WHAT YOU SHOULD BE WATCHING: NORMAL PEOPLE
By Alex Cole
Much like everyone else on the planet, I decided to finally watch Normal People on BBC. From the outside, the series appears to be about a complicated relationship, but it’s much more than that. Okay yes, it is a romance about two teenagers full of angst, but within the story lies a recognisable, yet frequently undocumented depiction of mental health and the effect it has on young men and women. Its stunning storytelling magnifies the impact that undiscussed health can have on a person and those around them.
After finishing the series, I decided to read the novel by Sally Rooney. I was told by a lot of people that the book was just as captivating and while I was hesitant at first, was quickly absorbed by it. It’s a coming of age story, set during a time in a teenager’s life when they are expected to reflect social norms and instantly know what they want to do as soon as they finish school. Which, for anyone who is dealing with this, is not as straightforward as it seems. Both Marianne and Connell are interesting characters: both dealing with school, social hierarchy and sexuality. While Marianne is more relatable (she struggles with making friends and self confidence), I couldn’t help but be drawn in by Connell. Although he’s admired by many, he struggles with anxiety, loneliness and as the story develops, depression. Now I know what you’re thinking, a popular yet misunderstood boy, who reads, in a love story. How very original. But his character has a depth that provides a sympathetic understanding of the realities of male mental health.
Connell experiences a large yet believable amount of distressful events at a young age. He deals with the pressures of school, toxic masculinity, death and never knew his father. He is unable to vocalise his insecurities; whether this is due to not understanding his problems or being pressured by the stigma associated with mental health. Alongside this, once he becomes romantically involved with Marianne, he becomes increasingly aware of his anxiety and despite having a genuine connection, his inability to understand it places a barricade between them. From questioning his place within his social group to pretending he doesn’t know her, he clearly deals with issues of self worth that have a negative effect on his day to day life.
This illustration of male mental health is extremely refreshing, as although these emotions are very common, aren’t often portrayed in fiction television. Fortunately many people have realised that this representation is needed and is becoming more frequent. The quality Rooney included that I found most interesting however was his sexuality. When it comes to relationships, women have been presented as extremely emotional in the media, yet men are seen as casual and in control of their feelings. Obviously this isn’t accurate, but unfortunately, has managed to manipulate gender perspectives for many centuries. So this important illustration that ‘Normal people’ provides isn’t just emotionally powerful, but necessary, if we are to fully understand the different types of ill mental health apparent for both men and women. More importantly, will hopefully encourage people to recognise the ways in which they can help those struggling.
Connell has clear anxiety connected to his relationships. Now if toxic masculinity doesn’t already make you both infuriated and saddened, then hopefully Connell’s struggles will. His lack of understanding of his own sexuality prohibits his ability to fully connect with people. His past relationships lacked any form of meaning and he feels incredible uncomfortable speaking about them, especially any physical aspects. This is until Marianne appears and they both realise that “it’s not like this with other people”. Interestingly, even before their romance begins, she is the first person he is emotionally open to, something he couldn’t do with his ‘friends’. Together they are able to break away from the stereotypes that overrule social expectations and are vulnerable with one another. Although Connell cannot entirely part from his however, we understand why; the pressures that surround him are more serious than most realise. Although this is not an excuse for his lack of consideration towards Marianne, it provides a more empathetic understanding regarding the reasoning behind his actions.
From identity to sex, the inclusion of his worries offers people the chance to understand that men do in fact deal with a range of anxieties. Simply put, Connell is realistic. He is unsure and determined at the same time. Confused but romantic. His character is extremely important because he demonstrates how destructive toxic masculinity truly is and how to battle the stigma surrounding it. He understands that he has trouble expressing himself, but struggles to get help. The vulnerability of his character is, although upsetting at times, needed in order to recognise how many men deal with issues of mental health. No longer are women simply represented as emotional and men tough, but instead both complex and full of relatable experiences. Remember, sensitivity is not a weakness, but a strength.
Through their differences and similarities, Connell and Marianne demonstrate that everyone has a mental health. The initial understanding of both characters completely changes by the end of the program and novel. From two opposite people who appear in control of their place within society, to quickly realising that they are more alike than they know. Both struggle with their emotions and aspirations, yet do not know how to address them. They are as the book states, normal people. Through their developments, we see why the stigma around mental health needs to be addressed. The more these topics are discussed, the more society can realise that issues affect everyone, no matter gender, age or class.
Finally, in using these characters, hopefully people will realise the power of compassion and provide support for those in need. So go watch it, read it and join the millions of others who can’t stop talking about how brilliant and moving it is. It might be emotional roller coaster and you will probably need a tub of ice cream by the end of it, but it’s a story that everyone should know. Hopefully, similar stories will encourage care, comfort, and remind people to be kind to one another, especially now.