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Essay: Netflix’s Heartstopper Heals the Inner, Queer Child of America

By: Faith Diaz

With Bisexual representation at an all time media high in recent years, and the passing of Bisexual Awareness week in the States, it's time to explore a current favorite bi-character on one of Netflix’s most popular shows.

Photo: Heartstopper, Netflix
Photo: Heartstopper, Netflix

Growing up in the early 2000’s in America meant that queer representation was sparse. Although sexuality past the strictly heterosexual monogamous perspective was known at the time, it was rarely acknowledged in everyday life. Queer characters and real citizens alike were often met with homophobic rhetoric and commentary that belittled not uplifted. With only a handful of television shows aimed at adult understanding of sexuality, little to no media was aimed at children and teenagers understanding the fluidity of their orientations.

Before Millenials and Gen Z, there were consistent misunderstandings about the LGBTQIA+ community and a language lacking development on how to describe these experiences. Watching the beloved graphic novel-turned-show, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman has been a healing experience for many of us.

The show follows the stories of two British teenagers, Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, and their journeys of navigating their own queer identities in a modern world where notions of past prejudice still linger. For outcast Charlie, this has been a harrowing feat of bullying and mental turmoil experienced virtually alone, but simultaneously accompanied by a core group of friends that care for him deeply. Nick is one of the Truham Grammar Schools best rugby players, and he first appears to have no question about his given by society prescribed heterosexual label. Then, the two are assigned to sit next to each other in class following a new term. Nick goes on a journey of self understanding as he attempts, while quietly looking for the tools, to figure out if his passions are as linear as he was taught. Decidedly identifying as bisexual, Nick confronts an empowering amount of freedom and safety amongst a new love interest and set of friends.

This character development may seem common and secure but amongst those born in the late 90’s America, its depiction is revolutionary. For myself, being born in 1997 and growing up in the early 2000’s with a military child perspective, meant that traditional American views were not subject to negotiation. While progressive and past language and policies were consciously in debate, in order to survive in the social sphere out of the public eye, we had to conform. Our friends in school were unconsciously determined by the ranks of our parents and the networking created at military balls. A script was written for us that most followed strictly, except for those who navigated a different, smaller space. For me, conformity meant an inability to be seen. Hiding literally right in plain sight. My friend group was "artsy and weird". Queerness that was never discussed because it did not fit the then-current norm or mold. Without places to turn for information about the teenagers we were, and how to represent ourselves as we grew up, we were often left with feelings of hollowness and misunderstanding. Being queer then meant, you were continuously in danger. A danger you felt in your chest quietly like a rock walking with you, like at any moment if you did anything outside of societal norm, you’d sink. Now, firmly in my late 20’s, watching Heartstopper is healing a part of my inner child I did not know needed welcoming home.

From cartoonish illustrations showcasing inner thoughts to outward action put into motion, Nick shows audiences an authentic, queer coming of age story. In Season 2 of the show, grappling with whether or not to come out to his friends, viewers see Nick’s inner dialogue depicted by illustrations. Clouds of black move around his mind as he hears family members and friends say that he’s lying about being bisexual, that he is really only gay. A phrase many of us in the community have experienced, this one or other way of being that others force upon us. A lack of understanding on their part adds to our inner uncertainty about whether or not we know ourselves enough to even be uttering our differences. Leaving us to stand on what was already, unsturdy ground, as we move further inward in silence. Series of memories of those who said homophobic phrases and micro-aggressions against him play in his head in succession. Instead of succumbing to his own fears, Nick leans on those he cares for around him and finds inner strength. They meet him where he’s at on his journey of becoming, never does his already-out partner ever push him to do anything he’s uncomfortable with.

His friends, armed with only their own experiences and that of their peers, grapple with the strange back and forth of wanting to be authentically yourself and simultaneously, feel safe within society at large. For them, this is their school. At once, I was both an adult sitting down on my couch watching the show, and a teenager in the orange hallways of my old high school. Along with Nick, I re-experienced the difficulty that was carrying a "secret" again.

Taking a spin on popular television culture, this series takes the recreational medicinal usage glamorized in youth currently and gives a realistic, nervous, bashful, portrayal with age appropriate, queer actors. Nick, Charlie, and their friends come to victories and pave the way for themselves to create their own queer success stories and I felt a younger me empowered to do the same. As his story is an antiparallel of my own and many others stories of exploration, watching him succeed allows audiences to live that long awaited celebration alongside the characters of the show.

For those of us who are watching the show later in life than the projected teen audiences, Season 2 of the show creates new storylines some of us can more readily identify with. Opening up the background tales of the teachers that work in the school, we receive tidbits of their coming-out stories. Hearing of the off screen successes of Rugby Coach Singh lesbian marriage coupled with the late-blossoming Mr. Farouk and the nervously elegant ally, Mr. Ajayi creates a warm community of camaraderie in this fictional school.

On the edge of our seats, armed with a multitude of diverse queer storylines and vast accessible representation, viewers see every second of the almost-caught-in-the-act-moments as self expression. We go through the same walking on eggshells anxiety as Nick and Charlie, from sneaking moments to talk and be alone to scary first kisses to sharing a bed together for the first

time. Viewers feel the personal ache of past experiences reflected on screen; how safety and danger can reside in the same painted rugby game.

Nick coming into his own identity with understanding and strength; paired all with a patient and reassuring partner, is the achievement in media all bisexuals were waiting for. A world of fluidity and safety that exists limitless with possibilities and love.

Thankfully, Heartstopper has been renewed for a third season and, although unconfirmed, the public hopes they will follow the previous release timeframes and anticipate the next season to be released in 2024.


About the Writer:

Faith Diaz, originally born in Bronx, N.Y., is from a military family and spent her childhood moving from place to place. She has her BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. Her journey from bibliophile to writer all started with a seventh grade poetry assignment she hated and eventually grew into open mics, poetry slams, and where she finds herself today. Her hope in the future is to continue sharing the stories that matter, from people who do even more so. When she is not petting her puppy, Sunny, she can be found writing, attempting to make a podcast, or eating mint chocolate chip ice cream.


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