the hot, popular jock. To some it may appear to be an unrealistic scenario but the journey of friendship and the development of feelings between the two characters is actually quite natural and believable. And certainly emotional and heartwarming.
Looking out for Charlie are his two other “outcast” friends – the outspoken Tao Xu and and quieter Isaac Henderson. In contrast, Nick hangs around with a group of fellow year 11 pupils including rich boy Harry Greene and Ben Hope, to whom we are introduced in the first episode as Charlie’s secret “boyfriend but not boyfriend”.
Charlie, Tao and Issac’s other friend Elle now attends the neighbouring all girls “Higgs” school, who we are initially told transferred because of the bullying she suffered. There she eventually befriends Tara and Darcy who at first appear to just be very close friends. But Elle’s Gaydar and intuition helps her correctly guess that they are in a same-sex relationship. Her sense of what’s going on in this case is clearly a lot stronger than Tao and Issac’s as well as Nick’s friends who mostly fail to cotton onto his and Charlie’s rather obvious budding romance.
Joe Locke and Kit Connor play the two polar opposite leads and the chemistry between them is beautiful and electric. Newcomer Joe embodies Charlie’s insecure and tentative persona to a sometimes upsetting tee as he relives some of the teasing he faces and the way Ben treats him. His actions and mindset affected by all of that are shown in several poignant scenes that are mostly driven by his habit of overthinking, increased self-doubt and lack of self-esteem. He is, however, sure of his sexuality and grows to not let that be his most pressing issue, even though it is referenced that he didn’t voluntarily come out.
On the other hand, Kit – who has a few other acting credits under his belt (including young Elton John in Rocketman) – slips comfortably into his first leading role. Nick’s internal struggles include his confused feelings about Charlie, his desire to tear himself away from his boisterous, bullying “friends”, and his subsequent hesitancy to be open with his mum (played by the brilliant, award-winning Olivia Colman in a tear-jerking yet bizarrely minor supporting role).
The adorably handsome Kit’s acting chops were both sweet and relatable as he emotionally Googles “am I gay?” and “bisexuality”, cares deeply for Charlie on a friendship and relationship level, and bravely goes against the grain of what is expected of him with regards to his “standing” in school and stands up against Harry and Ben. Harry’s relentless bullying and harassing of Charlie for his open sexuality coupled with Ben’s hot and cold attitude towards Charlie that constantly switches between regret, self-loathing, internalised homophobia and jealousy, are eventually too much for Nick to take – more so than poor Charlie, who heartbreakingly shrugs it off, saying he’s used to it by now.
In their supporting roles, Tao, Elle, Tara and Darcy are pivotal to Charlie and Nick’s blossoming and slightly rocky relationship. Their support ranges from fierce protectiveness that comes across as hostile, untrusting and bitter (okay, that is solely Tao), to empathy where they understand the mentally depressing experience Charlie is going through (predominantly the compassionate Elle), to giving advice about being comfortable in your own skin and feeling free to come out when you’re ready (Tara and Darcy who help Nick). Issac’s role is comparatively smaller and understated (and sometimes sadly overlooked) as he is seen as the “all-round nice guy” who clocks onto things early but keeps his opinions on the DL while being carefree and staying out of the drama as much as possible.
On the face of it Heartstopper doesn’t really break any new ground itself, but what it does do is normalise the perception of transgender children and destigmatise bisexuality (both of which are often marginalised more and even within the LGBTQ community). While it is a cute and lovable series with a mostly positive portrayal of young love as well as the aforementioned trans and bisexual experience, the main storyline is quite predictable. However, it doesn’t need to be too much of a plot twisting, suspenseful and emotional rollercoaster of a drama to make an impact. Young teenagers coming to terms with their identity will surely relate to it on many levels, while those on the other side will hopefully understand the damage bullying, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia does to others.
It also speaks to parents with children who may clearly – or not – be going through the same struggles the characters do. And the children who identify as trans or are unsure of their gender are shown a trans experience that is natural and positive. Indeed, while Elle mentions the bullying she suffered at Truham, it is not dwelled upon and she regularly talks about how much happier she is now that she has transferred and is more her true self. Even though it was certainly a touching and lovely way to portray trans people, especially in school, it almost felt like it glossed over the harsh, awful reality that many face – of which there are perhaps far more than those who have had an experience similar to Elle’s.
The same goes for Nick’s experience. Hardly anybody bats an eyelid when he takes Charlie’s hand in front of everyone and walks away with him. And Charlie’s positive response to Nick’s admission of being bisexual shows the tolerance and acceptance of bisexuality from some people within the wider LGBTQ community, but omits the stigma many bisexuals face as well as Nick’s seeming immunity to being bullied when he shows public affection towards Charlie. Granted there are no school scenes after this to explore that side of the story, but maybe that will be in a second series?
And for those of us who are of an older age, Heartstopper acts as a bittersweet series that makes many of us who had worse experiences at school wish we had something like this that uplifted us during dark times, and at times touched on topics that did mirror what we went through. For example, it is mentioned several times that Charlie was bullied a lot in the previous year (as well as Elle), but the few flashbacks of his that are shown don’t focus much on this. Even the sly remarks and name-calling from other girls at school that Tara endures after she comes out are quite tame. ln addition, the conversation of mental health is at the tip of the tongue in some scenes, but never fully discussed.
Heartstopper is no doubt a much-needed show that not only tells the diverse stories of LGBTQ youth, but has a wonderful, ethnically diverse and authentically LGBTQ cast. While not much is known about some cast members’ own sexuality or gender identities, such as Kit Connor, William Gao (Tao) or Corinna Brown (Tara), Joe Locke and Tobie Donovan (Isaac) are openly gay, Yasmine Finney (Elle) is a transwoman and Kizzy Edgell (Darcy) identifies as non-binary. All of them have spoken out in support of the LGBTQ community and how much the series and their characters’ stories mean to them and others.
And with three of the seven main characters being POC, it was an even bigger boost for representation. This is specifically, from my perspective, another step in the right direction for East Asian representation in regards to Tao. His words and actions may have not made him the most likeable character throughout – not to mention that hair – though not as bad as Harry and Ben, but newbie William Gao is sure to benefit from this exposure in his first-ever role. Even Momo Yeung who plays his mother Yan (actually pronounced as in the Japanese “yen”, not “Yaan” as said by Elle), deserves more recognition in the future.
It may not be the most hard-hitting program it could be, but Heartstopper captures the essence of what it means to be LGBTQ as a teen today (complete with the constant Instagram DM’ing to message each other – do young people actually do that that much?) thanks to some of the more progressive attitudes in society (including some people at school) and the positive vibes that can come from it. I’d like to see the harder issues tackled in a second series, but also a storyline that isn’t as easy to predict the ending of as well – as much as it may still make you smile and tear up. And please can the legendary Stephen Fry – who lends his voice as Truham’s never-seen headmaster – make a proper appearance?