I never anticipated coming across Heartstopper while doing research for my final paper in my Contemporary African Politics class at Penn. But I did leading me to explore this pioneering coming of age story and its popularity.
Adapted from Alice Osemans webcomic series and produced by See Saw Films focuses on the friends and romantic relationship of Charlie Spring Joe Locke and Nick Nelson Kit Connor. Fans spent over 53 million hours watching the series within its first three weeks on Netflix resulting in it being on the platforms Top 10 list for television shows in 54 countries. This accomplishment is impressive in itself but it is particularly astonishing given the countries whose lists the show occupied.
While writing my final essay on homosexuality in modern Sub Saharan Africa I found that Heartstopper was on Kenyas Netflix Top 10 TV Show list. I struggled to reconcile this fact with what many scholars call an epidemic of intolerance toward the LGBTQ community in Kenya and neighboring nations marked by the fact that 83% of Kenyan citizens in 2019 believed that society should not accept homosexuality. Such a statistic indicates widespread cultural disapproval of queerness coupled with lingering colonial era policies that punish same sex sexual activity by up to 14 years in prison.
Moreover the Human Dignity Trust lists Kenya as a country it considers to criminalize LGBT people alongside eight other nations which saw Heartstopper on their Top 10 lists Jamaica Kuwait Lebanon Mauritius Qatar Saudi Arabia Lanka and the United Arab Emirates.Heartstopper even streaming in these countries is remarkable with many of their governments routinely censoring and restricting citizens access to media. For example Disneys animated Lightyear was reportedly banned in five of these same countries for including a same kiss. What is especially astonishing is that enough people in these countries watched Heartstopper to catapult the show to their Top 10 lists as it is a series that focuses on and normalizes queerness.
There are numerous ways to interpret Heartstoppers unanticipated popularity. It seems safe to say that it represents a sizable willingness and perhaps even a curiosity and desire to see queer characters and stories. Why else would people be watching it? This indicates that the LGBTQ topic is much more complicated in these countries than routinely discussed in statistical reports and studies. Furthermore since Heartstopper targets a teenage audience many viewers in these countries likely fall into this age category. Thus Heartstoppers success in these countries could demonstrate the emergence of a generation that is at the very least minimally more tolerant or willing to engage with LGBTQ topics. It is a hopeful prospect.