by Hanna Carney //
A lot of the sex we watch on TV is unrealistic: it’s always impractical, equally mind-blowing for the characters, or even violent just for entertainment value. While it is true that shows such as Sex Education, a Netflix series that supports sex positivity, depicts endearingly awkward sex scenes, oftentimes this awkwardness is overemphasized for comedic effect. One thing that Hulu’s Normal People does well is that it demonstrates consent as something that doesn’t have to be an awkward formality, but something normal—sexy, even.
Normal People is the television adaptation of Salley Rooney’s novel of the same title. The story follows Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Collen (Paul Mescal) as they navigate their relationship, sex, socio-economic boundaries, academia, and adulthood. The audience gets to see them progress from immature and lost high school students, unsure of how to love one another, to successful graduate students who become confident in their relationship. When I first watched the show last summer, I absolutely loved it. And not because I fell in love with Marianne’s intelligence or Connell’s gentle disposition. It was because it portrayed sex realistically and normalized consent, making me—the viewer—more comfortable with watching the show.
When Connell and Marianne first have sex together, they keep an open dialogue to ensure that they both continuously consent to the interaction. Each step of the way, they ask each other, “is that good?” and “is that what you want?” and so on. Also, Marianne chooses to share with Connell that this will be her first time having sex, and he responds with an assuredness that “it won’t be awkward” if she wants to stop at any time. And I was convinced—it wouldn’t be awkward. Why do people discuss consent as if it’s a formality? A drag? An interruption? Normal People successfully normalizes consent by fluidly interlacing consent throughout sex scenes with the understanding that consent is ongoing and should be an integral part of sex. Some other scenes show how consent can be an enjoyable part of sex as well.
Later in the season when Marianne and Connel are well into their relationship, Marianne explicitly expresses to Connell that she would like it if he did whatever he wanted with her sexually. Marianne tells him that they can have sex “however [he wants]” and “whenever [he wants].” She asks, “Do you like hearing me say that?” and Connell responds, “Yeah, a lot.” This scene exemplifies how consent can be pleasurable. Marianne likes the idea of letting Connell do as he pleases, and he likes to hear her say it. However, Normal People is smart to represent how consent can be withdrawn at any moment.
During this same scene, Marianne asks Connell if he would hit her, and Connell says, “I don’t think I want that. Is that okay?” When Marianne doesn’t respond, he asks if she wants to stop, and she nods her head, so they stop. Here, some of the nuances of consent are depicted. At one moment, Marianne consents to Connell doing “whatever,” but Connell does not consent to hitting her. Then, he asks if she would like to stop, and she withdraws her former consent. One thing I liked about this scene was it showed consent in a multifaceted way; consent must come from everyone involved, and there is not always a complete overlap in consent. In other words, we may not always consent to the same activities at the same time. Moreover, I appreciated that one of the people who did not feel comfortable consenting was a man. The media often only depicts women as the ones who refuse sex (if depicting consent at all), implying that men are sex-driven creatures who would simply be happy to fuck. But Normal People emphasizes consent as important for all parties involved.
In a post #METOO society where men are afraid of being accused of sexual assault, the concept of consent has been morphed by the patriarchy. All too often, men see it as a way to protect themselves, like a form of insurance, as if asking their sexual partner to sign a contract (i.e. if you give me an explicit yes, you can’t hold any of this against me). But consent should be about actively ensuring the safety and well-being of yourself and your partner(s) in a sexual encounter, which is what this show portrays so well. You’re going to want to watch Normal People on Hulu if you’re looking for a refreshingly real, heartbreaking, feminist, and honest story to binge and adore.