BBC’s adaptation of Normal People has had people swooning for over a week now, and the result has been overwhelming. From articles ranking the show’s sex scenes to odes to Connell’s chain necklace, it’s fair to say that there has been widespread acclaim for the show, especially for its steaminess.
It is exactly that steaminess (and subsequent horniness) that has generated the most dialogue, with Normal People and its creators being praised for its healthy portrayal of consent, and the normality and reassurance of it surrounding Connell and Marianne’s relationship. The other topic that grabbed audiences and journalists alike is how ‘normal’ the sex scenes come across, in lieu of glossed over, idealised sex scenes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on our screens. Glamour writes “normal people sex between normal people on the TV that feels shockingly bold.” Of course, the adjective ‘normal’ is going to be thrown around a lot, but I wonder the implications of labelling sex, something so personal, as normal.
why are so many people quick to label and categorise the sex in Normal People as normal, when normal does not exist?
Amidst the obsessive chatter about how perfect and ‘normal’ the portrayal of Connell and Marianne’s sex life, I found myself obsessively questioning (and googling) the idea of ‘normal’ sex. In a way, the show has compromised my sense of security regarding my relationship with sex and whether I’m ‘normal’ or not. In 2016, the BBC reported that attempting to pinpoint what is normal in terms of sex is “a fool’s errand”, that the “variety is so great that a single statistic is never going to capture how most people feel”. So why are so many people quick to label and categorise the sex in Normal People as normal, when normal, most likely, does not exist?
In fact, I don’t perceive that the sex portrayed in Normal People is normal. Almost as if one fumbled attempt of removing a bra branded all of the show’s sex as realistic instantaneously. In reality, it was perhaps the only attempt to be ‘relatable’ against the remaining sprawling, sensual montages.
I, too, sat dreamily watching the intimacy between Connell and Marianne unfold. However, the ice lolly scene in Episode 11 provoked me as I realised it was the only sex scene, between the pair, that takes place from behind- or in any less conventional position. All other sex scenes between Connell and Marianne happen either in missionary or cowgirl, and significantly this one deviance occurs when Marianne’s intertwined sexual and psychological trauma comes to a head. Throughout the scene, Marianne appears unhinged and the tone quickly alters from romantic to uncomfortable when she asks Connell “will you tell me I belong to you?” and, ultimately, “will you hit me?”.
the show provides a limited spectrum for what is perceived to be healthy, ‘normal’ sex
The intimate moments between Connell and Marianne suddenly become a problematic plot device for exhibiting healthy vs unhealthy sex; the show is, most likely unknowingly, inferring that if you are in love sex will look like this, but not that. In reality, this simply isn’t the case and the show provides a limited spectrum for what is perceived to be healthy, ‘normal’ sex. You do not have to have a damaged relationship with yourself, or with sex, to be interested in alternative methods- although I really don’t think you can argue them to be ‘less-conventional’ nowadays.
It would be easy to assume that Normal People is all about the act of sex, and I admit that it’s the way I’ve advertised it to many of my friends. However, I see it more as dealings with the fallout from sex: how complicated it can make our lives but also how able it is to change us. The championing and romanticising of Connell and Marianne’s relationship is heart-warming to see how easily and willingly we all fall at the foot of a great and all-consuming love like theirs. However, I think there has been too much idealisation of their relationship, especially considering almost all of the dialogue has been about how great their relationship, and how normal their sex is when there is so much more serious fallouts to discuss.
For example, Marianne’s blatant psychological struggle with and against sadomasochism and the gut-wrenching idea that it is what she thinks she deserves. In the book, Rooney writes that after these encounters Marianne’s “body feels like a carcass, something immensely heavy and awful that she has to carry around”. So to have the same encounters shown on screen, and then ranked by people amongst the other sex scenes sits uneasily.
Perhaps the dialogue surrounding Normal People should move from the romanticisation and idealisation towards the hard-hitting issues that characterise the story so well. No love is so transcendent that all pain and trauma can be forgotten.
Last modified: 4th May 2020