If there’s one sentiment most adults can agree on, it’s this: being a teenager is an awful, confusing, hormonal time that we wouldn’t want to return to. Our teen years transform us, but the journey is typically far from clean. Teens are messy, which is okay, because their brains are still developing. They make mistakes, over and over. But not every teen’s path to self-discovery looks the same. Not every teen’s repertoire of mistakes looks the same. So why should viewers of teen TV shows expect them to all reflect the same experiences?
Heartstopper, the teen show adapted from Alice Oseman’s beloved webtoon turned graphic novel series, has been lauded and criticized for being “wholesome” and “clean.” While some viewers are happy to have a show that prioritizes representation across all identities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, others feel that the representation is unrealistic. The criticism comes mainly from adults, to whom the show is notably not targeted. But most aren’t upset about a lack of sex scenes. They’re concerned about the connotations of the “clean” label and what it means for other depictions of young queer love.
With anti-LGBTQIA+ laws being introduced all over the U.S. and book bans removing any depictions of queerness from library shelves at schools, fighting back against censorship is a natural instinct. But Heartstopper isn’t censoring anything — it’s just showing a different version of a messy coming-of-age story, and really, is it that different from the coming of age the characters experienced on U.K.-based teen dramas like Skins?
When Skins first aired in the U.K. in 2007, it was scandalous. Created by Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, the show introduced future leading men like Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, and Daniel Kaluuya to the world also depicted teens as sex-crazed, drug-addicted delinquents with no concept of consequences. It featured outrageous plot lines similar to those on contemporary teen shows like Riverdale — sex with teachers, underground parties, and drug rings. But underneath the surface of these intensely troubled teens were the same big feelings that other adolescents experience: first loves, unrequited crushes, struggles with sexuality, trauma from familial relationships, fear of not fitting in.
Throughout its run, Skins featured different casts who dealt with various issues, some more serious than others. Tony (Nicholas Hoult), Cassie (Hannah Murray), Jal (Larissa Wilson), Chris (Joe Dempsie), Sid (Mike Bailey), Michelle (April Pearson), Effy (Kaya Scodelario), Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), and Anwar (Dev Patel) tackled heavy subject matter in the first two seasons, including drug problems, abandonment from parents, eating disorders, cheating scandals, heartbreak, and more. Sid’s dad died unexpectedly, Maxxie’s best friend Anwar didn’t fully accept Maxxie’s queer identity, Tony broke Michelle’s heart and treated her poorly, Maxxie secretly dated a bully who was not openly queer, and in between all of this, there were many near-death experiences.
The series’s depiction of on-screen drug use and sex showed the dark side of teen life and some cast members have spoken out about how the storylines negatively impacted their personal lives. However gritty these stories were, they were also realistic for some teens.
Heartstopper’s had relatively lower stakes, and no sex, drugs, or death (unless you count Imogen’s dog, R.I.P.) yet, but it’s tackled some of the same issues as Skins. Charlie (Joe Locke) struggles when he’s dating a bully who isn’t out and treats him poorly, Nick (Kit Connor) worries about how his friends will react to him coming out, and a few characters have strained relationships with their parents, some worse than others.
While sex is off the table in Heartstopper, the teens are not totally chaste. They kiss plenty and have conversations about sex and not being quite ready for it — another realistic part of teenagehood. It's also worth noting that Oseman is aromantic and asexual, and has spoken about how that kind of representation is important to them, as it’s reflected in the character of Isaac (Tobie Donovan), whose journey towards discovering his asexuality is a prominent storyline in the show’s second season.
Despite the lack of major partying, there's still a fair amount of mild debauchery in Heartstopper. The second season takes the British teens on a school trip to Paris, where secret hotel room parties occur, complete with underage drinking, truth or dare, and making out to the soundtrack of Lucy Dacus’ “Hot and Heavy,” a scene which proves to be pivotal in Isaac’s self-discovery.
In the second season of Heartstopper, it’s revealed that Charlie struggles with an eating disorder, something he shares with Skins character Cassie. Cassie was candid about her eating disorder, demonstrating to love interest Sid how she managed to distract people from noticing that she hadn’t touched her food while he looked on in awe, but not concern. Charlie’s boyfriend Nick has quite a different response: After seeing him on a school trip, Nick tells Charlie he’s noticed how little he eats, and Charlie admits that he restricts his eating as a form of control. Both shows portray the characters’ eating disorders as self-harming tendencies, though Heartstopper is more explicit with Charlie’s acknowledgment of the control factor, which is representative of the openness with which today’s youth often communicate.
Heartstopper’s teens may be more open about their problems, which helps them find relief sooner, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer. Bullies exist in this world, like Nick’s brother David (Jack Barton), who hassles him about his sexuality and badmouths Charlie at a family dinner in Season 2, only for Charlie’s protective older sister Tori (Jenny Walser) to kick his phone out of his hand and threaten to “end him.” There’s also Ben (Sebastian Croft), Charlie’s sort-of ex who harasses him when Charlie cuts him off and is relentless in his efforts to win him back over. In Season 1, Ben went as far as to force a kiss on Charlie without consent, and Nick was quick to call him out for it. Ben and Charlie’s relationship echoes the one between Skins’ Maxxie, who was openly gay, and the boy who openly bullied him but was secretly queer.
Another peek into the darker side of Heartstopper comes in the final episode of Season 2, when Charlie opens up to Nick about the aftermath of his relentless bullying by classmates the year before they met, something he’d been quiet about before. It mirrors a scene from the first episode of the season, in which Nick smiles as he walks home from Charlie’s house, while Charlie tells sister Tori that he won’t let anything bad happen to Nick, promising to protect him from the bullying and harassment he faced when he was outed.
When the camera cuts back to Nick, it seems for a moment, like something bad could be coming. In shows like Skins, characters like Maxxie were attacked for being queer. But Nick’s smile doesn’t leave his face as he arrives home safely. Heartstopper may sometimes walk the same path as Skins, but it ends up at a very different destination.
"I think it's important to have all kinds of stories but joyful stories and the hope that they give us are essential,” Oseman told The Guardian in an interview about the show’s darker second season and the queer stories she aims to tell. While hard times are inevitable for her characters, it doesn’t mean they can’t have happy endings.
But neither show is meant to represent every teen. There are surely quieter, nerdier types in the world of Skins, they just aren’t the focus. And there are definitely hornier and more experimental teens in Heartstopper’s world, but they’re not hanging out with Charlie and his crew. It’s not easy for a teen show to find plot lines where these two worlds blend without depicting one method of exploration as “wrong” and the other as “right.” There are parallels between the shows, but it’s just as important that they portray two separate realities that occur in the same world.
Kaitlin Stevens is a freelance writer from Queens, New York with a penchant for pop culture. Her words on movies, TV, books and more have been featured in Buzzfeed, Film School Rejects, and elsewhere.