A Feminist Take on ‘Normal People’

Holly Loach analyses Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’: The sweet bliss of first love, the nuanced hues of adolescence, and how the patriarchy is a suffocating cloak for our mental health.

The BBC3 adaption of Sally Rooney’s novel, ‘Normal People,’ has swept the quarantined nation from the stresses of Covid-19 into a retrospective nostalgia of first love. Observationally documentarian yet intimately familiar, this refreshing portrayal of two young lovers navigating the complex trials of adolescence is delightfully sweet, emotionally wrecking and completely, utterly, beautiful.

‘Normal People’ is a coming-of-age story about the oscillating relationship between Marianne – a unique blend of tender prickliness – and Connell – a straight feminist’s dream (!) and the trajectory of their lives as they grow from school to university. The 12 episodes pan across the novel like a chrono-photographic time-lapse, vignettes of various memories weave together like delicate beads on a heavy necklace: A glance in the school corridor, a car-ride, ‘can we take our clothes off now?’, the ecstasy of a first kiss, the brutality of betrayal, ‘it’s not like this with other people’. Subtle, gentle gestures capture a grand romance. A heartbeat tempo sets in motion a fluid, albeit turbulent, chain of events, as the series lives through its feelings and remains loyal to the novel’s pages. The portrayal of Marianne and Connell’s lives is never patronising; the navigations of youth are taken seriously. It leads us to subjectively reflect upon our own coming-of-age: the awkwardness of fancying someone, what it meant to be ‘popular’ in school, ‘I’ve got a free house this Saturday’, the compatibility and incompatibility of personalities, opening up new areas of conscience…

The landscape is spacious, while inner tension is fraught and claustrophobic. Sentiments often proceed with lonely, melancholic poetry; the soundtrack modestly accompanying with a deft demure. We are made patient, kind, empathetic viewers to Marianne and Connell, never favouring one over the other. It is aesthetically gorgeous, embracing the spirit of small town Ireland; a rejection of Hollywood vanity.

Looking at ‘Normal People’ through a feminist lens is important in order to crystallise and interrogate matters that seem to form naturally, even at times, inevitably. I respected the makers of the series in not indulging in a forced ‘tick box’ approach towards millennial issues; the script is humbly human. What is special about this series is it makes the ‘ordinary’, even the ‘mundane’, worth looking at, and indeed, interesting. It also makes us contemplate who we are as a product of our relationships, as opposed to solely who we are as individuals. Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell) embody their roles so authentically, writers Sally Rooney and Alice Bird slip into the shadows. Nothing is over-explained, rather complex realities are sowed to bud in our imaginations.

From Connell’s deteriorating mental health to the worrying streak of Marianne’s post-trauma masochism, the events are accessible. Hence the title – ‘Normal People’ sensitively raises awareness to mental health in a normalised, everyday fashion. Critics have been quick to praise this important message: depression can happen to any of us. Through the lens of feminist theory however, we can identify Connell’s breakdown as a dangerous ‘ordinary’ rooted in the patriarchy, disguised as ‘toxic masculinity’. As in episode 10, the suicide of Rob pierces a sensitive nerve in Connell: the fragile sense of self which he was still learning to develop shatters, enveloping him into a dark depression. His friend’s suicide a trigger upon an unstable self, a wrenched unbolting of a box of insecurity. The grounds of this adolescent anxiety are perceived as a normal part of ‘growing up’, yet we should be careful to draw a line between the commonality of it, and the patriarchy’s role in it. It is impossible to decipher what is an innate element of our being and what make us a product of the patriarchy. Struggles with mental health are common and fluctuating emotions are normal, but we must also appreciate the patriarchy’s role in our subconscious conditioning. When critics say we shouldn’t always need a reason for unstable mental health, I agree. Yet we should be scrupulous to evade succumbing blind to sexist hegemony, and never fail to hold the patriarchy to account. Unless exposed, its invisibility will only remain its agency for power.

Are we so immune to the patriarchy we see it as ordinarily human? Indeed, no matter how many books Connell reads, how exceptionally bright he is, despite the warm and loving home he comes from, he is still a ‘Normal Person’ (a mischievous premise). We are all vulnerable to being ensnared by the patriarchal mould, even those brightest and most intellectual. Why else would a talented English Literature student at a prestigious university be so inadequate in stringing a sentence together? The dual existence of Connell’s school years, one damagingly dictated by the need to fit in as the popular jock, is all too familiar. Marianne and Connell’s millennial insecurities are certainly cross-generational. Everything leads back to the patriarchy: boy or girl, it erodes the concrete sense of self. It blinds us to perceive its damage as just ‘normal’ issues of ‘Normal People’.

I do also realise, of course, it is not normal for us to always glow a palette of peach-toned happiness; a rainy, melancholy day is natural. It is what makes us human that our centre of axis changes. And Connell’s eventual positive character development rightly proposes that sometimes in life, breaking down can give us an opportunity to grow. Indeed, ‘Normal People’ is full of contradictions; there are no easy answers as to what makes us ‘Normal People’. The series offers interesting perspectives into the continual discourse regarding the intricate entanglement between nature and nurture, and what we can understand as our ‘norm’.
  
It is not just through Connell’s wrangle with toxic masculinity that the patriarchy rears its ugly head. Marianne’s mother’s face is a picture of a traumatised woman, illustrating the human cost of domestic abuse. We see Marianne reliving her mother’s pain through her brother; a haunting reverberation of her late father’s violence. Paramount sympathy is intrinsic to the watching of episode 11, when Marianne’s mother sits helplessly frozen as a witness to her sons’ cruel abuse of her daughter.

Besides exposing the dark masks of the patriarchy, the show is brilliantly feminist in its raw, equally balanced, magnetic sexiness. The way directors, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald tenderly harness the sex scenes has been a hot topic for critics, and for a good reason. While intense, and indeed often, they never appear ‘racy’ or ‘gratuitous’, rather grounded pivotally in the story. Sex seems to come as a release from the hesitating inarticulacy of Marianne and Connell’s failures of verbal dialogue. Indeed, they communicate physically in a way they are unable to in words; their bodies a clear expression of their infatuation with one another. Yet the frustrating gulf in what they don’t say isn’t always satisfied. It is a striking moment in episode 10, when Marianne lies on the bed face down – when typically with Connell she had engaged in a face to face missionary – that the darkness of her trauma emerges. As Connell retreats, things go wrong. And again to our frustration, they are unable to communicate – the race to put on their clothes without the utterance of a single word; Marianne rushes out having barely put on her top. They cry separately. A lesson here teaches us that without open communication, even the most impassioned of love is doomed.

The series orbits solely the lives of Marianne and Connell, with eyes for no- one else. A poignant series to watch in these times of lockdown perhaps, as relationships – be it partners, friends or family – are something we are holding onto at the moment. ‘Normal People’ is honest, ambient. Blissful as it is painful. Not one to miss.

Artwork by Beth Rowland.

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