What can Normal People teach us about being better human beings?
The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooneys bestseller Normal People has left me unhinged it’s fair to say. I feel deeply moved, nostalgic, on edge, consoled, liberated and bereft all at the same time. It’s a confusing porridge of emotions and a rare experience to be moved and left feeling so safely raw from a dramatisation for me.
I have to confess I binge watched it completely back to back one Saturday evening in the middle of lock down. Home alone with my dog and one two many gin and tonics. I took myself off to bed after 2am broken, cried out and wrung inside out. What was it that got to me so bad? The sex scenes were intense and beautiful, but it wan’t that. The depiction of the awkwardness of coming of age, the inclusion challenges, the need to be cool or not, to find yourself, all surely resonated, but it wasn’t that. The soundtrack, an eliptic collection of melody and score that was enough in and of itself to stir my soul and emotions, it wasn’t that either. That I saw parts of myself in both characters, popular but awkward, confident but insecure, feisty but vulnerable, ambitious but quiet. No it wasn’t that either.
I’m a lover at heart, an old romantic, a passionate soul and I love deeply. I make no apology for those parts of me. But it’s not even that. Although I did enjoy the luxury of remembering what it’s like to fall in love so tenderly and deeply for a few moments.
I’ve read articles about the link to modern feminism and why the character of Connell is every young feminists dream, embracing both his masculinity and his femininity as he tries to make sense of the world he finds himself in. But it’s not that either.
In truth if I dig deep enough it’s the relationship Connel had with his mother and its inextricable link to todays challenge with toxic masculinity.
Whilst the mother plays a smaller role in the cast she is no less dominant in the story for me. Here we see a son of a solo mother who got pregnant by ‘accident’ and brought him up on her own. We see the duality of a relationship, which is both parent and friend. A woman with strong boundaries about what is ethically right and wrong and how women should be treated. A woman prepared to hold those boundaries so firm even though it might break her son’s heart. A relationship which has connection and freedom. Respect and courtesy. Joy and sadness. It is real, honest and truthful. We see as a result a young man, quiet but deeply affected with emotion. Strong in his morals, prepared to step in, prepared to go against the grain of the society banter. Prepared to do the right thing, to get try and get things wrong, to try and make it right. A young man navigating consent carefully and tenderly. A young man struggling with his emotions but trying none the less. A man doing his best to take care of the relationship without taking responsibility for what’s not his and thus creating unhealthy codependency.
The drama weaves a very subtle under current that speaks against the modern concept of toxic masculinity. It’s a quiet portrayal, subtle queues, a sub plot, and quiet nudge to the main themes of the story. But important none the less.
I’ve been finding myself confused and bored with the notion of feminism in our current times. Wondering what the gender neutral equivalent of that movement will be… perhaps the young people will proclaim it, they’re always more fluid and in tune with what’s really required for a better future. Less restricted by the ideals enforced on them through societies conditioning and the battering that comes from years of trying to inspire change.
As a survivor of sexual trauma I’ve always been curious about what makes a rapist. Is it the family, the society, the friends, the work influences, the father as role model, the mother as codependent
Normal People helped me tip my question on it’s head…. What are the conditions that make a good man? In fact what are the conditions that make a good hearted human?
1. The quality of the relationship a boy and a young man have with his mother is crucial — it’s a gateway into understanding the feminine and cultivating empathy for our differences as well as our similarities
2. The boundaries and values which are taught and set (and then clearly held) about what’s ok and what’s not ok support the ease of navigating any landscape — they provide a clear map to make morally good decisions, act fast when required, to know when to step out
3. The freedom that’s given to figure out your own way, even when and especially when it is in conflict are paramount to cultivate free conscious thinking — inter-dependency with freedom as well as connection enables us to take care of the relationship not take over each other
4. Not knowing is ok as long as you take responsibilty for not knowing — being willing to figure things out together is a demonstrationg of living without ego and being comfortable with who you are
5. Having connection to both your masculine traits (physical strength, ambition, drive and determination) as well as your feminine traits (feelings, expression, collaboration, tenderness, consideration and ability to see the bigger picture) offers all of us (men and women) a more whole person experience — enabling us to relate more broadly, bringing greater empathy to more of our relationships
6. Kindness, consideration and strength of character are not limited by social class, gender, sexual orientation or any other whimsical way we’re reduced to boxes and labels — we have choice in how we show up regardless of ‘normal or not’ our upbringing was
7. That sometimes the greatest courage is to walk away (as Michelle Obama once said, when they go low, you go high)
I’m sure there are many more facets to this conversation than the ones I’ve picked out, which ones resonate for you? How can we all use this stimulus to become better human beings?