Initially I was going to follow up last week’s review of the BBC’s TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, with a review of the second half. I would have written about Marianne’s relationship with her mother. I would have thought about Connell’s struggles with insecurities and the crumbling of his self-identity at university. I would have discussed the Irish scenery, compared to the Italian landscape, and how it impacts the atmosphere at key points in the story. But, in recent days the conversation has changed. Following a live phone-in on the radio show, Livelive, the sex in this series has taken on a life of its own.
For those who haven’t heard the phone-in, asking listeners to share their opinions on the show, I’ll give a brief recap and spare you listening to it in full: Some people didn’t like the sex, other people thought it was fine.
After listening to this lively “moral” debate, I started to think about the title Normal People. Unlike some of the listeners, I don’t believe the series (or the novel) is a doctrine on how to be ‘normal’. It doesn’t advocate or dictate behaviour, labelling it as ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘normal’. It observes. It unmasks the fallacy of normality as a concept and addresses the desperate struggle to be socially accepted and well-liked. It presents the lives of individuals, with no judgement, motive or omniscient narration. The reason so many people relate to this story is because the character’s thoughts somehow reflect our own – no matter your culture or creed, regardless of how ‘normal’ you think you are.
On one hand, some people are outraged by the exploration of sex in this drama, on the other, people laugh it off as a ‘millennial love story’. An interesting polarisation of opinions. I won’t lose myself down a rabbit hole, discussing religion, so-called morality, and the practices of the Church – it’s not my place and, if that interests you, you can listen to the broadcast (or read this article in the Irish Times). But, looking into the eye of this opinion-storm, I do wonder why female sexuality is so often either demonised or trivialised by the mainstream. Some say, if her great sex is relatable then it’s a reflection of womanhood gone bad. Some think, if her passion resonates with lots of other young women, it should be cast-off as romantic chick-lit (an even easier assertion if written by a woman). It seems a lot of men have a lot of opinions on this one young woman’s coming-of-age story…what a shocker.
Paul Mescel, who plays Connell, responded to the opinions expressed on LiveLine, saying
“the last thing I want to do here is sit and judge people for that, because they’re obviously entitled to their opinion. But my own perspective of it is that I think we worked very hard to make it feel like it was a real, accurate and truthful representation of sex amongst young people today”
Regardless of the audience’s opinionated noises, the relationship between Connell and Marianne is a poignant microcosm of truly weighty, relevant issues (mainly the fear of being abnormal and the effect that our self-identity has on our connection with and treatment of others). The sex is an important part of this story – it shows two young people navigating their own vulnerability, consent and control, which is a vital (and enevitable) step in the process of growing up.
For all these reasons, I think the novel and its adaptation are deeply meaningful. The most powerful art is that which makes us question what it is to experience life and to grapple with our own anxieties – Normal People shows us a glimpse of Connell and Marianne’s. What we take from their story is our own reading. Sally Rooney’s genius lies in the spaces and silences she creates, within which her readers (and now viewers) have the room to allow their own interpretations to grow. What could be more meaningful than that?
This story, like any other, is perhaps only relatable to people living in similar circumstances (financial, political, geographical). And yet, ‘relatability’, to my mind, remains an achievement. Relatability simply means that the character’s lives or emotions reflect your own in some literal or abstract way. Mundanity, heartbreak, depression, joy, satisfaction, regret – this is the stuff of life, and so, it’s also the stuff that makes great fiction.
Circling back to the radio show, I’m most interested in the concept of female agency and self-identity. Marianne simultaneously enjoys exploring her own sexuality, while struggling with her self-image as a result of continuous abuse from the men in her life. Sometimes she has an air of intellectual superiority (especially with the boys at school) and sometimes she feels utterly unworthy of love. On LiveLine, many of the male callers seemed deeply concerned by Marianne’s morality (and, bizarrely, that of their own daughters). It interests me that their main worry is about her enjoyment of consentual sex, and what her sex life might do to her in the future, rather than the cruel treatment she receives from platonic male figures, namely her brother and deceased father, and the resulting impact of their abuse on her self-worth. As is clearly shown in Normal People, to enjoy sex is not problematic, to believe that you don’t deserve to enjoy sex is.
When Connell and Marianne are together, the director occasionally uses nudity to tell viewers that they are seeing the raw, real, unfiltered moments shared between two people – vulnerable, private and unguarded moments that are in stark contrast to the cold, detached hostility Connell often expresses. One caller took issue with the nakedness of a young woman (assuming she had been exploited in some way) but had none of the same concerns for actor Paul Mescel. It’s unsurprising that a naked woman sparks a reaction, whereas a man’s naked body has not been sexualised or objectified in the first place, and so provokes far less of a response regarding morality. In my opinion, the nudity in this series was not gratuitous or exploitative, it simply added a sense of authenticity to those moments.
The nudity seemed to upset some people because Connell and Marianne are young adults, one caller suggesting that teenagers are unable to fall in love or are too young to understand the feeling of love, therefore their sole driver must be hormonal and, by extension, animalistic. Dismissing the emotions of young people is to say they aren’t experiencing life in a valid, worthwhile, or truthful way. While the sex has stolen the focus of a great many conversations about Normal People (inluding this one), there is so much more to be said about the portrayal of mental health, self-esteem and the process of grief in this drama. Certainly the scene in which Connell cries for the first time will stay with me. Anyone who watches it and still believes that young adults don’t recognise love and loss ought to reconsider their own emotional intelligence.
There’s so much I haven’t said here (I haven’t even touched on Marianne’s relationship with Philip) and I hope that doesn’t seem totally remiss. I could write about Normal People all day but I imagine no one is actually reading my ramble by this point! All that’s left to say is that we’re all entitled to our own thoughts, interpretations and beliefs – I look forward to a day when that is a right afforded to us all.