The Subtle Aroace Gaze of “Heartstopper” Season Two

Last week, I took time to binge watch season two of Heartstopper, Netflix’s burst of queer joy written and based on the webcomic turned graphic novels by Alice Oseman. The young adult show about queer love, in its many forms, focuses especially on romantic crushes and relationships (with lots of queer kissing). The characters represent a range of queer identities, including bisexual (Nick, played by Kit Connor and Sahar, played by Leila Khan), gay (Charlie, played by Joe Locke), lesbian (Darcy and Tara, played by Kizzy Edgell and Corinna Brown), aromantic asexual (Isaac, played by Tobie Donovan), and asexual (Charlie’s sister, Tori, played by Jenny Walser might be both aro and ace, but the series has not explored this yet), and include trans characters (most centrally Elle, played by Yasmin Finney). Like the first season, the second season is a joyous exploration of love, boundaries, and growing into ourselves, on queer terms. It is an affirmative queer set of journeys and self-explorations unrivaled by many other shows. And above all, it is so fun to watch.

Heartstopper also does something else, something that is just about unprecedented in mainstream teen shows. It places at its core an aromantic asexual character — that is Isaac — and asks that the audience see the world through his eyes, in something that resembles a sort of ace and aro gaze. The show, by way of Oseman, shows rather than tells us what it is like to be someone who is both aromantic and asexual in a teenage context absolutely affixed to the idea that romantic and sexual attraction are at the heart of what it means to grow up, become an adult, and be queer. The show suggests that growing up and being queer do not require romantic or sexual attraction, and also that Isaac is no less queer because he is aroace.

What is really important to understand is that asexuality and aromanticism are not one and the same, and some people might be asexual and romantic or aromantic and sexual. In Heartstopper, we learn that Isaac is not only asexual in that he doesn’t experience sexual attraction to others but that he is also aromantic in that he does not experience romantic attraction to others. According to the 2018 Asexual Community Survey Summary Report, 32.1% of asexual respondents were aromantic — nearly one third. Importantly, Alice Oseman deliberately wrote Isaac as an aroace character informed by her/their own experiences as someone who is aroace, and they also feature aroaceness in her YA novel Loveless.

Throughout the show, we see Isaac’s journey as someone who is aroace. Early in season two, this takes shape through heartbreaking scenes where Isaac wants to feel that he belongs, but he is carelessly iced out by his friends who take for granted that everyone experiences sexual and romantic attraction. While Isaac’s friends clearly love him and his quirks, such as Isaac’s proclivity to always be reading during social events, and while together they form a strong friendship group, the group often fractures into couple-units, leaving Isaac alone. We get a brief look into this in the very first episode of season two when Charlie hosts a sleepover. Initially all the friends, Nick, Charlie, Darcy, Tara, Elle, Tao, and Isaac are shown hanging out together, queer vibing with each other. But as the hangout progresses, people splinter off into their own coupled universes, and Isaac looks around, unsure of where he fits into all the coupled units. I found this scene, which is rather brief, particularly heartbreaking. And it provides the first instance in season two of an aroace gaze — a look at what the coupled world might feel like from the perspective of Isaac, an aroace character. It is not that Isaac is left out because he wants to be in a couple but isn’t, but rather that he is left out, because he wants to continue queer vibing with his friends in nonromantic and nonsexual ways and gets left behind when others default to their coupled units.

In a world of amatonormativity, as feminist philosopher Elizabeth Brake discusses in her book Minimizing Marriage, most of our energy, love, and care are directed toward both recruiting and keeping our “other half,” leaving people who are aro, as well as those who might not desire being in a couple, behind. Brake writes that amatonormativity is a “disproportionate focus on marital and amorous love relationships as special sites of value, and the assumption that romantic love is a universal goal [and that] a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans.” If romantic love and sexual love are valued above all else, including during the period of one’s teen years when sexual and romantic attraction are strongly felt by many, those of us who are aroace, such as Isaac, might readily be set aside by even our closest friends as they prioritize other forms of queer love.

Yet Heartstopper season two ultimately ends on a positive note for Isaac, aligning with the joyfully queer message of the show. In the seventh episode of the season, Isaac along with the whole friend group, goes to a queer art show at which Elle’s work is on display. Two remarkable things happen at that show that I believe exemplify aroace joy and that challenge amatonormativity. The first is that Isaac is drawn to a piece of art with floating pieces of paper in red, pink, and white. Talking to the artist, he discovers that the art piece is a commentary on amatonormativity by an aroace artist, that it speaks to, in the artist’s words, of “being in a world where romance and sex are prized above everything else when you don’t feel those forms of attraction.” At that point, everything snaps into place for Isaac and, as Heartstopper’s illustrated leaves circle, he figures out that, like the artist, he too is aroace. Adorably, this leads to Isaac picking up Angela Chen’s wonderful book, ACE: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, from the school’s queer library display in the final episode of the season. (One of my favorite series of moments of the season takes place at the friend group’s post-prom hangout in the last episode of the season, during which Isaac carries ACE with him everywhere: from playing beer pong to hiding behind pillows, its title, ACE, visible to everyone, asserting ace presence). The second aroace affirming thing that happens at the art show is that for her art contribution to the show, Elle paints an acrylic painting titled “Safe Place” that renders their friendship group (Charlie, Tao, Isaac, and her) gathered together, reading. This painting is another brief moment that suggests queer friendships are central to queer life, perhaps over and above romantic love, providing a brief undermining of amatonormativity.

In the book Isaac is shown carting around with him in the final episode, ACE, Chen strives to imagine what it would look like to have representations created by asexual people for asexual people. She talks about the endless pressure for ace folks (including aroace folks) to have to educate others on the minutiae of their identities, to have to argue for their inclusion in queer spaces, and to have to bear the weight of continuing to prove their identities to others. Chen also dreams of a time when we “will move closer to not feeling that any explanation is necessary” and “when aces reject the gaze that evaluates our identities so narrowly.” I believe that Heartstopper season two’s rendition of Isaac is one of the first times when this gaze is created by and for aroace people, even while it also does the educational work of showing a general audience what it feels like to be aroace in a context so affixed to the idea of romantic and sexual love at any and all cost.

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Ela Przybylo

Ela Przybyło is Associate Professor in English and core faculty in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University. She writes on asexuality in Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality (Ohio State University Press, 2019), as well as in many peer-reviewed journals such as Feminist Formations, GLQ, Sexualities, and Journal of Lesbian Studies. Ela is also a founding and managing editor of the peer-reviewed, open access journal Feral Feminisms. Ela finds joy in vegan food, walks with her kitty Maciuś, and swimming in cold lakes.

Ela has written 3 articles for us.


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