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Gender, class and cliché in Normal People

The BBC hit drama shows the complexities of class mobility, but can’t avoid class and gender stereotypes, says Frances Hatherley

5 to 6 minute read

The halls of Trinity College Dublin (Photo: Ben Guerin)

The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People is beautifully shot, written and performed. It’s clear that Rooney herself is class-conscious, and well-intentioned in writing about class politics within friendships. But Normal People’s onscreen depiction of class and gender still falls into the realm of fantasy and stereotype.

Normal People centres around the relationship between posh Marianne and working-class Connell, from school in rural Ireland through university, when they both attend Trinity College Dublin. This cross-class union comes about from the fact that Connell’s mum Lorraine works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. At school, he is part of the popular group while Marianne is a social outcast, too clever, frosty and outspoken to be accepted. Connell’s visits to collect his mum, his “entering the big house”, see Connell’s and Marianne’s worlds collide.

These romantic dynamics fulfil some familiar tropes around class and gender. When heterosexual cross-class relationships appear on screen or in books, the boy/man is almost always working-class and the girl/woman middle or upper-class. This contrast is about values written onto the body: the working-class male is historically represented as a worker; he’s “of the body”, rough and strong – so he’s sexually alluring to middle-class thinness, to those whose bodies act as carriers for the mind, whose work isn’t manual.

This understanding of class maps exactly onto Normal People. Connell is extremely buff, as regularly commented on by multiple characters, and plays Gaelic football at school. The camera often lingers over his muscular body. Much attention online has been given to the silver chain that Connell wears around his neck, often seen as the only thing he’s wearing. An Instagram page exists devoted to its appearances. This is reminiscent of the fetish in gay porn for the working-class “scally” or “chav” with their signifiers of working-class maleness like Reebok trainers, chunky white socks, tracksuits and gold necklaces: the modern-day bit of rough for middle-class viewers playing Lady Chatterley. Conversely, Marianne is posh, thin, and “bookish”. She performs prettiness and femininity in an extremely middle-class way, which is to say tastefully and discreetly.

Is it possible to think of any examples of mutually respectful onscreen romantic relationships between a working-class woman and a middle-class man? Or ones where the working-class woman is physically strong and the man is shy, slightly-built and demure? These comparisons show how conventional notions of masculinity and femininity have been reinforced by class power dynamics. Femininity is often associated with refinement and classiness, embodied by those with capital. While a “real man” is “big and strong”, a “gentleman” doesn’t have to be beefy: he has cultural capital and so doesn’t need conventionally masculine physical strength.

This doesn’t mean that desiring muscular working-class men or posh thin women is problematic, but leaning on these stereotypes as if these physical characteristics were biologically essential to a class, rather than being socially and politically constructed, is harmful and limiting.

Normal People has its cake and eats it by casting Connell as intelligent, as well as a fantasy working-class hunk – apparently he’s the “smartest person” Marianne knows (as she says to the chagrin of her ultra-snobby friend Jamie). Yet, we never see or hear this intelligence onscreen. We hear that he’s getting top marks in his class, that he’s apparently a star pupil, but we never see evidence of his sharp mind. It would have been simple, and satisfying, to have Connell put Jamie in his place during his regular attempts to patronise and show him up in front of Marianne. In not doing so, the program misses the chance to show viewers how working-class intelligence looks and sounds, and its difference from middle-class students’ rote repetition of received opinions and posturing.

One of the best, but most painful scenes shows Connell, deeply depressed, talking to a counsellor. He tells her of his split-self, divided between his small hometown where he didn’t feel he belonged, and the promise of acceptance and intellectual freedom represented by going to university – a place where he finds he also does not fit. His hope that he would finally be allowed to unite the parts of himself that couldn’t be expressed before is shattered by the reality of studying at Trinity, surrounded by the self-assured children of wealthy parents.

This proves false the stereotypical narratives about the wonders of class mobility, and the claim that class is dead. The pain of the 1950s “scholarship boy” described by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy – anxious self-surveillance in your new surroundings, fearing that the roots you’ve been taught to be ashamed of will be exposed – is still alive and kicking.

This is a story I’ve heard many times from people with working-class backgrounds who have entered the middle-class dominated spaces of university. It is also my own experience. But there are scarce representations of the scholarship girl in books and onscreen – Educating Rita being a rare example. Class and gender stereotypes make it much less socially acceptable to portray bookish, nerdy working-class girls, who are instead represented as too busy having promiscuous sex and pushing prams to be reading philosophy or making art (why not both?). Risks and repercussions are also much greater for working-class girls who breach social boundaries. This is why, in Normal People, Connell’s character was never going to be a girl.

All this being said, I’m really glad to see screen time given to a subjective experience of class crisis, something still felt by many of us who supposedly have seamlessly transcended our class backgrounds. I’m also pleased that Normal People ends with Connell managing to overcome his despair and win a trip to study in New York, although I’m fully aware that such tales of overcoming are most often fairytales. Like many fairytales, the fantasy is both about romance and about transcending class positions, away from oppression and towards freedom in the form of education that promises another life.

Frances Hatherley is a Research Fellow and archivist at the Jo Spence Memorial Library at Birkbeck University, London

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