I often joke that my mom prepared me for studio executives. She’s a highly intelligent woman with highly commercial taste. Since I was making short films in high school, her commentary has always pushed toward the mainstream.
In recent years, one of her main talking points is that if I want to tell trans stories, I should do so with subtlety. Write a trans person as the best friend in a straight romcom or make a trans Will and Grace. She knows me well enough to know I won’t listen, but she keeps making suggestions because she’s an Aquarius who’s filled with ideas.
I thought about her while watching the new Netflix show Heartstopper created by Alice Oseman based on her graphic novel of the same name. It tells the story of Charlie (Joe Locke), an out gay boy in a secret relationship who pivots his attention to straight rugby star Nick (Kit Connor). This is a show where crush feelings manifest in cartoon hearts and every episode contains at least one montage set to an indie pop song by a queer artist.
This show is lovely. Charlie and Nick’s friendship and possible something-more-ship is a joy to watch in a simple kind of way that will melt as many hearts as it stops. It’s a PG coming-of-age romance I’d recommend for all ages. It’s not doing anything new, it’s not necessarily deep, occasionally it dabbles in plot contrivances, but overall it does what it’s trying to do quite well. At its best, it portrays the difference between giving someone time to find their feelings and giving that at the expense of your own.
But it’s not Charlie and Nick who make the show for me — it’s Charlie’s friend Elle. Elle is a trans girl who previously went to the same all-boys school as our two leads and the rest of Charlie’s friend group. She’s since transferred to their sister school where she quickly befriends Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), a lesbian couple.
Yasmin Finney plays Elle with an easy likability and a quiet wisdom she’s been forced to adopt. Amid all the drama, Elle is her friend group’s rock. Before our story begins, she suffered through enough bullying to harden her against it all. She may not be the riskiest character on the show, but she’s almost certainly the kindest.
When I argue with my mom, I tell her that respectability is not the answer. I tell her that the flattening of queer stories will not lead to change. I tell her that mainstream art should compel an audience to meet the work at its loftier goals rather than falling to their simplified expectations. But the moment when Tara and Darcy extend friendship to Elle, the moment when they come out to her, the suggestion that of course these two cis queer teens would want to be friends with this trans teen — it erased any doubts I might have about this kind of storytelling.
If you’re trans or know any trans people or even just follow a handful of trans people on Twitter, you’re probably aware that right now things kind of suck. A decade of increased visibility and backlash has been building to a moment where transphobia is a primary conservative talking point — a talking point that is increasingly being translated to law. And while this transphobia targets us all, it has especially been focused on trans youth. And a lot of it is claimed to be done on behalf of cis girls — and, sometimes, specifically queer cis girls.
Heartstopper is not revolutionary enough to have a cis lesbian character fall in love with the trans girl — but this portrayal of friendship still feels radical for our time. It shouldn’t. But it does. Especially on a show geared toward a younger audience. Especially on a show made in the UK, a place that is even more transphobic than the US.
I don’t think Elle’s storyline is handled perfectly. We don’t spend much time exploring any nuances or specificities to the way she moves through the world as a trans girl and, specifically, as a Black trans girl. Beyond her friendships, the only other aspect to her character is a crush that doesn’t quite get a payoff. But Yasmin Finney’s presence alone meant a lot to me. It’s nice that trans people are included in this saccharine world at a time when many are trying keep us excluded.
It’s nice there’s a new show on Netflix with a trans character that I can recommend to anyone looking to smile. It’s nice there’s a new show on Netflix with a trans character I can recommend to my mom.