Normal People: what the BBC’s TV adaptation gets right – and wrong – about BDSM

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People have a lot to say about Normal People’s depiction of sexual dominance and submission.

Full-frontal nudity, unhurried sex, raw desire, relatable bedroom mishaps, and casual conversations about condoms

We’re calling it: Normal People is the sexiest show on TV right now.

As previously reported by Stylist, the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically-acclaimed novel has been inundated with praise for its realistic sex scenes, not to mention its focus on the importance of consent.

What we’re more interested in, however, is the TV show’s depiction of Bondage, Domination, Submission, and Masochism (BDSM).

Now, if your only experience of BDSM is in the flimsy narrative of Fifty Shades of Grey, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the acronym is a byword for domestic abuse and emotional manipulation, topped off with a series of violent threats.

Bondage and discipline, though, is very different. It’s kinky, sure, and it’s definitely fetishistic in nature – but it relies on communication, mutual trust and respect for boundaries. There are safe words, and there is aftercare.

So how does Normal People broach the subject? And what does it get right and wrong about BDSM?

Here’s what you need to know.

Consent is vital

“Will you hit me? she says.

For a few seconds she hears nothing, not even his breath.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think I want that. Sorry.”

As depicted in the novel, the TV series shows Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) gravitating towards the world of BDSM.

Indeed, while her ‘first time’ with Connell (Paul Mescal) is sweetly simple, she is later seen asking a boyfriend to hit her during sex. She takes instruction from another that demeans her. And, as we rocket towards the story’s climax, Marianne even asks Connell to hit her – a request which he ultimately turns down (more on that later).

What remains consistent, though, is the fact that Marianne always asks to be dominated. Consent is explicitly, never implicitly, given. And this is key, because BDSM is about pushing your limits, not passing them. Indeed, just as with all forms of sexual activity, the comfort, consent, and pleasure of all involved is crucial.

As one viewer said: “The consent shown in this scene is just [perfect]… it’s so believable and well done. This is how sex scenes should be.”

Marianne takes charge

In Fifty Shades, Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is persuaded into a contractual BDSM relationship by Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). In Secretary, likewise, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is introduced to BDSM by her employer, E.Edward Grey (James Spader). In Normal People, however, it is Marianne who takes charge. It is Marianne who determines what she wants in the bedroom. And it is Marianne who asks her sexual partners to dominate her.

Yes, pop culture may have convinced us that the women who get a kick out of sexual domination fantasies are meek. In real life, however, they are (unsurprisingly) far more varied – indeed, some psychologists have suggested that these women are perhaps more likely to be in positions of power.

During her time at Trinity College, Marianne’s eccentricities and open brilliance, plus her wealth and privilege, make her sought after and admired. She is frequently described as being “intimidating”. And, just like that, Normal People has eradicated the stereotype of a meek woman being pressured into a BDSM relationship, instead embracing the idea that being dominated means…

Well, it means that a woman does not have to make any decisions. That the burden of responsibility can be shed for a time. That she can enjoy herself, fully in the moment, without worrying about anything.

The sex isn’t glamorous: it’s realistic

Forget the high-glamour of Fifty Shades and other erotic films like it: Normal People does away with the designer lingerie, high-end hotel rooms, and luxury sex toys in favour of maroon bralettes (the kind that get stuck on your head at inopportune moments), poster-covered bedrooms, and fumbles with condoms. Marianne and Connell descend into helpless giggles when their first sexual encounter is put on pause due to a wardrobe mishap. There are gasps of pleasure, too, as they get into… well, let’s call them ‘attainable’ bedroom positions.

As such, it feels realistic – almost shockingly so. It feels believable. And it goes some way towards chipping away at the impossibly high standards set by the porn industry, too.

Normal People
Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) share a moment in Normal People.

However, it does suggest Marianne’s sexual predilections are abnormal

“Maybe I want to be treated badly… I don’t know. Maybe I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.”

In a healthy BDSM relationship, all partners aim to please each other, and the Submissive sets their own boundaries. However, Normal People’s “portrayal of the complexities of submission, dominance and consent can never quite shake the suggestion that Marianne is somehow abnormal, or damaged,” wrote Helen Charman in the White Review.

It’s a matter which has been addressed by fans of the book and TV show alike, with many in the BDSM community expressing disappointment over Marianne’s past abuse and her desire to be dominated in the bedroom.

“Rooney is telling a specific story, but it’s a recurrent theme in literature and art – that those who stray outside normal sexual proclivities, especially into BDSM, are hopelessly damaged or hopelessly cruel,” tweeted one.

“It is a damaging stereotype. To say to a woman that even when she consents to something she’s not REALLY consenting because she must have some damage she hasn’t dealt with? That is in itself damaging. It’s so rare to find a well-adjusted character in fiction with BDSM interests.”

It’s worth noting, here, that Marianne is made to feel ashamed of her desires by Connell. That he is shown as ‘good’ because he refuses to succumb to her BDSM requests. That she enjoys a sexually submissive relationship with a Swedish goth… until he informs her that he loves her, that is.

As Rooney writes in the OG novel: “Could he really do the gruesome things he does to her and believe at the same time he’s acting out of love? Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?”

Once again, the implication is that love and BDSM are mutually exclusive. That this desire to be dominated stems from some inner darkness, some self-hatred, rather than sexual pleasure.

However, as sexual submissive Nichi Hodgson tells Stylist, “there are thousands of perfectly well-adjusted members of the BDSM community who simply enjoy kinky sex, with absolutely no underlying neurosis necessary. 

“Submission is all about temporarily relinquishing control in exchange for a sexual high. That’s why so many socially empowered, sexually confident women enjoy it so much.”

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Images: BBC

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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