This article was published in M/C Journal (A Journal of Media and Culture), Vol 20, No 6 (2017).
Nordic mythology, also known as Norse mythology, is a term used to describe Medieval creation myths and tales of Gods and otherworldly realms, told and retold by Northern Germanic and Scandinavian tribes of the ninth century AD (see for example Gaiman).
I discuss a new type of Nordic mythology that is being created through popular culture, social media, books, and television shows. I am interested in how contemporary portrayals of the Nordic countries has created a kind of mythological place called Scandinavia, where things, people, and ideas are better than in other places.
Whereas the old myths portray a fierce warrior race, the new myths create a utopian Scandinavia as a place that is inherently good; a place that is progressive and harmonious. In the creation of these new myths the underbelly of the North is often neglected, producing a homogenised representation of a group of countries that are in actuality diverse and inevitably imperfect.
Generally the term Scandinavia always refers to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When including Finland and Iceland, it is more accurate to refer to the five as the Nordic countries. I was born and grew up in Denmark. My observations are skewed towards a focus on Denmark, rather than Scandinavia as a whole. Though I will use the term Nordic and Scandinavia throughout the article, it is worth noting that these definitions describe a group of countries that despite some commonalities are also quite different in geography, and culture.
Whether we are speaking strictly of Scandinavia or of the Nordic countries as a whole, one thing is certain: in recent years there has been a surge of popularity in all things Nordic. Scandinavian design has been popular since the 1950s, known for its functionality and simplistic beauty, and globalised through the Swedish furniture chain IKEA. Consequently, Nordic interior design has become a style widely praised and emulated, as has Nordic fashion, architecture, and innovation.
The fact that Scandinavian people are often represented as being intelligent and beautiful adds to the notion of stylish and aesthetically pleasing ideals. This is partly why sperm from Danish sperm donors is the most sought after and widely distributed in the world: perhaps prospective parents find the idea of having a baby of Viking stock appealing (Kale).
Nordic countries are also known for their egalitarian societies, which are described as “the holy grail of a healthy economy and society” (Cleary). These are countries where the collective good is cherished. Tax rates are high (in Denmark between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of income), which leads to excellent welfare systems.
In recent years other terms have entered the collective Western vocabulary. New Nordic Cuisine describes a trend that has taken the culinary world by storm. This term refers to food that is created with seasonal, local, and foraged ingredients. The emphasis being a renewed connection to nature and old ways. In 2016 the Danish word hygge was shortlisted by the Oxford Dictionary as word of the year. A word, which has no direct English translation, it means “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)”. Countless books were published in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, explaining the art of hygge. Other Scandinavian words are now becoming popular, such as the Swedish lagom, meaning “just enough”.
In the past two years, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report listed Denmark and Norway as the happiest places on earth. Other surveys similarly put the Nordic countries on top as the most prosperous places on earth (Anderson).
Mythologies and Discursive Formations
The standard definition of myth is a “traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” Or “A widely held but false belief or idea” (Oxford Dictionaries, Myth).
During what became known as the “discursive turn”, both Barthes and Foucault expanded the conception of myth by placing it within a wider socio-political and historical contexts of power and truth. “Discursive formations” became a commonly accepted way of describing a cluster of ideas, images, and practices that define particular “truths” within a given cultural context (Hall 6). In other words, myths serve specific purposes within given socio-cultural constructions.
I argue that the current idolisation of Scandinavia is creating a common global narrative of a superior society. A mythical place that has “figured it out”, and found the key to happiness. The mythologised North is based on an array of media stories, statistics, reports, articles, advertising, political rhetoric, books, films, TV series, exhibitions, and social media activity. These perpetuate a “truth” of the Nordic countries as being especially benign, cultured, and distinguished.
The Smiling Policeman
In his well-known essay Myth Today, Barthes analyses an image of a North African boy in uniform saluting the French flag on the front cover of a magazine. Barthes argues that by analysing the semiotic meaning of the image in two stages, one can identify the “myth”.
The first level is the signifiers (what we see), a dark skinned boy, a uniform, a raised arm, a flag. The signified is our recognition of these as a North African boy raising his arm to the French flag. The second level of interpretation is the wider context in which we understand what we see: the greatness of France is signified in the depiction of one of her colonial subjects submitting to and glorifying the flag. That is to say, the myth generated by the image is the story of France as a great colonial and military nation.
Now take a look at this image, which was distributed the world over in newspapers, online media, and in turn social media (Warren; Kolff). This image is interesting because it epitomises much of what is believed about Scandinavia (the new myths). If we approach the image through the semiotic lens of Barthes, we firstly describe what is seen in the picture (signifiers): a blonde policeman, a girl of dark complexion, a road in the countryside, a van in the distance, and some other people with backpacks on the side of the road. When we put these elements together in context, we understand that the image to be depicting a Danish policeman, blonde, smiling and handsome, playing with a Syrian refugee girl on an empty Danish highway, with her fellow refugees behind her.
The second level of interpretation (the myth) is created by combining the elements into a story: A friendly police officer is playing with a refugee girl, which is unusual because policemen are commonly seen as authoritarian and unfriendly to illegal immigrants. This policeman is smiling. He is happy in his job. He is healthy, good-looking, and compassionate.
This fits the image of Scandinavian men as good fathers (they have paternity leave, and often help equally with child rearing). The image confirms that the happiest people on earth would of course also have happy, friendly policemen. The belief that the Scandinavian social model is one to admire would appear to be endorsed.
The fact that this is in a rural setting with green landscapes adds further to the notion of Nordic freshness, naturalness, environmentalism, and food that comes from the wild. The fact that the policeman is well-groomed, stylish, well-built, and handsome reinforces the notion that Scandinavia is a place of style and taste, where the good Viking gene pool produces fit and beautiful people.
It makes sense that in a place with a focus on togetherness and the common good, refugees are also treated well. Just as the French image of a dark-skinned boy saluting the French flag sent out messages of French superiority, this image sends out messages of inherent Nordic goodness in a time where positive images of the European refugee crisis are few and far between.
In a discursive discussion, one asks not only what meanings does this image convey, but why is this image chosen, distributed, shared, tweeted, and promoted over other images? What purpose does its proliferation serve? What is the historical context in which it is popularised? What is the cultural imagination/narrative that is served? In the current often depressing socio-political situation in Europe, people like to know that there is a place where compassion and play exists.
Among other news stories of death, despair, and border protection, depictions of an idealised North can help calm anxieties by implying the existence of a place that is free of conflict. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen writes:
The flood of journalistic and popular ethnographic explorations of the Nordic region in the UK is an expression, perhaps, of a search for a lost sense of identity, a nostalgic longing for an imagined past society more in tune with pre-Thatcherite welfarist values, by way of consuming, appropriating and exoticising proximate cultural identities such as the now much hyped Danish or Nordic utopias. (Nordic Noir,6)
In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British writer Michael Booth wonders: “one thing in particular about this new-found love of all things Scandinavian … which struck me as particularly odd: considering all this positive PR, and with awareness of the so-called Nordic miracle at an all-time high, why wasn’t everyone flocking to live here [in Denmark]?” (7).
In actuality not many people in the West are interested in living in the Nordic countries. Rather, as Barbara Goodwin writes: “utopias hold up a mirror to the fears and aspirations of the time in which they were written” (2). In other words, in an age of anxiety, where traditional norms and stabilities are shifting, to believe that there is a place where contemporary societies have found a way of living in happiness and togetherness provides a sense of hope. People are not flocking to live in Scandinavia because it is not in their interests to have their utopian ideals shattered by the reality that, though the North has a lot to offer, it is inevitably not a utopia (Sougaard-Nielsen, The Truth Is).
Paradoxically, in recent years, Scandinavia has become well known for its “Nordic Noir” crime fiction and television. In the documentary TV series Scandimania, British TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall travels through Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, exploring the culture, scenery, and food. He finds it curious that Denmark has become so famous for its sombre crime series, such as The Killing and The Bridge, because it seems so far removed from the Denmark he experiences riding around the streets of Copenhagen on his bike.
Fearnley-Whittingstall ponders that one has to look hard to find the dark side of Denmark, and that perhaps it does not actually exist at all. This observation points to something essential. Even though millions of viewers worldwide have seen shows such as The Killing, which are known for their dark story lines, bleak urban settings, complex but realistic characters, progressive gender equality, and social commentary, the positive mythologising of Scandinavia remains so strong that it engenders a belief that the underbelly shown in Nordic Noir is perhaps entirely fictional.
Stougaard-Nielsen (see also Pitcher, Consuming Race) argues that perhaps the British obsession with Nordic Noir (and this could be applied to other western countries) can be attributed to “a more appropriate white cosmopolitan desire to imagine rooted identities in an age of globalisation steeped in complex identity politics” (Nordic Noir, 8). That is to say that, for a segment of society which feels overwhelmed by contemporary multiculturalism, there may be a pleasure in watching a show that is predominantly populated by white Nordic protagonists, where the homes and people are stylish, and where the Nordic model of welfare and progressive thinking provides a rich identity source for white people as a symbolic point of origin.
The watching/reading of Nordic Noir, as well as other preoccupations with all things Nordic, help build upon a mythological sense of whiteness that sets itself apart from our usual notions of race politics, by being an accepted form of longing for the North of bygone ages: a place that is progressive, moral, stylish, and imbued with aspirational ways of living, thinking, and being (Pitcher, Racial Politics).
The image of the Danish police officer and the refugee girl fits this ideal of a progressive society where race relations are uncomplicated. The policeman who epitomises the Nordic ideal is in a position of power, but this is an authority which is benevolent. The girl is non-threatening in her otherness, because she is a child and female, and therefore does not fit the culturally dreaded Muslim/terrorist stereotype. In this constellation the two can meet beautifully.
The reality, of course, is that the race relations and issues surrounding immigration in Denmark, and in other Nordic countries, are as complicated and often messy and hateful as they are in other countries. In Sweden, as Fearnley-Whittingstall touches upon in Scandimania, there are escalating problems with integration of the many new Swedes and growing inequalities in wealth. In Norway, the underlying race tensions became acutely topical in the aftermath of the 2011 massacre, where right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed 77 people. Denmark has one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in Europe, laws that are continuously being tightened (Boserup); and whenever visiting Denmark I have been surprised to see how much space and time discussions about immigration and integration take up in the news and current affairs.
If we contrast the previous image with the image above, taken within a similar timeframe on the same Danish highway, we can see the reality of Danish immigration policies. Here we are exposed to a different story. The scene and the location is the same, but the power dynamics have shifted from benign, peaceful, and playful to aggressive, authoritarian, and conflict ridden. A desperate father carries his daughter, determined to march on towards their destination of Sweden. The policeman is pulling his arm, attempting to detain the refugees so that they cannot go further, the goal being to deport the Syrians back to their previous place of detention, just over the border in Germany(Harticollis). While the previous image reflects the humanity of the refugee crisis, this image reflects the politics, policies, and to a large extent public opinion in Denmark, which is not refugee-friendly. This image, however, was not widely distributed, partly because it feeds into the same depressing narrative of an unsolvable refugee crisis seen so often elsewhere, and partly because it does not fit into the narrative of the infallible North. It could not be tweeted with the hashtag #Humanity, nor shared on Facebook with a smiley face and liked with an emoji heart.
Another image from Denmark, in the form of a politically funded billboard, shows that there are deep-seated tendencies within Danish society that want to promote and retain a Denmark which adheres to its traditional values and ethnic whiteness. The image was displayed all over the country, at train stations, bus stops, and other public spaces when I visited in 2016. It was issued by Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party); a party which is anti-immigration and which was until recently the country’s second largest party. The title says “Our Denmark”, while the byline cleverly plays with the double meaning of passe på: it can mean “there is so much we need to take care of”, but also “there is so much we need to beware of.” In other words, the white working-class family needs to take care of their Denmark, and beware of anyone who does not fit into this norm. Though hugely contested and criticised (Cremer; see a counter-reaction designed by opponents below), the fact that thinly veiled anti-immigration propaganda can be so readily distributed speaks of an underbelly in Danish society that is not made of the dark murder mysteries in The Killing, but rather of a quietly brewing distain for the foreigner that reigns within stylishly designed living rooms.
Myths are stories cultures tell and retell until they form a belief system that becomes a natural part of our collective narrative. For Barthes, these stories were intrinsically connected to our understanding of language and our ability to read images, films, artifacts, and popular culture more generally. To later cultural theorists, the notion of discursive formations expands this understanding, to see myth within a broader network of socio-political discourses placed within a certain place and time in history. When connected, small narratives (images, advertising, film, music, news stories, social media sharing, scientific evidence, etc.) come together to form a common narrative (the myth) about how things are and should be in relation to a particular topic.
The culminating popularity of numerous Nordic themes (Nordic television/film, interior design, fashion, cuisine, architecture, lifestyle, sustainability, welfare system, school system, gender equality, etc.) has created a grand narrative of the Nordic countries as a type of utopia: one that shows the rest of the world that an egalitarian society of togetherness and progressive innovation is possible. This mythologisation serves to quell anxieties about the flux and uncertainty of contemporary times, and may also serve to legitimise a yearning for a simple, benign, and progressive whiteness, where we imagine Nordic families sitting peacefully at their beechwood dining tables, candles lit, playing board games. This is a projected yearning which is otherwise largely disallowed in today’s multicultural societies.
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