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‘Normal People’ of Oxford

What the teen romance can tell us about our own university.

Those who have not yet seen the BBC Three series Normal People might be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. The 12-part drama, based on the Sally Rooney novel, could have been another trite teenage romance in which the characters (played by actors well into their 20s) engage in excruciating will-they-or-won’t-they encounters in school corridors to the symphony of adolescent drooling. However, as its audiences will attest, Normal People provides a surprisingly delicate assessment of the human condition. Through the lenses of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), we are permitted to re-examine the world in which we live – one in which, as Rooney puts it, “class is the structuring principle of our social lives.”[1]

This re-examination is all the more needed because our relationship with class has recently changed. 23 years after John Prescott claimed that “we’re all middle class now”[2], Normal People reminds us that the disappearance of flat-caps and coal mines has not prevented class from dictating the ways in which we live and interact. Of course, this was something many of us already knew, and none more so than Oxford students from “normal” backgrounds.  Connell and Marianne might be from Carricklea, Sligo, but they could just as easily have been from Blaydon, the small north-eastern town where I went to school. Likewise, Normal People follows the couple’s journey to Trinity College, Dublin, but the scene in which Connell stares at its grandiose old buildings could have been set in any Oxford college. 

At their Sligo comp, Marianne is disliked in that particular way posh, clever girls often are in state schools – those that wear “ugly thick-soled flat shoes” and no make-up. Meanwhile, Connell is a brand of unassuming-and-inoffensive that quietly fits in. This changes upon their arrival in Dublin, as evidenced when a friendless Connell bumps into the thriving Marianne at a house party. As Annie Lord of the Independent remarks, “Where before at their state school ‘normal people’ meant a lower-middle-class upbringing and a penchant for period jokes, at university ‘normal people’ means Mykonos mini-breaks, Barber jackets and people who like dismissing arguments by saying, ‘well yes, but that’s subjective.’”[3] Replace Mykonos and barber jackets with maxi-skirts and ‘finding yourself’ in Malaysia and you might just get an accurate depiction of Oxford.

It is difficult to describe why the likes of northerners and state-schoolers can struggle at Oxford, because as a group, we’re not really oppressed.  If you’ve had a childhood of Majorca trips or football coaching, it sounds like privileged attention-seeking to suggest that you’re distressed by southerners saying “bath” wrong. But by showing us Trinity through the eyes of Connell, Normal People finally captures what we’ve been trying to say all along. The reason Connell struggles to find friends at uni is not just because he’s poor, it’s because he’s been conditioned all his life by a culture and by social norms that no longer apply in his new setting.

In the world he’s now in, the main social division is between chino-wearing Eton men who make long arguments for free speech and their flares-clad rivals who talk about “straight white men” in RP tones.  Neither are necessarily doing anything wrong – it’s just an alien environment that requires Connell to re-learn everything about fitting in. This is an experience felt by many Oxford students from a similar background. Personally, everything that made me weird at school makes me normal at Oxford, and everything that makes me weird at Oxford made me normal at school. I spent most of first-year trying to re-mould my brain so it could recognise this new reality. Connell articulates making a similar effort – “I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself.”

Close-up shots of Paul Mescal perfectly convey this loneliness – one in which you become a constant observer of this foreign culture, only slowly learning how to partake in it.  A friend from Leeds said:

Speaking to students at Oxford feels like speaking to the popular kids at school, only there’s no consolation in the idea that you’ll ‘do better in life’ than them. The very reason that they’re different to you is that they’ve grown up better and will continue to be more successful because of that. I literally cried watching Connell in his first seminar – the way that he actually downplayed the intelligence of what he was saying when faced with all these confident people shouting about their opinions is something I thought only I had done.

That scene hit home for me, too. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a tutor in my first Hilary, in which he pointed out that I started all my sentences with “I might be wrong, but-“.

It is important to stress that Normal People does not get everything right. It’s a story about a heterosexual, white couple; it does not explore how class intersects with structures such as race and sexuality as it shapes social paradigms. Crucially, it does not challenge the assumption that the Irish class structure is predominantly a white one. This assumption is widely held, despite 6% of Irish 15-24 year olds coming from non-white and mixed race backgrounds. However, its portrayal of Trinity does start a dialogue about how class shapes our university experience, even amongst students who could ordinarily be described as privileged.   Whilst many students who experience  class-based culture shock are from low-income families, many are the children of teachers and nurses, or of electricians and engineers who may have never worried about putting food on the table. Many  are from white, English-speaking backgrounds. However, understanding that it is not only oppressed minority groups that find Oxford difficult allows us to appreciate the scale of the problem. And surprise, surprise, the problem is huge.  

Currently, the only Oxford discourse on privilege is identity-based; thus, it implies that students who are not from specific marginalised groups will not struggle here. This would be a sufficient discourse if Oxford was a microcosm of British society. However, Oxford is not a microcosm of society; it is a microcosm of the establishment. Oxbridge recruits more students from eight private schools than nearly 3,000 state schools put together[4]; it is not just that there are not enough students from some groups, but that there are too many from another. Of course, addressing the former should be our first priority (and identity-based activism is a necessary and important part of doing so) – but it is not enough. Unless we address the latter, progress will be tokenistic and elitism will continue to flourish. Furthermore, by ignoring the varied ways in which class affects our university lives, we risk reductive Us-vs-Them rhetoric taking hold in those who feel unseen. All the while, the establishment continues to thrive.

It is hard to articulate how class-based culture shock presents itself to even the most well-meaning elite students. Having grown up knowing only how the elite behave, they assume that this is just how people behave, and therefore cannot fathom what the rest of us experience. The best we can come up with are statements like those given by Connell – “it’s all loafers and chinos and what-not” or, “I don’t think I understand them is all, they’re just a bit different from my own friends.” The fact that class is so hard to define allows the elite’s culture to continue perpetuating itself; Marx believed that we use norms to promote the creation of roles in society, and that they support the functioning of the social class structure.[5] By having their own distinct culture, the elite can identify us as not being one of their own. Normal People is so compelling because it gets that the elite are the weird ones, not us. It was this very sentiment that Pulp so astutely captured in their 1995 hit:

“you’ll never live like common people / you’ll never do what common people do.”

Maybe university is called a “great leveller” not because of its formal education, but because it is a crash course in the culture of the establishment. It’s a lesson in how to post artsy disposable camera shots on Instagram instead of posing in front of your cooker; it’s a lesson in how to smoke like Marianne and her friends, gesticulating and blowing rings rather than standing and swaying like Connell at the Debs. We may learn how to fit in by forming meaningful friendships that transcend class barriers and by finding joy in the subjects we love, however, this may come at the cost of alienation from the places where we grew up.

“I think that I thought that if I moved here, I’d fit in better, that I’d meet more like-minded people,” says Connell of moving to Trinity. “I left Carricklea thinking that I could have a different life, but I hate it here….and I can’t get that life back,” he tells a counsellor, sobbing with the realisation. Obviously, class doesn’t completely determine how you’ll feel about Oxford – but for students who do struggle, feeling unsettled here is made more difficult by discovering that you’ll never truly be who you were before. The old ‘you’ has just been relegated to yet another version of yourself.

Last Trinity, I attended a Union debate on the motion “Thatcher was a hero to the working class.” When the audience was allowed to participate, another student got up and said, “my grandparents were working-class miners from County Durham, and thanks to Right to Buy they were able to leave.” I really wanted to speak.  I had researched the 1984 miners’ strike for my A-Level coursework and I come from a line of miners too, but my family are still in the North-East. But something stopped me – the fear of getting up and making a scene of myself, of drawing attention to the fact that I’m not even meant to be at Oxford, really – the fear of being found out. I said nothing and watched a load of students with clipped accents talk with so much authority about an area they’d researched for a few days, one in which I had lived my entire life, as though I wasn’t there, as though none of us were there – those of us that have never found Oxford “normal”, those of us who’ve had our whole understanding of what it is to be “normal” subverted by being here.  

On the same album as “Common People”, the lesser known song “Mis-Shapes” cries : “we don’t look the same as you / and we don’t do the things you do / but we live round here too.” By bottling this reality and turning it into a few episodes of a tv drama, Normal People is a reminder that we are all, in fact, here – quietly observing as the establishment lives out their youths. For many viewers, Normal People provided a close study of human connection and what it means to have relationships. It is this and more; it might be set in Ireland, and it might be a teen romance, but Normal People starts a dialogue much needed at Oxford today.  

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jH_0rg46Es

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6636565.stm

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/sally-rooney-normal-people-love-class-paul-mescal-daisy-edgarjones-a9482811.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/13/britain-privately-educated-oxbridge

[5] Marshall, G. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology

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