Heartstopper, the queer British teen romance adapted for Netflix from her own graphic novels by creator Alice Oseman is a must-watch for all ages. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check it out yet, now’s the perfect time.
As June draws to a close, this year’s Pride Month is being punctuated this weekend by Pride in London, with a huge post-pandemic turnout expected to march in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first Pride parade. As many are calling for the fight for LGBTQ+ rights to return to its radical roots in the face of resurgent homophobia and transphobia, today’s Pride march feels more important than ever.
I was delighted, this morning, to see that the cast of Netflix’s queer British coming-of-age love story Heartstopper joined the London Pride parade, so to close out Pride 2022 — just in case you haven’t watched it yet — I’m here to badger you about the loveliest contemporary queer story I’ve seen in ages.
— Alice Oseman Updates (@AliceOseman) July 2, 2022
I was extremely late to the bisexual party. A late-in-life bi, if you will. I’ve written in this space before about how my experience in the Supernatural fandom led me to finally realize, in my late 30s, that while I might be in a heterosexual marriage, I’m definitely, absolutely, not straight. Embarrassing, but true. Anyways, thanks for helping me come out, Dean Winchester. We bisexuals are pretty good at combing through subtext because that’s historically been the only way we can find ourselves in a story.
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So when all these adorable queer teens, including an actual bisexual lead character, started popping up on social media in spring 2022, I ignored the battle scars of the post-Supernatural era and took a risk on falling in love with a new show. I have not one single regret, and nor did Netflix, apparently, since the streaming giant gave Heartstopper a rare multi-season renewal a month after it was released.
Why is this show so special then? Thanks for asking because I am in my feelings and happy to share. If you know anything about Netflix’s adaptation of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper graphic novels (originally web comics) you probably know it’s a teen romance for the ages. But it’s also a queer rom-com with a heart of gold. Central to the first season, and its most impactful plot point, is the story of rugby lad Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) coming to terms with his bisexuality through his blossoming friendship with, and eventual crush on, the nerdy and openly gay Charlie Spring (Joe Locke.)
Their romance is sweet and innocent – boys fall in love, they’re idiots about it, and eventually they get together. They have lovely friends, including lesbian couple Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), and Charlie’s best friends Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney). There’s drama, for sure, but what sets this show apart is its unabashed celebration of queer romance, supportive friend groups, and the sheer joy of allowing yourself to be who you really are when the world expects you to be someone else.
But why now? Why, in 2022, is a nice show about nice boys with nice parents relevant? Why is Heartstopper striking a chord with so many middle aged queer people like me? (Owen Jones’ piece in The Guardian is a great example) After all, it’s not just teens who are responsible for Heartstopper’s viewing numbers. But haven’t we moved past needing this kind of story? I wish I could say we have, but in many places around the world where this show is being watched thanks to Netflix’s massive reach, progress towards love and acceptance is slow.
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But beyond that, there just aren’t many hopeful depictions of queer happiness that children – not adolescents, actual children – can watch. I’m aware of the recent arguments about purity culture that have taken hold in fandom spaces, and that have used this show as an example to weaponize those ideas since its release, and I disagree with that discourse. I don’t at all want to contribute to the idea that this type of family-friendly content is somehow better representation than other takes on queerness.
But I can and have watched Heartstopper with my 10 and 8-year-old daughters. Pre-teens love content about teenagers – always have, always will – and it’s important to me that they see young queer love represented in an age-appropriate way. I love Sex Education – made by Netflix, about teenagers the same age as the Heartstopper gang, at a British secondary school – but I can’t watch it with my children, and that’s fine. I don’t need every show I watch to be one that I watch with my kids, but I do appreciate that this one exists alongside more adult-oriented fare, be that Pose, Euphoria, Gentleman Jack, Our Flag Means Death, or the new L Word.
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But apart from all those meta musings, there are plenty of other reasons why Heartstopper just hits different.
1. It’s colorful!
Let the Skittles-inspired palette wash over you as your eyeballs are treated to one of the most aesthetically pleasing shows on television. The very deliberate color choices are not just window dressing – they extend to the characters themselves, with blue and yellow representing Nick and Charlie respectively. Those two colors are everywhere onscreen, from the boys’ bedrooms to the school corridors. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop – several rewatches in and I’m still finding new splashes of blue and yellow I hadn’t seen before.
Bisexual lighting is also used to stunning effect during a huge moment in Nick’s journey towards admitting his feelings for Charlie, with executive producer Patrick Walters confirming the intentionality behind it. The friends’ trip to a bowling alley for Charlie’s 15th birthday also sees the characters bathed in soft pinks, blues, and purples. Rainbows pop up everywhere in this remarkably sunny corner of England. Nothing else on TV right now looks as good as Heartstopper does.
2. Welcome to your new favorite songs.
Heartstopper’s soundtrack (called the “official mixtape” – hello fellow ‘90s teens) is packed full of new and young artists, many queer themselves, singing pop songs about queer love unapologetically. The music adds a layer of cool to Heartstopper, with songs playing over already iconic moments in the show.
South African-born artist Baby Queen has become something of a Heartstopper mascot, with four of her songs appearing on the soundtrack, including “Colours of You,” a gorgeous slow jam written from Nick’s perspective (rumour has it she’s also written a song from Charlie’s POV). My personal favorite “Dover Beach” is what I blast at maximum volume in the car, truly the perfect driving song. Many of the artists featured on the soundtrack have experienced a massive bump in sales since Heartstopper started streaming, showing the power of the perfect match between story and music.
3. ‘Heartstopper’ knows crushes.
I’m an old woman now, but not too old to remember the feeling of having a teenage crush – that whoosh in your stomach when you see them in the halls, the obsessive need to know everything about them, the inability to act normal when they’re around, analyzing every word, every touch, for the tiniest hint they might like you back. Heartstopper captures those feelings and more perfectly. There’s a scene early on where Nick and Charlie are sitting on the sofa watching a movie and Charlie falls asleep. Nick flirts with reaching over to hold Charlie’s hand – each time his hand hovers over Charlie’s, tiny glowing sparks erupt between their hands, one of many small flourishes that nod to the original comic. If you’ve ever had a crush, you’ve felt those sparks. And for that dynamic to play out on screen between two teenage boys? Feels downright revolutionary in times like these.
4. It’s romantic as fuck.
Who knew that two people saying “hi” to each other could be so swoonworthy? Heartstopper captures romance in its details – brushing pinky fingers together, lending an oversized hoodie, sharing milkshakes, holding a hug several seconds longer than could possibly be considered platonic. But there are big romantic gestures too, as there must be in any rom-com, like a dancefloor kiss perfectly timed to a needle drop, as well as a beautifully written and performed declaration of love in the middle of a sporting event. And maybe this is just me, but punching a homophobic bully in the face is about as romantic as it gets.
5. It captures the high school experience.
You may not be queer, or you may not have faced these particular struggles as a teen, but I can still pretty much guarantee you will find something highly relatable about the teen experience depicted in this show. Nick’s confusion and fear about acknowledging his feelings for Charlie are rooted in his identity as one of the cool, popular kids. At one point he talks about not wanting to do anything that might confuse or surprise people, highlighting the crushing pressure on teenagers to conform, often overwhelming any expression of authentic individuality. There were so many high school moments I recognized: hanging out with friends who might actually suck, avoiding locker rooms, hiding with your favorite teacher at lunch, crushing on the popular boy who doesn’t even know you exist…or was that just me?
6. There’s nostalgia for something you never had.
This show is about teens. For teens! But there’s plenty here for geriatric millennials (Xennials? Whatever) like me. As I watched Heartstopper I felt a sad kind of wistfulness, almost like my teenage self was watching along with me. What if this show had existed when I was a teenager in the ‘90s? Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life believing I couldn’t possibly be attracted to girls as well as boys? I grew up in a liberal environment with supportive parents. But I simply didn’t know that bisexuality existed. There was no Google search back then, even if Heartstopper demonstrates how woefully inadequate the internet can be when it comes to helping anyone figure out their sexuality. Gay or straight were the only options I knew about, so I was straight because I was already an outcast, and the idea of deviating any further from the norm was far too frightening. This might sound fake to kids today, but when I was a teenager, “gay” was still being used as an insult. Knowing that teens now have a show like Heartstopper, with its diverse representations of gender and sexual identities, all being loved and supported? I’m so happy that Gen Z gets to see themselves reflected in a way I never did.
7. Two words: Kit Connor.
Every Heartstopper character is wonderful (with some notable exceptions because stories need antagonists) and Joe Locke’s Charlie is especially heartbreakingly sweet, but I fell in love with Nick Nelson. As portrayed by Croydon’s own Kit Connor, he joins the ranks of TV’s greatest Nicks, alongside my forever love, New Girl’s Nick Miller. Already acting for a decade, Connor counts as Heartstopper’s seasoned veteran among a mostly unknown cast. At the risk of embarrassing him (and myself), Connor’s performance as Nick is nothing short of breathtaking. He perfectly walks the tightrope between popular golden boy jock and sensitive Charlie Spring-enthusiast, and as he navigates the confusion of suddenly questioning not just his sexuality, but who he wants to be in the world, you will cheer him on because it’s impossible not to. Nick’s innate goodness always shines through, even when he’s making oblivious teenage boy mistakes. His love and unwavering support for Charlie will make you wish there was a Nick Nelson in your life. He’s the pure beating heart of Heartstopper, pardon the expression, and you will live and die by his crooked smiles. Welcome to the elite status of bisexual icon, Nick Nelson.
The absolute passion and care that everyone involved has for Heartstopper is obvious, not only on the screen but in every interview and online interaction between the cast, creators, and audience. In the Making Of Heartstopper featurette, it’s mentioned that the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall came on set to train the cast and crew in creating a safe space and to help put the story into the larger context of the reality faced by LGBTQ+ youth today. Many of the cast and crew are themselves queer, as is much of the show’s audience, and it gave me the warm and fuzzies to know that so much thought was put into not only the story itself but the experience of the people who brought that story to life.
It’s not fair to compare Heartstopper to other shows because I’m not sure there’s anything else like it. It’s not an exaggeration to say it healed this bisexual fan’s heart. There’s so much more of Nick and Charlie’s, Tara and Darcy,’s and Tao and Elle’s stories to tell. As we begin the long wait for season 2, it’s a comfort to know this show exists in the world and is giving young people courage to be themselves. Heartstopper is ultimately about hope, and I for one will never get tired of seeing all the shapes and colours of queer love and happiness I wish I could’ve seen when I was young, wondering why I was like this.
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Liliana Luper.
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