Heartstopper: Teen LGBTQ+ Netflix drama pushing the envelope

By Emma Saunders
Entertainment reporter

  • Published
Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke)Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Charlie, played by Joe Locke (right), forms a friendship-turned-romance with Nick (Kit Connor)

Fans of Alice Oseman's popular teen webcomic and graphic novel series Heartstopper need no introduction to the TV adaptation which drops on Netflix on Friday. They've probably had it in their diary for months.

But for the uninitiated, Heartstopper is a young adult LGBTQ+ story about two teenage boys, Charlie and Nick, who fall for each other at a secondary school, and their friends, Elle, Tao and Isaac.

Charlie and Nick - played by newcomer Joe Locke and Rocketman actor Kit Connor - are subjected to homophobic bullying by Nick's so-called friends.

Elle (Yasmin Finney), a transgender teen, has recently moved from the boys' grammar school where all her friends are, to the girls' equivalent, after also suffering cruel taunts.

Finney, who has a built up a big following on TikTok, posting about her experiences of being a young, black transgender woman in the UK, endured difficulties at school herself.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Elle finds it hard to make friends at her new school at first

"For me, school was the same. There's always been [these] voices of toxic masculinity that just clearly aren't educated enough. And even if they are, they just want to... have a laugh, but there's a point where it crosses the line and I think that's what Heartstopper highlights. It goes on every day in high school.

"I actually started TikTok when I was in my second high school after I moved from my first because I was bullied. What I find is that the people that bullied me in high school, they're not really doing much with their lives now. And I'm actually doing great!"

Locke, who is taking his A-level exams in a couple of weeks, says he was "very lucky" with his school experience.

"My school is great and I was never bullied. Once you get to sixth form, things really change because a lot of the people who would be the ones saying things aren't there anymore, or people have grown up and realise they don't really care anymore, they can just be themselves."

But he acknowledges it's not easy for everyone.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Locke applied for the open casting via Zoom from his home in the Isle of Man

"In general in high school, it's really hard. To be different in any way. And if you don't fit in with the tracky-wearing, vape-smoking norm, then you're likely to be pulled up on that and and seen to be different.

"I think what's beautiful about our show is that it celebrates these differences. You may think you're the weird one but actually everyone except those few tiny 'norm-fitting' people are the weird ones. And even they're probably only [like] that because they feel that's what they have to do to fit in."

He adds: "It's just as sad for them... because they've been conditioned to feel that's how they have to be to fit in and live in our society."

Social media also has a part to play, of course - in Heartstopper, many of the awkward or delicate conversations between the characters take place online.

While it can be a place of support, having a high profile on social media can also open you up to unwarranted abuse.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Fans love the banter between Elle (Yasmin Finney) and her close friend Tao (William Gao)

Finney, from Manchester, says you have to be bold to put yourself out there and know when to take a break.

"I think you have to take risks. I've always known that I want to be somebody that other people can look up at, especially the queer youth who don't necessarily know where they fit in in society. And I've always loved documenting my experience as a trans person from the age of 15, 16." (She's now 18, as is Locke).

Having curated an "amazing following over the last three years," Finney stepped back from TikTok while filming Heartstopper, which is her first professional acting project.

'Double-edged sword'

"I just wanted a break. I think sometimes you just have to step away. When I was doing TikToks back in 2019, and 2020, I would compare myself at some points... to everybody else. I just wanted to focus on myself and make sure that I'm okay mentally.

"You've just got to have a positive mindset on social media and realise that most of it isn't real, most of it is fake. It can be quite overwhelming. But I've learned to harness that... and it's definitely made me stronger. I love seeing my community doing well."

Locke also believes social media is a "double-edged sword".

"On one side, it's a lot of interaction for our generation and a lot of socialising. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming. There are times where I just have to turn my phone off. It's being aware of your boundaries.

"Netflix have been really good in helping us come to terms with what the next few weeks might be like," he adds.

Image source, Channel 4
Image caption,
It's A Sin follows a group of friends during the 1980s Aids crisis

Writer Oseman has also taken time out from updating the Heartstopper web comic due to "burnout and intense stress".

Finney says: "It's always about just knowing your limits. Alice is such a hard worker, and I'm glad that they're taking a break.

"Everything they've done is just magical and to see that reaction to their work coming to life and seeing the characters fit the mould of what they made back in 2012... it's amazing."

Locke tells me Oseman was on set every day and it was "like having a bible of Heartstopper right there".

He adds: "I think it's really amazing to have a queer show that's aimed at a younger audience than say, It's A Sin, and it's very much a show that I think a lot of people would have wanted when they were younger."

Trans visibility

Finney is particularly pleased to see herself - a young black trans woman - reflected in a major new TV drama.

A recent report found LGBT representation on US TV - including on streaming platforms available in the UK - is at a high, with nearly 12% of regular characters who are LGBT, up 2.8% from last year.

The numbers come from a study by LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD.

But the study also found there were shortfalls and missing opportunities to tell a wider range of stories about LGBT characters.

The Where We Are on TV analysis looked at overall diversity of shows, including those on big streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple+ and Disney+.

"Acting has always been something that I've wanted to do, but I've just not really seen myself reflected in the media as a black trans woman, especially in the UK. I just could never see myself in the industry... [or] see myself doing well.

"But it's just been crazy how amazing the response has been for Heartstopper and just how needed... trans actors and actresses are in the industry. And I'm so happy to be part of that world."

The debate about authentic casting is still ongoing - should gay roles only be played by gay actors, for example?

Finney thinks they should.

"It's important... so the LGBT community can have a seat at the table. It's about representation. If you had trans people playing cis roles it would be even but right now, and for years and years, we've had cis people play trans characters.

"Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for The Danish Girl and then later apologised for it because he realised it's a bigger conversation. It's more about inclusivity," she says.

In fact, Redmayne didn't actually apologise but he did say he regretted taking the role.

"For so many years, especially trans people, we've just kind of been laughed at through entertainment. Queer people, trans people - we've been around for generations and millennials," Finney says.

"It's about the industry realising that they were wrong and they do need this representation."

Heartstopper is on Netflix from 22 April.