Danish Culture

Sexism in an Androgynous Society, or “Objectification is bad, mmmkay?”

There’s a TV show here that has generated a very strong visceral reaction in myself and most others in the western world that see the show. I’ve talked to enough Danes about the show to see the difference in views: To the Danes, it’s a somewhat cheeky, somewhat offensive social commentary that exists for shock value, not unlike South Park in the US.  To non-Danes, it’s a borderline hate crime, and the fact that state funding is being used for it is beyond outrageous.  Before I get into the show itself, let me start by talking about an episode of South Park.

In the episode “Chef Goes Nanners“, the chef is upset about the South Park flag. This is the flag:

Yeah, I can see how the violence might offend some.

This sparks controversy in the school, and the children are asked to do a debate.  The children do so, each side talking about whether or not the depiction of violence is something that is inherently detrimental or not.  Of course, they miss the point that the issue isn’t with the violence, but with the overall depiction of a lynching, and all the history and attitudes behind that. In the end, the chef is so touched that the children can’t see the racism or racist act, that he drops the law suit.

Every time I’ve had a discussion about this show with Danes, I’ve felt like the chef. Eventually, I’ve come to realize that the Danish cultural context is one that is so far removed from the actual depiction, that it’s a bit like the chef trying to explain why a lynching is bad. It’s so obviously wrong that it’s comedic on South Park, but when faced with a real-life version of the same scenario, you find outrage turns to frustration as you try to capture something that the rest of the developed world has realized is wrong but you find that the emotions are so strong that the words can barely come out, and you sit there staring at a bunch of dumbfounded faces that keep asking “Really? Violence is everywhere, what do you have against that flag?”

This has forced me to come up with a cogent, logical explanation of why something most people take for granted as being wrong is, in fact, wrong. So, I present what I would feel is the largest straw-man argument in history, but it’s apparently needed…

Why sexism and objectification are bad

So, the show is called Blachman (wikipedia link).  The show’s format is that two men (the show’s creator and a different guest every episode) sit down and then a woman comes out and disrobes. The seated, clothed men, then discuss the naked, silent women, and women in general. I think this is atrocious. I’ll do the rest of this as a Q and A with all the weird responses I’ve heard so far when I talk about this.

Q: You don’t like nudity? Artistic expression? Censorship! (or any other debate point that a middle-schooler might write in their school essay)

A: No. Huge fan of nudity, actually. None of these are close to the actual topic. See the example with the chef from South Park above.

Q: Danish society has lost clear gender distinction, this man wants to rekindle some of that so that women’s bodies can be appreciated for their beauty. What’s wrong with bringing that back?

A: This logic, to me, is sort of like saying “the art of beautiful wheelchair ramps has been lost to society, so let’s bring back polio”. The hidden implication in my analogy, of course is that ‘women’s bodies appreciated for beauty’ has something wrong in it. It does, and it has to do with “objectification”.

Q: What is “objectification”?

A: Good question, Timmy!

Despite what Mittens Romney says, not full of women

For the safety of the binder

On the left, we have a 3-ring binder. On the right we have a Polish fireman. What’s the difference?  Well, many things, but the one I’m interested in right now is the concept of agency.

Most of us believe ourselves to be thinking, feeling, caring beings in a way that the 3-ring binder is not. Most of us also hold the same beliefs about Polish firemen and treat them categorically differently. For instance, if you wanted to get lunch with a Polish fireman, you would ask and await a response and adjust your expectations accordingly.  For the binder, you would just take it with you, because you assume the binder does not have wishes or cares. Treating the binder as though it did is called personification. Treating the fireman as though he didn’t is called objectification.

Q: Blachman and company are only saying nice things and praising the women. They’re not being dirty or disrespectful. What’s wrong with that?

A: So, let’s say I love my 3-ring binder. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I stick my favorite stickers on it, because that’s what I do with things I like.  My best friend loves his 3-ring binder too, but he shows it by putting it on a shelf somewhere and making sure it always stays clean. The funny thing about being an object, even an adored one, is that you have no say in how that adoration is expressed. As a conscious agent, you can debate whether or not my praise and adoration is actually getting across properly. As an object, you do not have this choice.

Q: What’s the worst that can happen?

A: Tons. This site doesn’t seem to allow you to link to individual posts, but everyday sexism recounts stories of sexism that women face daily in most ‘developed’ countries, ranging from stories that might make you groan to stories that will horrify you. Some amount of sexual assault listed is based on power dynamics (where the women do have agency), but all the stories where the validity of the victim’s feelings are questioned, or even denied? That would be the women being bad objects by having their own subjective views.  This is far more prevalent in non-Scandinavian countries, and over all, not something I think Scandinavia should actively strive for.

Q: How is this any different from other media, or even porn?

A: Porn can objectify women, but that’s not its purpose. The main goal of porn some sort of profit from erotic arousal. Whether that’s achieved through the objectification of women, the subjugation of men, or the personification of quiches is largely irrelevant.  Porn producers seek a profit, one that is reflected from society. They do not seek to change society, particularly to one where women are objectified more.

Again, this is the stated primary goal of the show. It removes the eroticism and specifically instructs the men to treat the women in front of them as objects to be subjectively adored. It literally isolates and controls for the rest of the environment as much as possible, and presents a variety of women of different ages and body types and instructs the men to engage them similarly. If one were to design the ideal laboratory settings to train objectification, this would be pretty close.

Q: Talking about denying agency, what about the choice the women on the show made to be there? No one’s forcing them to. Isn’t it paternalistic to assume they shouldn’t be?

A: I’m fine with the actual participants doing what they want.  What I’m not fine with is a state-sponsored show whose stated goal is to bring more objectification into society. Idiots can be idiots wherever they want to be, and I don’t have an issue with that. I do have an issue with the person who thinks it’s a good idea to give these idiots a camera, a microphone, and tax money and thinks this will have a positive effect on society.

Q: You’re not Danish! What’s it to you?

A: I’m sure not, but I’m living here now, and voluntarily paying 40% taxes to live in an otherwise nice society. One thing I love is the gender equality. As a brown dude, if you’re walking in a dimly lit alley coming home at night and a girl is walking towards you, in the US they cross the street, or walk faster, or turn around, or do something that makes you feel almost criminal. Because they have to, to be safe. Here, they just keep walking and might even say ‘hi’. Because they have nothing to worry about. Because they have such an amazingly equal position in society, it’s just as likely that they’d do something to me as I would to them. Why would you want to destroy that?

Really, I just want to say “You can do better, Denmark”.

Q: If you don’t like it so much, why write about it? Why give it attention? Why watch it? Why not ignore it entirely?

A: The fact that a show can be judged a success (even if it’s measurably detrimental to society) just because it’s getting attention is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in the agreement between Danmarks Radio and Kulturministeriet. Remember, this is state-funded but its success is judged based on capitalist standards, but without the checks that exist in a capitalist market. This creates an interesting edge-case that this show falls right into. I’m researching this in much more detail and will write more on it later.

And with that, I NEVER want to bring this up in conversation again.

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Ugh. Marketing.

So, this is gonna be a tech-based entry, as opposed to my usual personal entries. You’ve been warned.

I saw a youtube commercial that I thought was kind of cute: 

Something my generation seems to like is nostalgia, and this commercial hits every nostalgia nail square in the head. Very well done. If they had an Etsy store, they’d be raking in the sales right now. Problem is, though, this isn’t the way technology works, or how people interact with technology.

Most people acknowledge that technology, nowadays, does things they don’t fully understand.  This goes with “tech” people like myself as well. Like, I have no idea how a printer works. No idea whatsoever. I mean, ok, I know it’s not telepathy or magic, but is it sending a document with embedded fonts with an accompanying string of text, or is it sending a direct bitmap of everything? Or can it do both? If it can do both, which one comes out looking nicer? Anyways, point is, I have very little understanding of these devices, and there are many people with way less.

Compare this to something like a sandwich or a t-shirt.  You know how a t-shirt works. You know what things you would use it for and what makes a good one.  All things being equal, after you’ve found your minimum level of comfortable material, color, size, etc, you’ll go for the one that makes you ‘feel good’ about buying it. This is why marketing works for a t-shirt or sandwich: you know enough about them to be able to afford buying them for ‘good feelings’ because they’ve already made the grade for your minimally acceptable product.

Again, technology doesn’t work this way. If I want a new printer, I’ll go ask someone who knows a lot about printers. You could make a printer shaped like my childhood and decorate it with astronaut cake, but if my friends tell me that basically it’ll shred every fourth document you print, I won’t get it.

You can’t wow the general public into getting something like a web browser. Everyone that switched away from IE did so because someone like me came over to their house one day and said “trust me, I work in the Internet, this is good for you” and installed Firefox. Everyone that switched over to Mac after OS X did so when their tech friends informed them “No, Mac doesn’t suck anymore.”

I guess my point is, generalized marketing on feel-good-feelings only works if your audience is already an expert in the product, and has already decided your product is minimally-sufficient for their needs. If it’s not, you should focus on making them experts or addressing those needs to people who are experts before going with the feel-good-feelings.

So I won’t be trying it out based on the fact that they mentioned things I was around about a decade ago…unless, of course, some of my Internet brethren and sistren tell me it’s worthwhile 🙂

Genesis

It’s kind of strange how some things we attribute to a culture can easily be explained by public policy.

One of the first questions I wanted to learn how to ask in Danish was “do you need help?”  As much as I’d like to believe that’s because I’m just such a sweet and caring person, it’s really because I found myself wanting to say it all the time, especially on public transport.

In the US, about 30% of the people on the bus are absolutely insane. Like, bath-salts eat-your-face insane. We ignore them. Everyone else is just a person trying to get home and not get their face eaten. Those of us in this category are generally pretty nice and cordial towards eachother. Once in a while, due to circumstance or poor planning, one of these people decides to take the bus or subway carrying a giant suitcase or something. Usually someone sees them struggle, and decides to help.

This is why I wanted to learn that phrase here. I’d see someone that seems mostly sane struggling in some way and I’d want to lend them a helping hand. Then, I realized something.  I’ve see someone struggling that way every time I’ve taken public transport. Every. Single. Time.

Basically, you can’t take the bus here without running into some lady trying to bring 40 children on board, or carrying 20 bags of groceries or an aquarium or something home. Even excluding bicycles and strollers, there’s just constantly someone in need of assistance on public transport here every time you take it. Yes, some of them are disabled, but most of them are just trying to jam a sofa or into the entrance of the bus by themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the busses and trains are particularly crowded, it’s just that there’s always a person on there who’s doing something strange and intrusive with a space otherwise meant for sitting. It’s weird because you can’t even just try and be in your own place unassumingly because you know you might get your the area by your feet taken away by a very grateful lady and her extra grocery bag.

I thought about why that is. I think it’s because Denmark has made it prohibitively expensive to own a car or to take a taxi. Both of these are ‘luxuries’.  This means people engaging in activities that would normally require a car or other special vehicle (such as grocery shopping, moving things from apartment to apartment or even taking a classroom worth of children on an outing) are now encouraged to try and use public transportation for their needs.

After a couple of weeks of this, I’ve stopped offering to help, just because it gets too taxing. Now, I just want to ride from class to the apartment without getting an aquarium to the head. Everyone else can just deal with themselves and I’ll deal with my stuff.  I’ve stopped being the helpful American guy and I’ve become… another member of the Danish public transport crowd.

So it begins.

For a good time call…

So, Danish people are really weird about contact information. Really, really weird.

Normally, if you meet someone randomly and you both realize you don’t hate eachother, you seal that special bond of mutual tolerance with some self-disclosure. A name, a favorite color, whatever.  Then, if you find you actually enjoy hanging out and would like to not leave the next encounter to pure chance, you exchange contact information of some sort.

Apparently this isn’t how it works in Denmark. As best as I can tell, each Dane is born with a limited number of times they can give out contact information. If they use it up, they get kicked out of the country and have to live in Finland. (To the Danes whose contact information I already have, thank you and sorry in advance about your imminent deportation) This is the only logical explanation I have with how weird they get when it gets to that point of the interaction.

Ryan and I went out a few weeks ago and met some Danes. We hung out with them all night, they came out with us to get breakfast, watched out for us to be sure we didn’t get lost, bought us some drinks, and generally had a good time.   Everyone seemed to enjoy hanging out. Come morning, asking for contact information for anyone in the group was like pulling teeth. I think the first attempt was Ryan saying “So, you guys have our contact info, right?” followed by a “nope” and crickets sounding off in the distance.
“Well…should we fix that?”  “Hm, fix what? What’re we talking about again?”

Eventually, Ryan’s ability to out-wait any awkward situation won over and one of the guys in the group reluctantly gave us his phone number, with that look of despair knowing he’d never see his friends and family again.

I’ve talked with other foreigners about this, and they’ve witnessed the same thing out here. I thought it was a European thing at first, or maybe I’m just super pushy, but, again, Denmark seems to be special in this regard. I never saw this in Germany, and didn’t see it when I went back a few weeks ago.

I have about a dozen more stories from myself and other foreigners here of this same odd behavior.  As far as I can tell, it’s nothing impolite and it’s not a sign they don’t like you. Maybe I just don’t appreciate the sacred covenant of trust I’m given when I get ability to make a person’s phone vibrate from a distance.

As of a few days ago, I decided I’ll try specifically finding non-Danes and see what that’s like.  I’ve already found tons of really fun people from all over Europe (and US expats too) who are totally normal about contact info.  And, I have to say, I’m enjoying it!

So, I guess I’ll have to wait longer to figure out why the Danes are like this. Until I understand it better, I’m just gonna go with my strict deportation theory and let people continue being strange.

Awkward Silence

Generally Europeans always comment about how loud Americans are. And I guess we are.  You go to the subway or metro of any European city and the one group of voices you hear that are almost shouting in comparison to the others are American voices.  Europeans aren’t like that, and I didn’t realize the implications of that until recently.

If you see a group of Americans sitting around not talking to each other, they’re probably all feeling something close to dread and trying desperately to think of the next topic of conversation. We even have a phrase for this: “awkward silence”.

If we see a whole group of people doing this, but not feeling the awkward bit (a bunch of people standing there complacently in silence), the thought is “wow, they really don’t want to be around each other” or “wow they’re not having any fun at all”.  Here, it means… well, I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but here it doesn’t mean the above.  I’ve seen groups of long-time friends as well as new acquaintances just stand around there and not talk for amazingly unbearable stretches of time. I don’t mean like a break in conversation; I mean like 5 minutes of just sitting there, staring at each other.

As a new person trying to mingle with groups and make friends, this definitely weirded me out at first, until I saw this was the same thing everyone else does. Not that I don’t still feel weird, I just know it’s not me.

I guess we also have a less-common “comfortable silence” in the US as well. It usually doesn’t occur in large groups, and it’s that feeling where you’re just so comfortable with someone that you don’t even need to say anything. It’s rare and noteworthy for us.  I don’t know if that’s what the Europeans feel, it might be some combination of both.

I just realized how ambiguous this makes our behavior. If an American is silent with you, it means either they don’t want to be around you, they do want to be around you and you’re making them uncomfortable, or they feel super-close to you.  Take that, confusing Europeans!