May 27, 2022

Heartstopper and the interlocking layers of belonging

a closeup photo of Harpa, a performing arts center in Reykjavic with a honeycomb-like window design
photo caption: a close-up of Harpa, a performing arts center in Reykjavik, Iceland. the honeycombed windows are beautiful in the light of dusk. i feel like a Q*bert reference would be entirely lost on my readers, much less the teens of today.

This week I finished Heartstopper, a new series from Netflix. The leads are two boys: Charlie is nerdy, shy, constantly apologetic, and gay. Nick is popular, a year older that Charlie, great at rugby, and appears to be straight. Over the course of eight episodes, they meet, experience conflicts, and fall in love. Charlie’s closest friends include trans teen Elle, straight friend Tao and quiet Isaac.

The show’s target audience seems to be teenagers and young adults. It’s also the rare show where all the teen characters are actually teens themselves. That said, the show is relevant and important even for elder millennials like myself. I’m sure the show has different meanings for all its many fans throughout the world. For me, it’s a glimpse into a world that I was desperate to live in as a kid.

There’s a sweetness to the show that is hard to beat. It lacks the cynical helplessness of most queer-tinged media. Nobody dies or suffers major injuries. Both boys’ parents are loving and supportive throughout. The show’s world isn’t free of homophobia and transphobia, but it’s more on the margins than the main event. Queer media for decades has long tended towards suffering. I see it almost everywhere, from Brokeback Mountain to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Star Trek. It’s so commonplace even now that there’s a name for it: bury your gays. This trope has at least partial origins in the Hays code. The Hays code was a set of decency standards that affected Hollywood media from 1934-1968. These standards were set by the straight and white dominant culture. It forbade portrayals of nudity, sexuality, interracial coupling, and cursing. It also permitted only negative or tragic depictions of homosexuality. Even though the code fell out of practice in the 1960s, its echoes continue in the types of stories that people are permitted and prepared to tell. Stories of queer pain may resonate today because of how society still treats sexual and gender minorities.

We live in a world of animus towards people who are LGBTQIA+. Transphobic and homophobic laws are returning to our world with a vengeance. The hate and harm society shows to LGBTQIA+ folks of all ages may make people feel, like I once did, that they deserve it. Lots of people in their teens experience heartbreak, longing, confusion, and the like. Queer and trans kids are more likely to experience violence, bullying, and isolation.

I knew I was gay, without having a word for it, by the time I was five or six. My queerness didn’t fit where I lived for most of my life. Being queer intersected with my being brown. I was also the child of parents with different cultural backgrounds. All this led to a swirl of identities that many mixed-race or immigrant kids experience. I felt it as not having a place, feeling a lack of belonging in the spaces I was in. I kept my queerness hidden in ways that I couldn’t hide the color of my skin. I stuck out in one way, and that diffused all the other ways I might not have fit in with the mostly white and straight culture around me.

On The Diversity Gap, Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson breaks down the difference between three words that people often mix up. She sees diversity, belonging, and inclusion as a series of concepts that layer on top of each other.

Diversity is having people who represent a range of backgrounds, bodies, and cultures. She describes this layer as everyone coming to a potluck with a dish. Belonging builds on diversity. Along with the dish, you’re bringing its cultural history and relevance to you. It’s sharing, as equals, why your dish matters to you as much as mine does to me. A diverse group that feels belonging, that feels valued as themselves, creates inclusion. You and I learn more about each other as humans and as equals. We lower the power dynamics between us all. These three concepts, diversity, belonging, and inclusion then lead to equity. We are all treated as unique with our own needs, values, and perspectives.

Heartstopper represents for me a show that seemed to know what I was going through at that age. I accept the two white leads acknowledge my queer identity more than my racial identity. These stories don’t have to line up exactly to my unique experience. I hope everyone can find shades of their existence across all our shared cultures. And for people who have lived through trauma, I hope shows like this can be a form of escapism.

Escapism for me doesn’t have to be set in outer space or among dinosaurs (though I would watch the hell out of a show about queer dinosaur astronauts). Escapism can be safety, it can be belonging, it can be identifying with what I see on screen.

I want more stories like this. I want to feel seen, respected, and understood. In some way, that’s what everyone is looking for. In the future we all share, I want us to see each other for who we are, not who we’re trying to be.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space

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