Normal People depicts consent well but can we stop expecting female nudity on screen?

There is difference between a woman’s breasts and a man’s naked chest, whether we want this to be the case or not

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 28 April 2020 22:08
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Normal People first trailer

If you were a woman in your twenties who didn’t read Normal People in 2018, did you even make a sound?

Sally Rooney’s second novel caused a tidal wave of reaction, not seen since the domestic noirs Gone Girl (2012) and Girl on the Train (2015) were released. Dog-eared copies were swapped among friendship circles, passed around offices and discussed at length in WhatsApp groups. Even with all the book swapping, the novel sold more than 570,000 copies in the UK and Ireland, and has been translated into 41 languages. It made Rooney, the young upstart of the Dublin literary scene, a household name; the Jane Austen of the millennial generation.

All episodes of the much-anticipated BBC and Hulu TV adaptation of Rooney’s novel dropped on iPlayer on Sunday night, and it does not disappoint. The same awkwardness, sparse language and stark landscapes that were so fundamental to the book have been translated expertly to the small screen – aided by Rooney herself who exec produced the series and co-wrote much of the script.

Every shot, every stilted exchange and illicit glance feels accurate to her original story. The vulnerability of the couple as their relationship ripens over the years is felt in every scene; it’s impossible to watch and not to feel nostalgic for your own teenage disquiet with social status, school grades and dalliances with romance.

For the uninitiated (what were you reading in 2018?), the story sees Marianne, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, and Connell, played by Paul Mescal, both in their final school year in a small Irish coastal town. There are status conflicts that address class, social standing and intellect: Marianne is wealthy; Connell is working class. Connell is a popular jock while Marianne is a detached loner rallying against the confines of overly dictatorial teachers, uniforms and school procedure. Their power dynamic is dramatically different at home compared with school, creating an equilibrium of sorts that ebbs and flows as they mature and leave school.

But more than its honesty to the book – a risk for all adaptations – the series is being hailed by critics and viewers alike for its portrayal of sex and sexual consent. When Marianne and Connell first have sex – for her, this represents the moment she loses her virginity – the pair giggle and stumble.

The anticipation and excitement is palpable; this isn’t cliched glossy movie sex. She asks him, “Now can we take our clothes off?” and as they do so, Marianne’s teenage crop-top bra gets stuck over her head, her insecurities exposed when she’s naked (“There are much prettier girls in school who like you”). Unlike most sex on screen, the pair check in with each other at each step of the exchange – “Is that OK?” and “Does it hurt?”.

Sex is central to the book, both in regard to their relationship but also to Marianne’s character development in particular. The abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother and the social rejection from Connell plays out in her future relationships.

The most poignant part is just before they have sex. Marianne asks if Connell has a condom, something so rarely mentioned on screen (pre-Netflix’s Sex Education at least) that it stands out – for all the right reasons. He acknowledges it’s her first time and reassures her. “If you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop,” Connell says. “If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward.”

Every intimate scene in the adaptation was guided by “intimacy coordinator” Ita O’Brien, whose job it was to ensure the cast was comfortable when filming nudity and sexual simulation. The role of intimacy coordinator on set has been increasingly in demand since the MeToo movement, and O’Brien has worked on other well-received shows including Sex Education and Watchmen.

And yet, through all the well-handled sex scenes and responsible dialogue, it’s difficult to watch those moments and not be acutely aware of the amount of screen time given to Edgar-Jones’s bare breasts.

Admittedly the phoney bra-on-during-sex scenes that so many directors opt for can jolt viewers out of the moment. Nudity can absolutely be valid in art, necessary to explore the vulnerability or sexual tension of a scene. Normal People certainly achieves that. But many of those scenes made me starkly aware that a man was standing behind the camera (the first six episodes are directed by Lenny Abrahamson). Was it really necessary to include quite so many shots?

The fact that later in the series we also see Connell’s penis does not, in itself, allay those concerns. Firstly, the frequency of nudity feels different. Are viewers supposed to be grateful for the portrayal of consent, but then have to endure a woman being repeatedly exposed on screen?

Edgar-Jones is 21 and the character of Marianne is 18 – both well over the age of consent – but Marianne is infantilised by dint of her school uniform, no matter her age, and it feels uncomfortable to see her breasts in early episodes as a result.

Edgar-Jones has described in several interviews how positive the filming environment was, describing the scenes as feeling “so safe” and “100 per cent consensual”, telling Jenni Murray on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that she “can’t imagine doing anything like that without [an intimacy coordinator] and it should be the gold standard to have one on set just to make sure that everything is being well looked after and handled properly”. Speaking to the New York Times, she described her pride that “the nudity is 50-50”.

It’s positive to hear that the crew created a safe space for the actors – something that was hardly a pre-requisite in the movie industry. But Edgar-Jones also told Murray that “nothing will prepare you” for what filming sex scenes feels like, and speaking to the New York Times: “When Paul and I are in a scene together, and he’s topless and I’m topless, it’s very different for him than it is for me.”

And that’s the thing: 50-50 nudity doesn’t necessarily make for a 50-50 power structure.

There is difference between a woman’s breasts and a man’s naked chest, whether we want this to be the case or not.

The fact this is Edgar-Jones’s breakout acting role makes it feel even more uncomfortable. As Abrahamson himself acknowledged in the same New York Times interview: “As an established director working with a youngish cast, when it comes to explicit scenes and nudity, part of me worried that they may say, ‘Yes, I do feel comfortable with it,’” he said, “because they don’t want to disappoint me, because we have a good creative relationship and I’ve got a reputation.”

Of course, Edgar-Jones has her own agency, but in the digital era, nude scenes live beyond the space in which they were shot. Many actors have described their regret at doing nude scenes. Helen Mirren explained in a 2006 interview that she “did those scenes because I didn’t want to be uptight.” “I’ve always had a problem with doing nudity. In fact, I hated it.” Reflecting on her role in Titanic, Kate Winslet later said, “I wish I hadn’t shown so much flesh, but I was young and I knew I had things to prove.” Emilia Clarke has expressed feeling uncomfortable filming nude scenes in Game of Thrones.

Normal People is a beautifully translated adaption, and it deserves the praise it has received from critics. But it left me with one question: why are we so willing to praise one progressive element of an on-screen sex scene while simultaneously overlooking another? The fact that Edgar-Jones is so far from the plain Marianne (despite the best efforts from the costume department), who is “an object of disgust” at school only adds to this

Of course, it’s both refreshing and welcome to see shows such as this tackle adolescent sex and consent in a responsible manner.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask for more. In fact, it’s our responsibility to keep asking.

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