Comfort and fuzziness for the jaded queer hearts: the gay panic of Heartstopper
*This article contains spoilers*
After its timely release during the romantic atmosphere of early spring and the preface to Pride Month, Heartstopper has continued to garner attention. It wouldn’t have been surprising if even your small local bookshop put on front display editions of the graphic novel that the TV series is based on. Utterly queer, written by a woman, and thoroughly British, the TV show has managed to capture the allure and innocence of high school crushes as well as bring a breath of fresh air to television.
Thirty seconds into the TV show, the main character’s phone wallpaper reading “gay panic” may well epitomise not only his own feelings but also those of Heartstopper‘s fans.
Both the graphic novel and its TV series adaptation were written by British author Alice Oseman and follow the story of Charlie Spring (played by Joe Locke) as he navigates his first experiences with romance, his friendships, and the impacts of his sexual orientation on his social life in high school.
With plenty of potential for cheap drama and the usual TV tropes that the queer, young adult and romantic comedy audiences may be used to, a first viewing (likely to take the bingeing form) of the series may turn into a real stunner. This is because, astonishingly, in this YA rom-com TV show the characters make an effort to communicate.
In the opening scenes, similarly to the viewer’s, Charlie’s expectations are also quickly overturned after he rolls his eyes on hearing from his teacher that in his new form he is to sit next to Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), a rugby boy, but seconds later, as he sees the rugby player’s face – Charlie’s snort turns into a smile.
A new friendship is quietly formed through a series of meaningful “hi”s whenever the two boys pass by each other in the school corridors and through playful teasing before class. Soon enough the teacher’s sarcastic comment that the two boys should “get along swimmingly” does not seem to be a prediction quite off target, despite one of them being an introverted, openly gay and formerly bullied straight-A student and the other a popular, brawn-over-brains and – straight? – athlete in the year above.
While Charlie’s behaviour is clearly indicative of budding feelings for his classmate, it seems unlikely that the “Rugby King” Nick would be able to reciprocate.
At the same time, Charlie is trying to manoeuvre the confusing relationship with fickle, hot-and-cold Ben (Sebastian Croft), who is struggling to accept his sexuality and thus prefers to keep the relationship secret. What complicates the matters further, Ben is in the same year as Nick and part of his friend circle. A recipe for disaster?
If you have unsurprisingly become one of the jaded viewers who, although eager for queer content, approach it with a dose of caution and bitterness – expecting drama for the sake of drama and disappointing resolutions to an equally disappointing plot – Heartstopper may well be one of the rare TV gems where you could let your guard down.
Not only do the problems and conflicts not exist solely for the purpose of creating drama, but the main characters also intentionally try not to hurt each other: they are honest, they do their best to communicate and do right by one another, and they want to share and open up, and, when mistakes are made and feelings do inevitably get hurt, they apologise.
In short, Heartstopper actually showcases healthy relationships, whose inherently present ups and downs are handled with maturity, kindness and respect. Some of the teenage characters may appear wise beyond their years compared to their counterparts from other TV shows, and thus offer role models for the teen audience to observe and learn the principles of healthy communication.
Heartstopper, the characters
The main motley group of teenagers in question, besides Charlie and Nick, consists of Tao (William Gao), the movie buff Mom Friend without a filter and always ready to defend Charlie from Nick’s homophobic “bro dude friends”, Isaac (Tobie Donovan), the easy-going introvert who is chill with everyone and usually found with a funny-titled book in hand, Elle (Yasmin Finney), an artistic trans girl whose recent transfer to another school is accompanied with the usual struggle of making new friends, and the friendly Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), a lesbian couple, at first in hiding, but who gradually decide to come out as a couple and then face the repercussions.
It is revealed that Charlie also suffered from being openly gay, and used to hide from his bullies in his quippish art teacher’s colourful and painted classroom during the lunch break. However, his openness seems to have attracted Ben, who becomes Charlie’s first romantic experience.
Although Charlie is ambivalent and conflicted about Ben at the beginning of the first episode, once it transpires that Ben appears to have a girlfriend, Charlie decidedly breaks up with him. Ben demands to meet up with Charlie on the pretence of wanting to talk but tries to assault him. Luckily, Nick intervenes as Charlie’s saviour.
What follows are Charlie’s attempts to text Nick and thank him without sounding too sentimental and revealing his feelings in the process – a baffling effort of looking for the right words, frequently resulting in the all too familiar frustration.
What is unexpected is that Nick struggles in the same way when writing his reply. Nick and Charlie’s phone screens become a window into their rambling thoughts, their indecisiveness reflective of the wrestle with their feelings, and their faces and nervous restlessness a mirror of the tension increasing with every minute since an unanswered message has been “seen”.
The nerve-wracking wait for the response text may be one of the characteristics of modern life in the digital age that the millennials and generation Z can particularly relate to – in fact, the inclusion of texting and social media may be compulsory for representative YA stories. Our phones have truly become a window to our inner lives: when Charlie’s phone lights up with the arrival of Nick’s message, the music stops. Charlie’s face equally lights up with a smile.
Even though Nick and Charlie’s text develops into a full-blown conversation, Charlie’s friends still try to deter him as Nick is, in Tao’s words, obviously a “massive heterosexual”. Elle confirms that Nick is “the straightest person” she has “ever seen”, and rumours emerge that Nick likes a girl, Tara (who no one yet suspects is a happily-taken lesbian).
It is only Charlie’s elusive, soda-slurping sister Tori (Jenny Walser) who doesn’t think that Nick is straight. From here on, the inconclusive struggle recognisable to many queer people begins: is my crush straight or perhaps not? Normally we would expect the answer to be “no” and for our hero to soon face heartbreak, but instead, we also see the Crush’s perspective, who begins to question their own feelings: am I straight or perhaps not?
Although Charlie’s relationship with Nick at first may seem like a repetition of the situation with Ben, there is a crucial difference: Nick cares about Charlie’s feelings and asks for his consent. He makes it clear that he doesn’t want Charlie to get hurt and repeatedly checks in with Charlie to make sure he is okay.
Nick doesn’t ignore Charlie in public as Ben did; in fact, he tries to spend every free moment together, happy to attend any event with him. When Nick feels pressured to agree to a date with a girl, Imogen (Rhea Norwood), he quickly comes clean about it to Charlie, apologises, and does everything he can to set the situation right.
Imogen, in turn, handles rejection with grace, thanks him for being honest, and they remain friends. When the “bro dude friends” in their group aggressively tease Nick about the date and him being “proper thick about girls”, Imogen teases back and doesn’t let them in on what Nick had told her in confidence.
Meanwhile, at a party, Charlie runs into Ben but stands his ground and keeps the boundaries he had set earlier, knowing that Ben was a toxic presence in his life – this might come as a surprise in the genre where drama often exists for the sake of itself, and is all too easily stirred up by characters not holding their ground, by bad decisions and making broken-up characters hook up again.
Although both the main characters are navigating unfamiliar territory, they continue being respectful and mindful of each other; neither of them ever lets their complicated emotions get the better of them or lead them to lash out.
When Nick’s and Tao’s respective relationships with Charlie get strained, they still have a heart-to-heart and – even though Tao never liked Nick – give each other honest and well-meaning advice about fixing their relationships with Charlie. Although Nick and Tao never started off on the right foot, they are willing to put their differences aside in order to help Charlie.
Even the teenage characters’ parents are largely supportive and non-judgemental. The teenagers can approach their parents to get heavy feelings off their chests and are met with a patient and accepting ear. This is perfectly exemplified in the scene where Nick comes out to his mother Sarah (Olivia Colman).
In her calm and warm response, Sarah says what may be one of the most powerful lines in the show, “I’m sorry if I ever made you think that you couldn’t tell me that.” When Charlie’s father (Julio, Joseph Balderrama) picks him up after a party and sees Charlie crying, he doesn’t tell him to man up or even asks for an explanation demanding answers – rather, he simply hugs him, comforts him and patiently provides his shoulder for Charlie to cry on. Neither boys’ parents ever pressure them into doing something or push what they think the right solution to their problems is; rather, they listen without judgement and let the boys figure out the solution themselves.
Another welcome change to the usual teen drama TV show’ plot is that both the male and female same-sex couples stay together despite adversity – while it might be expected that the main character’s popular athlete crush is not going to lead to anything long-lasting (except heartbreak) and that the girls’ relationship may not survive the homophobia that comes with being out, in this TV series the couples not only prevail but grow in face of hardship, coming out with a stronger bond, more mature outlook and greater appreciation for each other.
The TV show also boasts a heartwarmingly broad LGBTQ+ representation: the main characters include gay and bisexual boys, a lesbian couple, and a transgender girl. It is especially refreshing to have the main character, a guy no less, figure out their sexuality when the orientation in question is bisexuality and not homosexuality.
While gay male characters are now fairly well-represented, bisexual characters of any gender frequently fall victim to bisexual erasure, and this may be especially true for male bisexual characters. The young trans woman has her own subplot as well, which will hopefully be expanded further in the next season. The queerness doesn’t stop at the characters, however; many scenes are accompanied by queer music, including the lesbian icon Girl in Red.
Besides the story, well-done characters and good music, the TV show offers numerous instances of excellent cinematography. Charlie’s favourite place to hide in his art teacher’s classroom is a corner drawn over with tree roots which expand over the cupboards and wall surfaces into a full-grown tree; Charlie sitting down in that corner makes it appear as if he is part of the roots and growing with the tree (first seen in Episode 1).
Another memorable scene is Tara and Darcy’s first kiss in public after deciding not to hide anymore in Episode 3: they are dancing at a party, there is confetti in the air, and the colours on the screen turn to a rainbow as they are fully immersed in their kiss. The kiss emanates joy and happiness and seems to further inspire Nick to find Charlie and start his own happy queer love story. Despite homophobia, bullying and emotional immaturity still being present, the TV show is after all a celebration of queer love, friendship and self-acceptance. Happiness prevails.
Altogether, Heartstopper comprises both the hallmark features of a teen romance TV show – the tension that comes with first crushes, the uncertainty and feeling lost, the exploration and coming to terms with one’s sexuality – and the less familiar, unapologetically wholesome handling of human relationships as well as the joy that comes with them.
It is an especially uplifting and heartening story that provides balm for those wearied by and vexed at the usual tropes and stereotypes, be it queer ones or others. It is one of the stories we may wish to have had when we were teenagers. Hopefully today’s LGBTQ+ youth – at least those with a Netflix subscription – realise how lucky they are.