This is a review of both the TV series, and the webcomic. The reader should be aware that I greatly favor the critical review, so it should come as no shock that that’s what this is. However, this is a space where we are free to like or dislike things–or both, as the case may be.
Heartstopper (TV series, 1st season)
Heartstopper is a Netflix TV series based on the free online graphic novel (that is to say, webcomic) of the same name. The first season released to critical acclaim, and people have been talking about it as the hot new thing. I recently watched the series with my husband, and we both had the same reaction: The series is sweet and well-done, but extremely cookie-cutter.
Many viewers found the show to be novel and refreshing, but we found it to be very much the opposite. Why is that? It must have something to do with the sort of media we consume. My husband and I both watch a lot of gay movies, and I’ve read a lot of BL webcomics—including the original Heartstopper. Within that space, the high school coming out slash romance genre is extremely common, and Heartstopper is practically a tour of the most well-worn tropes.
To illustrate this, let me talk about a webcomic, one which is no longer online, so you’ll have to accept my description. It was called BFF, and it was about a small south Asian nerd who gets picked on all the time because everyone assumes he’s gay. Another kid, a football player, becomes friends with him and forms a crush. So the story follows how he eventually admits to himself that he’s gay, and slowly comes out to people, so on and so forth.
I really liked this webcomic, because it was following common tropes, but subverting expectations a bit to add depth and promote empathy. For example, normally you’d expect the nerdy kid to realize he’s gay first, and be out and proud while the jock is still trying to dance around his homophobic teammates. But in this case, the nerdy kid persistently denies that he’s gay! If he was indeed gay, he did not identify as gay until the comic went defunct.
Another plotline in BFF has the jock form a secret relationship with a third character, who is openly gay. It’s kind of a hookup-oriented relationship, and it’s explicitly a way for the jock character to deal with his unrequited crush on the nerd. Following standard tropes, it’s a dysfunctional relationship, with the kids emotionally abusing one another. But I liked how the comic explored the trope in a deeper way by showing both perspectives, instead of the typical route of making the closeted kid into a villain.
I’m describing these tropes in so much detail, because both of them show up in Heartstopper, only without the subversion or deeper exploration. In Heartstopper, the primary couple is a nerdy out gay kid, and a closeted jock. The nerdy kid is in a secret abusive relationship with a third closeted character, who is treated as a villain.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with playing the tropes straight! It’s a good time. But it is what it is, a story that plays all the tropes straight.
Some people seem to think one of the distinctive aspects of Heartstopper is how gentle and kind it is. Just a few characters are homophobic, and everyone else is unreasonably emotionally supportive. I am here to say that Heartstopper is not especially an outlier in this regard. Perhaps for a TV series, but in the webcomic space, it’s actually very common to treat queerness as nearly a non-issue in-universe.
On the other hand, Heartstopper noticeably averts some of the soapier tropes, seemingly in an effort to keep the stakes relatively low. For example, in one episode, the jock is at a party, and is pressured by his friends to talk to a girl that everyone says he’s supposed to like. Now, if the show were following the standard tropes, here’s what the sequence of events would be: Pressured by his friends, the jock briefly makes out with the girl. They make out just long enough for the nerdy kid to spot him, and before seeing any further context, the nerdy kid runs away to cry in a corner. Then the jock, unaware of what has happened, immediately stops, thinking “wow, I’m really not into this.” Yeah, so Heartstopper doesn’t do that.
Heartstopper isn’t completely devoid of personality, but it’s definitely on the bland side, exactly the sort of story that you’d expect to break into mainstream television. Still, if every show were spicy we’d lose our sense of taste. So, if you’re not particularly familiar with the high school coming out slash romance genre, Heartstopper is as good a place to start as any.
Heartstopper (webcomic, up to page 7-13)
Heartstopper is a well-known ongoing BL webcomic by Alice Oseman. Alice Oseman is also renowned in ace circles as the aro ace author who wrote Loveless, one of the very few novels with an explicitly aro ace protagonist. I’m ambivalent about Heartstopper, to the extent that it put me off from ever reading Loveless. It’s very sweet, and I like the artwork, but played it a bit too straight with the romance tropes. But perhaps my biggest complaints about it come from chapters 5-7, while the first season of the TV series only covers chapters 1-3.
So, potential spoilers for future seasons of the TV show.
Chapter 5 focuses on the main characters admitting their love for each other. Now, I already feel weird about the exorbitantly high value that the romance genre, as a whole, places on the phrase “I love you”. And I’m very sympathetic with the aromantic viewpoint that says that maybe we shouldn’t be treating love as the quintessentially human emotion?
But also, there have already been 4 chapters of these characters faffing about, staring dreamily into each others’ eyes for panels and panels on end, “wrestling” on every available occasion, punctuating texts with heart emojis, and making out in public (even though that’s precisely the sort of thing you can’t do when you’re closeted). But now, and only now, they’re going to say they love each other, and this is somehow such an unprecedented step in their relationship that they’re a chapter’s worth of anxious about? It’s not uniquely bad, it’s just a typical romance trope. But, I feel like this chapter was written specifically to illustrate what I find alienating about the romance genre.
The backend of chapter 5 and all of chapter 6 focus on Charlie’s eating disorder. You might be thinking, “An eating disorder? That’s a very serious problem, ill-suited to such a saccharine romance.” And yes, that is a problem that the comic doesn’t really find an effective way to address. There are hints about the eating disorder dropped throughout the comic, and once Charlie seeks professional help, it skips forward by many months, with long diary entries to explain the arduous recovery process. I like the scene where Nick realizes that he can’t solve Charlie’s problems all by himself, but Chapter 6 just feels like a lecture.
Oseman obviously cares deeply about mental health, and wants to raise awareness about eating disorders. I think the story sacrifices a great deal of pacing for the sake of education–and I think Oseman realized this, and found the sacrifice to be acceptable. Personally I would have preferred a bit more priority on the narrative, rather than education. The thing is, I’m not going to remember all the text that was within the comic, or in the author notes. What I would remember better is a story that emotionally resonates, and the rest I can look up. But, I don’t have personally have experience with eating disorders, and maybe someone who does would feel differently about it.
Chapter 7 has only just started, but I already have issues with it. The main characters are having feelings, which is to say, feelings that go beyond what was already thoroughly established in the first thousand pages of dreamy-eyed stares and “wrestling”. These new feelings are framed as a sign that now they’re interested in sex. In general, Heartstopper is a relatively chaste story, and that’s definitely a thing. I know it’s not necessarily realistic, but I’m not especially keen on having every story be softcore porn, especially not the ones about teenagers, also I’m asexual spectrum? What I’m saying is, it’s cool that the webcomic is PG, I’m totally fine with that. But chapter 7 seems to say that the absence of sex wasn’t merely a convention of the story, it has been retconned into an explicit part of the text. That’s weird.
There’s also something a bit off about the story, a sort of essentialism towards feelings. The characters were having feelings from the start, but those were just “crush” feelings, then later it was “I love you” feelings, and now these new distinct feelings are sex-wanting feelings. And the characters seem to take it for granted that this is a fixed hierarchy with totally clear dividing lines. I don’t want to speak for my sexual-attraction-having readers but, uh, that isn’t generally how it works, is it? Maybe for some people? This definitely feels like an asexual person’s understanding of sexual attraction, and I say that with all the kindness of an ace person who has been there. Anyway the chapter is just starting, so maybe it will go in a different direction.
So, with my complaints about Heartstopper the webcomic, I’m curious what they’ll do in the second season of the TV series. Will they replicate the aspects that bother me? Or will they shave off all the rough edges, continuing the showcase of standard tropes? I don’t have high expectations, so I shan’t be disappointed.
First, on the comic: Sex is alluded to earlier in the story though. The reason isn’t because the feelings are so cut and dry distinct necessarily. The comic explains multiple times it’s about comfort level- while they do feel these sorts of things for each other, until chapter 7, they had both decided they weren’t ready yet, explicitly saying so in chapter 4. For the age these characters are it would be pretty normal for them to not desire to have sex right away, they are literally 15 and 16. Chapter 7 is about them finally being ready to take that step and how they navigate that journey, especially in light of Charlie’s issues with his body image. As far as the “I love you” feelings go, for those two characters, those words really meant a lot, but especially Charlie. To him it meant something deeper and plenty of people in real life feel the exact same way about that, and that part of the story was about Charlie being able to open up to nick completely on his own. Now, as for the show: if you’re so buried in the surface level tropes that you can’t enjoy the depth of the personal journey of nick and the loneliness crisis of tao and Tara adjusting to being out and et cetera then that’s really unfortunate. The tropes are not what define the story or what takes up the majority of the time. As far as Ben goes, many people starting out are treated like that in real life and the effects of how Ben treated Charlie are still emphasized pretty heavily. Not every knot can be tied all within one season, and we know Alice wants to expand upon Ben’s storyline in future seasons of the show. Ultimately, I’m sorry that the surface level commonalities the show and the comic has with other media prevents you from enjoying the depth and care in how it is told that you are unable to enjoy it. That’s really unfortunate. And god forbid a comic dares to show exactly how characters learn about things to make their lives better instead of focusing solely on the trauma and all the gruesome details at every given turn.
You seem to be taking a fairly accusatory tone, like “I’m so sorry you can’t appreciate the genius of…” and junk, and I feel that’s not in the spirit of a space where we are free to like and dislike things.
Yeah, but they’re being framed as ready to take that step, specifically because they are experiencing a different sort of feeling. Quote from Charlie: “It got really intense really quickly and it just felt different somehow?” (p1275) and then Tao & Aled reinforce that it’s a ready-for-sex thing. I think the comic wanted to delay the body image plot arc until after the chapter about eating disorders, but I actively dislike the in-universe justification for the timing.
I think there’s sufficient in-universe justification for why Charlie particularly cares about the “I love you” phrase, but I do not relate to this at all, and feel alienated by how the romance genre acts like this is universal.
Fair enough, but I can focus on what I like, it’s my review. Pointing out the tropeyness of Heartstopper serves a dual purpose: it explains my own lukewarm reception, and also suggests that if you liked it, there’s a whole genre out there that you might enjoy.
This feels you’re reacting to a different review. I never criticized Heartstopper for being low-stakes. I know some critics have pointed that out as an issue, but it is not something I would criticize, because it’s just a common convention in the BL webcomic space.
Some Old Programmer says
The webcomic BFF may be readable here.
Max Levy says
@Siggy Charlie turns 16 at the start of chapter 7. His sexual thoughts which previously were like, him peeping at nick when he took his shirt off at the beach, are now advancing to a point where he’s thinking of actually having sex with nick. At his age, it’s pretty normal to have a shift like that. It’s not that “sexual thoughts are distinctly separate from romantic” it’s “I’m actively thinking of doing things with nick that previously I was only thinking of doing sometime in the future”. The feelings are different because he’s maturing.
@Some Old Programmer,
Yeah, that’s the one. Shocking that Wayback Machine seems to have preserved it in its entirety.
Thinking of this post and the one about the Netflix algorithm, have you seen the story on reddit by Zander623 called Extermination Order? The main character Dennis appears to be aro ace. The author has been kind of a tease. You might enjoy it.
The average man heterosexual or not, makes a decision “will I have sex with this person” within three minutes. In particular it is my life observation if a man speaks to a woman that he doesn’t otherwise have to speak to for work/social/church reasons more than that amount of time, it is indicative. The answer to “lets have sex” should it ever occur is going to be “YES!”. Even the most sex-positive woman takes a lot longer than this.
This story then is indulging in the whole careful decision of having sex or not from what I think of as a woman’s point of view. You might find it more enjoyable if you think of it that way even if it’s not something you would do? It is luxuriously and languidly stretching it out in real time for the full and detailed enjoyment of the reader who has or remembers having had making decisions like this. In RL they may not have had all the time to enjoy the full experience, so it is a fictional pleasure. It is not necessarily more or less fun if it has any twists because all the bits are being explored for their small-bit-ness. To me, this means it is a yaoi comic and the story really isn’t a gay one.
I dunno if you have seen Brokeback Mountain also written by a woman, but the story behind the movie is a short story. The director’s choice of that very popular movie to stretch it out is similar.
Uh, I think that’s the sort of generalization I would hesitate to make, or to accept.
I should clarify that there’s a distinction, in my mind, between Yaoi and BL. Yaoi is a genre of Japanese manga, and it definitely spills over into webcomics. But what I’m calling BL is a more westernized genre of m/m romance, with varying degrees of influence borrowed from Yaoi. Now, Yaoi is known for being a genre by women for women, but I think that’s less true of BL. Lots of women artists, sure, but there are male artists as well, and more general awareness of queer men as an audience. They’re kind of adjacent genres though, so *shrug* about where we draw the line between them.
An example off the top of my head, Heavy Horns begins with an attempted hookup, which might depart a bit from your expected pacing.