By now, you’re probably aware of Netflix’s Heartstopper, an incredibly heartwarming coming-of-age television show about queer romance. Yes, the budding relationship and growing romantic feelings between the leads Charlie and Nick send even the most stoic individual through a whirlwind of emotions one could describe as cuteness overload. However, the show’s depiction of friendship – particularly that between Charlie and Tao – is challenging the idea of what platonic love can look like.
Platonic love between men aka a bromance isn’t new. Jon Snow and Sam Tarley in Game of Thrones, Seth and Ryan in The O.C., and Scott and Stiles in Teen Wolf are a few of my personal favourite depictions of bromantic love. But more recently, we’re seeing gay and straight men, like Charlie and Tao, and Eric and Otis in Sex Education, form platonic relationships together that are built on deep emotional connection in the same way women and queer people converse and relate to one another.
When I think of my close friendships, there’s a deep level of intimacy, vulnerability, and understanding. This isn’t built overnight. The continuous emotional investment and the trusted exchange of a secret or two lay the foundation for each of us to be seen and heard and to feel like we have support through life’s turbulent challenges. While talking about feelings comes naturally when women and queer folks converse among themselves, men – particularly straight men – haven’t always experienced this same level of ease when emotionally connecting with each other. There has long been a fear of being perceived as emotional (in other words, feminine) in male friendships, which society has traditionally emphasised isn’t the ideal a man should strive for.
A 2006 study on gay and straight men’s friendships found the fear of feeling shame from a platonic relationship that may be perceived as a gay romantic relationship impacted the level of intimacy and closeness in gay and straight participants’ friendships. It also found that many straight men subscribed to a limiting view of masculinity: that male friendships are formed over shared activities, like sports, video games and drinking, rather than intimate discussion of the deep inner workings of their minds and emotions. Not only does this support the notion that straight men can be afraid of becoming emotionally close to one another, but it also speaks to deep-seated internalised homophobia.
But the idea of masculinity is fluid and can evolve. “In the time that has passed since the 1980s, where a cultural zeitgeist of hegemonic masculinity existed, young men have rapidly come to esteem a more advanced and complex level of emotionality in their same-sex friendships,” a 2017 study on bromances says. That’s why seeing Tao’s approach to friendship with Charlie is lovely to witness. There are various moments where Tao, who is a cisgender heterosexual man, expresses highly emotional feelings in regard to his group of best friends. After Tao fights with school bully Harry, Tao is incredibly distraught and taken over by emotion when speaking to Charlie because he feels deeply hurt and forgotten in their friendship. So much has changed for the friend group: Elle switches schools, and Charlie has less free time after joining the rugby team and hanging with Nick. Tao feels like the friend group that he holds dear is slipping away.
Although he can sometimes seem a bit jealous and a little overbearing, Tao makes it clear that he’s emotionally invested and deeply loves and cares about Charlie and his wellbeing. So it’s natural for Tao to have pause when so much of Charlie’s time is spent with Nick, who is friends with the type of boys that bullied Charlie in the past. Even Nick shows us a thing or two about showing up as a good friend by providing space for Charlie to dispel his former relationship issues before any strong romantic feelings have developed or been confessed.
Obviously, anyone can be friends with whoever they want to be, but there’s a deeper conversation here about who or what society tells us our non-romantic relationships can look like. If you asked me even a year ago what this relationship between two cisgender men has anything to do with the relationships I have with my girlfriends,I’d probably wonder the same thing. However, these limiting society ideals of what relationships between men look like impact us too. Alok Menon-Vaied, a non-binary activist, artist, and scholar, says on their personal blog that, “all of us — regardless of how we identify & navigate the world — have a stake in ending the gender binary.” This is because this binary not only holds up a limited idea of what genders exist but also how you can exist within gender. They go on to say, “[I] want a world where gender is respected as a story, not just a word. One where we understand that it means a fundamentally different thing for one person to be a woman than another, where we recognise that there is no one way to be a man.”
Queerness has always challenged what we hold as the status quo, and, in this case, traditional constructions of what a bromance looks like. For Heartstopper’s Charlie and Tao, it does exactly that. Perhaps Charlie’s queerness and Tao’s rejection of hegemonic masculinity allow them both the space to express themselves and connect and truly love each other beyond solely shared hobbies. Although, Tao would agree that a little movie night never hurt anybody.