Sally Rooney's TV adaptation of Normal People has been the most talked about series this year, and Denise Curtin is all praise.
At this stage it’s safe to say that everyone and their mother has seen the BBC/Hulu hit Normal People. Although many, and it had been flagged tremendously on Twitter would warn you to watch it without your mother, or any parental figure for that matter, Normal People has become an incredible global success. Resonating with so many for its romantic escapism – something which is needed now more so than ever, Normal People offers viewers a break from reality but, at the same time, gives us one of the most realistic depictions of intimacy and growing up we’ve ever seen on Irish TV.
So authentic to teenage life and the difficulties around love and communication, the confusion when trying on different versions of yourself and then, figuring out what to do when you find one that clicks. Yes, Normal People has hit home not only because it’s set here but because it feels so familiar.
It didn’t take long for the show to get everybody talking. And when we’re not firing pictures of hunky Paul Mescal drinking cans of pink gin on the streets into our Whatsapp chat, we’re having discussions about how nice it is to see sex that actually looks like sex on our TV screens.
With 41 minutes of love making over the course of the 12 part series, it’s not the steaminess of the scenes in Normal People that have us engrossed, but almost the opposite. It’s all the other elements that make it so true to life, the elements that are so often left out because they don’t make sex seem like a fairytale. From a focus on consent to protection, that pain sometimes comes with the pleasure, to the fact that nobody can actually take off their socks eloquently while rushing to undress, from the very start, sex in Normal People is instantly recognisable and it’s not often you can say you’ve seen that on Irish TV.
Thanks to Marianne and Connell’s pelvis-banging onscreen, we engage in a narrative that’s so much more. One that shows us how endearing intimacy can be, how physical journeys are also emotional ones, why communication is so vitally needed and how easy it is to say “If you want to stop, it won’t be awkward — just say”, like Connell tells Marianne as the pair have authentic first-time sex in his single bed, box room in Sligo.
Just recently on Joe Duffy’s Liveline show, albeit very different to the other callers who were ringing in, one man named Frank Daly praised Normal People for helping him start a conversation about consent with his 17-year-old daughter. Not joining the choir of callers who called the show “outrageous”, with one even expressing concern that RTÉ was “promoting fornication”, instead, Frank called it for what it was, an ally that helped him start an important conversation. “These things are going to happen and we have to make sure that kids don’t think [that by having sex] they’re doing something wrong,” explained Frank.
Echoing these words, sexuality educator Sarah Sproule notes that Normal People squashes that dominative narrative that we’re bad at talking about sex in Ireland. “Normal People says ‘no, we’re not bad at taking about sex, we all talk about sex in different ways and here’s one example of it being done really well.’ And there’s a confidence I think that comes culturally from seeing our young selves portrayed online doing such an excellent job of something that to be honest, is really complicated,” says Sarah. “It’s universally complicated to be vulnerable with someone else and to ask for what we want and to listen to someone else’s needs in return.” Adding praise for Sally Rooney, Sarah feels positive that the show if anything, is helping us to “move forward as Irish people.”
So, while Normal People is helping to normalise conversations around sex, giving people the courage to talk about it with partners, friends and even family members, it’s also helping us to detach the Hollywood filter that’s so often stuck to sex on TV. Focusing on the connection more so that the performance, Normal People is part of a new wave of sex storytelling. Similar to Girls and Sex Education but with a backdrop closer to home, it’s making sex seems less unattainable and glamours and more intimate, awkward and honest.
“Sex can often be a fumbled, jumbled, working-out-how-to-get-it-on-as-we-go-along affair, yet it’s frequently portrayed on screen as being unrealistically polished, perfect, slick and slinky,” explains Alix Fox, writer and script consultant for Netflix’s Sex Education. “Folks start to think that’s how sex should always be. It can make them feel paranoid and pressured that they’re not living up to some bonkers bonking standard. There’s often an outpouring of relief and joy when viewers see more relatable, realistic depictions of sexual encounters in shows.”
And it makes total sense. If we’re constantly handed content that shows sex in a way that looks so foreign to us and what we’re doing in bed, why wouldn’t we question our ability to “put out”? It’s only when we see it done right, in a way that looks familiar to us, do we breathe a sigh of relief. We see the outpour of praise on Twitter from people who too, in secret have been wishing for something they can connect with. A show on Irish telly that’s bang accurate. It’s then we realise why it’s important to not underestimate the power of TV.
“In real life, great sex doesn’t always involve the mainstream mainstays of muscles, heaving bosoms, smouldering stares and sleek, intense manoeuvres. It can be silly or gentle, or lusciously lazy,” says Alix. “I’d love to see greater diversity in what’s held up as ‘fabulous sex’ on screen.”
Because at the end of the day, fabulous sex is what we all want. We want that connection, that pleasure and the ability to return the favour. So, if staring at Marianne’s bangs and Connell’s chain is helping us to realise that incredible sex doesn’t have to feature theatrical roars and a Marvin Gaye soundtrack, it’s certainly a good start.