In this edition of the podcast we thoroughly unpacked the recent TV show Normal People.
For an overview of advice about sex, relationships, and ourselves – based on the show – check out Justin’s post over on BishUK.
We agreed that we felt ambivalent about the show. While it depicted some things beautifully and profoundly, it also reproduced and reinforced some normative narratives – and engaged in forms of tokenism and erasure – in ways we found problematic.
In case the embedded player isn’t showing up here’s a link to the podcast. Also just search for ‘meg-john and justin’ in a podcast app on your phone: like Pocket Casts, or Apple Podcasts. Also here’s our Zoom chat on YouTube.
Of this ambivalence, MJ reflected: “On the one hand it is the story of so many of our lives – it is utterly beautiful and understandable and devastating on searching for, finding, and losing love. On the other hand it’s this stupid, pointless, tragic normativity which takes all the characters’ time, energy and emotion. They could be loving their friends, and working on their projects, and collectively bonding together to address and support each other around real suffering, instead of putting everything into this ‘love’ they manufactured between themselves to separate them off from everyone else, to hurt themselves on, and to distract themselves from what really matters.”
The power of seeing ourselves reflected (or not) in fiction
Perhaps the main power in the show was in the way it depicts aspects of experience which we rarely see depicted. For example, it represents the heavy ongoing impact of school bullying, the ways in which the trauma of being emotionally unsafe in both school and home environments plays out in later relationships, and the conflicts involved in going to university when you’re from a working class background.
When elements of your experience are taken seriously in fiction in this way, compassion for yourself can become more possible. It may also become more possible to get a bigger perspective: for example, we see the experience of Marianne being bullied, but we also get a sense of where the bullies – and those who enable them – are coming from, as well as the wider non-consensual school systems and class/gender context this is happening within, and the ways in which everyone is seeking some sense of safety and belonging: often through hurting and rejecting others in various ways.
Of course, for all the experiences that are well-depicted in the show, many are invisible or erased, or depicted in tokenistic ways. It also has a huge impact, for example, on viewers of colour, to repeatedly see themselves only represented as very minor characters, and in unrealistic and/or negative ways (in this case a mostly silent member of the bullying group, a fascist apologist, an uncaring dom, a jealous girlfriend). Given the questions the show raises about being ‘normal people’, there is very little queerness in the show except for Peggy’s suggested threesome which is quickly rejected, and little sense of gender expressions or roles outside of restricted modes of culturally ‘attractive’ femininity and masculinity.
The kink narrative is also disappointing. Marianne is depicted as drawn to kink because she has been abused and struggles to feel connected to herself and to partners – apart from Connell – without kink. Also kink is represented as being pretty harmful for her, even a form of self-harm by proxy. While, of course, these are experiences of kink that some people do have, kinky sexualities are no more-or-less likely to be linked to trauma and abuse than other sexualities, and – like other forms of sex – they have the potential to be healing as well as harming. The problem is that these stories are pretty much the only stories we ever see about kink. This damages an already vulnerable, pathologised, criminalised community, making it even less likely that they can look closely at these issues when they do come up. It also means that those considering kink for themselves have few positive models to draw on in mainstream media, and may well receive negative responses from others who are influenced by these depictions.
Also why does everyone on the show smoke?!
What the relationship opened up and closed down
Turning to the relationship between Marianne and Connell, we reckoned it was a thoughtful depiction of intersectionality and power in a relationship dynamic. There were great reflections on the ways in which our relationships are impacted by gender, class, the level of trauma in our families, whether we fit or misfit in our surrounding world (school or college), and whether we experience ourselves as attractive or not. It was good to see moments where Connell recognised the massive impact that his minimising and enabling of school bullying – and his secrecy around their relationship – had had on Marianne, as well as moments where Marianne raised the impact of the vast difference between them on class and financial security.
However, there was certainly a sense that the romantic relationship was the big story here – as we still see across so much fiction. Other characters were treated – by the story and by the couple – as of far less value and importance. Romantic relationships are seen – by Marianne and Connell – as the place to find the kind of love, belonging, and safety that they had lacked or lost when they were younger, and they put all their energy there in ways which put the relationship under huge pressure while neglecting to build potentially helpful other sources of support and connection.
There is a helpful message in the show that the bubble of intense love feelings (connected to erotic contact and mutual understanding) can co-exist with non-consensual dynamics (such as Connell’s horrible treatment of Marianne in school). People often assume that intense connection means that the relationship as a whole is good, and it may not be so. We also see moments of massive misunderstanding between the characters because they assume that they are so connected that they must telepathically understand each others’ needs and desires. We’d have loved to get them a copy of our Relationship User Guide Zine!
At the end of the show there is a sense that perhaps a relationship can get us where we need to go in life. Perhaps they had to keep returning to each other until they got something they needed – and learnt something – and then it was ok to go their separate ways. When each character reached their ‘rock bottom’ it was telling that they had to go to themselves, and to others (friends, a therapist), rather than just to each other, to get past that.
Towards the end of the show, Marianne calls on Connell to help her escape an abusive situation. Connell says to her ‘Look at me a second… No-one is ever going to hurt you like that again. Everything’s going to be alright, trust me. Because I love you. And I’m not going to let anything like that happen to you again.’ There was something important here about opening up the private home situation – where so much abuse happens statistically – to outside scrutiny so that somebody could tell Marianne that what she was going through was not acceptable (although, sadly, it is quite ‘normal’, and certainly was normalised for her). However, going from one private home to another (nuclear family to couple) could be seen as pretty risky. We wondered what it would take to create the circumstances where Marianne had a community of support who could say such words to her, and the circumstances where she could say that to herself.
Also it was concerning to see masculine violence depicted as the only way to keep Marianne safe from abuse, and the way her mother was left in that situation unsupported. The emphasis seemed to be on Connell as an individual going from cowardice (not saving Marianne from abuse in school) to courage (saving Marianne from abuse later), rather than a recognition of the wider systems and structures which empower us – or make it virtually impossible for us – to be brave in such ways.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020