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The future of queer television

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OWe need more shows like ‘Heartstopper’ and ‘Young Royals’ to transform the representation and description of the queer community.

Ever since it’s been on Netflix, “Heartstopper” has been an instant obsession for me. Based on the webcomics of the same name, “Heartstopper” follows Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke) as they fall in love. Obviously it’s a bit more layered than that, but that’s the basic plot of the story. Watching the show’s first season, I realized there was one quality about “Heartstopper” that made it an absolute pleasure to watch: its simplicity. That’s not to say the show is boring. In fact, I would say it’s the opposite; it forces the audience to stay on the edge of their seat. Yet it is simple. It’s a love story at its core. It’s easy – easy to watch and easy to love. It’s a laid-back portrayal of teenagers in high school. Audiences of all ages can relate to the biting anxiety of an overwhelming crush. However, this series is particularly special for queer audiences. We can watch from a first-hand perspective and witness the affection emanating from the screen. These are the kind of queer stories we need the most.

One of the reasons I think “Heartstopper” is a wonderful model for shows we should be doing is because it’s decidedly queer. It’s full of times when queer people just exist. One of the main characters came out of his community. The other main character gets out without horrific repercussions, and his journey isn’t traumatic. We also see other characters throughout the show. Additionally, there are different facets of LGBTQ representation. Most shows have this misconception that if a character is gay, that’s the limit; the community may be represented, or a character fulfills the queer representation quota. That’s not the case for “Heartstopper,” as it’s full of LGBTQ characters under the rainbow. Charlie is gay. Nick is bisexual. Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgdell) are lesbians. And it doesn’t stop there, Elle (Yasmine Finney) is a transgender character played by a transgender actress. Still, the main cast isn’t completely white. Tara and Elle are both black while Tao, Charlie’s best friend, is Asian. The intersectionality throughout the show is a major positive and something to celebrate. Also, the acting in “Heartstopper” is fantastic. Connor delivers a heartbreaking performance, both as he works through his feelings for Charlie and as he comes out to his mother (Olivia Coleman). Charlie’s restlessness about being unmasked and finding his place in the world is brilliantly displayed by Locke. The chemistry of the cast as a group of friends and as couples is amazing. It also helps to bring that realism to the story which contributes to the atmosphere that the show provides. The ingenuity of this show is two-fold: members of the queer community can empathize with and connect with the characters on screen, but those off have a window into the queer community. It is an occasion for sympathy and compassion. The way the actors portray these critical queer experiences helps the audience understand just how difficult it can be. Audiences can both understand and relate to Nick working through his sexuality, Charlie’s uncertainty about his place in the world, and the classic teenage excitement of loving someone.

So not only is “Heartstopper” just a beautiful performance-filled show in general, but it’s also incredibly important as a series to it. This is a show on a major streaming service about the LGBTQ community. It is written and edited by people within the community. It’s played by people who can relate to it (and those actors aren’t 30). It’s a heartfelt love letter to the queer community. I think it’s obvious how important this show is. For me, it created this epic feeling of warmth and acceptance. Watching Nick do all this research on his sexuality and finally come to terms with who he was was so satisfying. Almost every character had a trait I could relate to, whether it was a complete teenage experience or one that felt like me. It was real, like all those moments my friends and I have had. It’s incredibly rewarding. There are people all over the world who are touched and moved by something that is heartfelt for them.

Another example of a show that reminds me of “Heartstopper” is “Young Royals”. “Young Royals” came out in 2021 and was another show I binged. It’s also on Netflix, but it’s in Swedish. Just like “Heartstopper”, this show is a love story. It follows Prince Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding) and Simon (Omar Rudberg) after the former arrives at the boarding school Simon attends. Although “Young Royals” is slightly less realistic, it still perfectly captures the comforting feeling of falling in love. there is an air of authenticity when looking at the little moments of adoration between the couple. These tender snapshots look realistic. This authenticity is reflected in the rest of the show. The cast look like real teenagers, who have exposed acne and aren’t thin. Much like “Heartstopper,” “Young Royals” has a diverse cast with Hispanic actors like Omar Rudberg and Frida Argento (who plays Sara), and black actresses like Nikita Uggla (who plays Felice). Also, Sara has Asperger’s Syndrome, just like Argento in real life, which is again an example of positive portrayal. The journey of this story is so rewarding because it mirrors the real world. It’s touching to feel understood and seen by a piece of television, to find this link in another format. Some scenes perfectly encapsulate how the characters are feeling, enveloping the audience in a wondrous mood. Both shows do a terrific job with the cinematography and lighting, which contributes to their success in portraying these stories.

It’s hard for me to verbalize why I think it’s so important, but I want to try. Living in a world where being queer is not yet fully accepted is difficult. There’s always a fear that someone will react in a harmful way or think differently from you, but shows like “Heartstopper” and “Young Royals” normalize what should be normal. It’s a relaxed performance. Viewers don’t have to struggle through a show they don’t care about for five minutes of performance. There are no painful tropes or unfair conclusions. There are a myriad of harmful, frustrating, and stereotypical tropes that have circulated in the past. One of them is the Gay Best Friend trope, or “GBF,” an exaggerated, exaggerated version of a gay man. This is represented in shows like “Glee” in Kurt Hummel and movies like “Mean Girls” in Damien. Additionally, there’s the “Bury Your Gays” trope, where an LGBTQ relationship often ends in the death of one or both characters, examples of this would be in “Brokeback Mountain” and “The 100”. Consistently, one of the worst trends in LGBTQ representation is lesbian and gay relationship fetishism. This has a ripple effect for members of the community, due to the stereotypes it perpetuates. These tropes exemplify a distorted version of the LGBTQ community, painting the image that lesbian and gay relationships only exist to provide an idealistic object of service to those who find it attractive. This affects the outer and inner perceptions of the queer community, as these relationships are largely objectified. None of that is the case in “Heartstopper” or “Young Royals.” Instead, the characters are multi-dimensional. They have hearts and souls. Viewers can understand and feel recognized by these characters. “Heartstopper” and “Young Royals” both portray simple, charming, and strange joy. I think it’s something incredibly special to see.

As someone who struggled with my sexuality growing up, I can’t explain the type of happiness it brings me to see these types of shows on my screen. The fact that kids will have these shows to watch and use to help them understand themselves is revolutionary. These are the types of stories that young LGBTQ kids deserve to see. It’s okay to be young and gay. It’s okay to question your sexuality. It’s realistic. It’s simple. It’s shameless. All of these things mean the world to this community. There’s something indescribably happy about seeing two boys fall in love. It is the ability to offer blessing, understanding and appreciation to all members of the LGBTQ community. It’s the same type of love story we see in fairy tales but applied to everyone. Kids growing up with shows like these are so lucky. With these types of shows, the only way I can describe how they make me feel is giddy. I can’t help smiling. I can only hope the trend continues. I want to see more heartwarming, intersectional, and weird stories, just like “Heartstopper.”

Image courtesy of LGBTQ History Education.