Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault; closetting and sexuality; bullying and peer pressure; toxic vs positive masculinity.
Graphic novels have never really been my thing, so I had very few expectations when I picked up this book. It’s definitely not something I would ever have chosen for myself, but I hadn’t done anything like this for the book nook so far, and Heartstopper has such a following that it seemed only fair to give it a shot.
I have to say I’m glad I did.
The story is about Charlie, a gay student who’s been seeing Ben in a closeted relationship. While Charlie is out, Ben isn’t and even has a girlfriend, and this makes Charlie feel used and unappreciated. However, when Charlie meets Nick, he realises that what he has with Ben isn’t what he wants at all and he breaks it off. He quickly understands he has a crush on Nick but expects Nick to be straight and not return his feelings at all. As far as he’s concerned, they’re just friends. What follows is the heartwarming story of two friends falling in love with each other and learning to accept themselves no matter what.
For what I would class as an ‘easy story’, there were some serious themes handled within the book, such as sexual assault; closetting and sexuality; bullying and peer pressure; toxic vs positive masculinity.
The sexual assault aspect happened when Charlie is confronted by Ben after he breaks their arrangement off. Ben refuses to listen to Charlie when he explains he doesn’t want to be with Ben anymore, that their relationship doesn’t make him feel good, and to please leave him alone. Instead, Ben tells Charlie that he knows better than Charlie does and forces Charlie to kiss him. The illustrations show Charlie pinned against a wall as Ben forces a kiss and light upper body touching on him, which Charlie repeatedly says no and asks him to stop. The situation is brought to a head when Nick sees what’s happening and forces Ben away from Charlie. However, it’s very clear that if Nick hadn’t came along that the situation could have had potentially life changing ramifications for Charlie. Ben was aggressive and presumptuous and entitled, and was more than happy to force Charlie into something he was clearly uncomfortable with.
The aftermath of this scene shows Nick and Charlie texting. Charlie is clearly not ok with what happened – of course he isn’t! – and Nick, instead of telling him to ‘man up’ or something equally toxic, simply choses to let Charlie know that what Ben did was messed up and that he was there if Charlie ever wanted to talk. This show of positive masculinity contrasts greatly with Ben’s toxicity, highlighting that ‘being a man’ isn’t to do with force or aggression at all.
I also found it refreshing that this story tackled the topic of male sexual assault. Generally, sexual assault is thought of as something that happens to women, and the idea that it can happen to men is stil met with ridicule and disbelief in this day and age. By showing such a situation in this medium – graphic novel – really brings it to the forefront of social conversation and hopefully makes it less taboo for anyone experiencing this kind of assault to come forward for help.
Another aspect I was pleasantly surprised with was the rugby coach. Not only was she a woman, which already broke the expected norm, but she was very vocal in accepting people for who they are and not making any assumptions regarding gender, sexuality, or ability. When she overhears some of the rugby team talking about Charlie being gay and wondering what Nick’s sexuality is, she quickly informs them that it isn’t their business, and that straight and gay aren’t the only options available to Nick and Charlie. She’s a true breath of fresh air in the novel and everything about the character challenges the set gender norms within most societies.
The bullying aspect of the story is also poignant, as this is something which is prevalent in modern society thanks to social media in particular. It’s harder to remove yourself from bullying now, as there are so many platforms it can occur on. Although it isn’t really delved into in much detail, the novel mentions several times that Charlie has been bullied in the past by peers because of his sexuality. When Nick is starting to question his feelings for Charlie, he’s very aware that what happened to Charlie could also happen to him, and this adds a level of pressure on him on top of the stress of figuring out his sexuality for himself. It’s a story line that so many people have to deal with on a daily basis and the way he finally realises he has feelings for charlie and stands up to his homophobic and toxic friends really sends a positive and hopeful message.
Yes, the format makes reading really simple and fast, but that’s not always a bad thing. It allowed me to just relax into the story and not worry too much about wordy descriptions and lengthy details. Each page contained so many nuances of what each character was feeling and carried such laden subtext that I was genuinely impressed!