Written by Stephanie Kleanthous
Illustrated by Emily Nash
*Spoilers of BBC’s Normal People included*
Trigger warnings: discussion of abuse, trauma and BDSM.
The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People had me endlessly conflicted between wanting to cry and wanting to have sex. With only one currently being accessible to me during lockdown, I ate a lot of ice cream as I watched the insatiable onscreen chemistry, Connell’s chain and the infuriating lack of communication.
While the series leaves us with much to unpack, what struck me was its complicated stance in relation to feminism. It pushed me to ask: Does feminism always have to come through the voice and actions of the female characters?
As a woman, it is difficult to consume art without intersectional feminism at the forefront of my mind. From female writers, to artists in general, we often expect a strong feminist mark to be made through the female protagonist by each piece they produce. But this isn’t always the case.
For example, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley portrayed most of her women as passive and was criticised by feminists for writing them as “objectified, used, abused, and easily discarded.”
However, other feminists and myself would argue that, “by deliberately including subordinate female characters and highlighting their inferiority to men, Shelley brings to light this patriarchal desire and the effects this need for power has, shaping the novel into the feminist text that it is.” Shelley, much like Rooney, presents us with a harsh reality in order to make a feminist point.
For this reason, the series didn’t immediately strike me as feminist to begin with. As I took time to reflect on this notion, still emotionally tormented days later, I began to see more and more parts making up the feminist backdrop.
Perhaps I initially missed these elements because the culture presented was so embedded and normalised throughout my teenage years. Groping in clubs – even in corner shops and on the street, girls competing for male attention in school, boys and men dictating where a relationship is going and dipping in and out of women’s lives or schedules as and when they choose.
Rooney writes in a way which exposes the ingrained reality we live in, rather than in a way which shows us how we should behave or react – arguably she does both at times, but more often than not she succumbs to the former. We see the raw honesty of a broken, vulnerable woman trying to find her feet and escape the belief that she is deserving of mistreatment.
While Marianne is on our screens for longer than Shelley’s women in text, she is still painted as a fairly passive character with Connell being the larger dictator of the two: the decider for when they get back together or come apart. He flicks the switches. The trauma of Marianne’s upbringing with a father who abused her mother, a brother who is abusive to her and a mother who is painfully cold and allows her son to torment her daughter to no end due to her own trauma, all majorly impact her belief system.
Some women are naturally passive, and there should be power in this choice, as after all feminism means allowing women to be who they please. But because Marianne is passive due to her upbringing and neglect, it would be difficult to argue that she is innately someone who wants to be led by others.
The abusive men in her life and the unreliable nature of Connell are what has reared her to accept men such as Jamie, who belittle her and want to hit her during sex. Even as she grows older, we see her believing she enjoys being mistreated and absently consent to Lukas berating her and tying her up in Sweden. This isn’t to claim that BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism) is always rooted in previous trauma, but in this case it does seem to be.
Whether passive or not, she still held some power as both her brother and one of Connell’s friends were intimidated by her intelligence at school, convinced she thought she was “better” than them. That phrase coming up more than once showed us that men often feel intimidated around a woman as intelligent and independent as Marianne.
While she may be less in control, we do see her grow on her own terms and through her own seeking and independent endeavours without Connell. Each time they meet again after a break she’s an altered version of herself. Connell, however, was the more dependent of the two. Perhaps because he had a loving mother, he doesn’t need to be independent the way Marianne does.
Whether intentionally or not, she was a canvas on which he could explore himself, his growth mostly shown through her rather than through his own endeavours. Although we do see progression with Connell seeking out therapy rather than the typical line of action which is to use a woman as a personal therapist and drain her emotionally.
Rooney isn’t showing us how things ‘should’ be until the final episodes, when Connell is more emotionally supportive and communicative. For most of the series we see a man who needs a woman for his betterment and nurturing. Even his girlfriend, Helen, was used as a tool for discovery and temporary comfort, inevitably learning how to be affectionate in public, knowing deep down it was never right with her.
Connell may ‘save’ Marianne in stereotypical physical ways, such as from the boy who gropes her, her brother who hits her and Jamie’s tantrum in Italy, but she saves him internally through her emotional support and comfort, even watching over him on FaceTime as he sleeps. This shows us how women often fall into a nurturing role, whether realising it or not.
Where we are shown more equality is through the lens of the female gaze, the sex scenes being more equal in nudity with the sexualisation of both bodies. Rooney exposes some men’s belief and confusion around their own sexualisation when Connell asks for a nude picture of Marianne before she goes away. She asks if she can also have a photo of him, “of your dick, preferably”. He responds, “you wouldn’t actually want a picture of my dick, would you?” It’s “only fair”, she claims.
His lack of understanding shows us that men often don’t comprehend how their bodies can be sexual to women. Women’s bodies have been so sexualised that we could show almost any part and it would send a man’s heart rate up. Connell doesn’t even specify what part of her body, he just wants her “unclothed”.
This scene alone furthers the point that expressing something as minor as sexual attraction from a female creator is making a point by shifting viewers’ perspectives. I’m sure many men hold the same confusion as Connell, so by opening up this dialogue we are furthering the understanding of the female brain.
In a way, Connell carries the voice of feminism within him at times, bringing light to things women should hear. We shouldn’t pander to what men want and we should be in tune with our own desires. He communicates (for once) that he feels uncomfortable when Marianne says she enjoys making him happy, and that she would have a threesome if it was what he wanted. He tells her she shouldn’t just do things she doesn’t want to do because it’ll make him happy.
He gradually helped her to not accept the toxic men in her life, while still being problematic himself until the final episodes, so surely the moment she frees herself of these men and the mistreatment, the series is feminist. The feminist backdrop that we’ve seen throughout finally pushes her to break free and reside in Ireland because that was what she wanted to do. She was no longer pandering to Connell and willing to follow him to New York. The final scene shows us part of what Connell has helped her realise come into fruition.
From the beginning, we cannot expect a woman who came from a broken and abusive home to be a dominating, assertive, all-empowering, every woman. This said, it’s enlightening to see the growth she weaves in her early twenties and see that she begins to go down the better path. It ignites hope in young women that it is possible to grow from a traumatic start in life.
When given the rarer perspective of a woman’s story or a man’s mind from a female creator, we see at the heart of this is the distinction between feminism and points of view. Rooney shows us we can have feminism through the behaviours of a man, perhaps in a less overt way. We are more centred around Connell’s positive growth and how that impacts Marianne, rather than solely on her very up and down struggle.
We don’t necessarily have to view feminism through the female characters and how ‘strong’ they are, although clearly Marianne is extremely resilient. Through her perspective, male viewers are able to see the cause and effect of their actions if similar to those in the series. The progression of Connell, Marianne and the representation and reflection of an embedded culture is what makes Normal People feminist.
Edited by Ruby Hinchliffe