Kieran Barry explores why Netflix's recent LGBTQ+ 'coming of age' drama has captivated audiences.
You may have heard the “I’ve been going out with Nick Nelson since I was 14” sound on TikTok recently; you may have even read the Heartstopper webcomics or books or watched the Netflix TV adaptation. Either way, you will likely have heard the names Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring, Heartstopper’s two main characters who fall in love, seen and appreciated by every viewer.
The Netflix adaptation rose to popularity in the UK as audiences became infatuated with the positive, feel-good energy often lacking from queer romance stories. Where the genre has pushed for realism and stories which end on bittersweet notes, a gap appeared for something positive that audiences could use to escape the monotonal reality that many coming of age stories fall victim to, especially those that include LGBTQ+ leads. The first season of Heartstopper was exactly the medicine needed to heal the wounds from mainstream media.
Starring Kit Connor as ‘Nick Nelson’ and Joe Locke as ‘Charlie Spring’, prepare to become attached to every character, story, sub-plot, and stylistic choice you can find on the small screen. Just like Alice Oseman’s original Heartstopper comic and book series, leaves are used to transition scenes, the light strings and electronic music following in the background of the main characters and the cheesy indie music played around the group of friends are all subtle stylistic choices that resonate with this deliberately light-hearted tone. There are so many details added on-screen which collect to make Heartstopper a beautiful experience to feel a part of.
While at times things can feel a little too good to be true this is occasionally disrupted by homophobia and transphobia reflecting real-life experiences, you can tell in many ways that much of the writing is deliberately light-hearted yet realistically grounded. It helps the viewer escape from their own reality for half an hour at a time – or more realistically around 4 hours in one long binge-watch (as was my own experience). There is something beautiful about allowing queer audiences to finally see a love-story-gone-right and view this joyous kind of utopian reality. I personally think that Heartstopper was a well-needed push for the media to show more of these essential stories.
Representation: a media revolutionised?
One of the most crucial parts of Heartstopper is providing a positive representation of a community inundated with narrow, often negative, mediatic conceptions of what it means to be LGBTQ+. The characters involved – a black trans woman, an interracial lesbian couple, and a bisexual character who initially finds it difficult to accept himself – feel real and genuine. They demonstrate the power of being able to break away from judgement and be authentically yourself, and for far too many young people this is needed.
This is what we as a post-teenage generation can celebrate: that younger members of the community can see themselves reflected in stories on screen and educated on issues affecting their own lives. I know that, personally, I can resonate with Nick’s story. I have never seen a more eloquent, sensitive, and accurate foretelling of the journey to accepting oneself as bisexual. This is personally what Heartstopper means to me, and why I believe it to be such a powerful tool for a happier future for our community. There is a true depth to each story that makes it so possible to see yourself in one of these characters, and the nature of the show makes this a good thing just for once.
In many ways, even if you are a few years, or even decades, older than the characters, you can laugh and cry with them as you realise just how relatable their stories are. More than anything, this is a show that is an important way to navigate identity and sexuality, in a way that does not make it taboo or tokenistic, but authentic and embraceable.
So, what next?
Firstly, if somehow you haven’t already, check Heartstopper out on Netflix. Very excitingly, two more seasons have been announced to continue the stories of Nick, Charlie and friends as told by Alice Oseman.
A really powerful moment for me, having given time to reflect when writing this article, was Nick’s coming out to his Mum at the end of the show. It is a product of a journey which he goes through as the series progresses, and a truly beautiful, unique moment of acceptance which provides hope and love which too many LGBTQ+ youths do not feel themselves. I remember on Twitter seeing a post saying that Nick’s coming out to his Mum in the show had inspired the watcher to do the same. Empowering LGBTQ+ youth to accept themselves and speak about their identities is such an important effect of the Heartstopper series, and seeing Nick admit his bisexuality to round off the season was a truly *heartstopping* moment.
After watching the whole season, I would encourage all viewers, as I did myself, to reflect.
While it is primarily a teenage romance drama, it is also a unique opportunity for introspection and how we can offer ourselves the same love which the characters gave to each other and ultimately themselves. Our community has long been exposed to stories of grief and despair, and yet the essential focal point of living is – like Heartstopper suggests – surrounding yourself with love. Whether this is from partners, family, or friends, and is ready to take on the world from there.
Personally, it was this reflection that was my “Heartstopper” moment. There is a high chance that you will find a similar or different powerful message which resonates with you in these stories. I encourage you all to watch and find that moment for yourselves.
Published Online: 15/09/2022