Based on the graphic novel series of the same name by Alice Oseman, “Heartstopper” very literally stopped the hearts of viewers when it was released on Netflix on April 22. The British TV show follows the lives of queer high school students as they come into their own, recognize their identities and grow as individuals despite their struggles. To me, these types of shows typically elicit a feeling of cringe every time I watch them. These kinds of teen shows often feel like they were written by out-of-touch adults trying their best to seem woke while throwing around out-dated and tired slang. Modern youth culture moves very fast, and for someone to get it on the nose is very difficult, but ‘Heartstopper’ is the most realistic depiction of real-life high schoolers that I’ve seen. Although, there are still places I felt the cringe coming on, it wasn’t enough to overshadow the joyous masterpiece that is “Heartstopper.”
While there is some dissonance between American and British culture, international audiences can easily follow along, and the story is just as touching to those who haven’t experienced the exact struggles of the characters.
Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) is a 10th year student at an all-boys school who was recently outed as gay. While the show doesn’t focus on Charlie’s story of being outed, it’s discussed in passing that Charlie was severely bullied because of it. Charlie’s character is riddled with feelings of not being good enough due to his experiences with being bullied as well as experience “dating” which included being hurt by another student who wasn’t out yet. Despite this turmoil, “Heartstopper” focuses more on the positives and follows Charlie as he falls in love with popular rugby star, Nick Nelson (Kit Connor).
Nick Nelson is the perfect example of an absolutely stellar character. Prior to meeting Charlie, he wasn’t fully himself. He was surrounded by gruff rugby boys who bullied Charlie and his friends, but deep down Nick was never anything like his “friends.” Slowly, Nick and Charlie become best friends, and soon more. Nick’s story focuses on his struggle with his sexuality and identity within his group of friends. I don’t see many examples of bisexual male characters in media, and Nick Nelson is an exemplary depiction of the bisexual struggle. From the Googling of “am I gay?” to the bisexual panic of seeing Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Nick Nelson is every bisexual softie to a T.
Charlie’s friend group adds another layer to the story, introducing us to the characters of Tao Xu (William Gao), Elle Argent (Yasmin Finney) and Isaac Henderson (Tobie Donovan). Isaac Henderson is fairly elusive throughout the show but provides comic relief at times. Isaac is asexual according to the comics, but this isn’t discussed within season one. Tao Xu is the group’s token cis straight friend who adamently fights for his friends—he is a perfect ally despite being super hotheaded and stubborn (and also having an unforgivable haircut). Elle Argent is a transgender girl who previously went to the same school as Charlie, Tao and Isaac. She transferred to an all-girls school to be more safe and supported during her transition, and the outcome of her transfer is very positive. This is one key aspect of “Heartstopper” that I love, it doesn’t focus on the character’s traumatic histories surrounding their queerness. Rather, the show touches upon them—since they are always there—but focuses on their individual storylines outside of that. For example, Charlie’s story is picked up after being outed and Elle’s is picked up after she enrolls at a gender-affirming school. Additionally, the show has no seriously upsetting transphobic plotlines surrounding Elle. Instead, she is welcomed into her new school and makes great friends with ease.
For example, Elle befriends Tara Jones (Corinna Brown) and Darcy Olsson (Kizzy Edgell), who put the L in LGBT. Tara and Darcy are secret girlfriends for the first half of season one. Their relationship is strong and healthy, and they both are confident in who they are. But when they decide to make their relationship public, homophobic comments from other students causes their relationship to falter a bit. Despite their struggles, the two end the season as a strong and empowered lesbian couple.
“Heartstopper” focuses on a realistic but positive depiction of teen LGBT struggles and triumphs. Simply put, the eight-episode season is a lighthearted take on an often painful reality, and viewers such as myself really needed this little bit of queer joy on their screens.