Walk into any conversation among LGBTQ+ people over the last month and one TV show would have been on everyone’s lips. Heartstopper, Netflix’s YA (Young Adult) smash hit, has got everyone talking. In it, we follow Charlie, a young gay guy who is finding his feet again at school after being outed and subsequently bullied, and Nick, the school rugby star who comes to terms with his bisexuality and feelings for Charlie. Surrounding them is a beautiful, diverse group of friends that includes people of colour, lesbian and transgender characters, and straight cisgender allies. To me, Heartstopper is the most important TV show in a generation for LGBTQ+ representation. Here are four reasons why…
It’s a playbook for figuring out, and then communicating, your sexuality and gender identity
Coming out is not the exclusive preserve of young people; whatever your life stage, coming to terms with your sexuality and finding the right language for it can be a struggle. Some people are blessed with people in their lives they can talk to about it, but for one of the show’s main characters and many others, you have to navigate it on your own entirely based on feelings and, well, Google. Heartstopper can now be added to that set of resources. The final coming out scene in particular should be watched by anyone who might ever choose to come out, or who might be the person lucky enough to have a loved one come out to them.
Its optimism, tinged with realism, is the perfect representation of what it is to be LGBTQ+ in 2022
Heartstopper gets it right in many ways, but the tone of it, in particular, is spot on. Nick’s mum’s reaction to his coming out is perfect, Charlie’s friends and family are unwaveringly protective of him, and the school is full of teachers who are understanding and supportive. But in the background is an undercurrent of past and present bullying. The school bullies in Heartstopper are fully present, and there is a constant alluding to ‘how bad it was last year’ for Charlie that shows we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. In the later comics, and in the two additional seasons that Netflix have commissioned, we see more of the repercussions of that bullying on Charlie’s mental health. It is a lazy and dangerous assumption to think that young people are unwaveringly open-minded and accepting, and Heartstopper is a perfectly delivered reminder that for all the progress being made, things are still far from perfect for young LGBTQ+ people.
It shows us, and then shows us again, why representation matters
In the ultimate example of “don’t just tell us, show us”, Heartstopper is not just an act of representation, it also shows us time and again in its storylines why representation is important in a way that is almost self-referential. One of the most powerful moments in the series features Nick at a party where he sees Tara, a girl he went to junior school with, kissing her girlfriend Darcy. Nick at this stage is struggling with his growing feelings for Charlie, but seeing a same-sex couple being proud and public about their relationship shows him that this life is possible for him. In that moment, Nick represents so many people at home watching the show who may be going through the same realisation. We are further reminded of the importance of representation and online resources when we see Nick at home watching YouTube videos of people explaining how they realised their sexuality and even taking Buzzfeed quizzes to find out if he is gay.
The timing of it is impeccable
Released against a backdrop of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and fearmongering about the impact that LGBTQ+ representation has on young people, Heartstopper’s timing is impeccable. Amid a fervent discourse over whether acknowledging the existence of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities is ‘too sexual’ or ‘too adult’ to be taught in schools, Heartstopper is as pure and innocent as any YA coming of age story. The main characters blush and fluster their way through their feelings in a way that anyone who ever had a crush at school can relate to, and which is no more ‘overtly sexual’ than any Disney movie. In the current context, this sugar-coated teen romance might just become the most politically important TV show for LGBTQ+ people in a generation.
A final note on format…
On a final note, Heartstopper is born out of a Tumblr webcomic started in 2016 by Alice Oseman, a 27 year old from Kent who got her first book deal at age 17. Since the Netflix show, the graphic novels have been repeatedly sold out (but quickly restocked) by booksellers. As a lifelong fan of comic books, it’s a joy to see the format flying. As communicators, we are often focused on words – but sometimes a comic panel is truly worth a thousand.