Sexual Dynamics in Normal People

By Izzy Fox, September 25 2023

The TV adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People by Element Pictures is a coming-of-age drama which focuses on young lovers Marianne Sheridan, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) (see Figure 1). The narrative traces the undulating contours of their relationship as they navigate their final year in secondary school in a small rural town in the west of Ireland through their time at Trinity College, a prestigious university located in Dublin city centre. The series highlights typical issues of the coming-of-age narrative such as sexuality, identity formation, insecurity (both emotional and financial), maturation, trauma and mental illness (del Río 2022, 78). Furthermore, with its foregrounding of consent, desire and pleasure, the series represents a significant shift in terms of the representation of youth sexuality on Irish TV screens.  

This cultural phenomenon, along with the series consisting of 12 ‘bingeable’ 30-minute episodes and the fact that its release coincided with the start of the Covid 19 lockdown, contributed to Normal People being one of the most popular TV drama series of 2020, particularly amongst its target audience of millennials and generation X (ibid., 74). Set against the backdrop of the recession that followed the 2008 economic crash, Normal People, engages with themes familiar to traditional works of Irish fiction, such as class, the urban/rural divide, gender politics, abuse and migration (76). In addition, the novel and TV series represent a modern cosmopolitan Ireland, albeit an Ireland, like its characters, that is struggling with its identity in the midst of a recession.

Inversed character trajectory

These contradictions are mirrored in the dynamics of the relationship between Connell and Marianne. Connell is from a working-class background, the only child of a young single mother with whom he is very close; a relationship more akin to a friendship than a mother-son dynamic. The theme of absent fathers is also relevant in Marianne’s case but that is where the similarities between their backgrounds end. Marianne’s family is wealthy and they live in a big house, which Connell’s mother cleans, but, unlike Connell, her home life is loveless, cold and abusive. The care and closeness that Connell offers Marianne is so unfamiliar to her that she, at times, feels undeserving of his affection, highlighting the potentially devastating effects of childhood trauma on the ability to develop healthy romantic relationships.

Furthermore, the trajectory of their characters is the inverse of each other, insofar as Marianne while at school is shy, uncertain, has no friends other than Connell and is bullied by some of Connell’s peer group. Meanwhile Connell is popular and the star of the school’s Gaelic football team. His wish to maintain the respect of his friends results in him asking Marianne to keep their relationship a secret, a decision which compounds her self-doubt and feelings of being undesirable, as well as contributing to the pair eventually breaking up. However, the social status of the two characters flips when they attend college and we see Marianne surrounded by a friendship group of middle to upper class urban elites, while Connell strikes a solitary figure who struggles to settle in and suffers with his mental health, particularly following the suicide of his close childhood friend.

Figure 1: Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) and Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) pose for promotional photographs for the BBC/Hulu TV series Normal People by Element Pictures. Copyright: Enda Bowe/Element Pictures.

Sexual relations and controversy

Concomitantly, Marianne’s sexual relationships, other than with Connell, are toxic and she suffers both sexual and psychological abuse, as she is manipulated into thinking she is deserving of such treatment. The support she receives from Connell as a friend is instrumental in empowering her to remove herself from these negative situations. The difficulties both protagonists face in both platonic and sexual relationships “illustrate the challenges and voids contemporary capitalist societies pose on its members, both in terms of gender and class” (del Río 75). While the intellectualism of both characters allows them to critically analyse the gender and class dynamics within which they find themselves, their ability to express themselves emotionally to each other is often stifled.

The silences, non-sequiturs and sentences left unfinished offer a believable, if sometimes frustrating, depiction of the communicative challenges young people often face in their relationships, particularly sexual ones. In spite of the confusion and miscommunication characteristic of the dynamics between Connell and Marianne, sexual consent is always sought and explicitly articulated. Through the character of Connell, with his combination of intelligence, literary prowess, athleticism and sensitivity “a new kind of Irish masculinity is promoted: the new post-Celtic Irish man” (Bollas 2022 50). As well as ensuring that consent has been established prior to engaging in sexual activity, another significant quality of this new post-Celtic Irish man, as represented by Connell, is the importance he places on pleasure, for both him and his partner (ibid.).

The centrality of pleasure to the sexual experience represents a radical departure from the shame and stigma attached to sexuality, particularly for women, in traditional Irish Catholic society, which saw ‘fallen’ women who became pregnant outside of marriage being incarcerated in mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries, the last of which were only closed in the 1990s. The cultural significance of Normal People representing on the small screen the naked bodies of a young Irish couple in their late teens, when the series begins, who engage in sex solely for the purpose of pleasure, cannot be overstated. The sex scenes in Normal People caused quite a sensation in Ireland, including some controversy amongst conservative elements of Irish society. However, these scenes were not gratuitous and, according to the author Sally Rooney, who also co-wrote the series, they were another form of dialogue between the protagonists (Armistead and Thomas-Corr 2020). In other words, what couldn’t be articulated verbally was represented through the intimacy of touch, gestures, body positions and eye contact.

Avoiding the male gaze

Moreover, through the visual depiction of these sex scenes, there is more-or-less an equal representation of male and female nudity, a point lauded by Edgar-Jones (Armistead and Thomas-Corr 2020). The co-director Lenny Abrahamson also ensured that this gender balance was reflected behind the camera as well. This on and off-screen representation of gender and sexuality disrupts the objectifying perspective of the “male gaze” (Mulvey 1975), which views the female body exclusively from the male protagonist’s perspective and often occurs in traditional and problematic representations of on-screen heteronormative relationships. Furthermore, the use of an intimacy coordinator to choreograph the sex scenes created an atmosphere on set that was at odds with the misogynistic culture of the film and TV industry exposed in the wake of the #MeToo campaign (Armistead and Thomas-Corr 2020).

While Normal People avoids the clichéd ending of a typical romance drama by allowing the couple to go their separate ways to fulfil their individual career goals (Connell in America and Marianne in Ireland), ultimately the narrative valorises “the protagonists’ material success and depicts love as the ultimate force that saves all” (del Río 78). However, the protagonists have reached a point in their relationship where they can be content with their choices, secure in the knowledge that they have been made freely and without coercion or conforming to societal or familial expectations. This ability of the characters to assert their agency and achieve happiness in spite of the cultural constraints they have had to navigate underscores why this series was so popular amongst young audiences.


Armistead, Claire and Johanna Tomas-Corr. “ ‘The stakes were really high’: the stars bringing Sally Rooney’s Normal People to TV.” The Guardian, 12 Apr. 2020.

Bollas, Angelos. “Normal People (2020) and the New Post-Celtic Irish Man.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 50.2 (2022): 50-59.

del Río, María Amor Barros. “Irish Youth, Materialism and Postfeminism: The Critique behind the Romance in” Normal People”.” Oceánide 15 (2022): 73-80.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (UK, 1975).” Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures. University of California Press, 2014. 359-370.