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Why the conversation around Normal People's sex scenes shows how Ireland has changed

The issue of consent is to the forefront – and the complaints are at a minimum.

Image: Element Pictures

SALLY ROONEY’S SECOND novel Normal People became a bestseller after its release – and now the TV adaptation is making headlines across Ireland, Europe and the US.

While there have been articles dedicated to everything from whether the series will bring back the ‘jock’ to TV, to people’s obsession with the chain the character Connell wears, here in Ireland much focus has been put on the sex scenes in the series.

This week, an episode of Liveline on RTÉ Radio One was dedicated to the issue. But while some of the callers took issue with the frank depiction of sex between the two main characters, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), what was notable was that the majority of the callers did not find fault with it.

The book and TV series depict the beginnings of a loving, consensual sexual relationship between Marianne and Connell (things get a little more complicated as the book progresses).

However, one complaint to LiveLine said that what was shown was “like something from a porno”. When asked by the show’s host Joe Duffy what could a person see in a ‘porno’, the caller replied that she didn’t know, as she’d never seen one.

Another caller criticised the TV show for depicting “fornication”. However, the majority of contributors praised Normal People for its depiction of consent between two teenagers as they begin to explore their sexual relationship.

RTÉ said that it had not received any formal complaints about the series so far, but had been contacted by members of the public about the episode’s content:

There were no formal complaints made to RTÉ in relation to Normal People. We received 37 pieces of feedback from the public, made before and after broadcast, expressing unhappiness and disappointment with the content of the episode.
It is worth noting that there was a hugely positive response from our viewers on social media.

Call-in shows like Liveline might not always capture the full breadth of opinions on a topic, but they do shed light on how controversial a TV show or movie is.

That people are exercised enough to phone a radio station shows that there is definitely a level of disquiet there. But the reaction to Normal People also showed that attitudes towards sex and nudity on Irish TV have most certainly changed.

Donald Clarke, film critic with the Irish Times, told TheJournal.ie what happened in 1978, when a naked woman was shown on an episode of the RTÉ show Spike.

“It was fascinating – I was very young at the time but old enough to remember it all happening. Spike was a TV series set in a Dublin school – a rough kitchen sink drama – and it trundled along fine and got respectable reviews and viewership. Until there was an episode with David Kelly playing an art teacher. The crucial difficulty was he had a life class and brought in a nude woman,” said Clarke. “They didn’t show her fully frontally nude – she pressed her body to a frosted glass sheet through which she was viewed.”

That one scene became national news. “The show was taken off air and questions were asked in the Dáil. People were phoning up the radio stations furiously – but what was even then notable was this was not the first time there had been nudity on RTÉ,” said Clarke. There had already been films, like Billy Wilder’s Avanti, which showed some nudity on the station.

“But what disturbed people – and this brings us forward to the current kerfuffle – was it was an Irish girl who had done this,” pointed out Clarke. “And nobody really minded that much [about the other incidents], there were occasional complaints here and there, but it didn’t become a proper scandal until this happened.”

Another show that came under criticism – but for a different reason – was Executive Suite in 1976, a glossy soap opera which ran for one season. “Its only claim to fame was in Ireland there was an episode broadcast, which as I recall had a warning, that had an abortion in it. One of the characters had an abortion – it wasn’t shown. That was sufficient to have the series cancelled. That was enough in itself to have RTÉ take a deep breath and cancel the series. That wasn’t about decency, it was a political issue, an issue about approaching morality.”

But by the 1980s, things had started to change. “Like a lot of things in Ireland, the 60s didn’t happen until the 80s,” said Clarke. Things changed again after the millennium. 

One of the most important moves was John Kelleher’s installation as Film Censor in 2003, succeeding Sheamus Smith. It wasn’t long before Kelleher’s appointment that Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers fell foul of the censor and were banned from being shown in Ireland. 

A pivotal moment, said Clarke, was when Kelleher granted an 18 certificate to Michael Winterbottom’s film Nine Songs, which featured real sex in it, in 2004. Censorship in Ireland had reached a new age. 

“That was itself [important], but what was as important was that it wasn’t a huge sandal; it wasn’t on the front pages,” said Clarke – who, for the record, didn’t give the film a very good review, but not because of the sexual content. 

When Winterbottom appeared on the Late Late Show, the detractors in the audience who complained about the film “certainly seemed like the outsiders, whereas 20, 30 years previously they would not have been seen like that – it would have seemed like equal debate”, said Clarke.

Clarke saw a reflection of that in this week’s Liveline discussion. While Joe Duffy was as patient as ever, he wasn’t afraid of gently steering them away when the contributors were bringing up unrelated topics (like abortion), or pointing out fallacies in what they were saying. The complainants were also not in the majority. 

“That demonstrates what has changed so much since 1978, where in the Spike coverage there were very few people who were turning up on public media to make the case for it. It felt they were putting their head above the parapet if they did. Now people who have conservative attitudes, it does feel like they’re putting their head above the parapet,” said Clarke.

“It demonstrates a real shift in attitude.”

Consent

That shift in attitude is also demonstrated by the positive reaction to Rooney’s depiction of consensual sex.

The issue of consent is one that has been to the fore in the past few years, with some colleges introducing consent classes. So Normal People’s take on things was welcomed by Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who told TheJournal.ie:

Consent and mutual enjoyment really should be the benchmark for how sex and relationships are shown on television, and we are seeing in recent days what a positive impact the simple portrayal of consent on Normal People is having. Consent is active enthusiastic, ongoing and mandatory in real life, approaching sex scenes in this way is something we must expect from all televisions shows.

These sentiments were echoed by Noeline Blackwell of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, who said that they “would join in the general applause for the centrality of consent to the sex scenes”.

“We get asked a lot about how it’s possible to communicate consent without killing the joy – as if it wasn’t really possible,” she said.

“This adaptation is showing how it is possible to communicate about consent, how to check in with your partner. I find it striking that they approach their love and desire as equals – that’s why it looks so consensual.”

Dr Caroline West, a lecturer and writer on sexuality studies, said that the discussions around Normal People on social media “have been fascinating”.

“Many people have expressed a kind of shock in seeing sex depicted in such a gentle, consensual way,” she said. “However this shock isn’t surprising if we bear in mind that we are used to onscreen portrayals of sex that are divisive, such as in mainstream porn, or in Hollywood, which often does a poor job of including conversations about consent in sex scenes.”

For her, Normal People brings up more than just consent. “We have seen a discourse about kindness flourish in the past few months, and Normal People seems to tie into that,” she said.

“Good sex is sex that is consensual, respectful and mutually pleasurable. Kindness underlines these factors, and it feels like a relief to see this on our screens, especially when we need kindness in so many areas right now.”

Normal People continues on RTÉ One at 10.15pm on Tuesday 5 May. The show is also broadcast on BBC in the UK and Hulu in the USA.

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