Heartstoppers by Alice Oseman (2020). New York: Graphix.
Content Warning: As consumers of media, we’re allowed to enjoy these things at our own leisure. But as authors and publishers producing content for young readers, and as adults making decisions about how young people learn about identity and sexuality through literature, it’s our responsibility to ensure the media we allow them is useful, informed, and honest.
So this is a general Content Warning that this article specifically problematises the production of Heartstopper—rather than your response to it—while criticising the webcomic Hearstoppers was but no longer is.
I first discovered Heartstoppers as a webcomic when it launched on Tumblr back in 2016. And even though I stopped reading by 2018, I supported the initial Kickstarter because I still had hope for the comic and wanted to see it published. Yet I must admit, despite knowing how little it mattered, I was furious that volume three won the Goodreads Best Graphic Novel of 2020.
Like, unreasonably furious. Wild, even.
It’s just that we had such a beautiful year for diverse, #OwnVoice narratives with shared insight and lived experience—with meat!—only for them to be swept away by a popular title that was, let’s face it, fujoshi BL at its core. Titles like Estranged, Crowded, The Magic Fish, Times I Knew I Was Gay, and Bloom: titles that explored fantasy and magic, human connection, and cross-cultural queerness, which somehow couldn’t compete with the concept of two boys holding hands.
Then there’s the TV series just out on Netflix (the point of this post). I’ll admit that I liked Heartstopper a great deal. It was charming, showed me the simple highschool romance I always dreamed of, and might actually be useful to middle grade queerlings.
I couldn’t ignore product placement for Fjallraven Kanken and Instagram centre screen within the first minute. There was a sad total of five direct references to queer history, arts, or culture throughout the series: one a classic queer novel with a horribly tragic ending, and four modern films appearing together as Nick scrolled through Google and all available on Netflix UK.
In fact, characters made references to streaming movies available on Netflix a minimum of once per episode. And Nick’s Netflix mug also appeared throughout the series about six times. (I probably need to recheck that number, but you get my point). Basically, Netflix made its services integral to understanding the queer references it made in a series about LGBTIQ+ people.
Meanwhile, we were always going to like Heartstopper. Netflix knew we would. Like most of their productions, the guaranteed commercial success was the reason they made Heartstopper in the first place. But as the first debut LGBTIQ+ series to be released on Netflix since The Chapelle Incident, one has to wonder if these added elements were a desperate attempt to associate the company with allyship… despite refusing to apologise for facilitating transphobia.
Also, it needed 5000% more Olivia Colman. But back to the comics.
When I started reading the original, radically different Heartstoppers back in 2016, I described it, as most reviewers still do, as ‘cute at best’. I followed updates religiously for a time, waiting to see how Nick and Charlie would find relief in each other’s company. But that relief seemed to stretch on as old anxieties kept getting in the way. And soon I got tired of reading a comic about two boys crying all the time because they couldn’t process their feelings for each other.
I needed progression. I needed Oseman to start exploring things like healthy relationships, communication, and coping strategies. I needed more than yet another female author profiting off gay male narratives this way when we could not. Unfortunately, those aspects I yearned for didn’t appear until Oseman got bored with the boys and began focusing on other characters.
Truth is, back in 2016, the nuances of being a young, gay male were lost on Oseman when she initially developed her characters using unhealthy and outdated BL tropes instead of consulting gay men… and people were already telling her so. She was an artist experimenting with her craft, bogging her webcomic down with merchandise, while delivering her OCs in maid’s outfits and cat ears—the worst of it removed before she signed off with Graphix.
And although Heartstoppers found its market anyway—spreading like a fever through Tumblr’s fujoshi circles—I was personally put out by Oseman’s determination to create queer characters that ‘didn’t have to be queer all the time’ by distancing them from our shared experiences. I didn’t enjoy being fetishised by yet another female author who perpetuated these tropes and then excused herself for doing so. We were her subject, but never her target audience, so she didn’t feel she needed to answer to us.
As an LGBTIQ+ title, Oseman should have concerned herself with how Heartstoppers engaged its readers in our histories, our communities, and our culture. There should have been something in Heartstoppers that told its young, queer readers what to expect queer life to be like.
I also feel she should have tried harder to create a middle grade comic that was more than ‘cute at best’. YA and middle grade authors must recognise the position they have over young readers and make an effort to offer them something of substance—even if that’s just a love for reading. I don’t feel Oseman tried hard enough to do that.
So enjoy Heartstopper as I did. As consumers, we’re allowed to have our own relationships and reactions to media. But if the foundations are rotten, and as influential in how we now publish queer stories as Heartstoppers is, then we have an obligation to acknowledge its harmful tropes and encourage authors to do better. We are making big decisions about what and how our young people learn about queerness here: we need to be better.
Leave a Reply