HANNAH SPELLER explains why the seminal TV comedy-drama has its finger on the pulse of LGBTQ+ predicaments
Growing up I didn’t know I was gay, but if I had a show like Heartstopper to watch maybe I would have.
(WARNING: this article may include Heartstopper spoilers!)
Positive queer representations
In recent years we have seen a wave of new queer media, including TV shows like Queer Eye and It’s a Sin, films like The Half of It and Love, Simon, as well as books like They Both Die at the End and The Song of Achilles. However, I don’t think anything has been as warmly received as the Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel Heartstopper. The show follows British schoolboys Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring as they navigate their sexualities and ultimately the two teens fall in love. Other queer representation in the show includes a lesbian couple, an aromantic asexual book lover and a transgender girl. Instantly gaining popularity, the show became one of the ‘Top Ten English Series on Netflix’ in only two days. This success was predominantly owing to the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in the show and how it illustrated discovering your sexuality and the coming out process in contemporary society.
I was first exposed to the show accidentally: it was a Friday morning earlier this year and I was putting off doing my university work, so naturally I sat with a bowl of Shreddies and scrolled through Netflix. It just so happened that this very morning, Heartstopper had been released. I clicked play after quickly reading the synopsis and immediately fell in love. I binged the whole show in a matter of hours, rooted to the same spot, having only moved to get tissues for the tears streaming down my face after witnessing one of the main characters, Nick, go through the exact process I did, about five years prior – googling the question “Am I Gay?”. I found that I related to the Heartstopper characters in a way I never had before with another TV show or film. I became incredibly grateful for everyone involved in the creation of it, a wide-spread feeling based on the thousands of fan accounts dedicated to the show, the actors and their characters.
Tackling homophobic bullying
Heartstopper also addresses homophobia through the bullying endured by the other main character, Charlie. I think it can be easier for older generations to assume that this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, but it can and does. While we are in a more accepting and loving society, it doesn’t stop ignorant people from attacking others unnecessarily. Sometimes it may be due to internalised homophobia, an ingrained prejudice against queer people, as it is for Heartstopper character Ben Hope. For others, it can stem from pure nastiness, like the character Harry Greene. For me, this show demonstrates the bullying in a realistic way which I feel other media has failed to grasp. For example, it is less common in the UK for school bullying to be violent and physical. It is likely more often verbal and mental, as evidenced by a Department of Education analysis of bullying in England from 2013 to 2018. Here, it states that “89% said they had suffered some kind of verbal bullying”. This is portrayed in Heartstopper through queer-related slurs and inappropriate homophobic jokes.
After rewatching this show a good few times, alone and with friends, I finally watched it with my mum. I came out to her during the Christmas of 2020 and over the last year she has been as loving and accepting as I could ask. Still, she has had a lot of questions, which is natural for someone who is not immersed in queer culture. For example, when we went to Southend Pride, she was curious about the many different flags. Once she found out there was an ally flag, she went straight to the stall to buy one.
As expected, when we sat down to watch Heartstopper she was also filled with queries, which I took my time to answer in a way that was understandable for her. The one question that stood out the most was: “But why can’t he just come out?”. She didn’t understand why Nick remained in the closet or why he felt that he couldn’t tell his mum (until the end of the show) that he was bisexual. After all, it was so obvious to her that she would clearly love and accept him regardless. I explained to her that it isn’t necessarily always about the reaction that you get - sometimes it can just be about saying it out loud and, while it may be clear to other people, in that moment for that person it isn’t, and you worry that everything will change. We paused the episode and hugged, and she started asking me about my own experience and why I didn’t tell her as soon as I knew. And now, a few months after watching it, I’ve seen that it’s opened my mum’s eyes to the experiences that many queer folk face just because of who they are. She has become even more accepting than before and I know that I can talk to her about anything, which makes me feel incredibly lucky and loved.
Don’t get me wrong, though, she still has those embarrassing Mum Moments, be it grilling me about my love life or trying to set me up with random people she’s met on holiday – only now, it might be a woman instead of a man.
So, would I recommend sitting down and watching Heartstopper with your friends, parents, or other family members who are not queer, so they can develop more of an understanding of the type of things we face and live through on a daily basis? Yes, yes I would!
Written by Hannah Speller