Difference that matters: Heartstopper, Queer as Folk, and Toxic Representation

Recently, I was recommended the Netflix series Heartstopper, based on the young adult graphic novel/webcomic by Alice Oseman. I googled for reviews and found Owen Jones’s in the Guardian. It always distresses me intensely when I agree with Owen Jones, so when he lamented that his ‘lonely younger self’ missed out on ‘affirming’ representations of LGBT+ relationships, I was quick to roll my eyes.

What about Queer as Folk, I sniped to myself. Jones claims all he had as a teen were ‘one-dimensional desexualised caricatures, or stories of tragedy’ shadowed by the AIDS pandemic. AIDS, of course, is one of the things Queer as Folk was criticised for pointedly ignoring, and if you think Stuart Allen Jones was either one-dimensional or desexualised, you are surely begging for a massive Jeep with ‘queer’ spray-painted on the side to smash through the plate-glass windows of your echo chamber.

In my great age, privilege, and, well, equally leftie convictions, I actually remember what was around when Jones was a teenager (this is not a surprise, since we are in fact the same age), and it probably doesn’t come as a galloping shock to find that the gay men were rather better represented than the rest of the rainbow brigade. But, actually, my snark was both immature and unfair, and when I watched Heartstopper (which you should, too), it provided something of a lightbulb moment.

I’ve written before about the way in which Section 28, and the culture of homophobia surrounding it, worked to construct homosexuality as narrowly to do with sex, and therefore only appropriate for adults. It was very easy, as a teenager, to feel that homosexuality itself was grimily inappropriate, smeared with implications of adult sexuality. I still notice the legacy of this in my generation of parents, this idea that primary-aged children are ‘too young’ to talk about LGBT families in PSHE classes. I’ve even seen it in responses to Heartstopper itself on facebook, where a mum observed she wouldn’t be letting her children watch it as the subject-matter was ‘explicit’. Since it’s about as explicit as the racy bit in Little Women where John Brooke picks up Meg’s glove, I can really only conclude that in this case, ‘explicit’ is code for ‘the gay’.

Heartstopper is extremely sweet. It quite deliberately ticks off romantic clichés. Based on graphic novels, it has a charmingly self-conscious visual energy: cartoon hearts burst like bubbles over characters’ heads; strings of petals swirl in the wind. By contrast, Jones and I had Queer as Folk, which came out in 1999, when we were 14. Where Heartstopper has hearts and flowers, Queer as Folk has 15-year-old Nathan, chain-smoking to calm his nerves, as he waits outside a gay bar on Canal Street. His storyline rather disturbingly gives you to understand that a drug-influenced one night stand with a 30-year-old is the natural precursor to a happy gay adulthood, rather than, you know, illegal. But, aside from Nathan, the main characters are two men in their early 30s. Although Queer as Folk was absolutely groundbreaking, and has its elements of celebration, it also represents deeply sad vision of homosexuality, where romance exists only as a painful impossibility. The entire plot rests on the idea of arrested relationships and steps not taken.

At the time critics complained because the men in Queer as Folk appeared to be having plenty of sex and not dying of AIDS, and insofar as this is true, it can be constructed as positive LGBT representation. But this is a pretty low bar. It was, and is, rated 18 for an array of excellent reasons that run the full gamut from sex and violence to truly stunning foul language, drug taking, and the aforementioned underage intercourse.

Alongside Queer as Folk there was Bad Girls, which started airing the same year. Set in a women’s prison, its first three seasons concentrated on the evolving same-sex relationship between Helen and Nikki, which played out against a wholesome backdrop of, yes, violence, rape, self-harm, suicide, substance abuse, prostitution, etc. etc. etc. I promptly bought the VHS versions of both shows, and so I remember that Bad Girls Season 1 was an 18 too.

I can’t remember how I came across either show: I just trawled my way through anything that carried a hint of the possibility of representation, as you do, and found them. They were not aimed at 14-year-old teenagers. As a result of my mum’s lack of patience for television in toto, there was a TV in our spare room, which was in theory banned. Thus, whereas friends of mine had specific and precise rules about appropriate viewing (Hollyoaks, yes, the ‘special episode’ aired after the watershed, no), I had a blanket ban, and could therefore cling to plausible deniability should I ever be required to admit there might be a distinction to be made between Queer as Folk and, say, Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

I did, however, feel quite guilty, and on occasion faintly sordid. Some years later, my English teacher was a great fan of Sex and the City and we’d chat about it in class when we should have been reading Snow Falling on Cedars, and I remember a discussion with a friend’s mum about whether this was really appropriate viewing for a group of 17/18 year olds. Sex and the City is to Queer as Folk and Bad Girls roughly what Bambi is to American Psycho.

I hadn’t really thought about what any of this might mean until I came to one of the middle episodes of Heartstopper. It’s the moment when the main characters, Nick and Charlie, kiss in public for the first time. The episode takes place on Charlie’s birthday, he’s wearing a large badge with the number ’15’ on it. My brain did a double-take. It did not quite compute. There is nothing the tiniest bit illegal about two 15-year-old boys kissing each other, yet my subconscious had decided this was much, much more wrong than the sight of 15-year-old Nathan in Queer as Folk, engaging in sexual activities I’m not going to name on a public blog. The sight of age-appropriate, consensual, romantic same-sex activity between teenagers struck me as entirely odd. I don’t think, until then, it had quite occurred to me that, when I was sneakily watching Bad Girls, it wasn’t because I particularly enjoyed storylines about prison brutality more than other, straight teenagers. If Heartstopper had existed when I was 14, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have bothered with Queer as Folk. But, because Heartstopper didn’t exist, and nor did anything else at all like it, gay teenagers must have grown up with TV that reinforced the already-circulating idea that same-sex sexuality was indelibly associated with gritty, grimy, illegal or semi-legal activity, that the two things were natural (unnatural) bedfellows.

For once, then, I will strive for mildly higher levels of maturity and admit that, ok, Owen Jones is right on this one. Heartstopper is quite different from what we had as teenagers, and it’s a difference that really matters.

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