Based on a webcomic by Alice Oseman, Heartstopper is a queer coming-of-age Netflix romance series taking the internet by storm. Audiences all over the globe can’t get enough of this love story starring Joe Locke and Kit Connor. And that’s probably because it’s one of the most honest, vulnerable, and joy-filled portrayals of queer love available to us. This candid and heartfelt look into LGBTQ+ youth’s lives is exactly what we need right now.
Heartstopper normalizes the queer experience for kids in a way that I’ve never seen before in mainstream media. And it does this joyously, celebrating queerness instead of magnifying it as strange or unusual. It destigmatizes bisexuality, doesn’t bat an eye at transness, and celebrates homosexuality. And this is all while showcasing the universal struggle of having a massive school crush. Every moment gets exploration, from meeting your crush, to your inevitable pining over them, to the support you get from your friends when they think your crush is being a total dickhead. Hollywood explores these things time and time again, but always from a straight lens and rarely a queer one.
In Heartstopper, we meet Nick, a young rugby player who questions his sexuality because of his feelings for Charlie, a classmate. In episode three, “Kiss,” two girls decide to stop hiding their relationship. They kiss in the middle of a crowded room for everyone to see. The camera centers them on the screen, illuminating them with rainbow lights and a genius pairing of CHVRCHES’ “Clearest Blue” to cap it off. That kiss is a game-changer in many ways. It affirms to Nick that happiness with someone of the same gender is possible. And, for queer kids and adults watching, it shows how far we’ve come. We get to watch kids in high school own their queerness unapologetically in public, which is different from many of our experiences.
When you’re growing up queer, sometimes it can feel like the whole world is against you. Whether it’s your family, your friends, or even your government, there’s pressure coming in from all sides. And it is for no other reason than the fact you’re different from the majority. So, when something comes along to relieve that pressure, you hold onto it as hard as you can. This is why queer kids and adults alike are clinging so hard to Heartstopper. It’s the release we’ve needed for decades.
It’s been 28 years since Ellen DeGeneres made headlines for coming out on national television, which marked a massive change in how queer people were seen on TV. Since then the LGBTQ+ community got to see themselves in shows like Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, The L Word, and more. But queer youth were left out of the picture. This adulthood equating to queerness perspective also feeds into the unrealistic, and sadly rampant, fears about queerness “sexualizing” teenagers and children. All the while straight characters of the same age engaging in normal human rites of passage engender no such concern. Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, everything I learned about the queer experience was from these queer adults on TV. In a way, it forced me to grow up faster because everything I’d seen told me that being queer was a uniquely adult experience.
When I was growing up, experiences like Nick and Charlie’s were rare. In fact, I know a lot of gay men who refuse to watch Heartstopper because it’s too painful. It depicts experiences they did not get to have in childhood. They never got the chance to be out in school, talk to their friends about crushes, or have the moral support they needed to go after them.
In some ways, that kind of adds to the beauty of this show. It fills a gap left in so many of our hearts as queer kids. And while some of us relish in watching these kids fall in love because it fills that gap, for others, it’s a reminder that gap exists. What’s more important, though, is that media like Heartstopper could help make sure the next generation of kids growing up never experience this gap. In today’s world, we need to do as much as possible to protect them.
We are facing troubling times. Florida’s passing of the “Don’t Say Gay” law prevents kids from talking about gender identity. Multiple states are submitting legislation preventing queer youth from accessing healthcare. And Texas lawmakers are attempting to label their parents as child abusers if they help them transition. Instead of celebration, people who do not understand queerness are targeting it. The best way to fight this hatred is with love. This is why a show like Heartstopper is so important; it embodies all the best parts of queer love and puts it on a platform for millions to see. And if there’s anything we need more right now, it is the unapologetic, bold portrayal of queer happiness.
Part of Heartstopper’s brilliance is its choice to focus on queer joy. Take the show’s approach to trans representation, for example. When we meet Elle (Yasmin Finney), she’s a part of our main friend group who makes a transfer to an all-girls school. Given that Nick and Charlie go to an all-boys school, we can piece together her story. And that slice of information is all we really need to know. It normalizes the experience of transitioning in a groundbreaking way. Instead of focusing on a transphobic bully, the show explores Elle’s story about her finding best friends at her new school. She forms a new crush on her other best friend. While other shows would glorify queer trauma, Heartstopper heals it.
And therein lies the show’s excellence. It approaches queer identity in a way that is meant to invoke happiness, love, and acceptance and push against the stigmas that try to “sexualize” normal youth experiences. Queer youth are given a chance to just be and experience support and joy. And whether you cried because you never got the same experience or because it’s showing you what’s possible for the next generation, it is collectively healing our trauma instead of glorifying it. Hopefully, it will continue to resonate and get the second season it deserves.