• Matt Powell

My Youth is Yours: a euphoric nostalgia from Heartstopper


ARTWORK: Drawing by Alice Oseman, collaged with personal posts and messages of a queer time gone by

Then

You're sixteen (I think. All of this is a jumble of memories, the timey-wimey-ness of it all is a bit fluid. It all sits in a crack of a queer time gone by. Or a pre-queer time. I digress.) GCSE’s ahead. You walk with a friend around a 80s architecture, portacabin filled state school and say you feel a certain way that’s different to how a boy should normally feel. You don’t really know what it means. Terrible sex education and a fear of googling it has left you in a limbo. You're not entirely sure what it means. But you feel you need to say it and understand it. It’s nearly prom. You ask a girl out who clearly knows your different but she says yes. You parents buy you a tux and your bracey smile enjoys an awkward evening of puberty infused dancing. Cut to a summer of doing musical theatre and making Torchwood audios with new friends. Sci-fi introduced you to something away from the heteronormative and you badly write your own stories there. You're starting to somewhat understand yourself. But only slightly.


Suddenly, you're at sixth form. You have come to realise that maybe you’re bi? Maybe it’s something like that? You get to know some queer people through the convention scene and your obsession for Doctor Who. You cosplay, you make friends, you have your first crushes. And some of them you date long distance. On a hidden Facebook, you lead a double life. Openly queer in a digital landscape, hidden away in your suburban town. You have “relationships” that are Facebook official with people you only met once at a convention. The first time you kiss a boy is as someones test piece leading to an interesting five minutes in Birmingham Museums. The Philosophy teacher, Mrs. Charlton, who’s a constant inspiration to you makes space to speak honestly. You tell her, you confide in her. She helps you and somewhat saves you. Your in youth theatre. You kind of date someone in the West Side Story ensemble but only really hold hands it doesn’t go anywhere. You remember the fact you hugged on the last night being the most beautiful thing a guy could ask for at that point in your life. You move past that and you fall headfirst into your GrantaireXEnjolras cannon created from Tumblr posts from that Russell Crowe movie. You play Grantaire in a School Edition and fully crush on the guy playing Enjolras. You slightly kiss a couple of other guys and girls in a youth theatre spin the bottle party.


And then it’s Year 13. You ask a girl out twelve years older than you in the am-dram society you go to. She politely says no. And you have maybe now realised where you are in your identity. You passive aggressively come out to your friends when they throw the “ha gay” insult at you. “Well I am actually” you respond. They respect it. One day, in the sixth form common room, a Year 12 student walks in and he’s your first IRL crush. You never tell him how you feel because you’re too scared he’s not like you. He doesn’t know you exist?! He’s a year below, in a big friendship group. You just sit and day dream a life together. Or just a moment. A message to a friend recalls you dropping a note by him. You dream of something happening at a party together. It doesn’t. You just dream. You have more long distance, short lived relationships fawning over The Hunger Games boys and couple cosplays that will never be. Until eventually, at the end of Sixth Form and during your A-Levels, you date and fall in love for the first time away from keyboard with the guy playing Benny in RENT. He’s your first proper kiss. After online relationships, evenings questioning yourself, hating yourself for being different and struggling to find yourself. You feel found. Watching the Tony Awards at 2am. Kissing a boy you’ve fallen in love with. In this later stage, you eventually come out to your parents. Life’s natural course of madness makes that moment hard to remember. But it’s happened. They love you. And you're in love now. And you know yourself to be true.


Of course, Benny doesn’t last. You then date someone long distance who’s a whole new discovery before meeting someone you're with for a long time. And you finally feel like you’ve fallen in love. You both move to London for uni at the same time. Second year comes along, four years into that relationship and you think you're going to marry him.

Now

You're twenty six. You're single. Things mutually ended a while ago. You work as a video designer/queer musical maker, recently moved back to your home town to be nearer friends and family. You are genderqueer and are embracing the journey your queerness is taking you on. And your sat alone reminiscing about your youth as you feel your youth disappears. Around you, friends buy houses, get married, enter new stages of life. Your wondering what this next chapter has in store for you.


And as you do, you discover Heartstopper. A graphic novel that erupts a strange sort of joy. You feel your experience of first love captured. Your first crush. Your sixth form Prince Charming day dream. You think of those glitched existences on hidden facebooks. A cast of beautiful identities share joy, share care, share passion. It makes you cry. It makes you mourn a youth of age gone and relish in a youth of possibility ahead. And that graphic novel is now a TV series. And the memories pour in, and your smiling and crying.


I spend a lot of my time thinking about queer representation, (I’m doing a PhD on it), and the moment I saw the trailer for Hearstopper I’ve felt an overwhelming euphoric happy sad feeling. A friend and academic colleague Sarah K. Whitfield writes of how seeing the first-ever positive representation of your sexuality as “a space being made.” I sit here, as Whitfield writes, “crying but it’s complicated. Joy? Sadness? Recognition?”


I’m crying happy because before us is an exceptional piece of television that shows that sticky journey of finding yourself and that thrill of first love. I’m crying sad because I think what it would have meant to sixteen year old Matt on the school grounds who always probably knew they were gay but didn’t know how to say it away. It would have made them feel whole. Seen. Understood. My heart stops at the thought of what seeing this then would have done. Would it have ignited the courage to navigate the fear of asking that Sixth Form crush out? Or coming out instead of hiding it for years to my parents sooner? I wouldn’t change the journey of my life. But I sit in this sticky realm of what if. As I sit in the strangeness of who I am, where I am in life and unsure of what the future holds, Heartstopper has me feeling youthful, optimistic and ready to embrace that journey again. What’s made to feel such a solitary experience is made less alone when these narratives play. I didn’t think I could crush on a boy. I didn’t know who I was really. I couldn’t find the labels. And somewhat still can’t. But representation and narratives like this make me seen. Warm. Butterfly-ey. And ultimately, not alone.

“Beautiful Queerness”

I could write a full review and celebrate every moment and it’d probably be a book. But, it’s a show I recommend everyone experiences. You need to watch it and soak up the sheer joy it resonates. It’s gorgeous visuals, beautiful vulnerable performances and spectacular storytelling is a treat for everyone. What’s so exceptional about Heartstopper’s adaptation is its youthful voices telling and playing youthful stories. There’s an authenticity in those performances that exude queer youth joy. I have to praise the outstanding performances of the ensemble cast. Joe & Kit’s portrayals as Charlie and Nick are honest, vulnerable and exuberant performances are outstanding. I see so much of myself in Locke’s portrayal of Charlie and I cannot quite put into words what it means to see your experience reflected in such an outstanding performance. Nick’s late night scrolling, questioning and honesty of that fear to admit was just exquisite. And their love, simply jubilant. Tara and Darcy’s openness, sheer display of love and navigating the strangeness of being out in certain spaces was beautiful, especially the gorgeous display of intimacy in Episode 3. Their inspiring courage to just be and be out in a space challenged by homophobic taunts was just expertly delivered. Tao and Elle’s growing relationship is spectacular, let alone their individual storylines reflecting the scariness of change and how we navigate ourselves in those spaces. Elle’s journey in particular brightly lit what feels a dark, dysphoric path seem reachable in the mazes of understanding who you are. Isaac’s sheer joy and Tori’s caring humanity resonated exquisitely. I need to buy Alice Oseman a coffee and just celebrate their brilliant brain, bought to life by an exceptional team of creatives under the expert direction of Euros Lyn. Everyone in this production deserves every acclaim and accolade.


A moment that truly makes my heart stop in particular, Fisayo Akinade’s portrayal as Mr Ajayi moved me deeply. A teacher devotedly caring for their students, a role model in every sense of the word reminds me of the importance of these figures in our life. It threw me back to then: reminding myself of the conversations I shared with Mrs Charlton/Kenedy when I had mental health struggles or queer struggles. I remember those scary days that led to so many more better days. Those conversations shape us. Those people change our lives. Joe Locke comments in his Attitude interview: “I think it’s really important to push the idea that no matter who you are, or what you identify as, or your own sexuality, you’re allowed happiness." Heartstopper allowed that. Mrs. Charlton allowed that. My friends and family now allow that.


In all the interviews, the cast talk of the significance of the show and representation. It delivers on the “beautiful queerness” Kit speaks of in Teen Vogue. Yasmin Finney (Elle) speaks to Attitude of how “it really is going to be a moment” in reference to the show having a Black trans lead so boldly and beautifully portrayed. “I know that for the young Yasmin watching, this would be like ‘girl I’m seeing myself on screen. The fact that Hearstopper has given me the platform and also opened the door for other Black queers to come out here and be put in front of casting directors: it’s just everything. And the young Yasmins, and LGBTQs out there that will watch Hearstopper and feel normal, that’s all I could ever ask for.” She surmises perfectly what the show successfully achieves. A sense of being seen in a story that doesn’t shy away from the difficulties, but celebrates the joy.

Many will speak of the importance and joy of this show and how it will allow people to share who they are with their family and friends. On the premiere day alone, Kit Connor retweets an individual on how Nick’s coming out scene (TO OLIVIA COLEMAN’S ROLE OF NICK’S MUM A BRILLIANT SURPRISE) helped them come out as queer. The show’s boldness of celebrating LGBTQ+ identities is like nothing I’ve scene before, creating an expansive space I’ve no doubt it’ll continue to grow in many seasons that must be commissioned. It embraces queerness’ utopic nature in such a beautiful, technocolor image.


To see a show that doesn’t hold back from the stickiness of finding oneself yet is so joyous at the same time on one of the biggest commercial media platforms, publicised unapologetically queer warms my soul. And it makes be hopeful for more. We need more queer stories that at their heart spark joy showcasing a spectacle of identities, love and romance. “I want to believe in romance!” Isaac exclaims. What Hearstopper so effortlessly does is just that.

My Youth is Yours

Anyway, I’ll be one of many to write something about this show. And theres so much more I want to say thats probably less emotion and more analysing the beauty (sidenote: someone commission/hire me to do so please). As I’m on a journey of exploring representation, I needed to get how I this euphoric experience onto paper. How inspiring, heartwarming and beautiful this show was. How it bought me onto a strange yet joyous journey of memory. How it made me feel the future of queerness’ domain and embrace the warmth this sort of representation, space and story provides. A story that makes a place for us. The show reminded me and further fuelled & ignited my passion for queer storytelling. Because in spaces like these, our very being can be reflected back to ourselves in life affirming ways.


I end this on a song. Troye Sivan’s YOUTH is the only serious song I’ll ever sing in public (on the rare occasion I ever sing in public). I fell in love with it when I fell in love and began to embrace who I was fully. And the lyrics have always held a reminiscing of that time before. A time where I felt like coming out, being different, struggling with my mental health and being unsure of the future felt such a scary domain. Being openly in love. The words remind me of the journey. They remind me of the joys to come back then, and the joys to come now. The warm horizon of queerness domain. And the journeys we’ll go on, alone and together.



Afterward:

the weird nostalgia of scrolling through that old Facebook, old relationships and those first loves and the journey it was has me longing to reconnect with those people and those lives that were shared. And maybe even the crushes I have now. It was a cute time. So if you’re reading this cute Year 12 boy with blonde hair, one of those Facebook crushes or I think your cute now & we’ve messaged a lot:


And on the sheer off chance Mrs Charlton/Kenedy, the brilliant Philosophy teacher who made so much space for me to understand who I was. Please can we get a coffee. Because where I am now, I owe to you.

REFERENCES:

Sarah K. Whitfield (2020) A Space Has Been Made: Bisexual Stories in Musical Theatre - https://jhuptheatre.org/theatre-topics/online-content/issue/volume-30-issue-2-july-2020/space-has-been-made-bisexual

Yasmin Finney interviewed in Attitude by Alistair James (2022) Top of the Class May/June 2022 Issue

Joe Locke interviewed in Attitude by Alistair James (2022) Hearstopper stars Joe Locke and Kit Connor Call for More LGBTQ+ Representation on Screen https://attitude.co.uk/article/heartstopper-stars-joe-locke-and-kit-connor-call-for-more-lgbtq-representation-on-screen/26948/


Kit Connor interviewed by K-Ci Williams (2022) (2022) Netflix’s Heartstopper stars want everyone to see “How Amazing and Beautiful Queerness Is” https://www.teenvogue.com/story/netflix-heartstopper-stars-charlie-nick-interview?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_social-type=owned&utm_brand=tv&mbid=social_twitter

Kit Connor (2022) This, this is why we did it https://twitter.com/kit_connor/status/1517562815523041280