Week 125 of lockdown and I think a significant proportion of the population has now watched Normal People for the second time, yes?
While everyone is still lusting after Connell and his chain, I’ve come to a new understanding. It gives me great relief. And that is, Marianne and Connell, the very white and horny teenagers from Sally Rooney’s wonderful imagination, have a terrible, terrible relationship.
This is absolutely no criticism of novelist Sally Rooney or Alice Birch, who co-wrote the television script. They are clearly in complete control of their flawed characters and execute it perfectly. What I am questioning is the type of relationship and/or partner that so many of us seem to be hankering for.
Well, I guess lockdown crossed with summer heat makes us crazy. Either that or so many of us millennials have moved back to our parents’ house that we have regressed to being teenagers, a frustrating time when boys and girls didn’t really talk much to each other and we all thought we would end up with Ryan Gosling’s character from The Notebook.
Connell is just a nice guy, you say. Don’t ruin the dream.
Ok. When in doubt, I make a list of pros and cons.
On the pro side, Connell is very clever, he cares – about finding himself. He reads books. He asks for Marianne’s consent when they have sex.
The cons: he’s a mummy’s boy. (That can spell trouble.) Connell starts having sex with Marianne and asks her to keep it a secret. He doesn’t stick up for her when his friend calls her a “flat-chested b**ch”. He sleeps with another girl, Rachel, but doesn’t appear to have much respect for her and tells her to F off at the disco. He’s so emotionally distant that the most expression we ever get from him is via his orgasm face. As Marianne describes Connell in the book, he’s a “big baby tooth”.
Their relationship is also painfully traditional. He plays sport, while Marianne dances seductively at the disco as he watches. He rescues her (physically) when Marianne’s brother gets violent, while Marianne rescues Connell (emotionally) when his friend from home dies. Marianne makes the food, washes the dishes and plays hostess at her Italian villa, and she forgives him readily for being kept a dirty secret.
I’m almost surprised that after the #MeToo movement there hasn’t been more conversation about not only the toxicity of their relationship but the unfair power dynamic between them. Marianne may be rich, but she also has a complete lack of unconditional love and perhaps seeks it through sex – as Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne, says herself in an interview, Connell will always have an adoring mother to go back to.
And yes, Connell tells Marianne they can stop having sex if it hurts, but she also cries when she takes naked photos that he’d asked her for, and the first time she says, “Not tonight, honey” due to period cramps, he looks like a five-year-old who’s been told Disneyland had closed down.
But forget all that. The show is nostalgic, and reminds you of your own youth!
I’m sorry, what?! Since when were British teenagers doing their biology homework at 4pm and then sucking on a boy’s thumb at 4.45? When it comes to advising today’s teenagers, I hand it over to Jane Garvey on the Fortunately podcast, “[Listen up kids], sex doesn’t get that good that quickly.”
For the most part, I do understand the hankering after Connell. He’s physically attractive, and he wants Marianne. His lovely Irish accent means he could say, “I’ve got a plate of mouldy cabbage” and you would buckle at the knees – but that sentence contains seven words and would be a stretch for Connell Waldron.
So, as we inevitably reflect during lockdown on our jobs, where we live, our purpose in life, our relationships, we might also reconsider what we aspire to. We still learn an awful lot about relationships from music, films, television, YouTube, etc. As a child, I was weaned from Sesame Street onto a bad diet of romcoms, learning that men are supposed to pursue you, and you’re supposed to look good and giggle. But what do young people have today? Possibly even more predictable romcoms with Amy Schumer and Normal People. And they say porn is damaging our young minds!
Do Marianne and Connell stay together? At the end of the series, Marianne encourages him to chase his dream in New York, and she stays in Dublin. Given that they break up half-way through the series because Connell can’t even ask his girlfriend if he can stay at her house for a few weeks over the summer, the odds don’t look good. Sorry!
The actors who play these characters seem a lot more clear-headed than us viewers. As Paul Mescal, who plays Connell, said in an interview, “This is for the record if anybody is dating me, I am not Connell nor do I want to be him.”
If anyone ends up dating Mescal, I applaud your tenacity – in fighting off the competition. But please, as Mescal perhaps hints at, aim for more than you’d get from Connell Waldron, because you deserve better.