Normalising vulnerability and consent: How Normal People made us fall in love with sex
I grew up on a diet of American teen dramas like Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and Glee.
I loved the scandal of the characters’ lives all of which seemed to be oriented around their sex lives. In these shows, sex was a plot device. It was a snide way the characters could seek revenge on one another, or complicate the pre-existing relationships these shows dramatize.
Sex seemed to be the main focal point of these narratives (let’s not forget the episode of Glee where Quinn seemingly becomes pregnant simply by sharing a hot tub with Finn). Yet the sex scenes on these shows felt impersonal, often strangely devoid of intimacy, as if weaponised by the writers.
In Euphoria season 2, the whole betrayal of the Maddie/Cassie/Nate situation became the main source of conflict in what used to be a well-balanced examination of intersectional teenage experiences.
I devoured those boxsets then. Now I question if they were the right sort of introduction to sex. Sex appeal has always been a draw for TV dramas – it’s the state in which we are the most vulnerable and, well, naked.
It wasn’t until I watched Normal People (based on the novel by Sally Rooney) that I realised how much that vulnerability had been erased from the shiny pseudo-porn that occupied teen dramas of the 2010s.
Watching the show felt intrusive for a different reason as moments between the central protagonists, Marianne (Dasiy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) were charged with great authenticity – the kind that is rare to see on tv and even rarer to experience in real life.
Normal People was a revelation, particularly for a sort of shy, bookish, hopelessly romantic subsection of the population. Here were these two characters that could absolutely not communicate effectively and yet their chemistry was powerful enough to overcome the fumbling limitations of language.
The setting was beautiful, the characters complex, and there were so many heated sex scenes. It made for perfect quarantine viewing.
Connell and Marianne epitomise that quote from Jane Austen’s Emma, “if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” The grandeur of Austen speaks to the calibre of romance that Rooney presents us with, but instead of long-awaited marriage proposals, in Normal People their love is humble, small, and unpretentious.
You could never imagine the characters confessing their feelings in such an extravagant manner, but the sentiment is there, in the silences and the small movements throughout, always towards each other. We see them over the course of several years, school and university.
All of these exchanges (cups of tea, car journeys, lingering glances) constitute a relationship that courses through their lives, intertwining and breaking apart in equal measure. It takes them several goes to truly get it right until circumstances once again intercept. It’s realism with a tinge of Romanticism. Words go unsaid; important moments are fumbled through hesitation while the intimate moments illuminate the potency of their connection.
When talking is so difficult, only physicality remains.
Occasionally, the sex scenes feel more revealing than the conversations between them since there’s no self-consciousness in the moment. What is partially so magnetic is how the relationship between Marianne and Connell is naturalised onscreen. Before they even start sleeping together, the tension between them is evident. Their tenderness for each other only grows throughout the series.
The first instance of intimacy between them is the kiss that occurs in Marianne’s house. After it happens and Connell rushes out, we see Marianne sit for a moment at the table, her expression illuminated by excitement and disbelief at what has happened.
It is apparent here how those four walls of the house that has previously been devoid of meaning have suddenly become alive with possibility, her world has opened outwards because of a moment of mutual tenderness. This savoured moment is indicative of what the right relationship can do in provoking a sense of optimism in a shared future.
The start of their sexual relationship in the following episode becomes a natural progression between two characters who understand and feel tenderly towards each other amidst and despite external barriers.
Connell himself became something of a sex symbol amongst avid watchers of Normal People and anyone possessing eyes. His chain instantly garnered much fascination, as well as its own Instagram page which has 155k followers to date.
The attraction to this character lies not only in his aesthetic beauty but the ease with which he asks for consent. Much of the conflict throughout Normal People derives from the couple’s inability to communicate with one another but never when it comes to consent.
When they have sex for the first time, it is evident that Marianne has never done it before, Connell reassures her that they can stop, “if it hurts or anything just say, it won’t be awkward at all.” How many people must have watched that and wished that someone had shown them that degree of consideration during their first time?
Asking for consent is a basic gesture but it’s imperative in making your partner feel safe during a vulnerable exchange. Often even brief mentions of consent are omitted from sex scenes in favour of pacing. Perhaps there is also a fear of ruining the overall sexiness of the impromptu sex scene.
But consent shouldn’t feel like a PSA. Nor should it be a moment written specifically to teach the viewer about proper sexual etiquette, it’s the decent thing to do and both Marianne and Connell come off way better for it. When it comes to consent, words cannot be minced.
Connell isn’t perfect though. His mother, Lorraine rightfully chides him after he invites the more socially acceptable Rachel to the debs (the Irish equivalent of prom) over Marianne who he’s sleeping with. This mistake tortures Connell for many months which speaks to a certain degree of respect you should show the person (or people) you’re having sex with.
The series also depicts the stigma surrounding sex and mental health, particularly in small Irish communities. Throughout the show, the central relationship becomes a subject of voyeuristic fascination to those around them. Particularly in one scene when Marianne’s friend, Peggy, proposes a threesome between them which provokes instant discomfort.
It seems hypocritical to condemn the voyeuristic musings of the other characters when as the viewers we are privy to each intimate exchange between Marianne and Connell. However, I think there’s a magnetism that’s difficult to ignore when we can fulfil our need for connection through an understanding in fiction. The idea of love like this is comforting, the sex feels truthful and authentic in a way that isn’t voyeuristic but liberating in its awkwardness.
Maybe you’ll spend your whole life seeking out that kind of connection, maybe you’ll even catch glimpses of it. Never before had that feeling been rendered so well in a programme.
During lockdown, Normal People made us feel excited about life again. Aware of the potential in those around us, it awakened an insatiable appetite to make those human mistakes of drinking too much and falling in and out of love (and sleeping) with the wrong people.
So yes, I do think that cutting out the sex would ruin the texture of the story and its truthfulness, especially when based in a country that has historically ignored the existence of sexuality outside of marriage. The sex scenes are as essential as the dialogue. They are a different form of communication that goes beyond the clumsy stumblings of linguistics. The sex scenes operate as part of the whole, not as an anomalous means of injecting gossip material.
So, as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is set to dominate our screens in May, we must query why her stories continue to have such a hold over us. I’ve watched Normal People at least five times and read the book twice – with my housemates, with my mum, on Sunday evenings when I’m feeling lonely. And although it’s emotionally devastating and I’ll inevitably cry at the same bits, there’s very little that (if you’ll excuse the innuendo) has touched me so deeply.
Going beyond simple attraction – Normal People does what great art should do; it incites you to start living, to enjoy an extraordinarily normal life with extraordinarily normal people.