Editor’s Note: This month, that is July 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Body Image, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront, with respect to our bodies in private or public spaces, or both. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This article is written based purely on the TV show, not the book.
She asks him to stop, but Lukas persists, continuing to photograph her; half naked and tied up. He tells her that she wanted this, which was true, up until she didn’t. From the outset of their relationship in Normal People, Marianne didn’t want Lukas to like her—she wanted, “if anything, the opposite of that” and for them to have sex as though he didn’t. She tells him that plainly, and we, as the audience, go on to witness the two of them engaging in sex—involving bondage and shaming—that is meant to reflect that. Earlier in that particular episode, it is almost excruciating to watch a naked Marianne lay listless and barely there, looking away from Lukas as he tells her—as part of their ongoing sexual encounter—that she is ‘worthless‘.
At this point in Marianne’s life, she is taking time away from Dublin’s Trinity College and studying abroad in Sweden, trying to deal with her feelings about not being deserving of love, of feeling invisible, and of feeling like she is never in control of this life that she has let others lead for her. In the show, Marianne’s more outwardly masochist sexual experiences are portrayed as mirroring, and perhaps even deriving from and speaking to, her personal ones. While it might play into the ‘people who engage in BDSM only do so because they are disturbed’ trope, the positioning of ‘sexual as personal’ and vice versa in Normal People is refreshing in its deliberateness.
Through the sex that is sometimes tender, sometimes rough and punishing, but always quite sweaty and revealing, we are acutely aware of Marianne’s personal need to simultaneously give, receive, but above all, feel something. Marianne’s experience with men, and the not particularly vanilla sex she has with them, is an honest representation of how people navigate sex for resolutions other than solely pleasure. Normal People compels us to broaden our understanding of how little, or how much, sex can mean and uphold for an individual in what is meant to be a shared moment.
Throughout the show, we are made particularly aware of the people in Marianne’s life that have both shaped her sense of worth and the sex she chooses to engage in, at those different stages in her life. Of her family, we learn of a physically abusive father who is only alluded to but whose absence has left an even bigger mark, and an emotionally abusive, older brother, whose self-loathing and entitlement is suffocating even through the TV screen. We are also privy to Marianne’s confrontations with her aloof mother who seems incapable of expressing concern and affection, and is also possibly jealous of her daughter’s learned self-reliance.
Of the men that she pursues both romantically and sexually, Connell (who she knows from high school) stands out as the one who treats her with kindness and a certain kind of innocent reverence that is, perhaps, stifling; the other three from college are controlling and cruelly dismissive at worst, snooty at best. One of them, Jamie, very closely resembles her older brother in his snark and need to control the decisions Marianne makes. It is with two of these latter men—Jamie and Lukas—that we watch Marianne engage in rough, quite violent sex where she seems uninvolved, disengaged and totally outside of herself even though she ‘wants’ to engage in such. We do not see any indication of Marianne being into this kind of ‘roughing up’ when we witness her and Connell initially having sex, which I can only describe as passionate, synchronistic and exuding the promise of a safety unfamiliar to her.
The intensity of Marianne’s sexual journey over the course of Normal People is a varied and familiar one, but it seems like the internet is either one way or the other about it. There are enough think-pieces extolling the show for its thoughtful portrayal of the ‘realistic sex’ that made it to our small screens and enough of them lamenting its ‘off-base’ depiction of sex involving BDSM and how it was ‘disappointing’ the way Marianne arrives at wanting to participate in them.
The position that Normal People, through Marianne’s experimental foray into BDSM, shines a poor light on those who enjoy BDSM, assumes that Marianne is even truly into that sort of thing to begin with, and not at all exploring different ways—or at least some way—in which to (in)appropriately deal with the residual feelings of a shaky sense of self-worth, neglect, abuse and heartbreak. This is not to say that Marianne could never have been genuinely curious or that the emotional pain she has experienced is the only reason she, or anyone, would ‘resort’ to such sex. It is to say that, it is important to stay open to the different sexual choices people make to deal with any particular singular feeling at the time—negative or not.
When Marianne is explaining to Connell that Jamie is into inflicting pain and being rough with her, he winces reflexively. It ‘sounds fucking horrible’ to him. Yet, Marianne seems outwardly serene, perhaps even amused by his reaction. She doesn’t explicitly state that she is very keen on what she implies is the opposite of the ‘mutual, equally-involved sex’ she had with Connell. She does, however, say that had Connell been into that sort of thing, she would have been very open to it. She would have done anything that he wanted to; it makes sense to want to do everything you can to make the person you love feel desired and good. But, I couldn’t help but think that women always have to do that: it’s what we are socialized to do.
So, how do you extricate the two?
I don’t mean to universalize Marianne’s experience, but it does make me think about how women tend to make space for the desires of the men in their lives as part of their own—how even as we might talk of our agency, of being in control of our bodies, there is always an element of it never fully being ours. It is ours to do with what we want, as long as what it wants also pleases. In the TV show, it is never explicitly shown, but I wonder if Jamie ever asks Marianne if she actually enjoys being slapped and having her hair pulled, or if he just assumes she enjoys it because she hasn’t said anything to suggest otherwise.
Marianne shows no indication she does, but also no indication she wants it to stop. She just is. A passive and willing recipient of whatever Jamie, who pulls her hair harder, is giving at this moment. As is her part to play in this ‘game’ with him. I wonder how many people, like Marianne, have never said anything to the contrary, even during sex they have consented to? What are the lengths to which we are comfortable pretending, pushing ourselves and our bodies, to appease? Despite what the articles proclaim is a poor representation of BDSM, I think it is important to ask from where Marianne’s, and some of our desires, to still engage in certain non-normative sexual acts and/or sex that might be ‘unsatisfying’ originates, whether or not we derive any sort of pleasure from it.
Should we interrogate where our need for sex comes from?
Absolutely, because it forms us as much as we form it, as much as it also forms the relationships and ecosystems we create around our desire to experience something. If Marianne had liked it a little rough because she enjoys being submissive, then so be it. But what I, and others who have attempted to problematise ‘sex-positive’ feminism think, is also important is to examine where that need comes from: to derive pleasure (or any sort of feeling) from behaviour that imitates in the moment—if not actually reproduces—normalised (often heteronormative) power dynamics. Perhaps it’s worth asking, not from a place of judgement but of transformative inquiry, why straight men might jump at the chance to, for example, choke their women partners in bed ‘in the name of pleasure’, as much as it is to ask why these women might be into being choked in the first place.
To solely lament this depiction as some sort of affront to non-normative desires, or the representations of them, is to also dismiss the very real ways in which people engage with sex to define, form or even push back against their self at any given period in time. Why we need, crave or—to the least of its degrees—want to have sex at all (let alone a certain way) is so tied up in the personal. And what is the personal, if not a gendered, raced, classed body and mind that exists in a system, a set of social conditions, a whole world, at the root of which is power, and who does or does not have it?
In the second to last episode, Marianne breathily asks Connell (who she reconnects with yet again) to tell her that she belongs to him, and then to hit her. For someone that no one has really ever wanted to claim and for whom physical pain seems to be a measure of some sort of control, a control she wants Connell to have over her, Marianne asks for something more than pleasure in this particular, portentous moment. Normal People, through Marianne, urges us to think of how sex is a means in itself, and not always an end resulting in explosive orgasms.
To believe that the way we feel about how we are perceived and treated—and the actual ways in which we are—has little to no bearing on how and why we choose to engage (or don’t) in any kind of sex at all is limiting. It limits our own introspection of why we choose to engage in certain kinds of sex that might, or might not, involve reproductions or subversions of power. It limits our engagement with people who have extremely different life experiences than us—on account of the ways they have previously experienced and chosen to involve themselves in relationships and sex, which is definitely affected by one’s race, caste, class, gender and able-bodiedness.
It limits how secure we could try to make someone feel in what is an extremely vulnerable experience. It limits what we might actually seek to get out of having sex—is it solely pleasure? Respite from pain? A temporary intimacy? A temporary feeling of believing, even for a moment, that you are capable of making someone happy? A moment to work through the baggage that we can never actually leave haphazardly at the bedroom door? The contents always spill over, and if we are solely focused on the simplistic equation that ALL sex is only about pleasure and that is what anyone truly wants to get out of it, then we are not trying to unpack. We are merely trying to zip closed an overstuffed bag of possibility.
It might benefit us to think about why certain things get us going and not others, and why we are so willing to act on some of these with certain people and not others. This is by no means a judgement of people who engage in whatever sex they want to—whatever gets you going! We just have to keep in mind that, we don’t exist as is in this world, even though we might like to think we do. Every action is (co-)informed by our agency, feelings and our position in a relationship dynamic with the people around us. We cannot ignore that this also affects the act of sex. I, for one, appreciated watching Marianne having what seemed like pleasure-less sex with shitty men who took a little too much joy in hurting her, both within and outside of the bedroom.
Also read: Fatness, Womanhood And The Bois Locker Rooms
To me, it was real for Marianne to plainly admit—through her romantic and sexual pursuits that did little for her—that she wasn’t doing okay, and that meant partaking in sex that might have felt right in the moment, but that wasn’t necessarily good for her. However we choose to have it—sex can be fun and liberating, but it isn’t always and, sometimes, that’s not why we seek it to begin with. Instead of essentialising experiences, let’s try to make room in the bedroom for the Mariannes of the world.
Featured Image Source: HULU