The popularity of ‘Heartstopper’

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I finally caved and watched Heartstopper. It was very cute to say the least. The happy ending felt inevitable from the first five minutes, the friendship group was never going to be torn apart for long, the soundtrack and visual design were pleasingly neon-bathed and sentimental. As a gay man, I couldn’t help being a little charmed by the sweetness of it all. But in general, the show was probably a little too cute for me. The relentless positivity and the occasionally cringe-inducing sincerity of the dialogue (which I’ll allow, since teenagers are famously prone to saying those sorts of things) weren’t exactly what I tend to enjoy in a TV show. 

But that’s fine because at the end of the day I don’t think I’m the target audience for Heartstopper. The main characters are 14 and 15 at the start of the series. If the ideal target audience for this show is queer teenagers of a similar age, it’s a very good show. It sends a nice, positive message that gay kids can have real crushes and secondary school relationships, and that they shouldn’t fall into a pessimistic mindset of thinking they’ll be lonely and excluded from life throughout their youth.

That’s a nice message for 14-year-olds to receive. But what about the university students, people in their twenties like me, who are watching it and talking about it in such high numbers? I think there’s an understandable element of wish-fulfilment going on here. Charlie and Nick’s relationship is so ‘right’, hits all the correct narrative peaks and troughs, that it makes people deeply wistful, perhaps for a similar adolescent romance of their own, but more likely for an adolescent romance they never had. I’ve seen gay people talking about how watching Heartstopper was almost painful, because it reminded them that they never had the classic high-school relationship life experience, and they didn’t get initiated into the world of reciprocated crushes and romantic tension until they were adults. In a similar sense, I think that popular media and its worldview relies on some unfounded assumptions and generalisations about what adolescent life is ‘normally like’ for most people, gay or straight.

It sends a nice, positive message that gay kids can have real crushes and secondary school relationships

Many of my straight male friends never had a girlfriend or a dramatic friends-to-lovers arc while they were at school either. Some gay people seem to maintain an unfortunate delusion that had they grown up in a society without homophobia, or at least without heteronormativity, they would have had vibey romanticised love lives like Charlie and Nick. But the uncomfortable truth is that we still probably wouldn’t have, because we were weird and awkward teenagers, and adolescence at heart just is a mixture of grey banality and pointless cruelty, for gay kids and straight kids alike.

I think another reason why Heartstopper has had such a hold on university students, despite us really being a bit too old for it, is how neatly narrativised everything is in the show. From the outset, every hardship each character goes through has a strictly defined function, involving a transitory period of suffering or self-doubt, which is then resolved in a manner that furthers their life journey, making them stronger. Charlie suffers through unsatisfying rendezvouses with a closeted boy who won’t acknowledge him in public, but that’s paid off at the end when Nick decides to come out, and jubilantly and publicly shouts that he loves Charlie. 

In a teen drama TV show, that’s totally fine. It makes for satisfying television, the narrative threads wrapping round each other and resolving neatly. I can’t say that properly ‘good’ television narrativises suffering to this extent — how does Walter White’s suffering as a reluctant meth-cook make him a stronger, more learned person when he’s cowering next to his brother-in-law’s corpse? But as I keep emphasising, it’s a teen romance drama, so the bar is lower. 

Every hardship each character goes through has a strictly defined function

The heart of my point is that I think there’s something deeply compelling to people our age about this narrativising tendency, the general idea that your sadness happens as part of your own grand plot line, it’s all happening for a reason, the universe is wanting you to ‘grow’. I think this mindset is parallel to the remarkable re-emergence of astrology among young people in recent times. Traditional religiosity might have sharply declined among young people, but some core tenets of Christianity seem remarkably difficult for society to shake off — secularised, or spiritualised, versions of the idea that you will get what you deserve, that everything happens for a reason.

It’s these two mindsets combined — a cosmic entitlement to puppy love, and the idea that loneliness and humiliation are all part of a wider journey of noble personal growth — that makes me a little uneasy about the widespread popularity of Heartstopper beyond its natural age bracket. Because these mindsets are a way of avoiding the fact that the universe is totally impassive and cold. Cold in the sense that it seems plausible that there are no absolute, objective values to be found, no transcendent meaning out there to be discovered, probably no afterlife either. 

It’s up to each of us as individuals or communities to find values which make sense of the suffering we’ve experienced. We have to take actions and make choices that minimise the chance the loneliness will continue, and we have to do things which make our lives feel like more than the sum of many boring, meaningless parts. 

But it’s so easy to fall into the Heartstopper trap of thinking “I was so sad as a teenager, I really deserved what Charlie and Nick have” and concluding that your suffering was for a reason, that the universe will reward you for it with a cute summer romance or a golden retriever boyfriend. To a readership of 14-year-old queer kids (Heartstopper’s audience), I might write that this will actually happen, so don’t worry. But to an audience of university-educated twentysomethings, I want to say that maybe, probably, it won’t. Are you prepared for what you’ll do then?

Image: Jiroe (Matia Rengel) via Unsplash

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