Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Everyone is talking about Normal People.
Rightly so, the programme conjures such richness and complexity with deft, subtle strokes. It also seems breathtakingly new and it has fashioned a new space among the more recognisable genres which tend to dominate and divide the TV guide. It is no wonder it has met such acclaim. Yet its widespread success has already been equated with basicness in mainstream discourse.
The word basic has become synonymous with unoriginality: an unwavering, and often embarrassing, commitment to the mainstream. It is also a word that never strays far from being coupled with the word ‘bitch’. In this context, this jibe that is predominantly reserved for women, dismisses this fantastic show as boring and unworthy of attention.
Such is the mediocrity conjured by the word, it inspires people to strive to distance themselves from anything that falls within its sphere. The murmurs of ‘basicness’ that are swelling in conjunction with the increasing public fervour around Normal People are dismaying as they may deter people from watching this unmissable show.
The TV adaptation of Normal People has been well-received by both men and women but whilst almost all my female friends have watched it, only a few of my male friends have done so (and many of these watched the show alongside or on the encouragement of female friends, partners and relatives).
The book’s readership, too, seems primarily female. Perhaps this is because the book is written by a woman. Persistent prejudice dictates that whilst male writers write universally, offering up enlightened insights which speak for the experience of all humankind, female writers speak exclusively for women, grappling with the icky realms of intimacy and the inane. Whilst the work of male authors may span boundless genres, the work of women is often hastily consigned to ‘chick lit’.
So, does the show come with accusations of basicness simply because it hinges on female support? We have been lucky enough, these last few years, to experience some phenomenal pieces of television. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Chernobyl are a few examples, all of which were widely lauded as ground-breaking, essential viewing.
Yet whilst these programmes have found themselves the focus of incessant public discussion, their popularity was never sneeringly equated with basicness. Normal People possesses many attributes that might give it a place amongst these titans, but because women are leading the way in celebrating its excellence, it risks being cast aside as basic and trite. It is denied the protracted lifespan that programmes with less associations with women have enjoyed.
Or might it be the show’s profound emotional resonance, that makes it too painful to confront head on? Maybe it is easier to rebuff the programme from the beginning, rather than to engage with the unapologetically intense emotions.
Whilst, as a society, we may be starting to understand the importance of allowing space for men to abandon traditional machoism, progress is choppy and there is still considerable distance to cover before we reach boundless emotional acceptance. In the eyes of many, men are ruled by logic whilst women are shamefully susceptible to emotions.
Crying at Normal People is merely evidence of falling prey to the embarrassing territory of human feeling: revealing that you are as ordinary and susceptible as everybody else. Better, perhaps, to avoid engaging altogether and preserve the fragile illusion of mystery that aloof masculinity allows.
Dismissing Normal People as basic is painfully ironic, given that much of the show’s success hinges on its ability to wrangle with nuance and complexity. The programme tentatively treads a raw and yawning emotional landscape.
Indeed, basic is the kind of aspersion we might imagine one of Marianne’s more antagonistic uni friends caustically flinging at someone over a glass of wine, whilst Connell watches on with mild frustration. But basic is more than just an offhand dismissal, it is an accusation mired in sexism.
Whilst the acclaim of other shows that are less decisively linked to female enjoyment do carry merit, the female-led celebration of Normal People has been used to label it ‘already past it’ and unworthy of attention.
But unlike Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, it is not guns or swords that are deployed in Normal People but words and glances that skewer our inner most sensibilities. Normal People is not unique in capturing the messiness of humanity. Yet what distinguishes the programme is that it does not blunt this exploration with distractions of plot and action.
When watching the programme, we must confront the fact that we are all, indeed, normal people, equally susceptible to the chaos of our basic internal workings. Calling Normal People basic seems a futile exercise of self-deception, one which reflects the outdated and sexist notion that emotions equate to weakness.