Normal People: College Relationships, Mental Health, and the “Perfect” Man

V: Hi, this is Victoria Benefield.

L: And I’m Lami Zhang

V: Welcome to Subtitled, a podcast where two fake film students take a look at popular movies and TV shows. Seriously, neither of us can get into any film classes, if anyone knows how please help us.

["Wirklich Wichtig (CB 27) ," by Checkie Brown, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

L: This episode contains strong language, and discussions of mental health and familial abuse.

V: And the overwhelming hotness of a chain-wearing Irish man.

L: Today, we're talking about Normal People. An Irish show that follows Marianne and Connell through high school and college, as they weave in and out of each other's lives. The show focuses on relationships, mental health and masculinity.

V: Today we have a special guest Kevin Park, a second year vocal performance major, who's a big Normal People fan.

K: What up. I love this show a lot.

L: The show starts off with a pretty toxic relationship between Marianne and Connell.

V: They both have a lot of growing to do at the beginning, because it's high school and they're both dumb and Marianne had never been in a relationship before. And then they jumped into things pretty quickly. There was a lot of that, like first love, like it's super exciting, but then they also have no idea what they're doing at all.

L: Right. It's kind of a weird mixture of a physical relationship and like a really twisted, buried underneath emotional connection that neither of them kind of know how to go forward with.

K: But they get to explore feelings and thoughts that they've never had to experience before. They got to express how much they feel like through intimacy and through, you know, sex, which I think like brings up this larger topic of like how intimacy is dealt with within relationships. And also just in film and TV in general.

L: I read this article that said, that there was an accumulative 44 minutes of sex portrayed in the entire show. And I was like, this is interesting. They make the sex and intimacy seem really realistic, especially like your first time and your first love.

K: There's like one part that I remember. It was just like the first ever time I've ever seen, in like popular film or TV, consent just being shown, so normally, just a part of sex and a part of like having your first time. And I thought that was very powerful, cause that's something that has been a dialogue within our Northwestern community.

V: I think a lot of times in media, film and TV specifically, there's kind of this implied consent that’s shown where like the couple, just look each other in the eyes and they just both know that now's the moment, right? And then I feel like this show really breaks that standard.

L: Right? Like one of the major themes of the show is communication within a relationship.

K: It's like a mirror to us in terms of like, how we think that we are being communicative. Like Marianne asked, do you love me or something? and Connell’s, like, obviously, but she's like, who is it obvious to? You know, there's this level of miscommunication between the two of them that really mirrors to, like, are we being communicative to our partners and our relationships, whether, romantic or, you know, like a friendship or whatever.

L: The first time they broke up in college was pretty memorable, when Connell goes back to his hometown and he's afraid to ask Marianne to stay at her place. I was really confused as to why they broke up, cause clearly they're so in tune with each other physically and mentally, but their failure to communicate kind of just ruins their whole relationship.

K: We all know when we watched the show, like, just say it just like talk to them, just talk to them. Right. And like, we talked to our friends about relationships, whatever, it is, like, just talk to them. But none of us really, really want to do it. And I think it shows the consequence, as well. There's a sense of like realism to that.

L: Another key factor of the relationship is their differing socioeconomic statuses. In the first episode, we meet Marianne who lives in this giant house and Connell's mother works for her family. And throughout the show, there's always been this underlying differing, socioeconomic factor in their relationship. And I think that really shows up in their college years when they both got scholarships, but for Connell, that was kind of a matter of survival and being able to continue college while for Marianne, it's more for a pride thing.

V: You don't recognize what a big impact it can have on your relationship with someone, but it just means you have drastically different experiences from them and that your backgrounds are very different and you grew up with sort of a very different mindset.

There's just the sort of instability that Connell faces that Marianne can't understand.

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L: I have a question for you two. When was the first time you realized that Cornell had anxiety?

v: For me, it was this scene where I think he was in high school still. And he runs into the bathroom, and you can tell he's having a panic attack.

K: I knew that he had troubles within himself, but I didn't really know what to classify it as. The first time that I really understood, he actually went to therapy.

L:  Right. And it was his roommate who , encouraged him to go get help at college. And I think that was just a really frank portrayal of mental health in college.I haven't really seen that portrayed in any other TV show in high school or college that, Oh, you should go see a counselor.

v: Another aspect of it that they do really well in terms of mental health is showing how it is a constant and consistent struggle. It doesn't go away just when his relationship with Marianne is going well, or when he gets a scholarship, it's something that he's going to deal with. and they don't glorify it at all which is so important, especially after getting shows like, um--

L: 13 Reasons Why?

V: 13 Reasons Why, yes.

L: Oh, I think we can't blame Connell for having a lack of communication with Marianne, because his anxiety and his other mental health issues really play a big part into that. He was so anxious to ask her to stay at her house, which is such an insignificant thing to most other people. For Connell, like his anxiety amps it up so much that he feels like he's going to get rejected if he asks her to do such a simple thing for him.

K: Also in Marianne's perspective, also like scary for her to reach out. —this whole like, series, Marianne struggles with worth, does she feel worthy enough to like, be in a relationship with Connell?

L: there's a phrase she repeats throughout the whole series. "I have an unlovable quality about me," so she feels like she cannot engage in any sort of emotional relationship besides from the one she has with Connell and even in the one she has with Connell, she's always saying, I'll do it. If you want me to do it.

V: Yeah. I think her relationship with her family. I don't think I realized the extent of the abuse within the household in the first few episodes. At the end, it really crystallizes and I think they did a really good job showing how that abuse makes its way into your life in ways that you don't really understand.

["Line Spacing,” by Mild Wild, CC BY 4.0]

L: So, Connell is a pretty complex character and that's kind of unprecedented for a male character and that he shows both this type of physical masculinity and this emotional vulnerability.

K: It's something that a lot of other shows that I've watched tried, I think it's very hard to write because it's not very common either. Just in normal life, you know? I've been hearing a lot from my female friends who have watched the show: Wow, Connell was perfect. Connell’s perfect, which,  I understand. But it’s also like, is this an ideal man in the 21st century or is this just like how men feel, actually feel, like in real life?

V: that's so interesting. I do think there has been a recent trend where vulnerability among men is definitely celebrated. And we see that in Connell, like he cries so many times throughout the show, Marianne rarely cries. I feel like we might get a couple moments where she cries, but you see Connell cry so much more often. And I feel like that's kind of a big thing.

K: Connell comes to a point where he understands his flaws and he’s very introspective about that. And I think that's just something that we perceive men to not talk about.

But personally like living in a household now with like three other guys, it's been really eye opening in terms of having like male friends who actually like to open up and we talk about our past traumas —I realized that like, it might be feasible. It is feasible? I don’t know. It's just an ongoing conversation.

L: What you mentioned about Connell being this ideal male character, are we romanticizing this idea of mental health in men? Do men have to have a mental health problem to be emotional and communicative?

V: So interesting. I think the mental health aspect explains the crying and the emotionality of him and you can like justify it. And it makes sense. So outside of the context of his depression and his anxiety, would we be like, Ooh, he's crying so much. It's weird. Why is he crying? Would we still feel the same way about him?

K: I think it also might be like we perhaps romanticize people who have mental illness and we want to be there to listen to them or have this savior complex.

L:  As simple as it may be, that Marianne would be Connell's savior and Connell will be Marianne savior. Connell goes to therapy to better his mental health.

It's not something that Marianne alone can fix. Similar thing for Marianne's self-worth issue. She's the only one who can kind of realize that she's worth more than she thinks. Her friends and Connell can be there to support her, but ultimately it's her who has to realize that for herself.

V: Yeah. I think that's a great point. I think they grow the most as people when they're not in a romantic relationship, when they're just friends. Even though they're madly in love with each other, they need that space, and they need to be physically distant from each other in order to grow as people.

L: Right. I think the show really just brings to life that cliche of maybe you're the right person for each other, but it's not the right timing.

V: Yeah. That's true. Actually, I did think like the last scene that they were like, Oh, I love you. I'm never going to love anyone else as much as I love you. I was like, okay. Yeah, sure. I mean, they've had this connection, but really it's been over what, like six, seven years of their life. They have a lot longer to go. You know, I wonder if he goes to New York, meets someone, 15 years later, Marianne is just like a footnote, she’s just like a number that he can call sometimes. You know, I wonder if their relationship really is that meaningful in the grand scheme of their lives.

K:  I think that there is some sort of connection that we see. They also acknowledge how different it is. And I guess we'll never know, but in terms of just like our own personal relationships, if we think back to people that really impacted us, I don't think I'll ever forget them.

V: I think there are some people who are really impactful in your life. I have this — I’m sure Lami has heard this rant before —about my theory about love.

L: Oh my god.

V: Because like they have this connection that they call love, but I think love is an action. And so I do think that they're very much infatuated with each other and that that infatuation has led to this action of loving each other. But I don’t think they will have that feeling of infatuation for that long, and I think that they will grow distant. I don't think that they will be in love for the rest of their lives. That's my opinion on it. Controversial, maybe?

L: I actually completely agree with you because I think TV shows in popular culture emphasizes and exaggerates ‘the right person for each other’ trope. And how like if you're with the right person it's supposed to all be easy, like, it's not. And I think Normal People kind of shows that, in that Oh, if they don't communicate, they won't have a relationship together. But I agree with you, people can have this type of connection with a bunch of other people. And it's just about how much effort you put in.

K: I think they are soulmates, but my definition of soulmate, as, in terms of just like, it could be anyone, it could be a friend, it could be a lot of people. But it's just this deep connection with someone that you walk your life with. And it doesn't have to be a relationship where you're holding hands forever, but it's just a person that you're continuously walking your life with.

V: I always say that I believe that anyone can fall in love with anyone. And by that, I mean like, is there something about them that like their personalities and their souls that makes them intricately connected and makes them soulmates? Or is it just because they grew up together?

L: That's interesting. I think if you go through certain situations and experiences in your life with someone, it kind of really sticks with you, whether they be like romantic partners or friends. I think we can talk about it in the context of Northwestern. Right.

K: I personally think a lot of what they said and did seemed very real. Like first time having sex,, I could relate to that, you know, or like, staying up with them on Skype, and just like watching the other person fall asleep, or them breaking up, but still being friends and having that connection. I feel like a lot of those things are just personally relatable to like my life. I feel like every person no matter, like what their personality is like, can find something in the show that they deeply resonate with.

L: For me, it was more about having anxiety and being in a relationship. I think I struggle with a lot of the same issues that Connell has with Marianne in terms of communication,

I just think they did such a good job, how realistic their portrayals of panic attacks and depression and anxiety is, I don't know. That's just like, kind of blows my mind. And I think that also brings up the idea that you can be a nice person, but you can still be toxic to other people. Every person in my opinion has to actively work towards not being toxic in any sort of relationship.

K: Actively being good? Yes.

L:  Let’s go.

V: We have to talk about the chain, right?

L: Oh my God.

K: Guys. I got a chain.

L: Oh my God. Kevin, you're basically a Connell now, emotional and has a chain. Damn!

K: After I bought it, I was like, did I buy this, like subconsciously in my head because I perceive Connell as a perfect man? And I thought, no, that can't be, but looking back, I most definitely did. Yeah.

V: Everyone needs to wear a chain. I can't reiterate this enough. Everyone needs to be wearing a chain constantly. Just purchase one, start wearing it.

L: Is that a chain Victoria? Oh my God.

V: I am wearing a chain, I just realized it!

L: I'm in the same room with two Connells!

V: Thank you for listening. This has been Subtitled. I’m Victoria Benefield

L: And I'm Lami Zhang.

K: And I was special guest, Kevin Park.

V: Tune in next time for more fake film analysis. Thanks for listening!

["Funky Garden," by Ketsa, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]