At first glance, Normal People is an unassuming show. Adapted from Sally Rooney’s introspective novel, the story follows Marianne and Connell, two Irish teenagers who start a relationship in secret. We watch them stumble through the halls of their rural high school, Marianne a wealthy outcast and Connell a star athlete. It’s a familiar story about star-crossed lovers and class tension, but the book’s real draw is Rooney’s exploration of character through sex. Going in, I was wary of a string of exploitative sex scenes with a few sad montages thrown in between. There was no guarantee that the show would treat the characters’ sexualities with the same delicacy the book had.
It’s not that there’s been a shortage of well-constructed sex scenes on TV. From the stylized bang-fests of Euphoria to the fumbling encounters of Sex Education, streaming television is saturated with them. But few shows treat teenage sex with tenderness and realism. Normal People addresses these issues in pop culture on and off screen; the show’s use of an intimacy coordinator has been widely praised. They supervise everything from simulated sex to actor empowerment, but can they create healthier sex on screen, too? Ita O’Brien, Normal People’s intimacy coordinator, has said that sexuality done properly is more about character development than chemistry.
That philosophy proves true within the first few episodes of Normal People. Marianne and Connell’s first time is quite literally the inciting incident of the show. O’Brien and director Lenny Abrahamson paint every second in painstaking detail. From a stuck bra strap to a fit of giggles, each moment feels real and necessary. Consent is explicitly asked for and given; in fact, that scene might’ve been the first time I’ve ever seen a male character put on a condom on TV. More than its source material, Normal People is a direct challenge to the notion that consent isn’t sexy. It’s no accident that actor Paul Mescal spends much of the series in nothing but a now-notorious chain. Connell’s body is just as much the camera’s muse as Marianne’s. We see them as equals, and without this first fifteen-minute sex scene, we wouldn’t know them quite so well. Marianne’s insecurity, Connell’s misunderstood shyness, the reasons why they continue to gravitate toward each other: all of it sits in the room with them.
That careful attention to character grounds the first half of the series in reality. Abrahamson hands the director’s hat over to Hettie Macdonald, and Marianne and Connell move from high school to college. The two separate because of a misunderstanding; they shoot daggers at each other across crowded rooms, accompanied by dusky lighting and Joy Division covers. It’s perfectly melodramatic. No matter how realistic the sex, we’re still here to watch beautiful people fall in love. Even as class barriers, abuse, and codependence thicken the plot, sex functions as a frame of reference for all things: friendship, loss, belonging. By the end of the series, I felt like I had spent five years with Connell and Marianne, weathering tragedy and hardship—but I was most connected to the inner lives of these characters when they were in the bedroom. “It’s not the same with other people,” Connell tells Marianne, lying side by side after Marianne’s had a fight with her boyfriend. This single shot encompasses so much of Marianne’s inner turmoil—the show’s faithfulness to the book’s introspection creates chemistry in the briefest touches and glances.
But that same faithfulness is also the show’s downfall as Normal People slogs through its most-debated plotline: Marianne’s exploration of BDSM. After breaking up with Connell, she begins having rough, submissive sex with other boyfriends. Since the latter half of the show was directed by a woman, I had hopes for a healthier depiction of Marianne’s sexuality, but instead she suffers in graphic, unsparing detail. We focus on Marianne’s dull, lifeless eyes as her boyfriends choke her and call her worthless, putting her through the hell she thinks she deserves. So many shots linger on Marianne’s bruises, too-tight bonds, and shifting gaze that the message couldn’t be clearer: we are meant to take pity on Marianne, to shame her as we take pleasure from her. Because she is a victim of abuse, she wants others to cause her pain. The show implies that a history of abuse entails a desire for sadomasochism, but the connections are few and far between. Like so many stories before it, Normal People can’t resist the urge to equate fetishization with trauma.
Perhaps an intimacy coordinator made these scenes bearable to film, but the show’s treatment of the BDSM community is puzzling at best and disturbing at worst. For a show that embraces sex positivity in all other aspects, this misrepresentation is a large step backwards. These segments are essentially torture porn, an obstacle between the heroine and her savior; Connell has a white-knight complex that wasn’t even present in the source material. During their last sex scene, Marianne begs Connell to hit her. In the novel, Connell simply refuses because he doesn’t find the idea appealing. In the show, he pulls back as if repulsed, acting like hitting her consensually would be morally depraved—an unthinkable request on her part. The show acts as if enjoying BDSM is disrespectful to oneself when in reality rough sex is fairly common and safely practiced. When Marianne runs out crying, kink-shamed and stripped of her own sexual autonomy, the show completely disenfranchises its own main character.
The final moments of Normal People are semi-sweet, a restoration of both distance and longing between the lovers as Connell moves to New York. But Marianne’s shame still weighs heavily on what should have been a heartstring-tugging conclusion. Despite some beautifully intimate moments, Normal People’s missteps leave behind a bitter taste.
By MJ Brown