by Tereza Šišková
With all the criticisms TV shows for young children and teenagers often receive from experts and the public for being too violent, sexual, or affirming stereotypes, the television and new streaming platforms which profit from teen audiences often get labelled as a social evil. Scalvini, in his analysis of the controversial show 13 Reasons Why, highlights the responsibility producers have to consider potential harms and heed warnings from counsellors. Being critical of what sort of shows teens are watching is not unwarranted. Recent inquiry by the British Film Institute shows children and teens see TV as an extension of their education and that it continues to play an important role in their lives for the “shared viewing experience.” This clearly indicates that teen shows are not mere entertainment, but they often form a crucial part in adolescent development. Therefore, since teen audiences expect to learn more about how things work in society and inter-personal relationships through watching shows, it stands to reason the shows produced for them should deliver on that premise. In this article, I present the queer high school drama Heartstopper as an example of a teen show that incorporates positively reinforcing important social skills into its narrative – particularly in the realms of finding one’s identity and building friendships.
Identity exploration is probably the defining element of the teenage phase of human life. As Brinkman and Francot summarize, arriving at a stable sense of one’s identity is generally seen as the ultimate goal of adolescence (2.3). Queer media usually puts sexuality and gender at the centre of this process in what can be called ‘coming-out narratives’ – storylines based around a character’s journey from first realizing their queerness to gaining confidence and telling their friends and family. In Heartstopper, this role is fulfilled by Nick who is thrust on a voyage to figure out his bisexuality when he develops a crush on his gay friend Charlie. Interestingly, a big part of his character development in the show is learning to let go of his old friends who he no longer feels comfortable around. Nick is on the rugby team and his teammates constitute his closest circle of friends. In getting to know Charlie more closely, he also has to reckon with the fact that some of Charlie’s harshest bullies are Nick’s friends. When with the other, Nick gains the opportunity to express his kind and gentle nature, which is in stark contrast to the typically masculine ‘best-buddies’ tie he has with his rugby friends. His mother notes in episode 2 “Crush”: “[Charlie] is very different to your other friends, isn’t he? You seem much more yourself around him” (15:18). This indicates that separately from his sexuality, Nick also hides his true personality from his friends in order to fit in. It becomes obvious that his friends exert a lot of peer pressure on Nick, and he becomes trapped in a cycle of lying or brushing things off to avoid conflict. This is most noticeable in his giving into Imogen’s advances despite having no feelings for her and secretly dating Charlie. In each instance she asks him out, it is in front of their friends who encourage this coupling. This could be interpreted as Nick being subconsciously aware of the emotionally and physically violent blow back that would come from deviating from his friends’ heteronormative and masculine image of him. For a time, he tries to split himself in two to please everyone, but soon realizes this is impossible. Things finally escalate in episode 7 “Bully”, when the rugby team makes open homophobic remarks towards Charlie and Nick realizes: “we should have just left” (6:44), before conclusively ending his old friendship in a big fight. On the surface, Nick’s bisexuality could be seen as the main wedge between him and his old friends. But I believe the narrative ultimately highlights the necessity of not tolerating bullies. Nick must confront if he is still a good person when he is friends with bad people and realizes the need to stand up for others despite personal discomfort. The show also acknowledges there may come a time when one loses childhood friends and treats it as an integral chapter of self-conceptualization.
Heartstopper stands out among other successful ‘coming-out narratives’ by offering both the perspective of life before and after the coming-out; courtesy of essentially having two protagonists. In contrast to Nick, Charlie is already very certain in his sexuality and out of the closet to both friends and family and everyone at school, but his life is not all sunshine and roses. While the show overall encourages being true to oneself, it also acknowledges the real-world ramifications of being openly queer, such as bullying. I would define Charlie’s character arch as one of rediscovering confidence in oneself following a traumatic experience. He starts the series in a secret relationship with an older boy named Ben, who is soon revealed to be emotionally manipulative and unhealthy. While the two separate rather quickly, he still carries a scar from it and subconsciously convinces himself of his own unlikability. For example, when Nick agrees to attend his birthday party and does actually come, Charlie is surprised and admits “I thought you were just trying not to be rude” (Episode 6 “Girls” 21:24). Despite no longer being manipulated into thinking this way, he still suspects his partner’s motives for being with him as conditional and settles for things he is secretly unhappy with. When Nick admits he agreed to go on a date with Imogen, Charlie tries to ease the tension with “well, it’s not like we’re… you know… officially dating or anything” (Episode 5 “Friend” 15:46). This is almost word-for-word the excuse Ben gave for dating a girl alongside Charlie without telling him. And here Charlie uses it to excuse Nick’s behaviour even though this hurt of being cheated is why he broke up with Ben in the beginning. I believe this instinct to put his lover’s comfort above his own is a manifestation of his emotional trauma from the “period of identity concealment” as it is coined by Brinkman and Francot (1). This is the period between internal realization and the coming-out, characterized by limited social and emotional support, which puts queer youth at a higher risk for developing mental health problems (Brinkman and Francot 1). During such a period of time which took place before the events of the show, romantic relationships would have seemed a desire entirely out of reach for Charlie. The way he is willing to ignore advice from his friends, change aspects of his personality for others and become completely consumed by a romantic relationship illustrates how desperate Charlie is to be loved back at all costs. But everything comes crashing down in the end because destroying himself to please others only leads himself to be increasingly unhappy and the people who care about him to increasingly worry. He finally spends the last episode trying to become himself again – quitting rugby, which he only joined for Nick, confronting Ben about how he hurt him and apologizing to his friends for ignoring them. It is a powerful message that Nick and Charlie’s happy ending can only come once Charlie realizes there is more to happiness than romance.
As was previously hinted, Nick slowly disconnects from his old friend group and is accepted into Charlie’s circle, formed by Tao, Isaac, Elle and her new friends Tara and Darcy. The effort to build and sustain healthy friendships is one theme that connects the protagonists and their internal journeys with side characters. It is especially present in the development of Tao, who exhibits a fear of change so strong it escalates into an almost irrational hyper fixation on their core friend group possibly falling apart. Tao is deeply upset over Charlie wanting to introduce Nick into their group and for the most part resists even talking to him. The narrative puts Tao’s actions in contrast to Elle who is more open to expanding their friend group; in the two’s dynamic, she becomes a frequent voice of reason reminding him that “sometimes change is a good thing” (Episode 3 “Kiss” 11:55). But instead of embracing change, Tao picks fights with his friends and holds grudges. The conflict eventually cuts the communication line between himself and Charlie and leads to him being the last person to know Nick and Charlie are in fact secretly dating, which he finds out through Elle. This confirms his anxiety that he is being left out and losing his friends. In this clear sequence of events, Heartstopper quite comprehensibly shows that the problem actually started with Tao’s own fear – making him isolate himself and trapping him in a loop of affirming his own preconceived notions. This arch once again reinforces that change is an integral part of growing up and cannot be avoided. I believe this subtle guidance of the audience towards identifying the underlying mistake in a character’s way of thinking is the crucial educational element of the show. As Krijnen aptly points out, shows play a role in individual development because they can serve as a “laboratory” where audiences reflect on their own values and behaviour (53, 59-60). And while viewers are free to make their own judgement, narratives for what is understood as impressionable audiences do carry a slight burden of explicitly encouraging positive behaviours. In Tao’s character arch it is showing how even such a dramatic falling-out between friends as his and Charlie’s is easily fixed by simply realizing one’s own faults and honestly apologizing. The story also highlights that a person’s perceptions do not always accurately reflect reality. At a time when Tao was scared that his friend group was falling apart, it had actually expanded by three new members. He just needed to be open to welcoming them in.
While reinforcing these social skills and positive life changes, Heartstopper is very far from being a serious psycho-educational programme. Romance is definitely the major element where the show uncritically fulfils teen fantasies. Charlie never has to learn to get over his straight crush since said crush conveniently turns out not so straight. Nick in many ways makes for the perfect boyfriend who listens to all concerns, is always kind and knows by providence whenever something is bothering his love. While both he and Ben draw Charlie out of his comfort zone, Nick is the one to always notice he has made his boyfriend uncomfortable and rights the situation without Charlie even needing to say it. The addition of animated doodles to convey mood and emotion on screen makes clear that gritty realism of the complicated human nature was not one of the show’s aims. But while it is a feel-good romantic show, Heartstopper does manage to convey many life lessons important to adolescent development and achieves it by making platonic relationships as central to the story as the romantic ones. The mix was clearly received well by the audience – the show pulled enough viewership to be renewed for two more seasons.
“BFI Research Finds Less Than a Quarter of 4- to 18-year-olds Believe UK Television Represents Them.” British Film Institute, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news/young-people-uk-television-report.
Brinkman, Lika, and Ryanne Francot. “Developing a Resilient Sexual and Gender Minority Identity Online: The Importance of Social Media for Youth Before Coming Out.” LGBT Communities [Working Title], edited by Deborah Woodman, IntechOpen, 2022, https://www.intechopen.com/online-first/84142.
Heartstopper. Created by Alice Oseman, See-Saw Films, 2022, Netflix, www.netflix.com.
Krijnen, Tonny. “Engaging the Moral Imagination by Watching Television: Different Modes of Moral Reflection.” Participations, vol. 8, n. 2, Nov. 2011, pp. 52–73.
Scalvini, Marco. “13 Reasons Why: Can a TV Show about Suicide Be ‘Dangerous’? What Are the Moral Obligations of a Producer?” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 42, n. 7–8, pp. 1564–1574. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720932502.
Tereza Šišková is a student of English Language and Literature at Masaryk University. She is currently devoting her time to the academic study of popular shows and bestselling novels. Or at least the time she is not spending coping with anxiety by excessive consumption of said popular shows and bestselling novels.