Though I consider myself past my Heartstopper phase, I was inevitably delighted when I heard it was getting a screen adaptation. The overwhelming success of the series and almost immediate renewal for a second season speaks to just how necessary a joyful LGBT+ story was for audiences across the globe. And, up until the release of Season 2, I was under the impression that it was a tale that was impossible to speak poorly of.
However, when August heralded in the second Netflix instalment of Alice Oseman’s beloved love story, there stirred a movement on TikTok which I simply couldn’t ignore.
At first, I thought it was a one-off video that appeared on my For You Page, but within weeks, “Heartstopper” and “cringe” had become almost synonymous on the app. Thousands of TikTok users recreated the dialogue that they believe to be most awkward, commented on how often they’ve had to pause to take a moment to recoil, detailed how characters gave them the “ick”. Soon, the first suggestion that followed “Heartstopper” when I typed it into TikTok’s search bar was the word “cringe”.
I’m an adult of 22 who left school in 2018. I’ve been out for years and my relationships have matured indubitably beyond the awkward playground puppy love that is shared between the 14-year-olds in Heartstopper. It wouldn’t be fair to conceal the fact that I too found it hard to not pause and take a moment to recover after Charlie Spring, visibly slighter than his boyfriend Nick Nelson, threatens to fight anyone mean to him with an almost comically wide-eyed expression.
But I wasn’t always 22, and I would ask LGBTQIA+ adults watching Heartstopper to recall their own behaviour when they first came out, especially if they were a teenager. There won’t be many of us that aren’t guilty of having a “cringe” phase at that time.
I know I plastered the rainbow flag anywhere I could when I finally came out, introducing myself as “too gay to function” and reposting edits of my favourite fictional characters, gushing about how much I loved girls – behaviour that would fit right in with the dorky-dancing “meddling gays” of Heartstopper.
It’s easy to feel shame about how obnoxious we were as newly out young people, but I try not to shame the seventeen-year-old me who made being LGBTQIA+ her entire identity. Why should we have to be so quick to describe how we behaved as children as embarrassing?
It strikes me that people seem to forget that the cast in this show portray school-aged children who won’t be having the same mature lives and relationships that older viewers are likely to be experiencing. Yes, Nick’s “I’m bi, actually” catchphrase of Season 2 began to feel a little repetitive. But it teaches a young audience the importance of standing up for yourself, of affirming your own identity and not letting others dictate who you are. Of course a newly-out teenager is going to lack the nuance and subtlety of an adult!
Until Heartstopper, the media’s repertoire of LGBT+ school-aged children included the party animals of Skins and Euphoria, but I personally find it refreshing to see the teenagers in Heartstopper behave like… real teenagers.
What makes Heartstopper so vital for every viewer is that it may be the first wholesome and inclusive piece of LGBT+ media young viewers encounter. Wholesome, youth-friendly representation is something that we have been lacking for a long time. When young members of the community begin to question their identity, is it not a positive thing that they can turn to something like Heartstopper and experience some of the queer joy that the characters do, rather than adult situations and heartbreak that many of them will not yet be able to relate to?
Is it the media that portrays teenagers as mature beyond their years? Is it our own community that is lightning quick to put down any LGBTQIA+ people that they don’t deem palatable enough? I can’t be sure.
All I know is that while there is no shame at cringing a little at Heartstopper, think twice before you make fun of the character’s youthful mannerisms and obvious dialogue. It’s important to keep in mind when we watch Heartstopper that this show is for everybody, including the youngest members of our community.
Silver volunteers as an ambassador for Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity. LGBTQIA+ and aged 18 to 25? Sign up here!