Still via Netflix
Editor’s Note: OutWrite stands in solidarity with the ongoing strike of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which includes Netflix, the company that produces “Heartstopper.” Resources about the strike’s demands, picket line locations, and other information regarding the strike can be found on the SAG-AFTRA strike website.
**This article contains spoilers for “Heartstopper” on Netflix.**
Content warning: intimate relationship violence (emotional abuse and sexual assault), sexual exploitation, self-harm, homophobia
When Season 1 of “Heartstopper” came out in April 2022, I was a senior in high school. I was coming out of yet another situationship with a straight guy. My story was classic: grow close to him, develop feelings, question whether or not he’s straight, confess.
Ironically, Charlie’s experiences with Nick in Season 1 were my exact fantasy: grow close with a guy, develop feelings, harbor a lot of fear and shame and uncertainty about it all, but — most painfully — have all of these feelings be reciprocated. While I was entranced by the simple joy and naïve tension of Nick and Charlie’s budding romance, it was excruciating. I didn’t understand the pain or why I felt it, so I decided to ignore it. And then, in August, Season 2 came out.
In the last episode of Season 1, Charlie says:
I never thought this would happen to me.
“This” becomes the entirety of Season 2: an exploration of the honeymoon phase of a young gay romance through its struggles with trauma, coming out, and what it means to love and be loved. Thrown back into the fantasy, now with an elevated level of self-awareness, I was better able to understand the simultaneous beauty and pain of “Heartstopper.” And, as TikTok discourse on Season 2 started to surface, I found I wasn’t alone.
The torture that is “Heartstopper” is experiencing something that was taken from us by trauma and circumstance. We were witnessing something that didn’t happen to us that we didn’t realize we had lost. Whether forced into the closet, being the only out queer kid in school, not having queer friends, or (as in my case) only falling for straight guys, we’ve lost the opportunity to explore a young, queer love. Both Nick and Charlie’s love and the love of their friend group are parts of growing up we have lost to the trauma of growing up gay.
In accepting that a guy I liked was straight, I found myself pulling from cisheteropatriarchal archetypes. I grieved as I imagine guys grieve when they’re “friend-zoned.” After growing close to a girl, a guy might develop feelings and confess, only to find that his “girl best friend” doesn’t share these feelings. He might imagine everything that could have been — especially after building the foundation of a deep interpersonal relationship — only to have it taken away by the reality of the “friend zone.” He might get angry and make things awkward, ruining what could’ve remained a beautiful friendship. They might begin to phase out of each other’s lives.
However, in my experience, even after confessing and being “friend zoned” because a guy would, in fact, be straight, our friendship did not falter; we’d only grow closer. I remained attached, and our friendship endured. I had no words to describe the loss of something more — of their love for me and my love for them being formalized under “boyfriend” — at the same time that we would still become “more.” Until “Heartstopper,” I faced this loss without the language to grieve.
Strangely, though, I feel lucky to have experienced the pain of this loss. Even if I’m still grieving — and may grieve forever — I am simultaneously learning the language to describe it for what it is, now without cishet scripts. In the comfort of these guys whom I now call my best friends, I was able to explore what it meant to feel these emotions.
This isn’t the reality for everyone. For queer people without the resources to address this trauma and loss — without the support of their community or the language to understand this isolation or the hope for something better, without friends with whom we could talk about our crushes or mentors to give us advice about growing up queer — we suffer.
This pain becomes fuel for violence, whether it be against one’s self or others. Being blind to this pain and not having the language to describe it is an insidious part of how the cisheteropatriarchy undermines our emotional and interpersonal well-being. As yet another consequence of the cisheteropatriarchy, queer isolation is normalized and accepted. We find ourselves traumatized and retraumatized without a safe space to explore queer sexuality due to this violence and isolation.
Ben and Charlie’s characters in early Season 1 offer two models for the outcome of this collective trauma. In their situationship, Charlie’s acceptance of Ben’s furtive abuse comes from his internalized belief that to be loved, his needs must come secondary to everyone else’s. He denies himself validity from someone who is supposed to love and accept him, mirroring the oppressive language of homophobia from his peers. This leads Charlie to accept the way Ben objectifies him as a thing for sexual gratification and validation of Ben’s own queerness. Left vulnerable without models of safe, proper love — without being seen and wanted for who he is — Charlie falls victim to Ben’s exploitation. “Boyfriend” becomes conflated with high highs and low lows within a power struggle over emotional and physical integrity.
Ben, with deeply internalized shame about his queerness, takes his rage and repressed desire out on Charlie to the point of repeated assault and ambush. Ben attempts to justify his treatment of Charlie under the guise that he’s still “figuring it out.” As Charlie says in Episode 7, Season 2, when Ben attempts to apologize to Charlie after following him to a friend’s art exhibition, there is no issue with “figuring it out.”
However, Ben’s decision to wield the trauma of personal shame as targeted violence is certainly an issue. We can choose to perpetuate the violence we have faced and continue to face against ourselves. We can also choose to perpetuate it against others or not. Ben’s internal shame and the external stigma from his peers manifest into his violence against Charlie. Even understanding this, the consequences of Ben’s actions cannot be rectified by only apology. Beyond what Ben did to Charlie, certain consequences of young queer people not having safe spaces can be even more severe.
The use of dating apps by underaged queer youth with the hopes of finding a community among other queer people and an outlet for sexual desire leaves such youth vulnerable to sexual exploitation, unsafe situations, and just generally bad experiences. Exploring sexuality is a necessary part of growing up, but without having a place among peers to do so, we turn to any means necessary. Ben’s manipulation of Charlie and the exploitative nature of queer dating apps are intertwined as covert yet poignant consequences of the cisheteropatriarchy.
Nick — a perfect foil to Ben — becomes Charlie’s safe space, and Charlie becomes Nick’s. In a beautiful portrayal of a hopeful, abundant, reciprocal, playful love — of what love should be — Nick and Charlie heal from the trauma that denied them love and authenticity.
After Charlie gets close to Nick, Nick shows him what it means to be loved: the unconditional desire to know, care for, and be with someone. In reciprocity, Charlie guides Nick through his own journey of actualization to his true self, including his bisexuality. It is from the strength of their relationship that Charlie gains the confidence to stand up to Ben and the school homophobes, and that Nick gains the confidence to come out.
Only now are queer stories of both triumph and struggle becoming accessible — whole, nuanced stories that capture our beautifully diverse experiences. No scripts under the cisheteropatriarchy exist for moments like falling for a straight best friend. And it makes sense; simple, cishet scripts cannot capture the nuances of our meaningful interpersonal relationships. The cisheteropatriarchy denies us the language to see ourselves and our experiences as valid and whole, but we, as a community, through our necessarily queer experiences, are giving ourselves this language.
And it is with this language that we can begin to grieve and heal.
Author: Jericho Tran-Faypon (They/Them)
Copy Editors: Ava Rosenberg (She/They), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)