It’s not often that you read an article written by 456 people, but on Nov. 8 the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published precisely that: a piece signed by 456 members of the Swedish film and theater industries. All were women. The article was a list of around 30 instances of sexual harassment, assault and rape committed against several of the authors by men in (or connected to) the film and theater industry. One victim was as young as 13. The list came from a thread started by female actors in Sweden in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein story and the subsequent emergence of the #MeToo hashtag.
What began with a handful of women sharing their tales of assault by men quickly grew into something much bigger. Within 24 hours, the group had grown to 1,100, recounting the sexual harassment and assault through which they had been forced to suffer. In response, the Swedish minister for culture announced that she will call the heads of Sweden’s national theater and opera to a meeting to address the issue. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström also signed on to the #MeToo campaign.
The “Weinstein Effect” has been powerful in Sweden — a country of only 10 million — with a number of high-profile Swedish media figures either under investigation, suspended or fired from their jobs. The stories have been front-page news staples in Sweden’s popular tabloid press for weeks.
The volume of accusations leveled against men in Sweden will perhaps come as a surprise to outsiders. This is, after all, a country famed for its supposed commitment to egalitarianism and gender equality. In the recently published “Women Peace and Security Index” by the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the living conditions for women in 153 countries were evaluated. Not surprisingly, the Nordic countries dominated the top 10, with Iceland ranked 1st, Norway 2nd, Finland 6th and Sweden tied for 7th. The US, in comparison, was ranked 22nd.
What makes the news from Sweden all the more important is the fact that the country is often ridiculed — and even vilified — by some for what is seen as an excessive devotion to political correctness. From reports of “gender-neutral” preschools (there are only a few), to stories that feminists want to impose a tax on men (it was one feminist), to Julian Assange branding the country as the “Saudi Arabia of feminism” (it isn’t), the notion of Swedish feminism “going too far” gets traction as it plays into a clichéd rhetoric of unwashed leftists hopelessly adrift in a sea of utopianism, as well as the notion that it is now men who are the victims of “reverse discrimination.”
Apart from the fact that most of these click-bait stories about Sweden are shrouded in half-truths and rumor, the huge volume of women coming forward with stories of harassment, assault and rape post-Weinstein shows how, rather than feminism having gone “too far,” that it actually still has a way to go. As I have written elsewhere, Sweden is a relatively progressive country when it comes to gender politics, and women’s rights are discussed in an environment where the word “feminism” isn’t immediately understood — as it is often in the United States — as inherently toxic and anti-men. This is important, because the ability of men to simply discuss feminism without being threatened by the term is a basic-but-necessary precondition for healthy public debate on gender equality.
Yet, even with Sweden’s relative progressiveness (and it is relative), violence occurs. There is no more fundamental issue for a democratic society than the ability of citizens to go about their daily lives without fear of harassment, assault or worse. Much is made of the fact that 44 percent of the Swedish parliament is made up of women, and rightly so as it is one of the highest levels in the world. Yet that number means little to the women unable to go to work without fear of facing psychological or physical attacks.
As important as they are, achievements such as improved political representation, paid maternity leave and the elimination of sexist language in schools cannot erase the fact that widespread sexual violence against women is a clear symptom of continued misogyny. Or, to put it another way, sexual discrimination or assault are not somehow more “tolerable” because women in Sweden are closer to getting equal pay for equal work or have more female members of parliament.
Many Hollywood films project a progressive social attitude onto the screen, just as countries such as Sweden project progressive social images onto the global consciousness. The revelations over the past few weeks are powerful reminders that institutions and societies we often brand as “leftist” or “progressive” — such as the performing arts and Sweden — are in no way immune from systematic discrimination, harassment and sexual violence.
Does this make achievements toward gender equality in Sweden less important? No. It does tell us, however, that there are things happening behind the screen that demand our immediate and undivided attention.