Why we can’t stop thinking about Heartstopper. Kirsty Gravestock (PhD student), Dr Lindsey Cameron (Reader in Psychology), Hannah Bassom and Abigail Lugg (Undergraduate Students) have a new Netflix series, ‘Heartstopper’ on the brain.
This beautiful, boy meets boy story, set in a Kent secondary school, is taking the world by storm. Based on the series of graphic novels by Alice Oseman, the series of the same name is on the surface of it, an unapologetic, heart-warming love story, following two 15- and 16-year-old boys as they discover who they are, and that they are really into each other – like really into each other. But it’s so much more than that – Dr Lindsey Cameron has been studying diversity and representation in children’s books and TV for 20 years now and she and Kirsty Gravestock (her PhD student researching the impact of LGBTQ+ media portrayals on support for equality and social change), can tell you that this new Netflix series, and the books it is based on, is nothing short of radical and just what the world needs right now.
Heartstopper has opened a ground-breaking new chapter in LGBTQ+ representation, tween and young adult fiction, and bold queer stories. Through the series we follow the two main characters and their close circle of friends, each on their own journeys to understand their LGBTQ+ identity. While the characters refer to homophobic and transphobic bullying they have experienced in the past, and there are several instances of homophobic victimisation depicted in the series, the show focuses more on the positive relationships and lives the characters are building for themselves. The show provides a fictional, and somewhat rose tinted view of life for LGBTQ+ young people, and may bring about complicated feelings for some in the LGBTQ+ community, but Heartstopper provides a joy and hope-filled view of what life could be like for queer young people today.
“I am excited to be addressing topics on gender and sexual inequality for my final year project.
Watching Heartstopper with my girlfriend filled us with such joy and hope. For anyone in the LGBTQ+ community, it can be so difficult to navigate the journey of discovering their identify within a heterosexual-dominated society. As a bisexual woman, I have seen little to no media that includes LGBTQ+ characters generally, let alone characters which represent my specific identity –as the scarce media that does include such characters often depicts two feminine women in a relationship aimed at a male audience. a book and TV series specifically created for the LGBTQ+ community, and better still young viewers.
When myself and my girlfriend were growing up, we were surrounded by dominant heterosexual norms, but perhaps greater exposure and diversity in relation to LGBTQ+ media would have helped me work out my sexuality a lot earlier.
Nick, one of the main characters, is bisexual and his story critically demonstrates that it is okay to work out your sexuality and that it can change. Further, Nick’s character challenges gay stereotypes, presenting a popular rugby lad as opposed to the LGBTQ+ camp trope, unpopular kid or “token gay”. Abigail Lugg
So here is why you should stop what you’re doing and watch (and read) Heartstopper now – not just because it’s wonderful, but because decades of psychological research help show why it’s essential viewing for everyone.
- Representation matters – We need more diversity in our media. We need our young people, including LGBTQ+ young people, to see themselves reflected back in books, TV and film, to feel validated, valued, seen, and accepted. Heartstopper’s positive role models smash gay stereotypes and provide a much-needed shot of LGBTQ+ diversity, with characters facing situations young LGBTQ+ people can relate to (discovering their sexuality, being outed, coming out, and later in the book series dealing with mental health issues). The mere existence of mainstream shows featuring positive, life-affirming LGBTQ+ story lines send an important message: representation matters, equality matters, LGBTQ+ people matter.
- We need positive LGBTQ+ storylines for a younger audience – In recent years we have seen an explosion of shows featuring LGBTQ+ characters. But what is distinctive about Heartstopper is that it is designed to appeal to both a younger and older audience; Whilst the show depicts 15- and 16-year-old characters (authentically played by actors who were still in school at the time), the storyline, characters and key messages will appeal to both younger and older audiences alike. It’s a show that younger adolescents, as well as older teenagers and their parents can watch together without too much cringe. And that is important: from a young age parents are a crucial source for information for children as they learn about their social world, including who to like, who not to like, and who ‘we’ get along with. By watching Heartstopper with their children, parents will have an opportunity to talk about the LGBTQ+ community and identity, whilst clearly communicating and reinforcing their support for LGBTQ+ rights and equality (whether their child is part of the community or not), and maybe even inspiring their child to open up about their experiences.
- Challenging prejudice and stereotypes– Victimisation based on sexual orientation emerges mainly during early adolescence, when homophobic name-calling is common. Decades of research on diversity in books, films and TV tells us that the simple but immersive act of reading and watching characters that are different to us in some way, and who we connect with, reduces prejudice and stereotyping, builds support for equality, and increases openness to future diverse friendships. Books and TV shows like Heartstopper, which provide a positive depiction of diverse friendship groups, in which the main characters are popular, happy, and included in the wider school community, may be particularly effective in challenging stereotypes and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people.
- Being a good ally: Heartstopper truly shows us how to be allies in so many ways. Heartstopper models constructive ally behaviours, by providing examples of how parents, peers and teachers can support and create comfortable environments for LGBTQ+ young people, as well as demonstrating potential ways of standing up for and supporting victims of LGBTQ+ bullying. Research tells us that viewing, learning about, and forming attachments to LGBTQ+ characters, as well as observing or engaging in cross-group friendships with LGBTQ+ peers, fosters empathy and constructive ally behaviours, helpful bystander reactions to homophobic bullying, and support for social change and equality. Overall, Heartstopper provides a window into the minds of young LGBTQ+ characters as they navigate school, relationships, friendships, parents, in a way that will promote empathy and understanding among allies, hopefully spurring them to provide supportive action.
“My final year research project will look at the effects of Sex Education and Heartstopper on intergroup relations, so explaining why people should run to watch Heartstopper right now feels like the perfect place to start!
In the contemporary society where TikTok is taking the younger world by storm, it is becoming more and more commonplace to be unique. No longer are children as afraid to be themselves – it is individuality they most crave. Along with this comes greater acceptance for LGBTQ+ communities as the younger generations disregard heteronormality, and instead embrace the ever-changing spectrum that is sexuality. Heartstopper, and other progressive shows and movies such as Sex Education and Call Me By Your Name, fulfil the need for media that encapsulates this emerging enthusiasm for being different and expressing one’s own preferences without fear.
As a Gen-Z-TikTok-addicted-bisexual, it was shocking to see how accurately the plight of discovering one’s own sexuality was portrayed. From Nick’s confusion over suddenly liking a boy, to panic-searching BuzzFeed quizzes to determine his sexuality for him, to more serious topics such as homophobic bullying, Heartstopper truly shows people what it’s like to not be straight.
Heartstopper works by showing us it’s okay to love who you love and be who you want to be unapologetically.” Hannah Bassom
There’s still so much more to learn about the impact of LGBTQ+ representation on attitudes, friendship behaviours and support for equality and social change. Whilst research still highlights the power of face-to-face contact between groups as the best means of fighting prejudice, diverse representations in media could be a potential stepping stone needed to encourage future real-life positive interactions. We need to know more about the impact of diverse media portrayals among young people: who they are effective for, when they are most effective, and how long the effects last for. It is ours, and other researcher’s goal collectively to investigate these questions further and establish the implications such media effects can have for all subsets of the LGBTQ+ community. We aim to move away from simply fostering acceptance or positive attitudes, towards using media to motivate action and support for social change..
Heartstopper gives us a view of what life could and should be like for young LGBTQ+ people. And this is why Heartstopper is so important, and so radical: we need more unapologetic, joyful, positive stories like this, filled with optimism, love and pride.
Find more LGBTQ+ shows for younger audiences here, but a particular shout out to the trailblazing Jamie Johnson (CBBC) aimed at 9-12 year olds, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix). Heartstopper is available now on Netflix and you can find the books in all good book shops here!
Hannah Bassom is studying for a degree in Psychology BSc (Hons) with research interests in LGBTQ+ communities,
Abigail Lugg is studying for a degree in Psychology with a placement year BSc (Hons). Her research interests lie within mental health, representation, and equality.
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