Pop Stuff: Sex, Power and The Fifth Wall
‘Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.’ – Oscar Wilde
Celluloid sex has almost always told a story of power. Intimate on-screen relationships are equally a means of exploring sexuality as they are a reflection of the societal structures and boundaries that determine the way we process it. This has not boded well for us. Television and cinema have spewed forth portrayals of intimacy that are hackneyed at best and harmful at worst. Romantic storylines that lean on the idea of a man giving chase to a woman are only now being relabeled as verging on stalker territory. Scenes in which missionary style intercourse, preceded by zero foreplay, that magically results in perfectly synchronized orgasms, with just a few breathless puffs of communication, owe us reparations for lifetimes worth of bad sex. And a preponderance of heteronormative couples that don’t reflect the reality of gay people or the growing appeal of gender fluidity has signaled that our storytelling is barely keeping pace with our lives. All this without even elaborating on porn which reflects real sexual dynamics the way video games reflect real life.
Most of these sexual tropes are rooted in a dated male gaze and a heavily male greenlighting process that has dominated content. In 1972 we lauded Bernardo Bertolucci’s twice Oscar-nominated Last Tango in Paris without considering its genesis. The filming of the erotic thriller which Bertolucci developed from his own sexual fantasies – he dreamed of seeing a beautiful woman on the street and having sex with her without knowing who she was – resulted in his lead actress being so traumatized that it was her first and last movie. Thirty-four years later in 2006 actress Maria Schneider finally revealed that while filming a simulated sexual assault she felt ‘a little raped’ by Bertolucci and by Marlon Brando her co-star because she had not been told that the scene was in the script. Whilst there is more limited tolerance for the kingpin director or actor as muse today Last Tango in Paris is still an ugly, cautionary tale for power dynamics that persist. Misogyny has not been a recipe for healthy models of intimacy. Our most ubiquitous popcorn movies still feature female spies dropping their knickers for Bond. Our TV still has a Don Draper problem.
Just as we said goodbye to Game of Thrones last year, left to ponder if our best bet at a sexual reckoning lay in incest and a pet dragon, 2020 brought us Normal People and I May Destroy You and with these two shows, some of the most honest and thought-provoking sex ever presented on screen. The two series, streaming respectively on BBC/Hulu and BBC/HBO, brought a long-overdue balance to sexual power dynamics in a total screen time of twelve short hours at approximately twelve thirty-minute episodes each. In just a half a day, centuries of on-screen sex myths dissolved and Don Draper, Mad Men’s broody philanderer, looked like The Emperor with No Clothes, suddenly exposed as less sexual dynamo and more the creepy, old uncle that we suspected he was all along.
Normal People, a love story adapted from Irish author, Sally Rooney’s, 2018 instant best-seller and prize-winning novel of the same name, reveals the persistent power structures of consensual intimacy, informed by gender and socio-economics, to be juvenile and wildly passé. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a rape dramedy which she wrote, directed and whose lead she plays in one of the most nuanced performances ever created for a female protagonist, strips our societal structures, from dating norms to police rape units, of the illusion that they are anything but woefully inadequate and horrifically un-woke for non-consensual encounters. In just a year after the release of the second and final season of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s highly lauded show Fleabag, whose protagonist laid bare female desire on screen, it is worth considering how these shows surpassed even that high bar of shattering expectations and urged us to consider anew that our screens have been lying to us and ask again, amidst the pressure cooker of a pandemic no less, where do we stand with intimacy, really?
Normal People is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald and co-written by Sally Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark Rowe and follows Marianne Sheridan, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Connell Waldren, played by Paul Mescal, from their secondary school in County Sligo on Ireland’s western coast through their years at Trinity College in far more cosmopolitan Dublin. Marianne is aloof, feisty, rebellious and comes from more economic privilege than Connell who is shyer, gentler and well-liked. They are drawn together by a strong physical and intellectual attraction. Nothing about their romance feels dazzling save for their genuine sexual chemistry and love for each other. This is revolutionary when on screen romance has become about the trimmings and not the substance and old-fashioned heartbreak has been snubbed as the stuff of cheesy rom-coms, in spite of the fact that it is the one plight that human beings continue to willfully endure. The series zeroes in on the lives of its protagonists, observing them so closely that the show exudes a blissful, voyeuristic quality, particularly in the many moments when the two are intimate. What appears on the surface to be a simple boy meets girl story, turns into something transportive.
Normal People, the novel, achieves this voyeurism by relying on a third person narrator who alternates in detailing Marianne and Connell’s thoughts, often revealing their sub-conscious. As such, it is an unlikely contender for an on screen adaptation. The series’ greatest coup is that it achieves, through its sex scenes, what the novel achieves through its inner voices. Rooney has repeatedly stated that she views sex as dialogue and it is duly transposed on screen as such. The series conveys volumes through the movements, gesture and glances of the characters when they are quietest and most intimate. The first time they have sex, which happens early on, is presented in all its bumbling awkwardness and feels so private that it is cringe-inducingly erotic. It is also a much needed masterclass in consent. It is in their tenderness with each other and Connell’s repeatedly checking with Marianne whether things are ‘ok’ that a sense of equity and permission is established. They are teens, but plenty of adults would be well-served by taking notes. Later, when the pair are in college, it is during a similarly quiet scene at a pool party where Connell, ever so gingerly, plucks up the courage to make his first public display of attention by putting an arm around Marianne, that we feel the now momentous nature of the shift to relationship, as if we were students at first blush ourselves.
When I watched Normal People it was a separate but together event, in that practically everyone I knew was also watching it. So I knew it wasn’t just me who I felt like I had been thrust into recesses of my past relationships, past loves and even past traumas while glued to the screen, hanging on to the most fleeting look passed between the two leads. When I called a friend embarrassingly breathless in my reconfiguring of what happened with an ex from over a decade ago, we story swapped like teens. Normal People had gotten under a lot of skins, like the novel that preceded it, which generated enough think pieces to make a genre. The delicious foregrounding of the dynamics of the couple and the way that this reels the viewer in, making each one feel like the story is speaking to them and their loves alone, is a stroke of genius for Rooney and the show’s creators. Duly invested, we have no choice but to submit to digging deeper into the power dynamics at play each time this couple comes together and falls apart, eventually finding ourselves so far in our own sub-conscious, that we are unlocking our own memories.
What Rooney wants from us is to reexamine our biases along with our memories and so she carefully choses the context for each character. Connell and Marianne initially come together because Connell’s mother has a job as a housekeeper for Marianne’s family, a fact which unsettles their relationship before it begins. At the outset, Connell’s easy popularity in high school and his skill on the football field carry infinitely more weight than Marianne’s keen wit and wealth, which ostracize her in their working class town. The fear of forfeiting his social capital makes Connell loathe to publicize their relationship, creating the first rift. When the two meet again in college these invisible structures tug in a different way. Connell’s quiet manner is perceived as small-town witlessness by the Trinity intellectuals and his relative economic poverty and the exposure he lacks as a result, make him keenly feel his outsider status. Meanwhile, Marianne’s brassy outspokenness and cosmopolitan air grant her friends. She is central here where she sat on the fringes in school. Their relationship eventually crumbles a second time because Connell leaves for the Summer, too embarrassed to tell Marianne that he cannot afford a place to stay.
What Connell’s family lacks in wealth, is made up for in spades in emotional heft. Although his father, like Marianne’s, is not present. his mother, is open, loving and supportive. Marianne by contrast has a strained relationship at best with her mother who sees her through a cold, critical lens. Even more problematic, is that her mother often refuses to ‘see’ her at all, ignoring the verbal, emotional and occasionally physical abuse that Marianne’s brother subjects her too. Marianne’s trauma plays a part in her voluntarily submitting to cruelty in relationships, often of a sexual, sadomasochistic nature where she crosses the line from play to degradation and also in her inability to completely accept the emotional safety that Connell is eventually able to offer. Meanwhile, Connell’s reliance on the small-town identity that vaunted him and his inability to fit comfortably into a larger universe amplify his lack of confidence and propel a depression that needs to be addressed before a healthy relationship feels tenable.
Rooney’s ‘Normal People’- a couple in the throes of first love whose initial attraction is repeatedly thrown off course, are sustained by intense feeling on both sides. The show emphasizes this visually by giving them an equal share of nudity, a rare leveler on screen. By repeatedly rupturing their connection the series tells us that the circumstances that caused their insecurities and so their dissonance cannot just slip off with the clothing. Rooney, who grew up heavily influenced by the Marxist ideals of her parents, is no stranger to the trappings of class and has incorporated it in numerous essays and in her prior, debut novel, Conversations with Friends. At only twenty-nine, she has been called a modern-day Jane Austen for her unsparing observations of how class dynamics shape relationships and her use of romance to school us in power. Marianne and Connell’s dynamic, even in a generation that strives to be post-everything, is not immune to the forces of wealth, social status, upbringing, opportunity and trauma. In Rooney’s world, ‘Normal People’ cannot pretend to control their fate and find harmony until the power structures that tug at them are seen and dismantled, because structures that force an imbalance on the outside seep into the bedroom creating discord on the inside. If this is Chick Lit, it is Chick Lit as Manifesto.
Where Normal People does not shy away from intimacy’s relationship to power, I May Destroy You leans hard into it in its most extreme form; rape. It goes even further by making the rape that is central to the show one where the victim was drugged, removing any last shred of agency by revoking even the ability to resist. The social structures that Normal People explores are multiplied in I May Destroy You which in addition to exploring class and background delves into race, sexual preference, technology and systems of policing and justice in a breathtakingly expansive way that no series has done to date. The two shows share something pivotal in common in that the sex scenes, which often function as linchpins to crystalize these broader themes, were created under the watchful gaze of Ita O’Brien, the intimacy coordinator on both shows.
O’Brien’s role has existed for years but only recently come under the spotlight as productions pay more attention to making intimate scenes safe and comfortable for actors. In a meta play on power, it is this very safety that produces sex on television, consensual or otherwise, that is visceral and entirely believable, even in uncomfortable and complex scenes. In Normal People both Marianne and Connell’s tender sex scenes and scenes where Marianne allows someone she is seeing to tie her up and make degrading comments to her, feel equally authentic. In I May Destroy You numerous non-consensual sexual encounters take place that have rarely been explored on screen, including one between two gay men where an appalling violation immediately follows consensual sex. O’Brien has noted that she creates the sex scenes by understanding exactly what the actors’ boundaries are, what the director wants to communicate and then very carefully choreographing each movement and using appropriate safeguards, much in the way a stunt coordinator would skillfully build a stunt.
O’Brien’s precision is married with Lenny Abrahamson’s close ups and Hettie Macdonald’s panoramas to convey the beauty and heartbreak of intimacy in Normal People. The same precision under Michaela’s Cole’s fierce direction, which often involves a roving camera to amplify an underlying sense of chaos that drives the show, allows a thought provoking look at the messy lines that abound around consent. Both shows portray often flawed protagonists in compromising situations without ever judging them. Even though the lens through which the two shows explore intimacy falls at two ends of a spectrum, the sex scenes that underpin the dynamics from which everything else flows share a candidness which makes us so proximate to the characters that we are compelled to do the work of negotiating the dynamics through which they arrived there for ourselves.
I May Destroy You is multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel’s follow up to the first BAFTA-winning series that she created, Chewing Gum, in 2015. The British-born and bred, Ghanaian actor, writer, producer and director has made waves by using her own experience to explore taboos around sexuality, blowing these taboos to shreds in the process. Chewing Gum is a colourful sex-comedy that explores a young woman’s journey to lose her virginity against the backdrop of a conservative, religious background. During the writing of the show Coel was drugged and sexually assaulted and it is this horrific event is the foundation of I May Destroy You.
In I May Destroy You, Coel plays Arabella (Bella), a young and striving East London writer who, fresh off the success of her first book, a millennial memoir, is under pressure from her agents to submit the draft of her second. Just back from a jaunt to Italy, paid for by her agency in the hope of dislodging her writer’s block, she sets up to work through the night on her draft. Things go sideways when she steps out for a break to a local bar to meet up with friends and soon finds herself giddy and fumbling towards the exit. When we meet her again she’s back at the desk, with a cut on her head, her phone screen smashed and, over the course of the next day, assailed by the memory of a White man towering over her, her head thumping incessantly against a wall.
Where Normal People is closely observed, willfully making its two leads the most important people in the room, I May Destroy You is Shakespearean in scope. Coel pushes beyond exploring Bella’s assault, in its own genre-bending mode of detective dramedy, to exploring consent as a whole. Where are the lines? Who draws them? To what extent does getting justice hinge on your race, gender, sexual orientation and psyche? As the series follows Bella on her journey to piece through her assault, her interactions with the police and her therapist and her navigation of her career whilst dealing with her trauma, it builds the world around her like a crescendo, pulling us in to the stories of Bella’s two closest friends. The brooding and beautiful Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is often Bella’s conscience, is a single, gay man and fitness instructor whose sexual outlet is finding hook-ups in the vicinity through the app Grindr. The effusive Terry, Bella’s ride or die, (Weruche Opia) is a struggling actor who has been by Bella’s side from their shenanigans in grade school.
It is through their multiple provocations that Coel delivers a mind-mending probe on the power dynamics of consent. Terry engages in a threesome with two men she meets in a bar in Italy, where she has joined Bella on her writing retreat. When she sees the men high-five each other from her window afterwards, and it later becomes apparent that the men may have known each other all along, something that she chose insidiously becomes something she was duped into. Later in the series, when Kwame is sexually assaulted by a man after hooking up with him, he is conflicted about whether to report the rape and made to squirm when he does. Bella, eager to prevent the trauma of her assault from inhibiting her capacity for relationships, begins to date. She eventually finds herself in her bedroom with a charming author, Zain (Karan Gill), who secretly removes his condom whilst they are having sex, only revealing the fact afterwards. Initially Bella is mildly ruffled but when she finds later finds out that this behaviour, known as stealthing, is classified in the U.K. as rape, she is furious and eventually outs Zain at a literary reading. When she does so she states that while the act is considered rape in the U.K., under a more lenient Australian law, it is ‘just a bit rapey’. Her words are a dark reminder that everything from date rape to marital rape lies in often hard to navigate grey areas.
I May Destroy You is not content, as a growing genre of rape dramas are, to come to neat conclusions, using the screen to pack away a problem that lingers on for survivors. Coel, a survivor herself, is not interested in capitalizing on the problem, she is here to shine a light on its many faces and ramifications. She shows us that consent can be binary but also blurry. In less capable hands this three-hundred-and-sixty-degree dissection would seem overwhelming. I May Destroy You makes it mesmerizing with deft writing, piercing performances and bewitching direction. As Coel charges relentlessly through one messy scenario after another, she gives us the crucial opportunity to reflect on our own sexual histories, creating space within us even as she fills it on screen.
The world of I May Destroy You, millennial London seen through the eyes of this trio of friends is chaotic; pulsing with witty banter, neon lights and the pinging of social media. It is also a world of thoughtful rebellion where Bella and her friends push up against power at every turn as Coel raises the stakes confronting structures of state, career, marriage and technology that consent is woven into. Bella’s party-buddy Simon (Aml Ameen) is hiding an affair from his wife even as they contemplate polygamy. Bella’s interaction with two female police officers is starkly different from Kwame’s when he is forced to explain to a confounded, heterosexual, male officer how he was raped by a man he already had sex with, whose name he doesn’t know. At work Bella’s publisher, impervious to her client’s trauma, eagerly suggests she turn her rape into a good ‘story’. Later, the same publisher refuses Bella an additional advance, because ‘you know, contracts’. When cash-needy Bella picks up a side-gig at a vegan food start-up, she soon realizes they are capitalizing on her Blackness to appeal to a more diverse audience. When she tries to wrest control of her assault by pursuing social media activism for survivors, she has to question whether she is truly owning her story or if she is just performing in anticipation of the next comment, like or share as validation and salve.
As we bear witness to Bella’s struggle to regain her footing, tell her story and come to terms with the baggage that is holding her back, what is clear is that Michaela Coel is fully in control in art and life. As a creator, she has talked publicly talked about her struggle to retain her voice within the world of making content. In 2018, at just thirty-years-old, she was the youngest woman and first Black woman to give the U.K.’s prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival where she spoke openly about her battle to have ownership over her work on Chewing Gum, eloquently ripped the industry apart for withholding financial transparency in an effort to control creatives and opened up about her assault and its ramifications. Her speech came hours after the BBC announced that they would be her producing partners on I May Destroy You. She had just declined a one-million-dollar upfront payment from Netflix who refused to let her retain any percentage of the copyright. The BBC offered her the rights and full creative control. It is no coincidence that for Coel, having control over the way she explores consent in a story based on her lived experience, was a non-negotiable in her career.
The value of Coel’s conviction, or what she has described as ‘the power of saying no’, is evident in the series’ triumphant defiance of existing norms. In I May Destroy You, Coel gives us a show that is brimming with sex positivity even as it covers the ground of assault which is often rife with victim-blaming. She has made one of a handful of shows on television to feature a predominantly Black cast without hinging on race as a topic or an explainer for White people. She has taken her own trauma and worked through it by exposing experiences that typically go unseen, helping people see themselves without judgment and navigate their own wounds. And she has done it on her own terms as writer, star, director and showrunner. This kaleidoscopic dissection of who holds power and how is what Bella needs, it is what Coel needed and unwittingly what we and our society needs too. I challenge you, no matter what your history, not to be triggered, eventually soothed and ultimately inspired by her work.
Normal People and I May Destroy You are, without diminishing the power of either storyteller, two sides of one coin. Rooney asks what it means to be vulnerable and surrender power and Coel asks what it means to be violated and have it wrenched from you. Both their protagonists eventually find their way towards healing. In Normal People, Connell and Marianne reclaim their relationship in spite of the elitist and capitalist structures that separate them. Rooney posits that love can be a real currency. Before her characters reach this point they have to face their traumas; familial abuse in Marianne’s case and a paralyzing anxiety in Connell’s. In I May Destroy You, Bella has to come to terms with her assault when faced with the prospect that the perpetrator might never be found. Bella’s is a journey of addressing old wounds of a mostly absent father whose fleeting presence she absolves and exalts. By ‘Dethroning’ her father and in doing so deconstructing the patriarchy she has internalized, she takes a crucial step to healing. Rooney and Coel reinforce that our sexuality is not a thing apart from the world we function in. They show us how uneven power structures around capitalism, class, race, orientation and gender can prevent us from loving ourselves and giving or receiving in the healthiest ways in return. At a time when issues of consent, mental health and equity are facing a reckoning, they tap into a crucial part of the collective psyche. As rebels, who have staked careers on the questioning rules, they may precipitate minor rebellions in each of us.
Much has been made of on-screen protagonists such as Fleabag that speak directly to the camera, breaking the Fourth Wall (It is worthwhile pointing out here that Coel did this in Chewing Gum even before Phoebe Waller-Bridge was lauded for doing so on the brilliant Fleabag). Normal People and I May Destroy You go one step further. These two shows see that there is work to be done in divesting sexuality from power and to do it they must take the audience on a journey towards resolution with unparalleled intimacy. If there is a metaphoric Fifth Wall here that separates our psyche from the character’s journey, that barrier is broken. These shows create a space for us to travel through our own past loves, traumas and struggles with sexuality in the context of the moral, social, and structural power dynamics that have shaped them and help us see the how and why. We finish them having retained something but also relieved of something in the process of personal excavation that transpires. Memories unspool, questions are answered, knots are untied and blocks chipped away. The characters and creators of Normal People and I May Destroy You don’t look at us, but into us, coaxing us to dismantle ourselves and come back more whole, resting in our own power.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani