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Normal People: The toxic teenage experience

Laren Tayyip May 19, 2020
Normal People

From love to depression and from parties to funerals, the brand-new, eponymous show based on Sally Rooney’s Normal People will have you experiencing every single emotion and human situation under the sun. But which of these are lessons we should try to adopt ourselves?

If, like me, you watched all 12 episodes of Normal People in record time, you might have missed of the life lessons the show imparts on its more impressionable viewers.

The plot revolves around the complicated love story between teenagers Marianne and Connell, whose ecstasy intermingles with the gripping agony of youth. The protagonists’ downfall, which could be attributed to age and inexperience, is the illusion that one’s true feelings and insecurities should never be voiced. The young couple are so impressionable that their classmates effectively control their relationship and, to some degree, their life.

This toxic teenage experience can make older viewers beg-shout at the TV for the characters to open their eyes to the wider world around them. The truth is, we were all naïve and under the spell of those around us at some point in our youth, so let’s try to learn from the couple’s mistakes. 

The need to be liked by everyone

Connell’s popularity is his biggest weakness. In a desperate attempt to display a certain persona to his social bubble, he convinces himself that his relationship with the aloof Marianne should be kept under wraps. Little does he know that he’s not only lying to himself, but also singlehandedly undermining their blossoming relationship.

There is something very powerful about the scene in the third episode, where the couple are discussing Trinity College Dublin. Marianne’s response to an offhanded joke from Connell makes viewers’ hearts ache in painful realisation: “I would never pretend not to know you, Connell.” His response, ‘would you not?’ seals the episode’s final image of a teenage boy leaving a hopeless voicemail for his first love.

This is what makes Connell so relatable — we can see the pain in his eyes when he realises his mistake, but we know it’s too late. The pressure of trying to fit in at school and to do what you think will make your friends accept you is unfortunately, it’s one of the biggest killers of teenage happiness and an experience most viewers share.

Image (c) BBC

The brutal hierarchies of school

Marianne, on the other hand, seems at first the strong, independent-minded girl who talks back to teachers, doesn’t need any friends and channels all her energy into her studies. However the reality of the character is very different — Marianne comes from a broken home and puts on an air of aloofness at school to mask her underlying loneliness.

Her insecurities show in scenes where she asks Connell if he minds her ‘ugly face’, and in the countless times she compares herself to the blonde beauty Rachel. I think this is unfortunately something us girls will all have experienced at one time or another.

Perhaps one of the most shocking scenes of the entire series is the one where Connell’s friend calls Marianne an ‘ugly, flat-chested bitch’. It left me feeling both angry at the brutal hierarchies of school and sympathetic to the shaky, developing self-esteem affecting teenage girls. We all waited for Connell to stand up for Marianne but, to viewers’ collective disappointment, he watched the scene unfold as if he were just another audience member.

Although Marianne appears not to care about what other people think of her, she still tells Connell, “I don’t think cool is the word most people would associate with me.” When asked what people would describe her as, Marianne replies with “annoying, obnoxious, argumentative, self-righteous, arrogant and frigid.” She, like many of us, has fallen into the trap of letting others’ warped perception of her shape her identity.

Image (c) BBC

University as a chance to start anew

After blocking out the memory of her school years and embarking on a History degree at Trinity College, Marianne is able to start a new life, which comes with its own challenges. 

Over the course of three turbulent years together at university, Marianne and Connell swap roles in their relationship. Marianne is now the popular girl being chased by a slew of boys and Connell becomes depressed and a loner. But Marianne’s new-found popularity rests on unhealthy relationships, and Connell’s loneliness comes from a yearning to return to more familiar times.

Connell’s pride, together with Marianne’s inability to express her feelings lead, once more, to their inevitable break-up. The uncomfortable sex scenes that follow, between Marianne and random men, contrast with the innocence and tenderness she and Connell shared earlier in the show. She responds to these new experiences by numbing herself with bad habits and eventually loses her self-worth.

Image (c) BBC

An open-ended fate

And while the ambiguous ending is not what everyone expected, leaving it up to the imagination of the audience whether Connell decided to move to New York to pursue his writing, or whether he stayed in Ireland with Marianne, the series does not shy away from showing the true challenges real life throws at us. The tear-jerking ending is both tragic and liberating as they sit together on the floor imagining a very different life. We might try to shake off the experiences which made up our formative years, but learning from them is essential, as they can shape our lives forever. 

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NCTJ Qualified Journalist with experience across both print and online. Enjoy writing long form pieces on topics such as lifestyle, health, fashion and features. (@larentayyip)