Heartstopper has just arrived on Netflix, and I’m already seeing a lot of love for this fantastic series. The queer romantic drama — based on Alice Oseman's webcomic — struck a particular chord with me upon watching it. Here's why I found Heartstopper equally traumatic and gratifying at the same time.
I began watching Heartstopper a few weeks ago and as soon as I finished it, I couldn’t wait for it to drop on Netflix so that everybody could appreciate it as I knew they would. A friend of mine who enjoyed the comics, and who got me to read them sometime last year, asked me what I thought of it. “It’s amazing”, I said, “I think you’re gonna love it, it’s just so wholesome! It did make me sad though.” When she asked why, I admitted, “a) because it’s very relatable, and b) because I never got to have what Nick and Charlie have.”
I’ve watched plenty of LGBTQ-centric teen shows — Hollyoaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Glee, Love, Victor — but Heartstopper just hits different. It might be that this series is a unique example of a queer, teen, romantic drama set in a British school environment. There are so many nostalgic scenes and details in the show for me, from birthdays at bowling alleys to exploding ink pens. Sure some of it is a bit much — what with the milkshake dates and the ardent confessions of friendship — but I just think, why the hell not? Life is hard, and sometimes a slightly saccharine YA love story is just what the doctor ordered!
That’s not to say that Heartstopper isn’t realistic. In my recent interview with Alice Oseman, they shared that Heartstopper is a series about teens FOR teens, as opposed to being a series about teens for a slightly older audience in mind, à la Euphoria. I’d go a step further and say that the series is for queer teens especially. The story — which actually closely mirrors the webcomic — has been carefully crafted to mimic the teenage queer discovery process so closely, that it’s actually quite difficult to watch at times.
Heartstopper landed on Netflix on my 29th birthday, which felt weirdly significant and prompted an even deeper reflection for me on how teenagers feel about being LGBTQ+ today, at least according to the show/comic. You can see the same pangs of panic that many queer people experience growing up: “Isaac won’t say anything”, says Charlie to Nick in a scene where Isaac walks in on them looking somewhat couple-y in the school nurse’s office (see above). In another scene, Nick Googles for answers to questions he has about his sexuality and clicks on a quiz to find out if he’s gay or not — something I definitely did as a teen. This sequence also occurs in the comic, but for some reason, the combination of the music, the visual details, and Kit Connor’s ~phenomenal~ performance just made it seem 1000% more real.
Seeing Nick and Charlie's story on screen was saddening because I never got to be in love in my teenage years and I wish I could've been.
A lot of Heartstopper is hard to watch not only because it’s so relatable, but because the way Nick and Charlie ultimately get to express their affection towards each other made me feel… forlorn, almost. There’s a sequence at the end of the series where both leads go to the seaside on a date and the whole day is filled with PDA and loving confessions. It’s one of many scenes that I loved, but I also couldn’t help but feel slightly traumatised by the whole thing. Here are two fifteen-year-old queer boys in love for the first time and it’s ~beautiful~ to watch, but at the same time, it's difficult because I never got to experience that for myself, nor was it even possible back then quite honestly.
I was deeply in the closet at 15, and I didn't feel remotely comfortable enough to "come out" or date anyone. In fact, I reluctantly dated the opposite sex and hoped no one would ever clock me for being gay. Seeing Nick and Charlie's story on screen was saddening because I never got to be in love in my teenage years and I wish I could've been. Truly, it didn’t even feel like a possibility at that age. I guess I dreamt of someone making a heartfelt declaration to me as Nick does on the beach for Charlie… I can’t really remember. The layers of my repression were so deep I don’t think I even allowed myself to think like that, to be honest. This was in the noughties as well; I can’t even imagine how utterly stifled gay men must've felt before The Sexual Offences Act 1967 or during the years of Section 28 in the UK!
There’s actually a moment in episode two of Heartstopper where Mr. Ajayi says “when I was a teenager and I had a crush on a straight boy, I just repressed it and suffered”, and honestly, hard same. In my day, and in the place I grew up, there was A LOT of shame around being gay. The idea of coming out in school did NOT bear thinking about it. I probably didn’t accept that I was gay until I was 21, so I had 5–10 incredibly repressed years of not being myself and not allowing myself to develop feelings for anyone, which just... sucks.
I guess that's why watching Heartstopper was such a rollercoaster for me, because it was a window into what could've been. Although the series didn’t undo any of the damage done, it did make me happy to see two British teenage boys fall for each other and feel comfortable enough to express their feelings in a joyful way, and for those feelings to be accepted by those around them.
We all deserve a first love — gay, straight, bi, queer, transgender, non-binary, asexual, or however you identify — and having it at a young age seems pretty wonderful. I guess I’ll never know, but at least I have Heartstopper, and the knowledge that young queer couples like Nick and Charlie and Tara and Darcy feel that little bit more able to love out loud these days, and that’s actually a pretty great substitute.