Heartstopper: Young Love & Positive Queer Representation
What a beautiful, heart-warming, emotionally validating piece of TV gold, crossing all boundaries of age, gender, sexuality and culture.
The universal themes of individuality, acceptance, connection and community are so elegantly but simply portrayed that a vast number of the viewing population get to see themselves reflected in the characters on screen.
But, from the overwhelmingly positive reaction on social media, it is clear that, to the LGBTQ+ community, Heartstopper will forever hold a special place in our hearts for the positive representation of queer lives and pure queer joy it radiates. As a child of Section 28 (the English law which made it illegal to ‘promote’ homosexuality in schools), educated through the entire lifespan of the legislation - 1988 to 2003 – my feelings about the show are complicated and at complete juxtaposition to each other. On one hand, the beautiful depiction of young, queer love is an absolute joy to watch and fills my heart with hope and happiness. On the other hand, there is a melancholy creeping in shadows of my mind, quietly lingering over the memories of my youth and the repression we endured in a time when there was so little positive queer representation - with the exception of Ellen, and that didn’t exactly go well after the ‘Puppy’ episode aired. (If you’re unfamiliar, click here to find out how the Puppy episode paved the way for queer representation in TV.)
From the first time Nick considers placing his hand in Charlie’s while he’s sleeping on the sofa and the audience feeling the electricity spark, to Nick carrying Charlie into the sea, proclaiming “YOU’RE MY BOYFRIEND. I’M YOUR BOYFRIEND. WE’RE BOYFRIENDS!”. From Darcy cheekily announcing that she’s only at the rugby match to get to know the local gays, to Elle’s decision to switch schools being entirely matter-of-fact and not warranting a long, complicated exposition, and finally to Nick’s mum’s smile radiating like sunshine as she welcomes her son sharing his new-found identity and embracing him with love and affection. The moments of shining positivity around all things queer in Heartstopper give the greying, Section 28 era queers like me fluttering butterflies in our tummies, just thinking of all the young LGBTQ people who will watch this, see themselves or a version of themselves, and see that a world where this is mainstream is a world where being queer is usual, is embraced and where queer happiness is not only possible but expected.
So much LGBTQ representation from recent years depicts queer struggles, how hard our lives can be and how our lives have the propensity to change for the worse when we embrace our authentic selves. While this can be scarily accurate, it's not the entire queer experience, which can be affirming and loving and entirely happy! Heartstopper, in my opinion goes an awfully long way to redressing the balance in the direction of how wonderfully rainbow our queer lives can be. As Kit Connor (who plays Nick Nelson) explained in an interview on This Morning on ITV1, 'So much queer representation that we see in the media at the moment is [...] dark and gritty and I think it's extremely important to just show queer people being happy.'
That said, I can’t watch all these delightfully happy, queer young people on screen, without a filter of green cast over my vision – the green-eyed monster of jealousy is a terrible thing. For every hand held, each warm embrace and every longing kiss, my memory is flooded with a thousand instances where this was all I wanted to do as a teenager, but doing so would have resulted in being ostracised from my friends, being beaten within an inch of my life, or disappointing my family and risking having them see me differently. In a time of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and being LGBTQ still being seen as wrong, or dirty, or unnatural, there was a dreadful fear in even thinking you may be gay, never mind acting on it. So I guess the envy comes from wishing I had what the young queers of today have. It's hard to admit, but I envy the open, rainbow-studded world the next generation are growing up in, and seeing shows like Heartstopper, in all of its wonderful queerness and acceptance, just compounds that awful feeling of jealousy.
Image Courtesy of Netflix
On an additional note of gentle negativity, some viewers have called the drama ‘sanitised’ and ‘simplified’, showing concern over the whether the characters and situations are true to life, given the relative ease with which the characters deal with their blossoming sexual identities and coming out to friends and family. Certainly, this in itself could be misleading to young people and teenagers expecting their sexual awakening to go as smoothly as Nick’s (or even Charlie’s, for what of it we see on screen). Could these worries held by some of the queer community be the hangover of negative coming out experiences? Could they be concerned for youngsters getting their hopes up? Either way, the apprehension is understandable. In a country where reporting of homophobic attacks is on the rise (especially through the height of the Covid pandemic), concern that our next generation of LGBTQ+ people not go through the things we did, whilst wanting to educate them on our recent history in order to prepare them for what may lie ahead, both seem justified.
All of that said, and with the rose-tinted glasses of optimism securely in place, I am of the opinion that the only legacy of note that Heartstopper will really have is that of perpetual positivity in the queer community - the notion that things ARE changing for the better. Heartstopper has shown all viewers - young, old, Section 28 era, queer and otherwise - how much possibility for joy there is in being LGBTQ and how thoroughly beautiful it can be to be queer.
This article was written by Evie (She/Her), a passionate, proud deafie, autism mamma, queerie, wife, teacher, writer and word geek. You can follow Evie over on Twitter here.