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Heartstopper: Understanding The Phenomenon And Why It Matters So Much

Three years ago, when I started writing for Bath Time, one of my first article was a review of Sex Education. I raved out its writing, its cast, and the number of subjects it touched upon, especially when it came to LGBT issues and gender identity. Today, as my time at the University of Bath draws to an end, another LGBT Netflix phenomenon has won over audience and critics: Heartstopper, the live adaptation of the infamous graphic novel by Alice Oseman. But why is Heartstopper so popular? What makes it so good? And why is it so necessary? Let’s find out!

Before becoming a hit show that has already been renewed for two more seasons, Heartstopper was a humble project ran entirely by Alice Oseman. In September 2016, she began uploading the first pages of graphic novel on Tumblr and, after it began to gain traction, she printed her first two chapters in a limited physical release. As the story became more and more popular, big editors started to be drawn in, and eventually Hachette acquired the rights to the saga, printing all her web content into books. As of today, four volumes, covering chapters 1 to 6, have been published, and the final volume is set to release in February 2023. Millions of viewers have tuned it to watch Heartstopper, making it one of Netflix’s most popular show, and critics have praised both the show and the books for its quality and how it does representation properly.

What makes Heartstopper so special? Well, perhaps it is its simplicity. Whereas other shows thrive off complicated storylines where love triangles and poor communication ruin an otherwise good story (I’m looking at you Love, Victor), Heartstopper choses to tell simple stories that don’t rely on cheap plot twists to be a hit. In the books and the show, you won’t find huge, everything feels organic and natural, something you would see in real life. Charlie and Nick’s love story, as well as the storylines given to the secondary characters, will never leave audiences frustrated because Alice Oseman respects the characters she has created. In shows like Elite or Riverdale, it is easy to completely lose interest in a character because their arc often feel confusing and forced. Perhaps Heartstopper will inspire other shows to not overdo things and focus instead on more realistic, contained stories.

It must also be said that one of the reasons for the show’s popularity is the themes it touches upon. Outside of the incredible LGBT focus, that covers issues ranging from coming out, outing, sex and homophobia, Heartstopper also addresses other key issues that affect teenagers worldwide. While Volumes 1 to 3 (chapters 1 to 4) mostly focus on the characters dealing with / accepting their sexuality, Volume 4 (chapters 5/6) and beyond take a turn for the serious, focusing more on mental health issues, body image and eating disorder. The change in tone is done incredibly well and subtly by Oseman, but what the characters go through is still incredibly impactful and touching, and admittedly had me in tears at times. I’m glad that Oseman dared to talk about those sensitive issues, and given the comments on the Webtoon page (where Heartstopper is available and published legally, and for free), people are incredibly grateful that the books, and later the show, do not shy away from real teenagers issues.

Alice Oseman can be incredibly proud of what she has achieved, because it is rare to see representation done so well.

Elie Breton des Loÿs

As for the show, a big reason for its success once again relies on Alice Oseman, who oversaw the entire production. Where authors sometimes sell the rights to their stories and dip out with a nice money cushion, Oseman ensured the story she had written, and that so many fans held close to their hearts, would be done correctly. The adaptation is incredibly faithful to the source material, and any changes she makes feel justified while fitting perfectly with the world within the show. The casting decisions are simply phenomenal, and you can tell Oseman knew exactly who was right for the characters she had birthed. Joe Locke and Kit Connor are simply a phenomenal couple on screen, and everyone in their friend group is cast perfectly. Their chemistry, vulnerability and intimacy feels so pure and right.

Although both its leads are white males, Heartstopper isn’t just about [male] gay representation. Elle, played by Internet sensation Yasmin Finney, is a huge step forward in trans representation done right, especially considering how rare it is to see trans characters and their stories in teen shows. At a time where transphobia and openly transphobic stances are on the rise in the world, and especially in the UK in both the political and educational sphere, it is refreshing and reassuring to see such a positive trans storyline, and I thank Netflix for giving Finney the platform she so rightfully deserved. Corrina Brown and Kizzy Edgell, who play Tara and Darcy, the couple Elle befriends in her new school, is also. Where other shows have failed to represent the community in its entire scope (although I’m not saying every LGBT show has to represent every side of the community), Heartstopper shows that fair representation and diversity can be done so easily, and for younger audiences too.

In the end, I am so happy that a show like this exists, and I only wish 14 year old could have seen representation like this when he was figuring stuff out. Although Netflix often does wrong to the LGBTQ+ community by platforming people who harm it in their speech, I can only thank them for allowing millions of viewers worldwide to experience the beauty of Heartstopper. This is a show that is not only incredibly funny, touching, wholesome and adorable, but also one that will help so many people struggling to come to terms with who they are. Alice Oseman can be incredibly proud of what she has achieved, because it is rare to see representation done so well. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I can only recommend buying and reading the books, that are as phenomenal as the Netflix hit, especially if you cannot wait for more Charlie & Nick content. Creating a fair world that accepts all sexuality and genders will take more than tv shows, but it is a good start. As we go forward, we need to support projects like Heartstopper, and ensure the quiet voices don’t feel alone anymore.

Heartstopper, Vol. 3. Written and illustrated by Alice Oseman.

Elie Breton des Loÿs

Elie is the current Editor-in-Chief. He was previously the Lifestyle Editor (2019/20) and is still our resident cinema-goer. He won the 'Best Newcomer' prize at the 2019 Media Awards in recognition of his cinema reviews and world politics pieces.

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