Heartstopper Syndrome: Agency-Centered Storytelling and Active Joy
They look so unassuming, don't they? But this fairy tale is unlike anything people have had since the start of the television era.
I was pretty late to watching Heartstopper. It's a Netflix show based on the graphic novel series from Alice Oseman and part of their Osemanverse, an ever-expanding empire of queer young adult media. But when I did get around to watching it a couple weeks ago, I was caught off-guard by the debilitating intensity of my emotional reaction.
I was surprised to discover r/heartstoppersyndrome, a subreddit dedicated exclusively to the after-effects of watching this show — universally described as positive. So while I feel somewhat comforted that I am not alone in my response, I can't think of another piece of media with a dedicated collateral damage subreddit. It seems Heartstopper is operating on another level. So I'd like to explore and write about that, here and in the future.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Heartstopper Is About Fear And Sadness, Too
Heartstopper earned a reputation for being heartwarming and uplifting, but people experiencing Heartstopper Syndrome report feelings of distress. Their comments online focus on their paradoxical feelings.
They ask, “Why do I feel like shit when the characters in this sweet show are so happy?”
Overwhelmed with... happy(?)... anxious(?)... despair(?)
So I think the first step is to dispel the appearance of a paradox.
Heartstopper is a kind of fairy tale. Characters achieve their goals, representing a wish-fulfillment for experiences denied to too many. But describing Heartstopper as “happy” is only superficially true. It shortchanges the characters' journey to manifest that happy ending. And I worry not enough people understand that nuance. Oseman put on a masterclass in constructing an emotional narrative — one they built on the idea of self-realization.
Oseman writes about people's inner lives, which have complexity. They are sometimes turbulent and often contradictory. There can be a lot standing in the way of realization.
The world's cruelest trick is the pattern inversion trap. When you're convinced of the exact opposite of the truth, it's excruciating to find your way out.
Charlie has dealt with harmful people since being outed and wrestles with loneliness, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts. And while Nick knows he likes Charlie, he's got to get through his identity crisis first. Nick has to completely rethink how he views himself and what he accepts about others' views.
Oseman also builds antagonists as people with inner lives and capable of fear. Ben and Nick even share similar fears.
So, it would be wrong to say these characters are happy. That's incomplete. Heartstopper is also about the fear they hold and how it's in tension with their goals. Oseman's story is about what their characters do with that tension.
The Radical Pursuit of Active Joy
Heartstopper Hug. Like the others shown this season, this inflection point in their relationship is driven purely by their agency.
The only way to transcend that tension is with conscious choice. Each character must ask themselves what they want, what they prioritize, and then decide if they wish to pursue self-realization. So any happiness we see is a happiness they're responsible for, their choice in the face of fear. It's dynamic and active. Ben and Nick are foils because they make opposite choices.
So no, Heartstopper is not a “happy” show. It's about agency, an “active joy” where you give yourself permission to seek transcendent realization — despite fear. Oseman deeply values agency in storytelling, and it's a motif in their novels I've read so far. Characters avoid ruin by deciding to keep trying: even when it's hard, or they have to ask for a lot of help, or there's uncertainty.
But I should also note that Oseman's focus on agency doesn't fall into the “Hard Work Fallacy.” It doesn't mean willing yourself out of your problems or going it alone. Oseman often shows that one of agency's primary uses is to counter isolation. They're clear about the importance of friendships and the different shapes of love. So even in stories about romance, they're careful to be realistic about how a single relationship cannot be all-consuming.
Heartstopper is definitely a fairy tale, but it's a profoundly humanist one. No cosmic purpose. No royal bloodline. No chosen one status. Oseman builds their fairy tale with the modest magic of agency and human connection. And that's such a radically hopeful and joyful approach to storytelling, especially for people used to “Bury Your Gays.”
Do you want to be hugged by a neon whirlwind of warm fuzzies? Excellent choice! Love that for you.
Be like Charlie. Make good choices.
I don't think Oseman gets enough credit for how well they model active joy in their storytelling — or even just how profound agency-centered storytelling is.
So for people experiencing Heartstopper Syndrome, reconsider this story as one about laying claim to agency. You don't need to get so focused on the happy ending. Because, of course, there's a happy ending. Weren't you watching?
The protagonists choose it.