Is the Normal People fandom made up entirely of Call Me By Your Name stans?
Neck chains, tortured lovers, soft summer romances...
Standom always seems to stem from a place of maximalism: glorious, decades-spanning movie series about Jedi knights and comic book heroes. Or pop stars, the kind that deliver bombastic live sets and make bangers for the radio. They seldom come from somewhere quiet and unassuming. That aforementioned blueprint was pretty much infallible before Call Me by Your Name came along.
In a piece published by i-D in Autumn 2017, we unpacked a standom that was, at the time, unprecedented: a group of online followers obsessing over the Andre Aciman book and subsequent Luca Guadagnino film about a fledgling gay love affair in Northern Italy. It was an arthouse picture, at the time not even seen by many of the people who attested to adoring it, but to this day the fans that surround it stand strong. The power in that unlikely love story lives on.
Nearly three years later, and we’ve caught similar waves of a new fandom making its mark on the internet. It’s formed around another love story told deftly, although this time it’s more contemporary: Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Set in Sligo, it tells the story of Marianne, a social outcast whose relationship with her wealthy family is frayed, and Connell, the popular sporty kid whose mother is Marianne’s family’s housekeeper. Set over the course of several years, it shows how their social status and the power dynamic between the pair, switches and fluctuates, while their love for each other always lingers.
The book and the highly regarded miniseries that it spawned have swiftly become the internet's newest obsession. There’s no denying that swathes of people flocked to them when they first arrived (the book is a bestseller; the series one of the most talked-about of the year so far), but the way that appreciation has manifested on the internet is intriguing. We’re talking fan accounts for Connell’s now infamously sexy chain; K-pop style video edits comprised of Marianne and Connell’s moments of romance, and accounts that repost Tumblr-ready screenshots from the series.
For 23-year-old Katie, that new love affair started last summer. “I work at a library and just found the book on the shelves by happenstance,” she says of her first encounters with the story. “I thought the cover was pretty and the synopsis pulled me in and that was it. This was in February. I finished it in just a few days and then found out, I think through the book's page on Goodreads, that a series had been filmed. I remember checking the show's page on Hulu obsessively, waiting for a trailer to drop, or even just a release date. In the meantime I recommended it to all my friends.” One of them was Caroline, 21, a fellow member of the Normal People standom online: “I read it for the first time about a month ago and I've reread it twice already.” This swfit turnaround, from being blind to something’s existence to suddenly having it overwhelm your life and mindset, is symptomatic of stan culture. It acts quick, usually spinning you so rapidly that you get wrapped up in every fine detail of it.
But for Normal People, those alluring sources seem less obvious on the surface. The television show in particular is so nuanced and rooted in connection rather than the glaringly obvious or the aesthetics. Instead, it seems most Normal People stans are being dragged into Marianne and Connell’s world as a result of its atmosphere more than anything. That, too, could be said of Call Me By Your Name. The ‘symbols’ stans latch on to are intimate and loaded with allegory: a thin chain necklace resting on Connell’s skin in Normal People; a freshly-fucked peach in Call Me By Your Name. The romances at the heart of them are similar: semi-forbidden, bittersweet and tangential, pulled apart and brought together again, like elastic. Both, at some point in their story, take place in an old manor during an Italian summer. Stans, in this case, fall for the little things first.
Those little things, be it brief lines of dialogue or searingly intimate shots from the show, have helped launch Normal People’s first fledgling -- if rapidly growing -- stan account @normalpeoplebot. It aptly sets its location as “Trinity College”, where much of Marianne and Connell’s relationship unfolds, and cherry picks the sweetest and sorest observations.
It was created by Australian Normal People stan Aki, who in September of last year, read the book “in one sitting, finished it at 3 am, and immediately restarted it.” Her stan account was fairly low-key in the beginning; mostly quotes from the novel, but when the series approached its start date, more visual elements were incorporated into the @normalpeoplebot feed. At first, Aki was slightly apprehensive about the book being adapted for the screen. “Honestly I was kind of ambivalent, or maybe even leaning more towards the negative side,” she says of her first impressions. “Especially as someone who used to read primarily young adult fiction, the adaptations are just never as good, or they just dumb down messaging and focus more on romance and action.”
When the casting was announced, alongside Room director Lenny Abrahamson’s involvement, she “became a lot more excited.” Now, @normalpeoplebot is the go-to place for “No you’re crying!” reminders of how moving the series is. “I had no idea it would grow so quickly, I think I gained like 1000 followers within 3 days,” Aki says of the spike in traffic after the series premiered. “I think it just shows what an impact Normal People is having. This was lowkey the perfect time for it to come out since everyone is so isolated, craving human contact and intimacy.”
The fans who have rallied behind the book and show online know that their admiration for it in that sphere is strange: a search of “normal people stan” on Twitter right now will dredge up a bunch of results tied to the sanity of active participants in stan culture rather than memes and photos of the show. The world they admire is miles apart from the ones most rally around. Do they think their obsession is abstract? Katie points out that fictional romances (Edward and Bella; Draco and Harry; Katniss and Peeta) have long been the subject of fans online choosing to ‘ship’ their favourites. Marianne and Connell, in some respects, are no different. “But at the same time, Normal People is literary fiction with so many corresponding awards to Sally Rooney's name,” she adds. “That's because there's so much more than romance that's tackled in the book; themes of abuse, depression, self-esteem, class issues, and how a relationship, platonic or otherwise, with someone else can affect one's reaction to those things."
It’s clear the book’s effect goes far beyond the fickle. “There's so much to unpack from the book beyond Marianne and Connell's relationship too,” she continues. “It sparks a greater conversation between stans. It’s about more than just gushing over how cute a certain couple is. That’s refreshing.”
Much like the measured lot that managed to transform Elio, Oliver and a summer in Northern Italy into a veritable internet obsession, the stans of Normal People are taking a much more languid approach to hyping up their favourite new thing on the internet. It’s indicative of how those communities are evolving. In these spaces, where animosity and unnecessary rivalry thrive, standoms like this prove that there’s a sweetness at the heart of infatuation. And when your heart is focused on nothing but the electricity between two fateful, imaginary lovers, a new kind of loyalty blossoms.