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What Netflix's Heartstopper and Hulu's Crush Say About the State of Queer Teen Storytelling

A conversation about the past and future of gay adolescent romance.
  • Isabella Ferreira, Rowan Blanchard and Auli'i Cravalho in Crush, Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper. (Photos Hulu, Netflix)
    Isabella Ferreira, Rowan Blanchard and Auli'i Cravalho in Crush, Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper. (Photos Hulu, Netflix)

    April was a banner month on TV for gay teen romance. On April 22, Netflix released the first season of Heartstopper, a British series about two high school boys falling in love at their prep school, and a week later Hulu dropped the movie Crush, a comedy about two girls catching feelings while they compete on the track team.

    Beyond their queer adolescent characters, the two projects have several other things in common. They both feature a nerdy kid trying to impress their crush by attempting to play sports, and they both use art as a metaphor for deeper connection. (Heartstopper is even based on a graphic novel by Alice Oseman.) And perhaps most importantly, they both feature lead characters who are already out of the closet when we meet them.

    Are these projects pointing the way to the future of queer adolescent love stories? Mark Blankenship and Joe Reid — Primetimer’s Reviews Editor and Managing Editor, respectively — discuss:

    Mark: Joe, as someone who rented the movie Beautiful Thing at least 10 times during my senior year of high school, I have a lifelong soft spot for stories about queer teenagers who are fumbling through romance instead of escaping gay conversion therapy or some other awful mess. To that end, I’m glad that both Heartstopper and Crush are light and charming. When the queer characters kiss, you don’t have to worry that a homophobic stranger is going to come out of the shadows and assault them, which used to be typical on TV and in the movies.

    I realize there are other examples of this, from the movie Love, Simon and its Hulu spinoff Love, Victor to Netflix’s bisexuality romcom Alex Strangelove, but it still feels significant that both of these projects arrived simultaneously. I’d say it also matters that between them, they feature substantive gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and straight characters. Do you agree that this feels like some kind of sea change, or do you think I’m giving too much significance to these breezy little projects?

    Joe: If not a sea change, I definitely think that both Heartstopper and Crush represent a new normal in youth-targeted queer programming, one which takes coming out as either backstory (in the case of Crush) or a first-step primer to what comes next (in the case of Heartstopper). It's a baseline that's been steadily establishing itself for a while, even if people our age, straddling the Gen X/Millennial line, can take a step back and marvel at just how far we've come in a few short decades.

    You're right to note that there is something freeing about the characters in these shows/movies not being beset by the traumas that the characters in our generation's gay entertainments were. Or at least not in the same way. Both Heartstopper and Crush feature conspicuously unproblematic parents who support their queer kids. In Heartstopper, Charlie (Joe Locke) has a dad who will pick him up from a high school party and offer him an unquestioning shoulder to cry on, while Nick (Kit Connor) experiences the platonic ideal of teen coming-out narratives: an unflaggingly supportive Olivia Colman (herself following up a Supportive Mom of Queer Youth role in the Aughts series Beautiful People).

    That these stories are reflective of more — though not all, it should be stressed, with no small degree of frustration — queer teens' lived experiences is encouraging, both politically and artistically. It's here that I want to put a pin in the "politically" of it all, because we're poised on the edge of a national moment of crisis and regression when it comes to LGBTQ rights in this country, and I don't want to lose sight of that. But I also want to give a moment to these shows/movies as art. And artistically, the fact that we've moved the needle on queer teen stories means we can tell different and more involved tales. Even Heartstopper, which in many ways, at least for the Nick character, is about coming out, can expand itself to encompass other things. The series explores how romance can strain platonic friendships — specifically between Charlie and his straight friend Tao (William Gao) — and it examines the uncertainty of what happens after the closet door is open, whether that’s for a trans teen or between a pair of girlfriends.

    And in the case of Crush, telling a story where all the main characters are already out allows the movie the freedom and familiarity to be incredibly loose and funny. At least, that was my experience.

    Mark: I’m glad you’ve moved us into the artistry of these pieces, because this is where I think we differ. While I certainly applaud the existence of both, I’d say Crush is a very thin gruel compared to Heartstopper’s hearty stew.

    For me, Crush is just badly written. The characters speak in flat, declarative sentences that bluntly tell you who they are and what they’re feeling without the slightest bit of supporting evidence. We only know that Paige (Rowan Blanchard) is a nerd because she keeps saying she is. Otherwise, she dresses well, speaks with confidence, and has astonishing artistic gifts. On Heartstopper, Charlie comes across like an actually awkward kid, who stumbles, stammers, and keeps his head down, but is also sweet, funny, and incredibly caring. I totally buy that Nick, a sensitive rugby player, would find a type of freedom with this young man who is so obviously different from the bratty boys in his usual social circle.

    Like I said above, I am predisposed to like sweet stories about kind-hearted young men falling in earnest love as they gaze at each other through floppy bangs. But I also love harder-edged teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and pitch-black teen statires like Heathers. Crush is clearly inspired by films like these — all the rival high schools at a big track meet are named after directors of edgy teen fare — but I’d say the fast times fail without substantive characters to ground them.

    Do you think I’m crazy for hating on Crush? Do you share my desire to start making fan art for the Heartstopper boys?

    Joe: If there were a rugby match pitting the stammering sensitives of Heartstopper against the confident quipsters of Crush, I do think we'd end up cheering on opposite sidelines, yes. To be clear, I found Heartstopper to be tremendously sweet and engaging, not to mention perfectly pitched to the Tumblr aesthetics of its core audience. Even good teen comedies sometimes stumble in making their central romances sing, and Heartstopper really gets Charlie and Nick right. It's also incredibly earnest in a way that I both respect and regard with a defensive wariness that's almost certainly more my problem than the show's. The thing about how fast acceptance has moved in the last 20 years is that I have no way of knowing whether Charlie and Nick's romance is overly idealized or just the way things are now free to be, and that is both exciting (for them!) and sad (for me!). Additionally, it increasingly feels like teen entertainment exists on one side or another of a deep chasm that separates Sweet, Idealized Earnestness and Euphoria High Doing Poppers in Homeroom Edginess, and I find myself longing for something in the jagged, confused middle, which is maybe just my Gen X showing.

    My fondness for Crush — a movie that's far closer to the earnest end of the aforementioned chasm — is that it uses that sense of earnest and uncomplicated acceptance as a launchpad for idiosyncrasy and comedy. Heartstopper made me smile, but Crush made me laugh, and more than a few times. I wasn't super familiar with Rowan Blanchard, not having watched Girl Meets World, but I thought she was tremendously engaging and funny as Paige, fumbling through competing crushes on queer sisters Gabi (Love, Victor's Isabella Ferreira) and AJ (Moana's Auli'i Cravalho). And while American Vandal and Never Have I Ever had me familiar with Kyle Alvarez's talents, I still delighted in his improbably fresh take on the horny straight teen. I liked how randy and messy and sometimes dumb the Crush kids were; if their characters sacrificed the kind of soulful depths that Heartstopper's possessed, they, to me, better harnessed the queer gift of irreverence.

    I'll let you respond to my casting us on opposite sidelines, but I also want to haul us back into our stormy political present. With the forces of regression lining up to to attack queer and trans youth and the allies who support them in school and at home, do we feel like this kind of "new normal" in teen entertainment will last, or is our entertainment also about to get yanked back into more fraught times?

    Mark: First, I respect that you’re cheering for a different rugby team, and if I may torture the metaphor, I’m just happy we’re both on the field. I’m glad there are enough of these shows and movies to address all our tastes! And honestly, I have faith that the mere existence of these properties will be meaningful if we regress into a more homophobic era. One of the reasons I rented Beautiful Thing so many times was that it showed me a world of gay life that I could only dream about in high school, and that was invaluable. With so many more visions of so many more queer worlds available on so many streaming platforms, I’ve got to believe the art will help a lot of queer people (of all ages) get through whatever’s coming next.

    TOPICS: Heartstopper, Hulu, Netflix, Crush (2022 Film), Auli’I Cravalho, Joe Locke, Kit Connor, Olivia Colman, Rowan Blanchard, Tyler Alvarez, William Gao