In Pursuit of Normal: The Power of Sex in Media as a Teaching Tool
It’s the moments in between the moments, where the last taste of words seem to still linger on the character’s tongues, and silence settles in like an old friend come in from the cold, that Normal People takes your breath away. So much of the show is carried not on the words said between Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan across their years intertwined with each other, but on those left unsaid. Those messages too raw to be properly conveyed in coherent thoughts, let alone sentences, but that come across as clear as day in sequences that on paper might look something like:
Connell looks at her.
He looks away.
He puts his arm around her waist.
After a moment, he kisses her shoulder.
Marianne caresses his hand.
The story of Connell and Marianne is, like any great love story, about more than just love. There’s plenty of romance and drama, but there’s something about Normal People that hits on a deeper level than your standard supermarket paperback. What transpires over the 12 episode run time ebbs far closer to Pride and Prejudice than My Best Friends Wedding. Like how (500) Days of Summer isn’t really a love story, but a story about love, Normal People isn’t just a story about two adolescents exploring intimacy, but a thesis on the nature of intimacy itself.
More than just a heartfelt human story elevated by masterclass acting from Paul Mescal, Daisy Edgar-Jones and the entire cast, when the credits rolled on the last episode, the raw emotions I was left with crashed over me in rolling waves, and told me in more than words that this show was important. That it was more than just a piece of entertainment, but something that could be learned from.
Over the past decade, the phrase “representation matters” has come to define a movement in media to see more diverse representation in characters, stories, and the ways these subjects are presented on screen. In the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s sudden death, the outpouring of praise for the beloved actor and his work from parents of children of color highlighted how important it can be for children to see themselves in the heroes they idolize on screen.
But representation is about more than just seeing someone who looks like you on screen. It’s also important that aspects of life that don’t usually make the final cut get their time in the light.
Sex is one of those areas that tend to either be played up for drama or for laughs, depending on the genre, but is rarely dealt with in frank honesty. Important topics like verbal consent, protection, and communication before, during and after sex, are all commonplace situations in a healthy sex life that tend to be left on the cutting room floor. On an emotional level, seeing how communication is a cornerstone of not just intimate romances, but intimate friendships, or that without emotional honesty it’s impossible to have any kind of healthy relationship, are glossed over in equal measure.
These are all important lessons that have to be learned in order to become a well adjusted adult, especially in romantic relationships. That’s why Normal People has stood out and been lauded for its ability in handling these subjects, because of how exceedingly rare it is to see these ideas presented in film and TV in the manner that the show did.
For adolescents and young adults especially, seeing these topics tackled by same-age characters like Marianne and Connell could help them through these moments themselves, learning in the same way that hearing Mr. Rogers say that it was ok to be sad helped children know that “maybe it is actually ok to feel sad. Because I’m not alone. Everyone feels sad too.” Suddenly that sadness is a little less profound, knowing that in a sense, it’s shared.
The power of television and media in helping to educate people on difficult subjects cannot be understated. Just last year a large portion of viewing audiences were first introduced to the Tulsa Race Massacre by the show Watchmen, and Sesame Street street has been helping to educate generations of children for decades now. So is it impossible to think that a show like Normal People can have that same impact for adolescents on subjects like sex and intimacy?
Television as a learning tool
I sometimes joke that my parents may have tried to teach me right from wrong, but my moral compass was actually forged by a healthy dose of Batman: The Animated Series and Power Rangers as a kid. Like most jokes, there’s some truth hidden within: both of my parents worked full time as teachers, so like a lot of young kids, I found myself in a latchkey situation some mornings and most afternoons. When my parents went off to educate other peoples kids, I sat myself down in front of our little CRT to learn from my own teachers: criminology from Professor Bruce Wayne, self-defense from the Angel Grove karate club, and everything else from Elmo and his friends on Sesame Street.
While I think I turned out alright, as an adult it makes me feel better that there’s evidence to support that all the lessons I learned from TV as a kid may have had a tangible positive impact on my life as an adult. And though gripes against TV as a third parent definitely have validity to them, as Toby Ziegler put it in his passionate defense against any cut in federal funding for PBS:
There’s a reason why people like Bob Ross, Mr. Rogers, Julia Child and Bill Nye the Science Guy are so fondly remembered, outside of just nostalgia. For all of the kids whose nanny was a dull blue light coming from a small CRT, these figures weren’t just a soothing presence, but a guiding hand. People who taught practical skills, encouraged creativity and imagination, and spurred children to question how the world around them worked from a young age. For lonely kids trying to figure out the world, they were the figures that helped us get by.
But life didn’t get any less confusing once puberty came along, yet the shows aimed at teenagers seemed more bent on capturing the drama and confusion that tends to come with that time in life, rather than necessarily helping teens navigate through those times.
While shows like Degrassi, Secret Life of the American Teenager and Skins were never afraid to delve into tough topics like suicide, depression, sex and pregnancy, it was harder to parse the nuanced lessons from the drama of their storylines. As a fan who watched Manny and Emma grow from awkward middle schoolers to high school graduates, I can say that the lessons those two were learning along the way often took a backseat to seeing just what the hell was going to happen to the teens at Degrassi High next.
These shows were most likely designed primarily as entertainment and not edu-tainment like the PBS lineup, the latter aimed at younger, more-malleable audiences. But even into the teen years, television has been shown to have an educating effect on its audience. A study conducted back in 2015 showed that the show 16 and Pregnant had a measurable impact on its teenage audience, with areas containing large teenage viewership for the show seeing a 4.3% reduction in teen birthrates, and an increase in Google and Twitter trend searches on birth control and abortions.
A counter-argument could be made that if teenage audiences are already intelligent enough to glean lessons like “getting pregnant in high school doesn’t seem great, let’s avoid that” from a reality show, why does it matter how teen dramas handle their subject matter? Shouldn’t we assume the audience is intelligent enough to glean the correct lesson from these stories, regardless of presentation?
Unfortunately, shows like 13 Reasons Why demonstrate how handling a delicate subject matter poorly can have negative real world consequences on an impressionable and confused audience. So how does Normal People address its subject matter, most importantly interpersonal relationships and sex, in ways that can have a positive impact on a teen audience?
Intimacy, inside and out
Maybe it’s because I’m an introverted person who sometimes trips up on his words when I actually have to speak them out loud, but seeing Connell and Marianne failing to communicate throughout the series was… heartwarming. The timing of the missed cues felt like a familiar dance, the missteps of words left unsaid carrying a rhythm all their own, forming a beat shared between two people learning each other’s song.
As anyone in a successful relationship will probably tell you, whether it be romantic or platonic, communication in all forms is necessary for a healthy and fulfilling life with others. Romance is hard as is, but for a lot of people, communication is that much harder. But even if you can’t communicate as clearly as you want, to a person who knows you, who maybe even loves you, you may come across clear as day.
But intimacy isn’t something experienced exclusively with other people. The phrase “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else” isn’t just an empty platitude, but a frank reality. It’s hard to imagine someone else liking you if you don’t even like yourself, so one of the most important lessons often learned during the painful periods of adolescence and young adulthood is learning to accept who you are. Eventually, you can even grow to love that person.
Over the course of Connell and Marianne’s time together on screen, we get to see them each explore who they are and what they want, while grappling with the difficulty of learning to accept who that person actually is.
In the penultimate episode of the series, Marianne and Connell are reconciling after having been apart for almost a year. The conversation is stilted, both of them awkward and on-edge, the weight of their shared past putting pressure on whatever state their friendship is in at the moment. Perhaps in an attempt at honesty, or just to clear the air, Connell states that he thinks a friendship together would be easier if there wasn’t the shadow of past romance hanging over them. This visibly upsets Marianne, who tries to leave as politely as possible. After more stilted conversation, Connell grabs Marianne’s hand, wanting her to stay. Marianne then succinctly sums up Connell’s main struggle throughout the entire series: “I don’t find it obvious what you want.”
Throughout the majority of the show’s runtime, Connell can come across as an emotional tempest. Incredibly reserved on the outside, he struggles internally with understanding his feelings and expressing his desires. This struggle comes into direct conflict with an intense need to hide his true self from those around him. Because up until getting to know Marianne during their final year in secondary school, the few times Connell had tried to reveal more of himself with any of his friends, he was met with rejection for betraying their expectations of him.
As a form of defense against this kind of rejection, Connell sets up a series of barriers that he operates within: one between himself and his emotions, the other between those emotions and what he allows himself to express. This creates a disconnect on both the internal and external levels, where Connell struggles to understand just what it is that he wants, and yet even if he did, he would struggle even more to express those same desires.
Perhaps the most succinct example of this comes halfway through the series, when Connell realizes he doesn’t have the means to stay at Trinity for the summer. His options then are that he can move back home to Sligo, or ask Marianne if he can move in with her. At this point his friends even joke that he’s practically living there already, spending more nights there with her than in his own bed. But this is anything but funny for Connell. In his mind, the idea of asking for help would be an act of desperation, bearing himself in front of Marianne in a moment of unimaginable vulnerability.
Earlier in the episode we see Connell reacting to a rejection message from a literary journal, which has clearly upset him. Though we as an audience know that Connell is a talented writer, the journal has turned down his latest submission due to a lack of voice in his story. In his conversation later with Marianne, he struggles to find that same voice, his fear of being truly seen carrying over into a staunch refusal to put his desire out there. Instead he flatly states that he has to go home.
In his eyes, he hopes that this action would act as a flare to Marianne, signaling that he’s drowning and begging for her help. But putting the entire burden for interpreting his emotions solely onto her backfires. To Marianne, what could and should have been a conversation between the two of them comes across instead as a decision already made, the fallout of which now falls squarely in her lap. In her eyes, it must have seemed that he cared so terribly little about her.
It isn’t until episode 10, while in therapy, that Connell himself realizes why he’s felt alienated in school. Despite his popularity and comfort in his life in Sligo, he couldn’t really be himself around his friends, and even though he’s not around that same group and has been more open with Marianne, he’s continued to feel alienated.
It’s then that he begins to understand that, despite the comfort Sligo provided him, his anxiety towards being truly honest with those around him will perpetuate his feelings of alienation, no matter the setting. It’s in the final 2 episodes that we see Connell making efforts to bridge those emotional gaps he’s created for himself, leading into his and Marianne’s reconciliation, and subsequently setting up the healthiest form of their relationship in the entire series.
While Connell’s journey throughout the series focuses largely on his efforts to bring his emotions out from the depths and onto the surface, at first glance Marianne presents as the opposite: someone who is not afraid to speak her mind, despite the rejection she initially faces for it. Connell even states that he’s drawn to this aspect of her personality, how in that way she’s his opposite: someone who is anything but afraid to be who she is. Once they’re at Trinity, Marianne begins to blossom in this new environment, clearly relishing in her newfound acceptance.
But as the series goes on, we see that the adage of opposites attracting isn’t the case with Marianne and Connell. On the surface Marianne may come across as more outgoing than Connell, but their actions show they are reacting to the same rejection, but in opposite ways.
Where Connell hid away his feelings, Marianne instead weaponized her personality into a shield, taking the Tyrion Lannister approach and wearing her heart like a suit of armor against all barbs thrown her way. This defense mechanism suits her well throughout secondary school, and to an extent in her home life, but it’s when she’s met with genuine affection that the cracks in this armor she’s built begin to show.
At their core, both Connell and Marianne crave acceptance. But whereas Connell experienced a form of acceptance among his peers in secondary school, outside of her time with Connell, Marianne did not have that same luxury until arriving at Trinity. It’s in episode 4 that we begin to see what will become a pattern for Marianne, and her hurdle to overcome on the path towards true acceptance.
Having grown so accustomed to being met with rejection for her personality, when instead met with affection, she clings to it with all her might, at a cost to herself. It’s why she repeatedly conforms to the desires of her partners in relationships: for Gareth, who loved the sound of his own voice, she became a sounding board, not much more than a cute piece attached to his intellectual ensemble. For Jaime, who doggedly pursued her under his assumption that he “knew her wants better than she did”, she became a submissive, acquiescing to his affections, then his desire, and eventually his anger.
This pattern is there from the beginning of her relationship with Connell: early on, and then repeatedly throughout their intertwining years together, Marianne tells Connell that he can “do whatever he wants to her”. At first his aversion to expressing any intimate desire paints this proposition in an anxiety inducing light. But as Connell grows more confident throughout his own journey, Marianne’s willingness to bend becomes less terrifying. It’s during their reconciliation in the penultimate episode that we finally see Connell accept Marianne when she once again says that he can do whatever he wants to her. But then, having once again found acceptance, she cravenly escalates, asking Connell to say that she “belongs to him.” This is too much of a clash with how he sees their relationship, and again Marianne is met with rejection. If there is a knock against the series, it’s that we don’t get to see this aspect of Marianne’s journey come to its conclusion on screen with Connell.
It’s clear by the end that Marianne has found a place with Connell and his family where she does not have to shape herself to anyone else's desire in order to receive acceptance. At their secondary school reunion during New Year’s Eve, surrounded by the same classmates that rejected Marianne and Connell previously, there is no illusion as to what they mean to each other, nor hesitation in displaying their love for one another. Held in each other’s arms as the clock beats towards midnight, there is no longer any distance hidden in their embrace, their most intimate feelings for each other laid bare on the pub floor, a dance finally shared together between two hearts in sync.
The Power of Displaying Consent
While the emotional journeys of Connell and Marianne form the beating heart of Normal People, the sexual aspect of their relationships are never shied away from. So much has already been said about the refreshing fashion in which the show addressed consent, or the problems with expecting female nudity on screen, but it cannot be overstated how important showing sex normally, for lack of a less on the nose term, can be for young viewers.
A 2015 study by Global Review (published by UNESCO) found after reviewing Comprehensive Sexuality Education programs across 48 countries, that CSE status improved sexual and reproductive health across the board, and helped reduce STI and HIV transmission, as well as reducing unintended pregnancy numbers. But this same study also found that there was a significant gap between the program policies at a high level and program implementation at the ground level. Joanna Herat (Senior Program Specialist and Team Leader in Health Education at UNESCO) was quoted at the time as saying that,
“Young people are consequently often denied even the most basic information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
With a disparity between what sexual education can be and what is actually provided, where does that leave the gaps to be filled in? Ideally this is where parents would step in, but to put yourself back in your teenage shoes, is there anything more uncomfortable than “the talk” with your parents?
So where else can adolescents learn about the dos and don’ts of sex? There’s the option of admitting to your friends that you’re potentially behind the developmental curve, but as any teen drama will be happy to show, there isn’t anything much more devastating to a kid than being the only one not ‘in’ on something.
But there is still one avenue that allows teens to privately explore sex without anyone else needing to get involved: porn. At its core, pornography is supposed to be fantasy fulfillment. Realism has never been the goal. This is one of the concerns that pornstars themselves have lamented, decrying the role of sexual educators that has been foisted on them:
This idea of “porn as practice” has become ingrained enough that some of the industry’s most prolific performers such as Jessica Drake have even embraced a career in more mainstream sex education, after having found herself unofficially in the role for years. Her new task, in large part, being to correct the mistakes that young viewers may have come away with from her videos.
But where porn’s failings are largely unintentional, mainstream media provides little better. Whether it be idealized sex at the detriment of realism (in 2 different flavors), the demonization of certain fetishes such as S&M and Bondage, or the act of sex itself becoming visual shorthand for evil, the myriad ways sexuality has been distorted on print and screen can fill a whole essay unto itself.
This is where a show like Normal People, while not necessarily aimed at young adults, can be so important in helping to form healthier relationship frameworks for adolescents. Perhaps the most apt example of the show’s ability to display sex in a healthy light is the now infamous ‘consent scene’ in Episode 2.
Connell has invited Marianne over to his house on Saturday with the implied (though not explicitly stated) intention of having sex with each other for the first time. Once Marianne arrives, the two quickly progress to the bedroom. Where some movies or shows may linger on the foreplay or the lustful passions of the two as they make their way to the bedroom, before inevitably skipping ahead to the afterglow, the camera in Normal People takes its time. There’s no cut from making out to the pair tangled in the sheets, or a supercut of various positions with music overlaid on top, as the visibility fades in and out.
Instead, the scene plays out in a matter of fact tone: the two kiss, then Marianne asks if they can take their clothes off, and then they do. The clothes don’t come off slowly while the camera leers up and down their curves and musculature, but quickly, almost frankly, before they talk about protection.
Let’s take a moment to talk about protection. For years I’ve personally been convinced that movies and TV have had an agenda against the latex industry, or are in league with baby formula companies in a long term strategy to shill their products to surprised new parents. I could count on one hand the number of times in my lifetime I’ve seen a condom used on screen ahead of Normal People. Most of those times the condom was used as the butt of a joke in a teen comedy, but even those appearances are a godsend compared to the amount of sex scenes that begin with two characters in the throws of passion, diving into sex fully clothed, only to end seemingly without the man even pulling out, neither party being particularly concerned.
Doing some research for this piece, I found that I wasn’t the only one who was confused by the lack of safe sex practices on screens. From research pieces lamenting the statistical lack of protection on TV, a breakdown of 13 movies (mostly comedies) where condoms actually come into play, to a thinkpiece debating whether Hollywood needs to be better about showing safe-sex, the lack of safe sex on screen is clearly an issue on people’s minds.
So when Marianne asks Connell if he has a condom, and he stops what he’s doing, gets up and grabs one, then proceeds to talk to Marianne about consent, before visibly putting the condom on (below screen, but we see him make the motions), it’s shocking in its simplicity. The condom is on, it doesn’t break, and instead just does its job the whole way through. There’s something almost revolutionary about showing two characters in the midst of passion, teenagers at that, using protection successfully and enjoying the sex.
Aside from the use of protection, many other sites have already talked about the power of Connell and Marianne’s discussion about consent in episode 2, and while it’s not treading new ground to emphasize how important it is that they had this conversation, the amount of conversation has perhaps not been discussed enough. During their first time, it’s made clear that consent isn’t just a box checked “yes” before going off to the races: it’s a conversation, one in which Connell and Marianne continually check in. Sex in general throughout Normal People is presented in a non-static state, involving a lot of communication. We even see later in the series that Connell and Marianne stop having sex in the middle of a scene due to a change in the state of communication.
This nuanced approach to sex and communication even extends into the realm of more complex sexual territory. In episode 9, Marianne is in pain. She has traveled abroad to Sweden for study, and finds herself isolated in a foreign country in the dead of winter, which compounds upon her emotional state, leading her to seek a way out.
She finds this in Lukas, entering into a Dom/sub (D/s) relationship in which she submits to his desires. In a way, she is seeking a kind of oblivion, giving herself away to this man like an item to be used, instead of a person with agency of her own.
Though the relationship is in many ways unhealthy, the lifestyle is never outright demonized. Lukas isn’t depicted as a cruel sadist clad in leather, nor is Marianne a helpless victim suffering his whims. They are very much shown as consenting adults, albeit in a skewed power dynamic. What is shown clearly is that though Marianne has abdicated her power, this is not the same as her abdicating consent.
In the climactic scene of the episode, Marianne is protesting Lukas’ actions as he commands her to undress and be bound for photographs. Though she has previously consented to similar demands, she has reached a certain point with Lukas where she no longer wants to blindly acquiesce to his desires. Marianne asks Lukas repeatedly that they do this another day, that she doesn’t want to go on, but Lukas commands her to continue. This is when she makes clear that, though she has been submissive, it has always been under the umbrella of her consent. But what he is commanding her to do violates that consent, and nullifies any previous arrangement. She walks out on him then, drawing a clear demarcation of the difference between submitting and consenting.
Growing from here
Sex can be complicated, but sex education shouldn’t be. Outside of topics like “consent” and “safety”, which most forms of media tend to handle with the grace of a sledgehammer, the nuts and bolts of how to actually have a safe and healthy sexual relationship can be next to impossible to get your head around as a teen. A show like Normal People manages to bridge that gap in understanding by showing all of the struggles, all of the miscommunication, and most importantly, just what it looks like when you get it right.
In what has been lauded as a “Golden Age of Television”, it’s almost easy to find something great to watch in the dearth of available programming. But to find something that goes past greatness and into the realm of tangibly important, that’s special. But maybe someday, that can become the new Normal.