Comics

How Heartstopper Filled a Hole in My Heart

I don’t usually watch things more than once. Perhaps that makes me not “a proper little nerd”, as Nick affectionately calls Charlie in the Netflix tv adaptation of Alice Oseman’s queer teen romance webcomic and book series Heartstopper, but I’ve always just been more interested in moving on to something I haven’t already experienced. If I really enjoyed a show or movie I might rewatch it with friends who would like it because that’s a different experience, or watch it again in a few years, but not right away. I have now watched Heartstopper four times in a row, and I’ve been puzzling over exactly why. Not that I don’t think it’s an amazing show, but why is this the one thing that has made me do that? And why now, in my 40s, am I inspired to watch a show about 15-year-olds on repeat?

The short answer is that I feel like it completes something inside me that I didn’t know was still broken. When I first came out, queerness in tv shows was mostly something that I had to read into it as subtext or actively create as fanfiction. Then when there were queer characters, it was just one, alone, and their storyline almost always revolved around that single piece of their identity and the trauma of struggling to exist in a homophobic/transphobic world. Even when there were shows about queer people, like Queer as Folk and The L Word, I didn’t really see myself and my life experience reflected in them. [spoiler alert for the rest of the article: I can’t write about this without giving away plot points, sorry!] Honestly, until now I never imagined how it would feel to watch a show that involves a sweet gay boy finding happiness with a sweet bi boy, two girls in love kissing on the dance floor at a party backlit in rainbow lights, a potentially non-binary bookworm who reads theory books about gender, and a black trans girl played by a trans actress becoming bffs with the queer girls at her new girls school and having her own adorable romance storyline with a boy. Apparently how it makes me feel is incredibly happy, with an ache underneath for my younger self and all the other young LGBTQIA2+ folks out there who deserve a world that sees them in three dimensions and wants them to be happy without trying to change them.   

The longer answer to why I can’t stop watching Heartstopper is that it’s a perfect illustration of two ideas I keep coming back to over and over again: that as artists we have the ability to bring the vision of a better world into being, and that successfully translating a story from one medium to another is about being faithful to the spirit and impact of the original rather than creating an exact copy. Alice Oseman was deeply involved with the production of the series, from the script and casting to being on set during filming (including a cameo as a passenger on the train in the final episode), and even with major changes like adding a new character and leaving one out as well as combining the first two books into one season, I think that the tv version fully captures the feeling and spirit of the original. The actors do a fantastic job of bringing the characters into the live action world, and the little cartoon touches of hand drawn swirling leaves, electric sparks, or dark scribbles to illustrate their emotions really makes it feel like the comic come to life.

The spirit it captures is a complex balancing act of telling the story of these teenagers becoming friends and falling in love, including the painful and traumatic things that are tragically still so often a part of the experience of LGBTQIA2+ kids, but without allowing those things to overwhelm their happiness and love for each other or giving other people’s prejudice the power to take over their stories. It’s a show about multiple young LGBTQIA2+ teenagers, so there’s no pressure for any one character to perform the impossible feat of being the sole representative of all gay or trans people. The story begins after Charlie has been bullied and managed to find a way to survive it with support from his wonderful gay art teacher, his dad and sister, and his friend Tao. It begins after Elle has endured being bullied, dead-named by a transphobic teacher, and repeatedly suspended for growing her hair too long for the boys school dress code and has transferred to Higgs Girls School. It begins with Nick meeting Charlie. It starts at the beginning of the stories they make for themselves.

The drama is all emotional with nothing outside of the ordinary in their school-age middle class lives. Like I did when I was their age, they watch movies, play video games, drink milkshakes, play in the school orchestra, do their homework, and get picked up from parties at 10:00 by their parents, assuming they ever go to parties at all. Like I did (eventually) as a young queer person, they find each other and create a safe space for one another within a society that still assaults them with hatred and shame, sometimes overtly and sometimes systemically or simply out of fear and the complicity of inaction. As Tara says to her girlfriend Darcy after they come out on Instagram and everyone feels entitled to express a public opinion on their relationship, they all just want to live their life, and the show manages to make space for them to do that.

I think that is probably what I love so much about Heartstopper – that the creators have used the power of storytelling and visual art to show us an example of a better world. These kids love and take care of each other, apologize for their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions, are generally thoughtful and kind in how they treat each other, and take a stand when they realize they have been complicit in something wrong. The boys are sweet and vulnerable with each other, pay attention to each others’ feelings, and say they love each other, both as friends and boyfriends. There are parents and siblings who see them and love them for who they are, and who look out for them. Their feelings are the focus of the show.

I wrote about bright spot theory before in an article about Jack Skellington called “Bright Spot Theory and the Science of the Heart”, and I explained it this way: “rather than focusing on trying to fix what’s wrong and stop yourself or other people from doing things that don’t work, it’s more effective to notice and understand what is working and create more of it. In other words, look for the bright spots.” I think it applies here as well because it’s incredibly powerful to show people what good looks like and give them a clear picture in their head of what to strive for rather than always showing them what bad looks like and cautioning them to avoid it. It’s important to reflect the real traumatic experiences that people have had and not portray the world as if discrimination and hatred and inequity don’t exist, but the way we describe the world and the stories we tell also help to create the world, so it’s really important to use that power to create something better.

The show doesn’t focus on the pain and the harm, even though it’s there in the shadows and keeps jumping out to get them. It focuses on the power of people being there for each other, caring, standing up and doing the right thing, and loving one another in the face of it all. It focuses on fighting to create the world as it should be, and on showing what it actually looks like for things to get better, not just on the awful experiences that make the It Gets Better organization so desperately necessary. It’s a show that could have changed my life if it had existed when I was their age, and apparently seeing two lovely boys have their teen romance and happy ending still has the power to change my life a bit, even 30 years later.

~~~

Alex did not get the chance to do an article during the April Switcheroo this year, so this month he’s chosen to write about Heartstopper. He takes it as a very good sign that a show based on a queer teen romance webcomic has become popular enough that he’s not entirely sure it still falls into the Gutter.

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