A vision of sex beyond portrayal in Normal People

A vision of sex beyond portrayal in Normal People A still from the show 'Normal People'
A Parent’s Perspective


My daughters all love the film, Pride and Prejudice.

Times may have changed, but there’s something timeless and appealing about the spirited Elizabeth Bennet and the dashing, debonair, Mr Darcy.

It is the perennial theme of a great love, a story that never grows old, boy meets girl, there are some challenges to be overcome and they fall ‘madly in love’. There is never any room for half measures; love is always ‘truly, madly, deeply’ as nothing else could possibly do.

Great literary love stories rarely do half measures – no one wants a wishy-washy romance. I was reading an article in Psychology Today on what women want from the men in their lives and it’s surprisingly similar to what the young Elizabeth Bennet wanted from Mr Darcy: honesty, trust, respect, responsibility and, most of all, love.

On a similar theme, an article I came across on the HuffPost website, ‘7 Things Your Husband Isn’t Telling You He Needs’, had a lot of overlap with the desires expressed by women in the Psychology Today piece.

Men were reported as needing praise, appreciation and validation. They wanted their wives to respect them and to focus on their strengths and, like women, men also wanted love, longing to hear the expressions of love and their wives uttering the words ‘I love you’.

The 12 part television series, Normal People, has been lauded by some as another great love story: the relationship between two teenagers, both from a typical small town in Ireland. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, loved by many for its portrayal of how to negotiate a relationship in early 19th Century England, Normal People doesn’t focus on marriage as the ultimate dating goal.

In Jane Austen’s time, young men and women were very aware of the social mores and the rules of behaviour were clearly delineated. It was a given that a young person who was dating would be hoping to find a suitable partner and, after a successful courtship, would move quickly towards marriage, settling down and raising a family. It’s a measure of how much society has changed when Ciara Phelan, writing for the Irish Mirror expressed the view that education officials should consider making Normal People, the book and the series, mandatory for Leaving Certificate students.

She referred to it as “the ideal bible” for home or school with a lot of her praise centred on how the whole issue of consent is dealt with. There’s no mention in her article of love or commitment; consent is all that seems to be required. Conall (played by Paul Mescal), is viewed as chivalrous for using contraception and telling Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) that they can stop anytime during what is Marianne’s first experience of sex.

It can be a bit of a minefield to offer any critical commentary on a series that thousands of people are enthusiastically applauding. I didn’t hear Joe Duffy’s Liveline and the complaints about the sex scenes and nudity but social media dismissed anyone who had any criticism as cranks and Catholic killjoys.

How can parents express their objections to Normal People while still getting the message across to their children that sex is good, an amazing gift and the language of the body that speaks of total commitment and a lifetime of shared love.

That’s a really authentic message and one that we seem to be nervous about promoting. There’s endless commentary on Normal People but a dearth of alternative angles that question the almost blanket media approval. The US magazine, Vanity Fair, points to how the character, Connell, doesn’t want it to be known that he’s dating Marianne and refuses to talk to her in school, behaviour Vanity Fair refers to as exploitative and refers to the “agonising” on/off relationship. The Christian vision of love is more like a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII: “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life…”

There is a lot of attention on the amount of time the series devotes to sex scenes with digitalspy.com describing it as “a masterclass in nudity onscreen”. Much is made of the fact that there was an “intimacy coordinator” on set who choreographed the intimate scenes. Ita O’ Brien was interviewed by RTÉ’s Brendan O’ Connor and the reality of the filming became painfully clear with references to the need to carry out a risk assessment, modesty patches and pouches for the actors and the aim of “serving the director’s vision”. It was shocking to hear that many actors in the past had been so damaged by participating in sex scenes, one so badly that they never acted again.

On set, they talk of safe words and creating safe spaces and the actors being empowered. Having a daughter who’s nearly 21, the age of Daisy Edgar-Jones, and a nephew close in age to Paul Mescal, I wonder how empowering it is to fall in with a director’s vision. The Catholic vision of sexuality is one of revealing one’s intimate self in the perfect “safe space”, the loving protective arms of a husband or wife, not on a film set to be viewed by thousands.

It’s a much richer and more fulfilling vision than the impoverished view of sex that’s portrayed in Normal People. As believers in Christ, we need to stop keeping this vision of love to ourselves and market our superior offering with the same zeal as those promoting Normal People.