Last week, we received some refreshing news. The Internatinal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, an association which annually publishes the Rainbow Europe study, a review which ranks European countries based on their respective laws and frameworks which primarily protect LGBTIQ+ rights. Malta maintained its first place in the list, as it has in the last 7 years. As we celebrate this great news, as well as IDAHOBIT+ (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) internationally, we felt that this was the right occasion to finally watch a series which, due to life and deadlines to adhere to, we have been postponing indefinitely. Netflix’s new coming of age drama, Heartstopper.
Let us go back to our roots a little bit, for this ranking did not come to fruition in just a matter of days, then again, Rome was not built in a day either. In 2014, Parliament passed the Civil Unions Act. The Labour Party parliamentary Group voted unanimously in favour and the members of the opposition, the Nationalist Party, abstained. In 2017, parliament passed the Marriage Act: an act which codified same-sex marriage in the Laws of Malta. A step in the right direction towards a more equal Malta.
It was not always this way though- a Eurostat survey taken in 2006 showed that only 18% of the country’s population backed same-sex marriage. Coming out in 70s, 80s, 90s and even 2000’s Malta was difficult for a very simple reason: the country’s Catholic views on marriage and the sanctification of the nuclear family. It is no wonder that it was so easy to be crude towards anyone who defied the norm or fell into internalised homophobia because the environment around you is not so forgiving. Shamefully and admittedly, because of the internalised fear of being exposed, some of us may have occasionally followed the current when it came to anti-gay mockeries.
Coming out in 70s, 80s, 90s and even 2000’s Malta was difficult.
Unsurprisingly, LGBTIQ+ literature, cinema and art was also scarce and controversial- any 00’s child will remember the scandal that ensued when Russian girl band t.A.T.U. shared a kiss in the music video of their song ‘All The Things She Said’. But Heartstopper, originally a comic by queer author Alice Oseman, tells a tale of Charlie, a young gay student in Secondary School who falls for a fellow student who he is paired up with, Nick.
The show contains so many crucial elements which are imperative in today’s context, it is no wonder that it got so many praises for the impact it has left and setting a high bar. The show focuses on Gen-Z adolescents and it does not do it in an oversaturated manner which attempts to encapsulate everything tirelessly, resulting in an extraneous final product, but in a way which blooms naturally, and comes together in a beautiful and relatable way that makes us feel some sort of longing. Longing, why? Because it presented us with a romantic storyline which every LGBTIQ+ person can somehow relate to. It deviated from the traditional boy-meets-girl forbidden love and instead took the aim at one of the most explorative stages of life, adolescence, and the struggles and discoveries that younger people experience during this period of more intricate self-discovery.
A great example of this is Mr. Ajayi, the art teacher who made it a point to check in with Charlie, as he shied away from eating his lunch in the school yard. Simply checking in, offering a safe space in the school’s art room to a student after being bullied the year before for coming out and a sense of mentorship made us all wish we had our own Mr. Ajayi to look out for us.
Despite societal progress, it also did not shy away from hardships which today’s generation still faces, such as showing that school bullying from peers, even from peers who may still be coming to terms with their own sexuality are still an issue. And yet, it also showed us how progressive Gen-Z really is when faced with such scenarios.
One characteristic of the series which striked us the most was the across-the-board representation. Take Nick’s journey in understanding bisexuality: googling his sexuality and taking quizzes, finding the courage to confide in friends and coming out to his embracing mother, portrayed by the magnificent Olivia Colman. We had Darcy and Elle, a lesbian couple who had to deal with school gossip in their all-girls school after making their relationship public and Elle, a young transgender woman who transferred to a girls’ school and how she had to deal with members of the school staff’s approach to her.
What was also special, and we think many will connect with this, were the feelings portrayed through animations between the characters. Any young adult can relate to the metaphorical ‘butterflies’ when they are in the presence of someone who they are fond of, or the harrowing anxiety that we feel in our chest when we decide whether we should hold that person’s hand or not, and the dilemma of whether to reply to a ‘seen’ message or not. This all brings us back to one sentiment: these feelings are experienced by each and everyone of us, no matter who we are. And Heartstopper depicts this perfectly.