How Heartbreak High Helps Heal My Relationship with My Gender Identity
The reboot of the 1994 Australian teen drama under the same name, “Heartbreak High” seems to be the hot new Netflix series zillenials have been gushing about. Featuring bold outfits and an even more eclectic range of characters, the show features a multifaceted, almost-satirical narrative navigating through the winding road of love, drugs, sex education, and friendship. Despite having initial doubts about the show, I was surprised to find it seamlessly gripping my attention and even adjusting the way I thought about representation in mainstream media, particularly in modern Australia.
My initial hesitation about the show (I mean…it was called Heartbreak High…) quickly dissipated after watching the first episode - the immediately upheld tension between the main character and her best friend. The gender, racial, and neurotypical diversity among the cast was endearing in a way I never thought about before. Although the show felt ‘Americanised’ due to the high school characters wearing free dress (Where are the uniform protocols? Being told off for wearing the wrong socks to school? Teachers making sure your summer uniform was past your knees?), the show immediately snapped me out of the usual hypnosis of American teen dramas at the sight of the red P-plate, a Clothing the Gaps sticker on Missy’s Ford Falcon S, and the deliciously familiar accents of the community I grew up in.
Image Credit: Netflix
Although they might not seem significant, Missy’s car embellishments signalled to me a disillusionment of my American-centric predispositions to any type of media I choose to consume–the red P-plate, a symbol of growing up into adulthood for a lot of 18-year-old Aussies, marked my immediate fascination with the show and how seeing diverse Australian youth broadcasted to mainstream media made me feel. The way I thought I understood the importance of diversity as a queer, non-binary Asian Australian gained a new layer of deeper understanding that could only be achieved through empathy and experience.
The first character I recognised as immediately relatable was Darren, the non-binary child of divorced parents, the best friend of Quinni, and the kindhearted adoptive parent of the unpopular protagonist. Darren’s family narrative surrounding their gender is something so painfully relatable for me. Gender, for me, is something that has been incredibly difficult to discuss with those I love. The human experience of gender is so unique and undefinable that, at times, I have often found myself stretching my boundaries around other people's ignorance and saying “It’s okay, I know it’s confusing” to those who continue to misgender and stubbornly mislabel me.
When discussing sexuality, it is often something (most) people can understand - love is a universal experience, and when applying this experience to people of different gender identities, different sexual orientations are simpler to understand for the heteronormative society. However, gender is less of a universal experience and many of us grew up in a society that perpetuates gender binaries on a deep, subconscious level from the moment we are born.
Being assigned a gender based on your sex, parents picking a “girl’s name” or a “boy’s name”, colouring the walls of a nursery blue or pink depending on what genitals you have, getting a girl toy or a boy toy in your Maccas Happy Meal, being separated into a boy and girl class in P.E (what’s the deal with knee push-ups being called girl push ups??), the silly jokes about boys reproductive parts and the malicious remarks about girls reproductive parts in sex ed, women’s grooming products being more expensive than mens, the gender pay gap, being expected to take your husbands surname in marriage, everything about how Western Australian society is built on the binary concept of Man and Woman.
Image credit: Netflix
So when there is a “third thing”, as my parents put it, like being gender non-conforming, the experience of gender is even more difficult to explain. These gender binaries are so fundamental to how our society functions politically, socially, philosophically and economically that any kind of nuance outside of these set rules set by ourselves is immediately discarded as a Gen Z thing, something our generation made up to feel special. Instead of educating themselves and listening to those within these communities, it is often easier to disregard gender non-conformity as “too confusing” and oftentimes, in my experience, it’s easier to accept that you won’t be listened to. Your gender dysphoria will be your problem and your problem alone, everyone else will continue dead-naming you, misgendering you, assuming things about your sexuality and values because it’s easier to let them remain ignorant and suffer the consequences than to try to explain something that they themselves don’t experience and don’t have the empathy to listen to.
Image Credit: Netflix
But that is precisely why Darren’s character is so important in a show like Heartbreak High. Darren’s gender identity is a fundamental part of who they are, but their entire narrative doesn’t surround it because it just is a part of them, it’s not their entire story. A huge part of diversity in media is depicting what makes the character diverse as normal. Media seems to love stories of intergenerational trauma, adversity, and overcoming the tribulations of a white man’s society, and these stories are obviously incredibly important to tell. But I want to see more, I want to see people like me who are living their own life alongside these adversities, something Darren’s character does so beautifully. Their parents, with a very similar “ugh this is so confusing” attitude towards their gender identity, is something so relatable not just to me, but I’m sure to other parents who may have gender-queer children as well. Darren’s ability to stand up for themself and reinforce the validity of their gender identity inspires me to do the same, and I hope that it similarly inspires others to open their hearts and ears, and listen to those who are genderqueer around them in order to understand a fundamental part of their identity.