I never anticipated coming across "Heartstopper" while doing research for my final paper in my Contemporary African Politics class at Penn. But I did, leading me to explore this pioneering, coming-of-age story and its popularity.
Adapted from Alice Oseman’s webcomic series and produced by See-Saw Films, "Heartstopper" focuses on the friends and romantic relationship of Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and Nick Nelson (Kit Connor). Fans spent over 53 million hours watching the series within its first three weeks on Netflix, resulting in it being on the platform’s Top 10 list for television shows in 54 countries. This accomplishment is impressive in itself, but it is particularly astonishing given the countries whose lists the show occupied.
While writing my final essay on homosexuality in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, I found that "Heartstopper" was on Kenya’s Netflix Top 10 TV Show list. I struggled to reconcile this fact with what many scholars call “an epidemic of intolerance” toward the LGBTQ community in Kenya and neighboring nations, marked by the fact that 83% of Kenyan citizens in 2019 believed that society should not accept homosexuality. Such a statistic indicates widespread cultural disapproval of queerness, coupled with lingering colonial-era policies that punish same-sex sexual activity by up to 14 years in prison. Moreover, the Human Dignity Trust lists Kenya as a country it considers to “criminalize LGBT people,” alongside eight other nations which saw "Heartstopper" on their Top 10 lists: Jamaica, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritius, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates.
"Heartstopper" even streaming in these countries is remarkable, with many of their governments routinely censoring and restricting citizens' access to media. For example, Disney’s animated film "Lightyear" was reportedly banned in five of these same countries for including a same-sex kiss. What is especially astonishing is that enough people in these countries watched "Heartstopper" to catapult the show to their Top 10 lists, as it is a series that focuses on and normalizes queerness.
There are numerous ways to interpret "Heartstopper"’s unanticipated popularity. It seems safe to say that it represents a sizable willingness, and perhaps even a curiosity and desire, to see queer characters and stories. Why else would people be watching it? This indicates that the LGBTQ topic is much more complicated in these countries than routinely discussed in statistical reports and studies. Furthermore, since "Heartstopper" targets a teenage audience, many viewers in these countries likely fall into this age category. Thus, "Heartstopper"’s success in these countries could demonstrate the emergence of a generation that is at the very least minimally more tolerant or willing to engage with LGBTQ topics. It is a hopeful prospect.
"Heartstopper"’s popularity also means that more people are seeing this uniquely inclusive series that takes “a refreshing, positive, and optimistic take on life and queerness,” as Connor described in an interview with W Magazine. It confronts the challenges and drama of topics like bullying, eating disorders, and struggling with one’s sexuality and gender. However, it couples these difficulties with the joys of adolescence, friendship, and young love. This provides viewers with various characters and plotlines they can relate to, which helps normalize topics like queerness that are routinely stigmatized. It also offers a sense of buoyancy for characters during their struggles. So even if it does not change minds, "Heartstopper" can at least provide LGBTQ individuals a glimpse of hope and perhaps even a template for handling situations like “coming out,” as multiple viewers already reported doing on social media. This effect is especially vital in places where such topics and identities are particularly condemned.
We cannot yet establish how much cultural change "Heartstopper" has caused or will cause in these countries, but its political impact is already evident. Since the show’s April release, many cast members have used their massive platforms to support particular political agendas. For example, Sebastian Croft (who plays Ben Hope) partnered with Everpress to create a “Queer Was Always Here” t-shirt to raise money for queer refugees fleeing persecution. Numerous cast members also attended London Pride on July 1 and peacefully confronted a group of anti-gay protestors, while Yasmin Finney (who plays Elle Argent) made a passionate speech at London’s Trans+ Pride on July 9. Yet "Heartstopper"’s influence in the political sphere is also much more direct, as shown by its recent entrance into the British political sphere.
On June 13, Member of Parliament Luke Pollard used the show to support a petition to include transgender people in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s conversion therapy ban. In the House of Commons, he acknowledged how the show’s “visibility, that legitimacy, has saved lives,” and commended it for “[drawing people] together by a broad hug, not with a big stick.” He also acknowledged how Finney’s role as Elle, a trans woman of color, “not only inspired me, it’s inspired young trans people across the world.” This mention demonstrates how television shows like "Heartstopper" can contribute to culture and actual policy. Perhaps its political impact can extend to locations where the LGBTQ community is even more marginalized? One can hope.
Only time will tell whether and how "Heartstopper" will continue to spark conversations and reform among new, uncharted audiences. Regardless, hopefully more series will follow in its footsteps to grow the minimal selection of inclusive, representative, and joyful queer media. Until then, we can just look forward to at least two more heartstopping, bingeable seasons.
ALEX KESWANI is a College junior studying political economy from New York, NY. His email is email@example.com.