Fans of Alice Oseman‘s popular teen webcomic and graphic novel series Heartstopper need no introduction to the TV adaptation which drops on Netflix on Friday. They’ve probably had it in their diary for months.
But for the uninitiated, Heartstopper is a young adult LGBTQ+ story about two teenage boys, Charlie and Nick, who fall for each other at a secondary school, and their friends, Elle, Tao and Isaac.
Charlie and Nick – played by newcomer Joe Locke and Rocketman actor Kit Connor – are subjected to homophobic bullying by Nick’s so-called friends.
Elle (Yasmin Finney), a transgender teen, has recently moved from the boys’ grammar school where all her friends are, to the girls’ equivalent, after also suffering cruel taunts.
Finney, who has a built up a big following on TikTok, posting about her experiences of being a young, black transgender woman in the UK, endured difficulties at school herself.
“For me, school was the same. There’s always been [these] voices of toxic masculinity that just clearly aren’t educated enough. And even if they are, they just want to… have a laugh, but there’s a point where it crosses the line and I think that’s what Heartstopper highlights. It goes on every day in high school.
“I actually started TikTok when I was in my second high school after I moved from my first because I was bullied. What I find is that the people that bullied me in high school, they’re not really doing much with their lives now. And I’m actually doing great!”
Locke, who is taking his A-level exams in a couple of weeks, says he was “very lucky” with his school experience.
“My school is great and I was never bullied. Once you get to sixth form, things really change because a lot of the people who would be the ones saying things aren’t there anymore, or people have grown up and realise they don’t really care anymore, they can just be themselves.”
But he acknowledges it’s not easy for everyone.
“In general in high school, it’s really hard. To be different in any way. And if you don’t fit in with the tracky-wearing, vape-smoking norm, then you’re likely to be pulled up on that and and seen to be different.
“I think what’s beautiful about our show is that it celebrates these differences. You may think you’re the weird one but actually everyone except those few tiny ‘norm-fitting’ people are the weird ones. And even they’re probably only [like] that because they feel that’s what they have to do to fit in.”
He adds: “It’s just as sad for them… because they’ve been conditioned to feel that’s how they have to be to fit in and live in our society.”
Social media also has a part to play, of course – in Heartstopper, many of the awkward or delicate conversations between the characters take place online.
While it can be a place of support, having a high profile on social media can also open you up to unwarranted abuse.
Finney, from Manchester, says you have to be bold to put yourself out there and know when to take a break.
“I think you have to take risks. I’ve always known that I want to be somebody that other people can look up at, especially the queer youth who don’t necessarily know where they fit in in society. And I’ve always loved documenting my experience as a trans person from the age of 15, 16.” (She’s now 18, as is Locke).
Having curated an “amazing following over the last three years,” Finney stepped back from TikTok while filming Heartstopper, which is her first professional acting project.
Finney is particularly pleased to see herself – a young black trans woman – reflected in a major new TV drama.
A recent report found LGBT representation on US TV – including on streaming platforms available in the UK – is at a high, with nearly 12% of regular characters who are LGBT, up 2.8% from last year.
The numbers come from a study by LGBT media advocacy group GLAAD. But the study also found there were shortfalls and missing opportunities to tell a wider range of stories about LGBT characters.
The Where We Are on TV analysis looked at overall diversity of shows, including those on big streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple+ and Disney+.
“Acting has always been something that I’ve wanted to do, but I’ve just not really seen myself reflected in the media as a black trans woman, especially in the UK. I just could never see myself in the industry… [or] see myself doing well.
“But it’s just been crazy how amazing the response has been for Heartstopper and just how needed… trans actors and actresses are in the industry. And I’m so happy to be part of that world.”