Staff Writer Jessica Anne Rose reviews Heartbreak High.
(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Heartbreak High.)
In September 2022, the remake of the hit Australian 1990s TV series Heartbreak High premiered on Netflix, and as a way of taking breaks to ease myself back into the swing of college work, I decided to watch it. Everybody who knows me knows that I am incredibly critical and picky with everything I devour from the media, but for the first time watching a series I laughed, cried, shouted at the screen, and kicked my legs giddily at romance scenes. Though Heartbreak High is set in Australia and there are always going to be cultural differences I felt as though everything I watched could be happening on my front doorstep with people my age. I cannot praise the creators and writers of the series – Michael Jenkins, Hannah Carroll Chapman, and Ben Gannon – enough for taking the time to research and replicate what being a teenager is like in 2022. No awkward out of date slang, everything the actors did felt like something real teenagers would do, and the writers absolutely nailed the LGBTQ+ experience. For the first time in my life I watched something that mirrored my own experience with being queer without tragedy, without homophobia, or targetted acts of hatred. Heartbreak High tells queer stories that possess immense emotional depth, but the characters’ sexualities are never their defining trait or their defining storyline.
One character called Darren is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns in the show, something his divorced parents struggle with, but they never dismiss their child’s identity nor try to talk them out of it. It’s honest and I can feel how hard they’re trying to connect with Darren and respect them, but Darren is quite stubborn at times and shuts themself off from people trying to interact with them. I loved how Darren’s gender identity never affected their relationship with their peers; all of the kids were well able to banter with one another without resorting to petty misgendering. Throughout the series Darren befriends the local ‘eshay’ Cash, who is incredibly quiet, introspective, and also very vulnerable. (Apparently Australian teenagers use Pig-Latin as slang! An ‘eshay’ is essentially what us Irish would call a lad who engages in petty crime and hangs around in gangs.) Cash lives with his grandmother and doesn’t want any part of the gang culture he’s been born into, and befriends Darren who works at the local fast food shop. Where Darren is loud, opinionated and afraid to trust, Cash is sensitive, caring and wants to take their relationship slow, something Darren has always hated. Cash realises he is on the ace spectrum, (where a person experiences little to no sexual desire or attraction) and Darren finds they cannot stop themself from loving Cash despite it. It’s a really emotional and important piece of television, because I had never seen asexuality represented on television until now. The pair fall in love despite their differences and preconceived notions about one another, and asexuality is represented positively; it doesn’t mean you are ‘broken’ or ‘wrong,’ and you can still find companionship.
My favourite character Quinni touched my heart in a million different ways and healed parts of me I didn’t know were hurt. Quinni is Darren’s bubbly best friend – she is passionate, creative, and expresses herself through really fun makeup looks. She also is a total badass, she asks out the girl she likes without beating around the bush and is never afraid to question something or to vocalise her innate curiosity. Quinni is also very open about her autism, and even has a large chunk of an episode dedicated to how she builds her life around it. As a neurodivergent woman myself, seeing Quinni’s phone reminders to check in on her needs, her printed out daily routines, her use of ear defenders without any shame, and the pure, unadulterated happiness she gets out of engaging with her special interests; I bawled my eyes out. I had never seen such an accurate and honest depiction of autism in my life, and Quinni is such a joyful character who possesses talent, immense empathy for everyone and has such a strong sense of self. I had never realised until I watched Heartbreak High that I could be neurodivergent and so happy with my life. Like Quinni, I could maintain my childlike love for the things and people I adore, I could stim, express my emotions loudly, maintain my naive curiosity and still be respected as an intelligent and capable woman – and not be infantilised.
Heartbreak High offers those often misrepresented or not represented at all the hope that we too can live a life where we are happy, we are fulfilled, and we belong. Since watching it I have felt so much more confident in expressing myself, and it taught me about how to support my non-binary and asexual friends that I am so proud of for unashamedly expressing their identities. Since arriving at UCC and turning twenty I have realised that the world is so much bigger than the weird popularity hierarchy we were engulfed in for six years at secondary school – and I wish I could’ve had this series then. Regardless, I am delighted to have it now, and as I continue on my literary journey of trying to represent women like me in all forms of media, I keep Heartbreak High in my mind as inspiration. We can be represented, we can tell our own stories, and we can be the main characters.