Normal People and How Women in the Arts Are Overlooked

Willingly or not, we as a nation have collectively witnessed Sally Rooney’s rapid trajectory to fame with the television adaption of her sophomore novel Normal People. The series quickly became a household name, with seemingly everyone and their mother sitting down each week to watch the latest chapter of the complicated romance between Connell and Marianne. Normal People found its way into our lives at a point in time that allowed it to become our shared source of comfort; Ireland was in the midst of its physically restrictive lockdown measures, people were isolated from their friends, family, and partners, and here were two people on our screens suffering from what appeared to be universal emotional distress.

The turmoil of Connell and Marianne’s fictional relationship kept many of us grounded during the early days of the pandemic, they were a much-needed escapist fantasy — the communal aspect of which temporarily brought our minds away from the intense anxiety of the world around us. With the relationship dynamic of Normal People focusing upon the lives of two distinct characters, one would assume that both came to be adored in a similar manner, but in a predictable turn of events, Connell alone emerged as the hero of the series.

This is not to say that Paul Mescal’s performance was undeserving of praise, quite the contrary, as his skills were visibly seen to improve with each passing episode, however, his co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones carried her role weightlessly and received noticeably less praise for doing so. Of course, Mescal’s overnight jump to Ireland’s sweetheart came about largely as a result of his female fans and his consistently generous acts of fan-service, such as announcing that he was single and auctioning off popular items of clothes that he was seen wearing on Normal People.

True enough, Edgar-Jones is a British actress, although tribalism shouldn’t negate her ability to be celebrated by Irish audiences, especially in terms of her exceptional performance of a native accent which, as we all know, is difficult for outsiders to imitate with even the slightest degree of authenticity. The sidelining of a lead actress, however, speaks to larger issues at play within the artistic and entertainment communities themselves. There existed a significant female presence behind the scenes of Normal People, with Sally Rooney herself serving as both an executive producer and screenwriter, as well as multiple other women producers, cinematographers, a co-director, and a female intimacy coordinator, which is hugely important in itself as actresses are rarely permitted their comfort or dignity during nude scenes.

Simply put, Normal People was crafted with its female audience in mind, and the effects of this are felt throughout the series, from its raw portrayal of modern relationships to its nuanced, three-dimensional lead characters. Why, then, is such a successful adaption not being recognised for its various achievements, chief of which must be identified as the fact that Normal People has shattered the idea that media aimed at women or produced by women, inherently has no widespread appeal? Of course, the series was nominated for five Emmys, and deservedly so, though this does little to dispel the mystery surrounding the fact that Mescal received a nomination and Edgar-Jones did not, in spite of their intertwined performances from which neither truly stood out as the bigger talent.

It would appear that when presented with a male and female character, we gravitate towards the man, perhaps subconsciously, although this has serious ramifications for any and all women who are also involved in the project. This speaks to the male-oriented bias that our society at large has developed, and in order to combat its long-term effects, we must first acknowledge that we are all complicit in this behaviour, even and oftentimes especially, women themselves. In refusing to question our preconceived biases, we are contributing to the neglect of women in the arts and entertainment industry. It goes without saying that women in this field struggle to find equal amounts of work or indeed, attain any sort of senior position.

Young women need role models, and to be reminded that there are still careers to be found within the arts, and Normal People has given us several artists of varying talents that women may look up to — it’s a shame that we’ve thus far failed to acknowledge this. Yes, we should celebrate the home-grown talent that we’ve discovered in Paul Mescal, but that should not come at the cost of ignoring the enormous contributions that creative women have made to this series. Sally Rooney, in particular, is rarely credited for undertaking the intense task of converting her novel into a screenplay; not all writers are capable of changing the format of their writing and maintaining its original intentions so seamlessly.

As an English graduate, I find myself in awe of the apparent effortlessness of her prose; there is no doubt in my mind that Rooney will continue to write ever more enthralling stories, and grow into a creative force to be reckoned with. The Irish creative writing scene has produced some marvellous figures in the past few years, and deservedly so; sometimes society is in need of a gentle nudge back towards respecting the importance of the arts in our everyday lives. Women’s growing contributions to our entertainment must also be pushed into the spotlight, let us not forget the significance of an Irish television series that was crafted by a female director, producers, casting director, cinematographers, and so on; we can only hope and strive to ensure that this list grows lengthier over time.

Normal People is streaming on RTE Player.

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