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Gagging On The Super-Sweet ‘Heartstopper’

Because I’m quite fond of my tooth enamel, I avoided Netflix’s Heartstopper when it was released last year.

I thought me and my pearlies had escaped, but the release of a second series this month, and the accompanying crescendo of critical acclaim (‘critical’ these days means of course ‘gushing’) – along with its promotion to official, untouchable AMAZINGNESS – resigned me to the fact that I was going to have to do my invert duty and sit down and watch this show.

I somehow made it to the end of the first series, and even braved one episode of the second before deciding that me and my dentist wouldn’t survive the rest.

Heartstopper is a super-sweet fictional tale of teen lesbian love at a boys’ grammar school. Between two boys. Curly brunette Charlie Spring, a bullied, shy, Year 10 skinny gay nerd – and blond floppy-fringed Nick Nelson, a butch Year 11 rugby player.

I say lesbian because there is no suggestion that either of these adolescent boys (played by 18-year-old actors in S1) might have a penis. Let alone horrid hard-ons. Instead, there is lots of handholding and ‘making out’. And definitely no sexting – just lots of heart emojis.

Given their age, it’s perhaps understandable how Heartstopper sublimates prickly physicality into animated butterflies whenever the boys’ hands touch. But it’s symptomatic of something else: the hygienic, cloying, middle-class niceness of this show.

At Truham Grammar – which is a bit like a budget Hogwarts, without the wands and wickedness – there is no sexting. Or booze. Or skunk. Or football. Or any of the other nasty stuff that teen boys might get up to.

Apart from, that is, the nasty, homophobic bully Harry, whose parents are very rich, i.e. vulgar rather than middle class, and who is on Nick’s rugby team. But he only exists to provide didactic drama about toxic masculinity – and for Noble Nick, who is essentially a straight boy who goes gay for Charlie, to reject and then confront, heroically.

Well, dear reader, I have something to tell you. I identify as ‘Harry’. And I’m going to bully this show so badly it is going to have to hide in the art block at lunchtimes.

Heartstopper is a straight middle class woman’s fantasy of gay male teens – for teen girls. Hence its success. There are a lot of teen girls – and they buy books, and watch Netflix. (Though yes, more than a few middle-aged gay men are teen girls at heart.)

Alice Oseman, 27, who wrote the graphic novels the series is based on, and who also adapted them for Netflix, identifies as ‘queer’. But then, who doesn’t these days, darling? Apart from lesbians and gays? Especially when it is so profitable. Oseman is currently reportedly selling £1M worth of books each month.

She also identifies as ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’. Which I have to say, in my toxic cis white male misogynist mansplaining Twentieth Century bum-bandit way, sounds… straight. By definition, she has no skin in the game. Or irons in the fire.

In other words, ‘queer’ here seems to mean… nice. Like… rainbows.

Nick is nice too. Super nice. He is so perfect in every way, so strong, sensible, and virtuous. So virtuous that he falls in love with Charlie’s soul. Which is another reason why there is no sex. Actual physical attraction would sully things. That would be objectifying.

In fact, Nick is so in love with Charlie’s soul he comes out to the school as his boyfriend – when he is obviously straight. Who wouldn’t feel validated by that?

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Nick decides that he is ‘bisexual’, but this is not meant to be taken seriously. We know he is gay only for Charlie. When pondering his sexuality, we see him remembering the girls and women he fancied – but there is no suggestion that he’s ever fancied any male other than Charlie. Or ever will.

Nick’s love for Charlie is as singular, pure, and inspiring as it is absurdly unlikely. (It’s a testament to Kit Connor’s charm and talent that he manages to make Nick’s ‘journey’ far more engaging than it should be.)

This is something women writers of slash-fiction – which is what Heartstopper is – like to do: put straight men in gay love affairs (see also Brokeback Mountain). And watch them struggle with their feelings.

Put another, less flip way, they see the male lovers as hosts for their own subjectivity, freed from the constraints of social and sexual expectations of femininity – and also from the female body, along with the womb’s relentless agenda.

A middle-class friend of mine hate-watches the show with her two teenage sons, who attend a north London comprehensive school. They laugh derisively at the way Nick and Charlie are so polite and spend their time talking about feelings, never farting or getting drunk in the park on Lidl vodka.

One is two years younger than Charlie. He dismisses the notion that Charlie is a gay teen boy and sees him instead as merely “a plot device – for teen girls to insert themselves”. Clever kid.

But if Charlie were a girl, his character would be subject to some stern criticism from the sisterhood for being a bit limp and soppy. Ostensibly the central character of Heartstopper, the moochy brunette mostly exists to be rescued and protected by his exciting blond knight. Charlie isn’t even allowed to be camp or bitchy, because that would mean that he wasn’t a total, defenceless, nice victim.

It would also make him too… gay.

But the reality of life, straight, gay, bi, or ‘queer’, is of course that there is no Nick to rescue you.

To paraphrase the uber-camp Quentin Crisp – who would have been much crueller about this show than me – There is no Great! Blond! Rugger Bugger!!!

Red, White & Royal Bleurgh

Putting the finishing touches to my Heartstopper stomping, I caught a trailer for a just-released gay rom-com Red White & Royal Blue which is currently No.3 on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. I realised I was going to have to watch it as well.

Also about a brunette and blond male couple, also one bisexual one gay, also written by a self-described ‘queer’ (American) woman, also a kind of slash-fiction in which the male lovers talk to one another about feelings in a way that sounds less gay than… female.

But with a bigger budget and actual sex – quite a lot, in fact, since the characters (and audience) are more adult.

Though the sex has an almost bodice-ripping quality to it, particularly the Polo Match scene. It’s a kind of woke Mills & Boon, about a (ludicrous) romance between the US President’s Latino son and Prince Henry, second in line to the British throne.

The President is a white woman (played by Uma Thurman) who makes cringe speeches about ‘queer liberation’ and who we are told, repeatedly, is ‘working class’ – as if this wasn’t banned under the US Constitution. The UK PM is a black woman. The boys’ close friends are all non-white. Henry’s father, the supposedly homophobic King, is played by Stephen Fry.

You get the picture. 

Red, White & Royal Blue did achieve something magical though. It made Heartstoppers seem quite subtle and credible in comparison.

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