Heartstopper: the Netflix hit - now renewed for two more seasons - represents a great step forward

·7-min read
 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

Halfway through the gorgeous screen adaptation of Alice Oseman’s YA illustrated gay novel, Heartstopper, I pressed pause. I wanted to think about the first gay storyline I ever saw on television. By episode three of the first season (it has now been renewed for a further two by Netflix), you realise what a startling coup d’etat Heartstopper has pulled off for gay storytelling. It has bottled innocence.

When lopsided, self-conscious mop-top Charlie Spring is sat next to puppy-ish rugby team captain and school heartthrob Nick Nelson in his new form group at Truham Boys School, Charlie’s misfit friends, Tao, Isaac and Elle fear trouble ahead. Nick turns out to be quite the sweetheart. The unlikely pairing of popular kid and outcast enter a life-affirming voyage of discovery in what might well turn out to be patient zero for the gay fairy-tale.

Nick and Charlie’s is a simple story of boy meets boy. I’d seen these before, from Jonathan Harvey’s amazing Beautiful Thing, where next door neighbours on the Thamesmead Estate get to fumble to the strains of The Mamas and The Papas, right up to its arthouse cousin, Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet hanging lovestruck from the shoulders of Armie Hammer.

By reducing the age ever so slightly, Heartstopper feels like the turning of a new gay page. Alice Oseman has identified an exact moment of adolescence, as the boys turn 15, and drawn with spinetingling detail how those last breaths of innocence feel before we grow up. She’s written a story for the uncool kids, punctuating the tiny plot with milkshakes, bowling, bad pop music, wonky posters on bedroom walls. Everything is told entirely from the kids’ point of view and never feels like an adult rewriting youth with the benefit of hindsight. Oseman wrote her first book at 17, centring on Charlie’s emo big sister, Tori, explaining some of her magical authenticity.

 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

Compare and contrast to the sassy snap-back LGBT+ storylines in Sex Education, Euphoria, just about every teen drama since Skins and Heartstopper’s innocence feels like its most radical creative suite. This is the moment just before kids become drug, music and fashion literate. Her protagonists haven’t even discovered cider.

Charlie and Nick fall for one another just like straight people in high school dramas all the time, fumbling over text messages to one another, wondering what to say, misreading glaring signals of mutual interest. They hide the seismic internal changes they’re going though from parents, until the moment they can’t. They have a little sob into a sibling’s arms trying to work out how ‘he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not’ conundrums are solved while attempting to arrange their own formula for the strange, extra-curricular science of attraction.

The massive cross-generational appeal of Heartstopper lies in a Venn diagram of an audience experiencing these exact emotions at this exact time, parents rooting for kids during their awakenings and a significant LGBT+ audience remembering the specific Proustian feelings of being that age in a less enlightened time when a TV show of this sort would never have been greenlit. Watching Heartstopper is a very teary binge, for happy and sad reasons.

I grew up in a Northern culture where gay men on TV were mostly the punchline to ‘backs-to-the-wall-lads’ jokes by local loudmouths of the Bernard Manning ilk. When gay men bravely made themselves identifiable on telly, like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey in the Carry On franchise, John Inman in Are You Being Served? or Larry Grayson on The Generation Game, they appeared to use their own amplified personae as a suit of armour in order to get the joke in first before others could make it. To own their hurt. The first British gay love story I learned about was Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s, ending with one murdering the other before swallowing enough pills to kill himself. Happy endings always looked reserved for other people.

As if to compound the startling difference in the adolescent TV experience between then and now, by the time I was 14, Charlie Spring’s age, in 1985, the first gay storyline I actually recalled seeing on TV was drippy public schoolboy, Gordon Collins coming out to his parents on Brookside. Befitting the times, the news was met with tears, violence, recriminations, personal attacks and complete family meltdown. The Collins’s cleaner refused to service their bathroom for fear of catching AIDS from the toilet seat. Local queerbashers daubed ‘Shirtlifter’ on the family garage door. So that boded well.

By the time the first gay couple arrived in a soap opera, Colin and Barry on Eastenders, a sort of budget retelling of EM Forster’s Maurice dressed as The Queen Vic’s Pet Shop Boys, the negativity really got started. The Sun called them “EastBenders”, another cheery addition to the suburban breakfast table for any adolescent confused by their sexuality. If we could take one positive from growing up gay in the eighties, it was at least that there was enough to get angry about.

Heartstopper is a clear and transparent emblem of how times changed. Its effect has been seismic, appearing as if out of nowhere to become a tentpole success for Netflix at precisely the time the platform needed one most, as it began draining viewers. There are six more of Oseman’s books waiting, currently dominating the Amazon bestsellers top 10 books list, ripe for telly, meaning Heartstopper arrives with Harry Potter franchise potential.

Another of Heartstopper’s multiple triumphs. A gaping door has been left open for generations hungry for YA fiction which reflects their moment, who might feel let down or sold out by JK Rowling’s gung-ho cheerleading for the Gender Critical discourse. Of all the lovely subsidiary storylines in Heartstopper, one of the loveliest stories in the show is that of Charlie’s friend, Elle, played perfectly by the fabulous young transgender actress, Yasmin Finney (who has just been cast in Doctor Who).

Elle transferred to the Higgs Girls school a year ago. Her majority concern is making a single friend. She alights by chance on the two school lesbians, Darcy and Tara, gifted their own glorious storyline which climaxes with them sharing a kiss in the middle of the dancefloor, in a party episode which reduced me to pretty much a quivering wreck.

Part of the reason LGBT+ youth feel so disappointed in Rowling is a basic question of maths. At school, you’re perfectly poised to witness every day the one kid in your year, possibly the one kid in your whole school who is struggling with their sexuality or gender and know, as if by instinct not to point a finger at them and identify them as the problem.

Oseman identifies as ‘she/them’ on Instagram. She feels like an unequivocal voice of support among some depressingly conflated media hostility to a single minority group. The emerging romance between Elle and the one ‘straight’ member of their little crew, Tao, will make up the primary storyline of season two, giving Oseman some heartfelt skin in the game.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person prompted to revise my screen history after falling head over heels in love with Heartstopper. One of the commonest reactions to this organic, timely phenomenon, is for LGBT+ people of a certain age to post on social media: “I wish I’d had this story when I was a kid.” What I think most mean here, is: “I wish what happened to Charlie and Nick had happened to me at school.” And isn’t that the point of fairy-tales? To give us all a shared utopia to dream of?

 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

When you come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, there is a tendency to try and make one big leap, from the fearful and surreptitious you to the sassy and over-confident you, overnight. Your first kiss can be mired by secrecy, shame, weirdness or the simple fact it happened with someone completely inappropriate you found via completely clandestine channels.

Heartstopper takes that gaping developmental chasm and offers up Charlie and Nick, Tara and Darcy, eventually Tao and Elle – who knows, perhaps even lovely, smiling, quiet Isaac one day? – to complete the picture for us. It hands back our innocence, in eight easily digestible episodes. Heartstopper is TV but a little bit more. It’s catharsis.

On Netflix

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