In a recent conversation I had with a loved one, I heard him utter the words: “A shitty upbringing will not affect the person you will become; I have so many successful friends who reached that point who still came from a questionable beginning”. ‘Normal People’ on BBC iPlayer proves exactly how this is not the case, as the protagonist Marianne exemplifies.
This does not mean to say that you cannot become ‘successful’ – whichever form you perceive ‘success’ to take – if you come from a background that’s disadvantaged for whatever reason. As proof of this, Marianne herself grows from academic strength to strength throughout the BBC series: in year 11, she’s the top of her year in almost all her classes, and by the series’ finale her academic prowess has earned her a scholarship to continue her studies at her highly prestigious college.
However, unignorable is how Marianne’s having had an abusive father negatively impacts her character in terms of her relationships: with her lovers and with herself especially, as well as with her family and with her peers.
Marianne’s exploration of BDSM with her sex partners is one especial way in which her past abuse by her father manifests itself. While BDSM can be a safe and mutually gratifying expression of one’s sexuality (when clear boundaries and ‘safe words’ are put in place), it’s impossible to overlook a connection between Marianne witnessing the violence her father inflicted on her mother at a young age, and her sexual requests at her more mature age. Indeed, the Familiarity Principle of Attraction dictates that we each are attracted to those who exhibit familiar behavioural patterns, whether these are good or bad; Marianne appears to be no different. And, while Marianne claims enjoyment of this sexual play, there is not one of these scenes in which her facial expressions – usually so expressive – signify any feeling close to contentment or sexual ecstasy.
Furthermore, the lack of aftercare following Marianne’s BDSM sessions with Philip demonstrates how she uses BDSM to seek punishment as opposed to sexual satisfaction. While healthy partnerships involving BDSM play dedicate post-sex time to recovery and comfort to prevent trauma in each participant, Marianne’s forgoing of this critical process leaves her feeling “numb” “detached”, and even surprised when passers-by and bus drivers recognise her as being real, as she confesses to Connell in Episode 9: she feels worthless.
Even within Marianne’s relationship with Connell, with whom she felt that she “didn’t have to play any games” as with Jamie, she still glorifies the idea of her body being the property of Connell and not hers; from the series’ beginning to its end, she’s consistently very emphatic that she always feels “in [Connell’s] power”.
This stands even during the couple’s origin years in school, wherein their relationship’s existence depended on her keeping it secret from their peers – something which she later confesses to have found “humiliating” in Episode 5. As such, this exemplifies how Marianne is conditioned into accepting her position as the voiceless property of her boyfriends – just as she saw her mother as that same voiceless property of her father.
This is all heavily reinforced by how Marianne continuously refers to herself “ugly” and “pathetic”, in spite of her academic prowess, and the volume of male attention she receives.
Regarding Marianne’s family dynamic, that her father has passed the torch of abuse down to her brother, Alan, is clear.
This is evidenced in a multitude of incidents: at the climax of these is when Alan breaks Marianne’s nose with a door in Episode 11; in Episode 6 he administers punishment to her at a family gathering via one physical humiliation; and, through his criticism of her regardless of her actions, whether she is being hardworking and thus attention-seeking, or relaxing, thus rendering her pointless.
In this manner, the atmosphere this collection of actions creates demonstrates how one abusive parent can detrimentally affect the whole family structure, as well as the psyche of the individual victims.
Interestingly, Marianne appears not to be innocent either; she too contributes to the abuse already fraught within the family via the contempt with which she upon occasion towards her mother. Notably, in Episode 6, Marianne challenges her: “Why are you allowing it to be like this?” in reference to the broken family dynamic. With this, she transfers blame from the abusive brother to one of his victims, thereby ignoring the root action in favour of attacking the response.
In such subtle ways, Marianne herself can be seen to take on her father’s loathing of those potentially perceived as ‘weak’, as is reflected further in her obvious disdain of her school peers bearing significantly lower intellect.
Thus, she epitomises the proverb: “Hurt people hurt”.
While ‘Normal People’ may be merely a digital adaptation of Sally Rooney’s literary work of fiction, the themes of abuse and its resultant trauma that prevail are very much real, and sadly too common in our real world.
In fact, there are some 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse a year in the UK alone, two thirds of whom are women. With many of these victims being forced into isolation with their abusers during this COVID-19 period, there is no time more critical than the present to be giving aid where possible.
As such, now is the time to reach out with unconditional love and to act as a space of comfort for anyone you may suspect of being a victim in this manner. Should you wish to bring aid to those in need through monetary means, links to a select few organisations targeting this issue will be found below.
Anybody can become a victim of domestic abuse, and you will never be any less worthy of love and kindness for it.