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When Characters on the Screen Help You Feel Seen

Why is it so meaningful to see yourself (and others) in media narratives?

Key points

  • Seeing your identity and experiences represented authentically in a TV show can be emotionally powerful.
  • Diverse and positive representations of historically marginalized social groups can reduce stereotyping and prejudice.
  • Bonding with others over a favorite program can contribute to relational well-being.

A friend of mine (let’s call her Eloise) is 47 with a wife and two teenage sons. She has recently been what she describes as “obsessed” with the Netflix show Heartstopper. The critically acclaimed British series, based on Alice Osman’s graphic novel, features a young gay student who falls in love with his ostensibly straight but questioning classmate, among other burgeoning identities and relationships. The tone of the show is a mix of comedy and drama, but on balance, it has an emotional lightness to it.

Eloise is not alone; numerous fan groups have popped up around the show, which boasts a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has won various awards. In fact, investment in the characters of the show has spilled over, as it does, onto the actors who play them, with mixed results.

In addition to fan outpourings of admiration and appreciation, one of the lead actors has been accused of “queer-baiting"—a dubious term suggesting that he is deliberately obscuring his own (presumed heterosexual) sexual identity to court queer fans.

Others find this ironic, given that his character on the show ultimately identifies as (spoiler alert) bisexual, and defends his need for privacy and/or potential bisexuality. In a gentler take, one of my students pointed out that, although intellectually he knows that the actor is entitled to move on to other projects, the switch in roles feels a bit like a “parasocial” loss, since audiences were so invested in his fictional romantic relationship with Charlie.

So why might this show be capturing the passions and imagination of such a large swath of viewers, and Eloise in particular? How might the show be contributing to her social and emotional health, and, indeed, the emotional and social health of its broader audience?

On seeing and being seen

Positive and nuanced representations of historically marginalized groups in the media can be particularly powerful for those whose stories have either not been told at all, or not been told well. Narratives not only afford a special kind of emotional processing that allows us to both reflect on and react to various storylines, but they convey implicit cultural value: these characters and their lives matter. In fact, not seeing ourselves well-represented in the media has been likened to a kind of “symbolic annihilation” (Gerbner & Gross, 1976) and can take a social and psychological toll.

Among the many reasons Eloise has been struck by Heartstopper is that it is about coming out in a way that isn’t filled with “ominousness,” and in a way that mirrored her own experiences of realizing that she was attracted to women, in addition to men, somewhat abruptly.

I saw something in media for the first time that looked like my own experience of realizing I wasn’t straight. So much of what we see in media about being gay is about someone who has kind of always known or known for a long time and they are figuring out how to tell other people and often they feel pretty negatively about it (for one reason or another). For a variety of reasons that was kind of the opposite of my experience.

Seeing her own identity reflected in a compelling and realistic way on the screen enabled Eloise to revisit and reclaim parts of her life story that she had not been able to fully articulate to others at the time. This helps explains why, in middle age, stories of teenagers fumbling through new sexual feelings and relationships felt so relevant. Others share this appreciation; a recent article (How Heartstopper Changed the World) quoted Scott Ryan (a TV critic/fan) as saying, “Heartstopper will always have a special place in my heart because it speaks to the younger version of myself who never saw himself on television, and really needed to.”

It bears noting that the power of media visibility is not specific to the LGBTQ community. A student of mine heard herself in Eloise’s sentiments while watching the show Black-ish, which she said gave her a new way to think and talk about her experiences as a Black American navigating predominantly white spaces.

We often hear, "If we can see it we can be it" (or: “If she can see it, she can be it,” the inspirational tagline of Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media)—and much social psychological research underscores the motivational value of seeing role models who look like us in our social, academic, and professional spheres (e.g., Zirkel, 2002). But perhaps another important phrase is "If we can see it, we can feel seen."

Inclusion and empathy

The need to see ourselves reflected on the screen is also an outgrowth of the need to be seen and valued in everyday life. Her own fascination with Heartstopper motivated Eloise to reach out to those who knew her when she was younger so that we might bear witness to her experiences. Moreover, she brought a sense of urgency to text chains and conversations ("Have you watched yet? Why not?!”). She wanted to be understood, in hindsight, by her childhood friends, some of whom, hurtfully, if naively, dismissed her bisexuality as a “phase.”

My realization that I could be attracted to women felt really powerful—almost like a thunderbolt... 'Phase' or 'experiment' didn’t seem strong enough to describe what was happening. Seeing Nick also have this intense and surprising turn of events for him felt very familiar and like I could finally point to something and say to my friends—see this show? That’s a lot of what I was going through!

Eloise’s desire also reflects the importance of diverse representations to debunk stereotypes and reduce prejudice. Building on Allport’s (1954) intergroup contact theory of prejudice reduction, the parasocial contact hypothesis specifies that we might also benefit from pseudo-friendships with media figures (Schiappa et al., 2005). That is, as viewers form imagined attachments to characters whose identities may be different from their own, they can expand the boundaries of their socioemotional circles. Indeed, research has found that exposure to LGBTQ characters over time can reduce homophobia among heterosexual viewers, who may have few if any gay friends in real life (Bond, 2020).

Tuning in and reaching out

In the aftermath of watching Heartstopper, Eloise found herself wanting to engage beyond her immediate circle of friends. The fundamental themes of teenage confusion and romance motivated her to email her first boyfriend, and she sought out fan groups for the first time in her life. She found it fascinating to see how many other people also resonated with the show—whether to applaud the ways it helped them think about their own relationships, to express their thrill about such a positive queer young love story, or to share melancholy that this kind of show, and real-life story, was not around publicly when they were young.

Entertainment media is often presumed to be an escapist distraction from the trials and tribulations of real life. This view not only underestimates the power of media to promote self-reflection and expansion, but it also sidesteps the social and emotional benefits of affiliating and bonding with others who share our experiences. Research on fan identity has shown that it is this particular aspect of fandom that is associated with well-being (Vinney et al., 2019).

And so...

Ultimately, increased diversity in entertainment media narratives and characters is healthy for promoting nuanced representations of historically invisible or stereotyped groups, and can foster self-awareness and social connection among viewers. The next time you or someone you love sees themselves in a TV show, it pays to pay attention.

**Many thanks are due to Vassar students My Trieu ('25), Gari Puckrein ('24), and Garrett Schmid ('25) for their helpful contributions to this piece, to "Eloise" for her analytical passion, and to my husband, for his editorial and moral support.


Bond, B. J. (2020). The development and influence of parasocial relationships with television characters: A longitudinal experimental test of prejudice reduction through parasocial contact. Communication Research, 48(4), 573–593.

Vinney, C., Dill-Shackleford, K. E., Plante, C. N., & Bartsch, A. (2019). Development and validation of a measure of popular media fan identity and its relationship to well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(3), 296–307.

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