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Acting – Not Queerbaiting – Is at the Heart of Heartstopper

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Acting – Not Queerbaiting – Is at the Heart of Heartstopper

By Mark Mussari

The young British actor Kit Connor took to Twitter recently to come out as bisexual.

The fact that an eighteen-year-old actor would announce his gender identity on social media is barely news these days – but Connor felt forced rather than compelled to do so. One of the two leads in the wildly successful Netflix series Heartstopper, Connor has avoided defining himself in any way when asked previously about his sexuality.

In Heartstopper, Connor plays Nick Nelson, an affable rugby player who suddenly falls in love with another boy at school, the openly gay Charlie Spring (played by Joe Locke). In an intriguing twist on the usually sexually charged nature of most coming out stories, Heartstopper moves the character’s emotional journey to centerstage as we watch Nick wrestle with his burgeoning feelings for Charlie.

“I’m not too big on labels and things like that,” Connor explained in one podcast. “I don’t feel I need to label myself, especially publicly.”

The Twitter-verse has not been quite so understanding, however. When he was spotted walking hand-in-hand with Maia Reficco, his costar in the forthcoming film A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, many young followers, assuming Connor was straight, started to accuse him of “queerbaiting.” The term applies particularly to straight cis gender actors pretending to be queer to garner a larger LGBTQ+ audience (along with its allies).

After leaving Twitter because of the harassment about his sexuality, an apparently exasperated Connor returned recently to tell his followers – and the world: “back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.”

He’s correct that his critics missed the point of the show and all four of the Heartstopper graphic novels, both written by Alice Oseman: each person’s journey toward self-realization is different, tempered by their own comfort in defining themselves. Repeatedly, in both the books and series, gay and bisexual characters tell Nick he doesn’t have to define himself or come out as anything. Ultimately, their advice grants him the strength to accept that he is in love with another boy.

While much has been written defending Connor against the online bullying that resulted in the actor feeling he needed to come out, the real problem stems more from the character Connor played and the predominantly young audience’s reaction to him. Lovers of the Heartstopper books and series simply want him to “be” Nick Nelson, a good-hearted bisexual teen who feels deeply and is liked by a broad spectrum of classmates.

To say that Connor inhabits the character and his inner conflicts would be an understatement. His every word, movement, and expression are so credible that the performance feels effortless. Often tacitly, Connor imparts Nick’s internal struggle with an elegance normally reserved for much more seasoned actors (and that includes his scenes with Olivia Colman playing his mother). That should be more than enough—but it isn’t.

We are producing a generation that is inept at responding to the arts aesthetically. Their tunnel vision impedes their ability, in this case, to judge Connor on the only thing he should be judged on: his performance. Connor is not a confessional poet. His purpose in life is not to turn his personal life inside out for the benefit of anyone else. It is both saddening and maddening that so many people can bring only one barometer to every act of artistic creation—the political as it relates to themselves.

It’s a travesty that Kit Connor felt he had to do exactly what he didn’t want to do because of misguided accusations of queerbaiting. He’s an actor who has played a role so well that many people have forgotten that he is acting. They want something from him that he can never give them. They want him to be the character he plays.

And they are forgetting that the reason he is so convincing in this role is his undeniable talent, not his personal life.

Mark Mussari, Ph.D., is an educator, translator, and the author of numerous educational books and articles on art, design, and entertainment.

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: November 30, 2022.

Photos © 2021. Courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.

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