Euphoria, Heartstopper, and the Importance of Queer Optimism in Teen Media
By Alex Matthews | July 26, 2022, 4:55 p.m.
[CW: Mentions of SA, Homophobia, Disordered Eating, Mental Health]
This article from The Guardian calls the Netflix series Heartstopper the “anti - Euphoria.” While I don’t agree with the article’s assertion that Heartstopper (based on a comic that I read incessantly) features completely innocent and obedient characters, the themes of Heartstopper still differ wildly from those of Euphoria.
Euphoria is about a group of high school students as they navigate love and friendships in a world of drugs, sex, trauma and social media. Heartstopper is a British coming-of-age romantic comedy streaming television series, adapted from the webcomic and graphic novel of the same name by Alice Oseman. Though both shows feature romance, mental health problems, LGBTQ+ characters, and other ‘adult’ topics, the level of emotional and sexual maturity with which the characters address these issues are polar opposites in practically every way.307
In Euphoria, high schoolers act like emotionally troubled pseudo-adultsand they look like adults, too. It makes it easy to forget how young these people are supposed to be which causes real high school students (including my peers) to assume that drug addiction, unhealthy relationships, and gratuitous sex are the norm. It’s not as if Euphoria isn’t addressing important topics, or that some teenagers don’t legitimately experience these things but it fails to properly demonstrate just how far from normal these characters’ lives are. As a high school student, I’ve struggled with many of the same mental health troubles that Rue has. Many of my friends and acquaintances have as well and while I appreciate the representation, the music video-esque style just doesn’t feel like any of my experiences.
It also troubles me that Sam Levinson, the creator of Euphoria, has explicitly stated that the targeted audience for the show was primarily adults.. Considering that Euphoria is partially based on his own experiences, it doesn’t make sense for him to act as if teens couldn’t relate to it in any way. In fact, one of the most common defenses of the more unsavory side of Euphoria (such as teenagers having sex with adults) is relatability. If it’s something that happens to real teens, then why not depict it in graphic detail? How can high schoolers relate to it if they aren’t even supposed to be watching it? It’s incredibly frustrating. I’ve talked myself in circles about this enough for now, though. Even my cynical-ass brain can admit that Euphoria is a good show - at least, it’s compelling to most of the people who watch it. But why should it be all there is?
All of this directly contrasts Heartstopper. While I have squabbles with its realism, they go more along the lines of “No, your crush will never run to your door in the rain to confess his love to you after a long series of misunderstandings.” That’s a very different kind of problem.
Heartstopper has this unquenchable air of optimism that never fails to make me happy. The show has depictions of homophobia, attempted sexual assault, and eventually (now that there are going to be more seasons) eating disorders, these serious topics don’t invade the positive message or make the viewer lose hope for the characters. Instead, the tone of both the show and the comic it’s based upon stays relatively lighthearted, at least in comparison to shows like Euphoria. You never forget that the characters are children - relatively inexperienced and fumbling, especially when it comes to romance.
Instead of trying to be “real” by making everything as dark as possible, Heartstopper tries (and in my opinion, succeeds) to balance fluffy romance and serious issues without ever compromising the optimistic message of the show. The queer friend group in Heartstopper is remarkably similar to my own, right down to the “token straight” friend. That kind of hopeful representation means a lot for queer teens like me, especially as a mentally ill person with problems surrounding food. Being able to relate to a character in a show is important, but to me, it felt even better when all of Heartstopper’s main characters came out of Season 1 happy. It gave me hope for my own future more than Euphoria ever has, and to me, that is the most important in these challenging times
Tags: relationships, teens, healthyrelationships, euphoria, heartstopper, tv