Cabral: On “Heartstopper” and queer joy

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

The first time I encountered Alice Oseman’s “Heartstopper” was during a trip to local bookstore Bookends & Beginnings last January. I was looking for a heartwarming queer read, and the clerk behind the counter immediately pointed at a graphic novel whose cover was a drawing of two boys with schoolbags slung over their shoulders. I’d never read a graphic novel before, so I was hesitant. But the moment I flipped through the pages, taking in Oseman’s adorable art style, I was hooked. Now, over a year later, all four published volumes of “Heartstopper” have a spot on my bookshelf.

Originally posted as a webcomic on prose publishing app Tapas and microblogging website Tumblr in 2016, “Heartstopper” follows Charlie Spring as he navigates Year 10 at Truham Grammar School for Boys after being outed and facing intense bullying the year before. Luckily for him, a bright spot appears in the form of absolutely crush-worthy rugby lad Nick Nelson. In addition to being a touching love story, it is also an exploration of queerness, found-family and mental health.

For me, reading “Heartstopper” was a breath of fresh air. The further I got into Charlie and Nick’s story, the harder it became to tell where they ended and where I began.

As Nick spent hours wrestling with his feelings for Charlie, processing that he may not be as straight as he thought, I was transported back to the afternoons in high school I spent reading queer love stories like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” wondering if I was drawn to them because I wanted to fall in love with a boy too. When Charlie told his friend about his crush on supposedly-straight Nick, I was reminded of countless tearful conversations I’d had with my own friends regarding the same dilemma. And when both Nick and Charlie stayed up until 2 a.m., pacing in their rooms because they didn’t know if their feelings were mutual, I could picture the nights I’d spent doing the same thing.

So, I was ecstatic when I saw Alice Oseman’s announcement on Instagram, revealing Netflix had ordered an eight-episode adaptation of the graphic novel.

From the intense, breathtaking moments between Nick and Charlie — played by Kit Connor and Joe Locke respectively — to the casual, practiced intimacy of lesbian couple Tara Jones and Darcy Olsson — played by Corinna Brown and Kizzy Edgell respectively — “Heartstopper” gives viewers sparkling portrayals of queer love. And when the eye-roll-inducing “will they or won’t they” of best friends Elle Argent and Tao Xu— played by Yasmin Finney and William Gao respectively — is added to the mix, the show becomes just as much about a chaotic, endearing friend group as it is about romance.

“I just thought it was so great that there’s a story in which we can show younger queer kids that they deserve happiness,” star Joe Locke said in an interview with Behind The Blinds.

Some might say that “Heartstopper” has no substance — that its sugary depiction of first love is sanitizing the queer experience. But, in addition to assuming there is some universal queer experience, that line of reasoning ignores the fact not every piece of queer media needs to be a movie meant for the Cannes Film Festival.

Queer people shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to consume media where they don’t have to see themselves die. Queer people shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to consume media that contains the kind of love they yearn for. Queer people shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to consume media that makes them happy.

“Heartstopper is the right way to go forward with representation because it doesn’t feel like representation,” Sebastian Croft, a member of the supporting cast, said in an interview with Vingt Sept Magazine. “It doesn’t feel like ‘The LGBT Show,’ it just feels like young people falling in love and it’s honest, truthful and reflects the world we live in today. That reflection is that queer people exist of all ages and it doesn’t have to be about HIV or oversexualized. It’s just young, excited, happy people falling in love.”

“Heartstopper” isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. No single piece of media will speak to everyone, and it often comes down to personal preference. But as a queer person who hopes to one day write the kind of epic love stories that get talked about for decades after they’re published, I am grateful to Alice Oseman and the cast of “Heartstopper” for reminding me that queer joy in and of itself is an act of revolution.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.