With a female-majority government and an international reputation for gender balance, Sweden may appear an unlikely location for heated battles on endemic sexual exploitation. Hollywood’s recent scandals have changed that.
An open letter and manifesto published by 703 Swedish actors inspired by #MeToo has snowballed into a national debate on previously unacknowledged and unpunished workplace sexual abuse across sectors. The debate is sparking demands for change that are slowly spreading to other Nordic countries too. But the Swedish movement is also marked by an element of optimism rooted in its initial successes — and the country’s legacy of gender sensitivity.
The letter and manifesto released in November were accompanied by victim testimonies, in which they blamed directors, producers and politicians for their failure to ensure that nobody can be sexually abused at the workplace. It read: “We demand zero tolerance against sexual exploitation and violence. Sexual abuse or violence must lead to consequences in the form of termination of contract and possibly pursuit of criminal prosecution.”
We have to just find a way of stopping it, say no.
Sofia Helin, actress, best known for the internationally acclaimed TV series The Bridge
Since the publication of the actors’ open letter and a campaign known as #tystnadtagning or #SilenceAction, women across industries — dancers, lawyers, construction workers, medical doctors and circus workers — have pitched in with similar demands. Another 80 hashtags have come up. Almost 100,000 women have signed it in support. The campaign is spreading to Norway and Finland, countries where Sweden wields significant cultural influence. And for some of the women who sparked the movement — including some of Sweden’s best-known actors — the time is ripe to step up and stop the quiet acceptance of a culture of sexual violence.
“We have to change and start being more brave,” says Sofia Helin, who earned international recognition with The Bridge, a Danish/Swedish drama series in which she plays the eccentric, unsettlingly straight-talking inspector Saga Norén. The series has been aired in more than 100 countries. “We have to just find a way of stopping it, say no,” she adds, comparing the situation to one of a drunk person staggering around a crowded room.
In a report published in October by the European Institute for Gender Equality, a European Union agency based in Lithuania, Sweden topped gender equality in the bloc of 28 countries. But the outpouring of demands for change suggest sexual harassment remains a serious problem.
Some leading male figures within the Swedish film industry have an unchecked track record of violence. Others have been convicted of beating women — and even men, points out Alexandra Rapaport, star of numerous TV shows, most recently The Sandhamn Murders and Goose Mother. Rapaport, Helin and fellow actor Julia Dufvenius, all members of #SilenceAction, spoke to this writer recently in London.
“We call it a culture of silence. Nobody talks about it. If there is something happening to you, you don’t talk about it or you talk to your producer and your producer says OK, let’s not make anything of this,” says Rapaport.
“Or you can have three sessions of therapy to cope with it,” Helin adds. “But no one says maybe we should move that person. And maybe he shouldn’t have that amount of power because he can’t handle it. We have to start being aware of power.”
Still, the restructuring the women have in mind for the film industry is not aggressive, but smooth and peaceful — though the demands are backed by a seemingly steely resolve. “We want to keep the façade, but inside, we want to rearrange almost everything,” says Dufvenius, for whom, it is said, Ingmar Bergman wrote the character Karin in the film Saraband. “We want to look in the mirror and say, ‘You did really good.’ ”
The movement’s expansion across sectors and into Norway and Finland has helped break a taboo and start honest conversations about a climate of impunity, says Rianne Vogels, the founder of a Norway-based startup management consultancy who has collated data on campaigns sparked by #SilenceAction.“We are now seeing some first steps toward what is needed next: a culture of accountability,” she says. “Awareness alone is not enough. Many power abusers are still quietly protected, legal protections are still abysmal and challenging specific abusers remains risky.”
The Swedish parliament debated the issue in December, followed by another session dedicated to victim testimonies. What measures will be brought forth remain to be seen. Still, the emergence of a cohesive and audacious movement of professional women across sectors, combined with a gender-balanced political administration, appear to justify the fundamental optimism that accompany the power and dignity of #SilenceAction.
Firing everyone isn’t possible, after all, argues a pragmatic Helin.
“We have to start learning again, together,” she says. “It can’t become a war. It should become a new way of behaving.”
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