‘Heartstopper’ and the era of feel-good, queer teen love stories

When producer Patrick Walters first read the romance comic heart stopper, he knew it had to be a TV show. It was something about the way the author, Alice Oseman, had illustrated the story that gave him “Butterflies,” he told me over Zoom. The characters – two teenagers who fall in love – were ravishingly expressive, all the wide eyes and furtive glances captured in fine strokes. Her dialogue felt realistic; As a young novelist who published her first book while in college, Oseman had a knack for youthful language, online and offline. And her 15-year-old protagonist, Charlie, was openly gay, which meant the plot didn’t begin with the character struggling with her sexuality. “He’s sure of himself, so we’re not coming in the usual route of the queer coming out story,” Walters said. “That was really refreshing for me.”

Mainstream coming-of-age stories about LGBTQ teens don’t usually look anything like Charlie’s. These works tend to treat coming-out as a core emotional conflict and present the experience as an inner crisis, fraught with mystery and fear. But the popular Netflix adaptation of heart stopper shifts focus, emphasizing display of celebration over oppression—and it’s not the only recent, widely accessible project to do so. On Hulu, the romantic comedy Crush ignores the question of his heroine’s weirdness in the first five minutes of the film. And when Love, Victor– the spinoff series to the 2018 film dear simon— returning next month for its final season, it will completely transcend the coming-out journey that has defined the story (and the film that inspired it) so far. This change made the show “a lot more fun to write about.” Love, Victor Co-showrunner Brian Tanen told me. “I’ve always been very hopeful that coming out might happen sooner rather than later so we can get on with the fun part.”

The fun part, of course, is the teenage years — first crushes, first kisses, first affairs — the kind of swooning milestones straight characters enjoyed without the baggage of having to define their sexuality. Redefining the queer coming-of-age experience simply as coming-of-age might seem like a subtle shift, but it helps illustrate how the emphasis on coming-of-age may have limited queer storytelling.

As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber observed in 2018, the wave of indie films about queer teenagers was among them call me by your name and boy deleted“It’s odd that in an age of unprecedented visibility for LGBTQ communities, the queer teens chosen for the cinematic limelight should appear so allergic to, well, apparently gay… Whether the implicit impulse to assimilate is the caution of the filmmakers or the characters.” is open to debate.” However, coming-out stories are typically told with a straight audience in mind. As Raina Deerwater, manager of entertainment research and analysis at the GLAAD Media Institute, told me, the drama and the tension of such arcs to highlight and offset “the reaction of straight people versus the journey of a queer person.”

According to sociologist Mary Robertson, an associate professor at Seattle University, it shows that minimizing attempts to come out can better reflect the normal lives of queer teenagers. In her research for her book Growing Up Queer: Children and Reshaping LGBTQ Identity, Robertson worked with an LGBTQ youth center and spoke to teenagers, who pointed out that “being gay wasn’t always their biggest problem,” she told me. While the gay rights movement initially emphasized rather than concealed narratives about pride and learning about one’s sexual identity, today’s teenagers are seeking more diverse representations of queer life. Stories that continue to stress the burden of coming out have largely ceased to be representative; They reinforce the idea that “if you’re different, you have to come out and explain yourself,” Robertson said.

Kirsten King and Casey Rackham, the authors of Crush, approached the coming-out question from precisely this angle. As they spent a significant chunk of their rom-com explaining why protagonist Paige (Rowan Blanchard) is attracted to women, they felt like they were capitulating in front of a straight audience used to, as King puts it , “seeing a bit of that trauma” in films about queer characters. Instead, “we wanted to do what straight people have been getting for decades,” Rackham told me. That is, they just wanted characters to “meet and then have a miscommunication that would be resolved if they talked.”

Two friends lie side by side in
heart stopper follows a circle of supportive friends, including Elle (Yasmin Finney) and Tao (William Gao), which helps make the series feel lifelike. (netflix)

This is how the film races through Paige’s coming out: In a flashback, she tells her mother, who immediately accepts her daughter’s identity. King acknowledges that the beat might seem unrealistic for teens living in less than welcoming households, but she felt the positive tone could be helpful for viewers who’ve never been able to indulge in such experiences — like Rom- Coms about straight couples evoke fantasies for their audience. “When I first came out to my mom, she was more supportive than other people in my family, but her biggest fear was, ‘It just looks like this is going to be so hard for you’… She could couldn’t imagine a future where I was happy and fulfilled and safe,” she explained. “I think giving people that image, helping them envision a future where queer people are safe and have love stories just like straight people — that was a huge motivation.”

heart stopper, meanwhile, includes a coming-out arc, but it’s not the show’s central conflict. When Charlie (played by Joe Locke) develops an interest in his classmate Nick (Kit Connor), he’s unsure if Nick is interested in men. As Nick has never defined his sexuality, the characters eventually embark on the journey together. Nick has questions he hopes Charlie can answer as Charlie becomes more open; The two help each other mature emotionally through their relationship as it evolves from a friendship into something more. Deerwater explained that creating a coming-out story in this way feels real. “It’s not just about a queer person existing in a straight world,” she said of Nick and Charlie’s bond. “Most of the people that I know personally and that you see in the LGBTQ community aren’t the only ones. You are surrounded by a whole group of people.”

Crucially, Nick and Charlie’s story is sweet but not saccharine – the couple stumbles on the road to becoming a couple because adolescence is a minefield of heady emotions and dating mishaps – and Nick’s coming out is less so characterized by fear rather than curiosity. In a sly meta-comment, he scours the internet for films to watch about the LGBTQ experience while feeling attracted to Charlie. The list he lands on recommends Brokeback Mountain and moonlightbut instead of watching both, Nick indulges in an old favorite, Pirates of the Caribbean.

During a scene with Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, he realizes he’s into both actors. Oseman, who wrote each episode, added the moment that wasn’t in the original comic afterwards asks her Twitter followers for her favorite movies that made her feel “extra bi.” Most did not respond with titles from the queer cinema canon, but with Hollywood blockbusters that showed how the community has long since projected itself onto heterosexual stories. If many people had learned about their sexuality in other ways in real life, the show didn’t need Nick to watch movies, however excellent or prestigious, in which queer characters suffer, Walters explained. “Because this scene is meant to celebrate this new identity that’s starting to come to Nick’s mind,” he said. Pirates of the Caribbean is “the perfect [film to watch]rather than something a little more tortured.”

As well as heart stopper and Crush, the relationships are more important than the sexual identity of the protagonists. Instead of worrying about coming out, these teens are wondering how to get closer to the object of their affection. And they worry about being liked by that one person instead of worrying about being accepted by society as a whole on screen. Even in the growing landscape of hit projects with queer teenagers, such as sex education and I have never, these storylines are rare. They’re usually relegated to supporting characters who spend episodes, if not entire seasons, questioning their sexuality before they can engage in real romance. When queer characters are the protagonists, like in a show like euphoria, their stories sometimes move in tropes that underscore pain and isolation, and cloak their experiences in negativity for the sake of drama. “Those narratives have historically focused on LGBTQ+ people’s trauma, or their feeling of not knowing who they are and then having to make a choice that sometimes doesn’t come from them but from the world outside of them.” , says Walters called. “Showing that feelings just blossom and mature and go at a character’s own pace in a universal way is, I hope, the power of the show.”

Watch as a result heart stopper and Crush can feel like seeing versions of whimsical queer utopias. Both limit the role of homophobic bullying; in heart stopper, a classmate who regularly insults Charlie, but since Charlie has strong support in Nick and a circle of friends, dealing with taunts is not his primary concern. Both feature a range of queer teenagers, so the protagonists aren’t the only ones on screen; in Crush, Paige has so many potential love interests that the film uses a cheeky montage to outline each of their potential assets. And both projects use elaborate flourishes to underscore the thrill of teenage romance: in Paige’s eyes, the girl she likes walks in slow motion while explosions of color fill the frame; Charlie sees Nick engulfed in a soft pink glow as he begins to fall in love. Such fantastical elements remind queer teen audiences that being queer doesn’t have to mean hardship. It can mean magic. After all, King explained, being able to write a queer coming-of-age story for a queer teen audience is a rare wish-granting opportunity. “For me at least, when you write something, it’s like you’re writing the world you want to see,” she said. “Why don’t you make it exactly how you want it?” ‘Heartstopper’ and the era of feel-good, queer teen love stories

Jessica MacLeish

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