Have you been obsessively tracking every update on the upcoming Normal People TV adaptation? Of course you have. Sally Rooney’s sublime novel about the on-off love affair between Irish students Marianne and Connell became a millennial status symbol as quickly as it did a literary smash hit. It’s likely, then, that you’ll have heard it’s pretty steamy. The trailers – heavy on panting and sweaty embraces – sparked relief that the BBC/Hulu production hadn’t ignored the novel’s sexual passion. But when I previewed the first four episodes, it wasn’t the topless shots that made me glad not to be watching with my parents. It was the show’s focus on the emotions and behaviours adjacent to sex – the laughter, the tenderness, the white-hot desire – that felt the most radical.
Take the scene when Marianne and Connell first have sex: it is a joyful celebration of the imperfect reality of between-the-sheets action. There are weird grunts of arousal. There’s faintly hysterical giggling. There’s the momentary pausing of the action to air sudden anxieties. And, inevitably, there’s an awkward wardrobe malfunction as Marianne’s maroon bralette thwarts Connell’s noble attempt to slide it over her head.
The show has been called "risque" and "astonishingly horny", and it is. But while that brings to mind X-rated moves and improbably skimpy underwear, as far as I’ve watched it is its natural, unhurried sex scenes – which incorporate the mundane (getting a condom) as well as the divine (I’ll leave that to your imagination) – that make it daring.
We’re not used to seeing honest depictions of sex on screen. Hollywood generally gets about as close to reality as your Year 10 biology textbook did, skirting around the issue with jokes or prim euphemisms.
The teen shows I watched as an adolescent in the noughties weren’t much better. In the impossibly glamorous world of Gossip Girl, novice fumblings looked like Agent Provocateur adverts. The OC had the same problem, or otherwise turned awkward sex into a punchline. And while Skins was less glossy, it squandered universal relatability by focusing on the exaggerated antics of a group of hard partiers.
Shows like HBO’s Girls nudged sex scenes into a more believable realm, blazing a path for the wave of sexually candid TV and film that has emerged of late, from Sex Education and Big Mouth to Booksmart and PEN15. The nuanced looks at sexuality on offer here don’t just make viewers feel seen. They also counter gender stereotypes, demolishing the stale template of male seduction and female submission.
A scene where Marianne hungrily watches Connell playing football asserts that he's as much an object of desire as she is.
Normal People is no exception. For one, Marianne takes the lead in her and Connell’s relationship, telling him that she likes him and asking to upgrade their chaste snogs to the clothes-off variety. As Connell teasingly points out: "It was you that was seducing me."
Male sexuality, meanwhile, is shown as gentle and considerate (in Connell’s case, at least). Connell checks that Marianne wants to have sex and communicates with her about what she likes before leaping into bed with her, which, while a low bar for sexual behaviour, is conspicuously absent from most depictions of intimacy. What’s more, a scene where Marianne hungrily watches Connell playing football asserts that he’s as much an object of desire as she is. Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne, has praised the show’s "equal representation" when it comes to her and Paul Mescal, who plays Connell, getting their kit off. "Paul is equally exposed," she told The Observer. "When we’re in a scene and topless, it’s different for Paul than it is for me, so it’s nice that there are shots where we are both fully nude!"
Why is TV taking sex more seriously? The increased use of intimacy directors, who advise during sex scenes, surely plays a role: both Normal People and Sex Education consulted industry go-to Ita O’Brien. While the role of intimacy director took off following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and its primary aim is to safeguard the cast and crew, O’Brien reckons it also makes for better sex material. "I’m supporting the director and the actors to bring in every nuance and every detail of the storytelling," she says. Leaving sex scenes to the experts adds finesse, she says, raising the example of a scene in which Connell puts on a condom. Getting something like that wrong "takes us as an audience out of the storytelling. You go, 'Well, I don’t believe he’s putting a condom on, and I don’t believe the rest of it now.'" She worked with Mescal on "techniques" (I wimp out of inquiring further) to make it look realistic.
TV commissioners are no doubt also aware that we’re alert to the intricacy of sex off-set, too. Post #MeToo, there’s heightened awareness of how it overlaps with power, money and our emotional lives, and we’re hungry for stories that interrogate this. In this context, it’s not hard to see why Normal People might resonate, given that it explores the light and dark of sexual experience, from love and intimacy to assault and exploitation.
So real-life sex is being better reflected on screen. But how about the other way round – will the shift in screen culture impact society? In one word: yes. Not to come over too Oscar "life imitates art far more than art imitates life" Wilde, but screen and society play off one another. Sensitive depictions of lovemaking will undoubtedly shape modern sexual mores. (There are plenty in the pipeline, too. O’Brien worked on over 20 shows last year.)
Hopefully, holding up a mirror to sex today will spark honest discussions about what we like about it, and what we don’t. Ideally, of course, this would lead to the destruction of rigid gender roles, universal awareness of what constitutes enthusiastic mutual consent, and young people feeling empowered to open up about what feels good.
But at the very least, Marianne and Connell’s teenage trysts reassure that loving, comfortable sex – where you chat and laugh about your bralette getting stuck – is erotic, positive and, yes, perfectly normal.