Though Denmark and Sweden share an outward image of being a haven of equality, when it comes to discussions around the #MeToo movement it seems like the two countries are not only on opposite sides of the bridge – but also of the debate. This was the finding of a study by Tina Askanius and Jannie Møller Hartley, which has shown remarkable differences in how #MeToo was debated in Swedish and Danish media.
In 2017, the hashtag #MeToo swept across the world. Civil rights activist Tarana Burke launched the hashtag in 2006 to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault, but it took a perpetrator of Harvey Weinstein’s caliber and a wave of predominantly white, rich, and famous actresses for it to reach its viral status.
Alyssa Milano, often credited with starting the #MeToo movement, has acknowledged that Burke is the originator of the hashtag. Nevertheless, the mainstreaming of the #MeToo debate has taken place in a way that too often puts the spotlight on stories about white women – something that has also allowed it to be co-opted in Scandinavian spaces.
The Nordic countries enjoy an outward image of being a paradise of equality, in part due to their generous parental leave, young female prime ministers, and a history of radical feminist movements. But in 2017, it became obvious that once you scratched at the surface, this was far from true. Reports poured in from women of all backgrounds about the normality of sexual abuse and assault in the workplace, at home, and on the streets.
In hindsight, we can look back at the movement in the Nordic countries, acknowledge its flaws, and examine the lasting effects it might have had on our societies. This is what researchers at Malmö University and Roskilde University have done in a study comparing the #MeToo movements in Denmark and Sweden, published in 2019.
The study pinpointed what Swedes and Danes have known for a long time: Sweden has embraced feminism more than rough-around-the-edges, “can’t you take a joke” Denmark.
First, the coverage of the #MeToo movement was more extensive in Sweden than in Denmark. Swedish newspapers published more than 3000 articles on the subject during the timeframe examined by the researchers, while Danish newspapers published less than 600.
There was also a difference in how Swedish and Danish media gave political significance to the movement. In Sweden, more politicians were used as sources than in Denmark, and the movement was more often framed as addressing a structural problem rather than an individual or workplace-based issue. This signals that in Sweden, the movement became part of a discussion between politicians and citizens about systematic, structural, gender-related violence.
In Denmark, however, #MeToo was often framed as a witch-hunt against men and an overly politically correct campaign without any societal effect. In fact, only 1% of Swedish articles had an overall critique of the #MeToo movement as a main theme, while in Denmark, the same figure was 10%. A public survey by TV2 also revealed that one in four Danes thought that the movement had negatively affected how Danes treat each other, while a majority of the surveyed considered the campaign to be a joke.
Both Sweden and Denmark had their own high-profile cases around this time, though they played out very differently. In Sweden, the so-called “Culture Profile” Jean-Claude Arnault, who was married to a member of the Swedish Academy, was convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in prison. He was accused of using the money and influence that comes with being associated to the Swedish Academy to sexually assault women for decades, sometimes even in the property of the Swedish Academy.
The reporting around his case caused shockwaves in the Swedish cultural sphere, similar to how the accusations against Harvey Weinstein shook the US film industry. The Swedish Academy even withheld the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature as a result of the internal turbulence these events caused.
In Denmark, while dealing with Icelandic singer Björk’s accusations of sexual harassment, world-famous director Lars von Trier faced a government probe into the working conditions at his production company Zentropa following nine women’s allegations of abuse, including having their breasts groped and degrading punishments.
These accusations were directed towards von Trier’s longtime producer and former CEO of Zentropa, Peter Aalbæk Jensen. Jensen has been accused of everything from spanking employees to handing out awards at Christmas parties to the employee who could undress the fastest or had the longest pubic hair. Jensen responded: “There have been plenty of times when I’ve been over the top or gone too far. And I stand by that fully. But the question is whether you are an adored leader or not. And I am an adored leader.”
Following the government probe, Zentropa has worked to change its company culture. In a public statement, the current CEO has said that smacking employees would no longer be acceptable behavior. Jensen’s reply was swift and uncompromising: “Believe me, I am already thinking about other demeaning ways to punish them. They will be lying on their knees begging for the spanking to be reinstated.”
Business has continued at Zentropa, and they regularly receive grants from the Danish Film Institute.
The political effects of the #MeToo movement have also been different in both countries. Although a consent law had been discussed for a long time in Sweden, the #MeToo movement swung public and political support in its favor and saw it finally enacted. In most rape and sexual assault cases – the ones that actually make it to court – victims must prove that they did not want to have sex. Under Sweden’s new law, any sexual interaction that does not have explicit consent can be punishable in court, with the onus on the defendant to prove that the victim granted consent.
In Denmark, Straffelovrådet, the council that evaluates new laws, originally advised against the Danish government implementing a consent law. Instead, it opted for a milder version: a voluntary law.
Critics, including Amnesty International, said that using “voluntary” instead of “consent” leaves room for confusion. They argue passivity or a paralyzed state could be interpreted as voluntarily engaging in a sexual act.
However, as a new government formed in July 2019, this was reversed. Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance has since passed consent-based rape laws, stating “sex without consent isn’t sex.”
So how can two countries, who have so much in common, differ so much when it comes to feminism? One explanation, put forth by Askanius and Møller Hartley, would be that feminism has been politicized in Sweden, thereby filtering into political and governmental institutions to a larger extent than in Denmark.
After feminism’s second and third waves in the 80s and 90s, there were large, well-organized activist groups in Sweden that kept the fight for gender equality alive. Denmark, however, entered a conservative and neoliberal phase, one that would not entertain radical ideas around gender. This has provided fertile ground for the perception that feminism has “gone too far,” while Swedish politicians – from all sides of the spectrum – happily call themselves feminists.
The #MeToo movement and its effects will likely be examined for years to come. In the Nordic countries, this examination must ask if the movement reached every part of society, and if every voice was heard – not just the white and rich.
By priding ourselves on being equal already, we are at risk of dismissing those with experiences of racism, classicism, and sexism. Doing so perpetuates the narrative that these are things that happen elsewhere, it could never happen here. But what if it already has and we just weren’t listening?