The development of female emancipation in swedish cinema
Introduction: the depiction of the woman in Stiller’s Erotikon
The purpose of this essay is to outline the different phases which led Sweden to a complete acceptance of femininity and, more in general, diversity or what the society considers different. Female emancipation is an object discussed in several countries, and, more or less, every european country has developed a similar process of giving women equal rights.
In Sweden, this topic could be pointed out by following the cinema history, starting from the first attempt by women to acquire a complete personal space in Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (AB Svenska Filmindustri, 1920), passing through a more feminist emancipation by men in Mai Zetterling’s The girls (Flickorna, Sandrews, 1968), and ending in the acceptance of every demonstation of love in Lukas Moodysson’s Show me love (Fucking Åmål, Memfis, 1998). Focusing especially on the last two film, I’m going to highlight a process that requires almost a century and mirrors the changes of swedish society (or, better to say, the welfare state).
Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon came at a time in which the external appearance of the woman became a focal point which allows them to have a complete personal space never attacked by men, finally. In fact, the shopping sphere makes women both childish and coquettish, but now materialism seems to lead to the conquest of sensuality. As Louise Wallenberg points out, “the desire to be and to have can, and will only, be satisfied by achieving and becoming […]” and only by having material acquisition a woman could achieve the courage to be emancipated.
For the main role of this film, played by Tora Teje, the desire not to be enslaved by men culminates to infidelity. Stiller hasn’t got a completely positive view of marriage, especially because men require women to be no more than housewives, respecting the classical idea of the pater familias. Thus, infidelity is not related to the negative meaning of adultery but to freedom, that is, in spite of everything, momentary since every new attachment foretells a new contractual relationship.
However, just two years earlier, women gained the first victory of their history: the female suffrage.
Feminism or not
After this brief introduction, let’s skip four decades to dock at a time of drastic innovations in swedish cinema.
The sixties for Sweden meant one of the most prosperous decades for film history intended as policy and quality of directors. These were the years of Roy Andersson, Vilgot Sjöman, Bo Widerberg, Stefan Jarl, all favorited by the foundation of the new Svenska film institutet. SFI now was claimed to respond to the decrease of cinema attendance, due to the introduction of television in Sweden, through more financial support fated for the production of film and, above all, quality film. What does quality mean? When is a film considered quality? When is a director worthy to be called “artist.” This concept comes from the French cinema which was, at that time, enhancing the enormous literary heritage transformed into a film version. According to Mariah Larsson, being an artist signified “made a personal imprint on their film of [his] vision of the world, a vision which was supposed to be coherent, universal and consistent from film to film.”
Paraphrasing, one is an artist when he/she has the courage to say what he/she think. But this is not enough; the head of SFI Harry Schein pointed out the requirements that a film must have in order to get a quality award:
Crucial for the evaluation of quality can thus be several factors, such as renewal of the film’s modes of expressions and style, the relevance of the film’s message, the intensity of freshness of its conception of reality or social criticism, degree of psychological insight and spiritual level, playful skilfulness in screenwriting, directing and acting as well as other artistic components of film.
Thenceforth, a point of view is not forced to be the same of the current society although that welfare state seemed to be prosperous. The period between 1967 and 1973 is also called rekordåren and it is referred to those who use cinema as a tool to examine the contradictions of society which in that case are class system, sexual freedom or feminism. Mai Zetterling could be inserted in this stream of protest, inasmuch she was one of those interested in the world but very critical against her home country.
In fact, Mai Zetterling worked for the BBC in many documentaries, approaching to Sweden only in The prosperty race (1962). The motif of the work is closer to the imprint used in The Girls (1968) and to the meaning of horizontal film coined by Bo Widerberg, in order to criticize Ingmar Bergman, which means to analyze relationships among people and not between man and god. This is one of the main topics of Zetterling masterpiece’s The girls, but I’m going to consider the feminist aspect of the film, that for which Zetterling was marginalized, and decided not to produce any other film for almost eighteen years. In her autobiography, she says:
When the reviews of my first full-length feature movie came out, I was horrified to read that ‘Mai Zetterling directs like a man.’ What did that mean? […] It took years to realize the change I had made was positive and, in the end, the only way.
The story is mainly told from the point of view of the three main female protagonist (Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom) or, better to say, actresses. They have a role in Lystistrata and the Shakespearian play within a play, as was for the Hamlet’s Mouse Trap, offer them a starting point to claim the importance of being women in a male-dominated society. However, the emancipation from their husbands is made impossible for Marianne and Gunilla since they have children who need a stable relationship in order to grow up safely. In Stiller’s Erotikon is easier for the main character to get rid of her husband as she hasn’t got any children, and consequently more freedom to act as she wants. Therefore, Liz is the real leader of the revolt, since she has no more than a contractual relationship due to the marriage with her husband, and she is the only one who accompanies to her mental subjectivity the desire for change in real life. The contraindication of such a behaviour are made visible in the bus scene in which Marianne and Gunilla return gradually to their daily lives, leading her to remain completely alone and to brood on her alienation.
Without having the right to behave as they wish, is the shopping sphere a safe haven as in Erotikon? Unfortunately it is not. Men have invaded that sphere as well and act as the rational counterpart of their wives. In the scene ambiented in the first northern shopping centre located in Luleå and built in 1955, another mental fantasy disturbs Marianne: that of her husband at the case of a shop committed to remind her, implicitly, that she can not have and buy everything she wishes. Men still play the role of the pater familias in a patriarchal society and their management is the reason of women’s hatred. In the wood scene, Marianne progressive closeness to her husband increases as the noise of war; it seems almost as an attempt to claim peace between genders. In the screening scene, men’s leadership and rationality is connected to the images of the worst dictators of human history, from Hitler to Stalin.
Discussions on Zetterling’s being feminist are still debated, but is she feminist for real? Has she just depicted one of the multiple faces of the swedish welfare state? The gender battle is no more than the alienation clearly symbolized in the Kiruna’s Ortdrivaren, in which Liz tries to get in touch with a couple of friends without success. Thenceforth, alienation means the inability to look for “an earnest communication,” that which could make peace between men and women but also lead people to familiarize each other, omitting the comforts given by the state as, for instance, a good roof over your head and Ralph Erskine’s buildings for a deeper modernization of Sweden.
Paradoxically, Stiller’s women seem to have more possibility to escape from a boring and patriarchal relationship than Zetterling’s ones. They haven’t got any problems in terms of economy and could possibly buy anything they wish. In fact, nearing the end of The girls, scenes of mental subjectivity are more frequent and the real merges with the non-real. Liz is on the way to renounce to her battle, returning to be the housewife badly depicted in Erotikon, who is forced to make her husband’s carreer as easy as possible.
Looking at her carreer, Mai Zetterling has not been considered as “normal” director but just a female director, among a great number of male ones, very talented in depicting other women. We can not know if this was the real reason whereby Mai Zetterling never received a quality award, which meant huge economic resources for the making of a film. Thenceforth, Zetterling’s contribution was fundamental for debates on the role of women in society; furthermore, this was the springboard for an angrier revolution of that system. In fact, more radical changes were going to succeed and just few years later women’s right and sensuality were on the way to be discussed from a sexual point of view.
The gain of sexuality
In 1971 the clause in the penal code that punished obscene material in a film was removed due to debates on female sexuality, censorship and freedom of expression.In 1973 the american pornographic film Deep Throat (Joseph W.Sarno) was screened in Sweden just one year after the first hardcore swedish film Bäddat för Lusta (Rune Ljungberg, 1972).  This was the start of a real pornographic industry that fed the myth of the Swedish sexual freedom and produced the first iconic stars as Christina Lindberg, a pin-up girl who took part in one of the most widespread and discussed hardcore film in the country: Anita: swedish nympeth (Anita – ur en tonårsflickas dagbok, Torgny Wickman, 1973).
The feminist organization Grupp 8 took the opportunity to define the female sexuality through particular discussions on which part of the body, vagina or clitoris, gives to women more pleasure. However, the discussion was more on the base of a revendication instead of a metter of fact. According to Maria Larsson, “those women who had clitoral orgasms were [considered] sexually aggressive, neurotic, discontent with their position as women and most likely lesbians” and those women who had vaginal orgasms were “[…] passive, receiving, submissive and maternal”.
But, indeed the existence of a penis still chains the women to the men in order to reach sexual pleasure; the real satisfaction is in defining their sexuality on their own and not through the voice of men. What is the next step?
The final coming-out
In the nineties, Memfis’ inception in Swedish cinema constitues a process of great importance for the development of film industry, not only for the quality of productions but also for the policy used in that sector. For instance, cinema became actually transational, thanks to the foundation of Trust Film Sales by the union of Memfis industry and Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa: a cooperation between nordic countries with the objective to export film internationally. Furthermore, the relationship between Memfis and its directors stimulated a complete confidence in which the last one could finally express himself freely. In fact, one of the starting point was the production of original screen-play not adapted or transcripted by book or whichever type of text. Memfis film industry was completely aimed to the point of view of directors, a concept very close to the meaning of artist and art on which we have discussed before.
In this atmosphere, one of the current most famous director of Sweden grew up artistically, giving to the world his fundamental contribution: Lukas Moodysson. He already had an artistic background as a poet, but in 1996 he graduated from the Dramatiska Institutet’s film director, shooting his first short film for Memfis Bara Prata Lite in 1997. Right away, the tendence of Moodysoon to give attention to outsider and people forgotten by society is immediately noticed, in a way that seems to trace Stafan Jarl and Jan Lindqvist’s They call us misfits (Dom kallar oss mods, 1968). Bara prata lite tells the story of a men recently discharged by Volvo and consequently left completely alone; Lilya 4 Ever (Lilja 4 Ever, 2002) is based on a true story which depicts a girl abandoned by her mother and forced to leave Russia incurring in rape, abuse and, at the end, suicide. These are just two exaples of Moodysson’s ability to leave a moral message. But, in the middle of this two film, Show me love was released in 1998. This film mirrored the ultimate changes in fact of homosexual acceptance but gave the real turning point of a deeper normativization of lesbianism and every form of love.
Before analyzing the film, we need to focus our attention on the gradual process of giving rights to homosexuals until its definite acceptance. Tiina Rosenberg analyzed the meaning of heteronormativy and delined two guiding principles:
1) Exclusion of deviation from the norm by a division into the categories us-them;
2) Assimilation by incorporating them in the norm.
The first is due to the traditional western dichotomy of us and them which led consequently to inequality. The only possibility to reduce or cancel inequality is to assimilate them into the category of “us”; in other words forcing them to be “normal.”
At any rate, Sweden is now at the forefront of homosexuals rights. In 21 October 1950 the Swedish federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights was founded just six years before the dicriminalization of homosexuality. Other radical steps forward can be summarize:
- In 1979 the homosexuality was no more considered as a disease;
- In 1987 law prohibited discrimination against homosexuals;
- In 1995 same sex couple could transcript their relation into a register partnership.
In 1998 was the moment of Europride which infused courage for coming-outs due in part to those of famous people and idols. That year Show me love was received by the audience as the last chapter of this progression.
But, why is this film important for female? Because a film base on a love story between two girls is for the first time screened after a long tradition of gay film as In & Out (Ute eller inte, Frank Oz, 1997) or Sebastian (När alla vet, Svend Wam, 1995), and finally offer to women a possible way to escape from male corrupted sexuality and leadership.
Nevertheless, the two protagonist of the film are so different from one another. The first, Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) has recently moved to Åmål, a small city in the western Sweden, and she likes reading, listening to classical music while the second, Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), reads teen magazines and get drunk at every party. Agnes fell in love with Elin since the first time she saw her and Elin, at the beginning, starts to think that being lesbian as a “means of protest” or a new way to be “different.”
Elin is a new character of a new era, who consider Åmål as desolate as The girl’s Kiruna but, on the other hand, experiments every possible way to get in touch with others. She is different and pretends to be more different than she really is as in the hitchhiking scene in which Elin and Agnes end up kissing after having ask for a lift to Stockholm. One of the reason because Elin and Agnes could leave Åmål for the capital of Sweden is giving implicitly by the crudeness of teenagers about Agnes’ “ambigous” sexuality. It is a product of heteronormativity to stigmatize diversity and diversification; in fact, the two most emarginate girls of the film are Agnes and her paraplegic friend. This is perceived by Elin as the coolest way of being.
But she is not as childish as she appears in the film; some scenes later she broke up with her boyfriend because he was not able to defend her in a discussion about what women and men can do good. Marcus, Elin’s sister boyfriend, is still stationary on the old conviction of Stiller’s Erotikon, that of women as coquettish and experts only in terms of style and sexuality. Curiously, this scene represents the point of no return, that point to which Liz, Marianne and Gunilla never came: abandon the male sphere renouncing to bind to another man. Why did not Elin make this choice before? Becuase she was afraid of being stigmatized and, in addition, because she wanted herself to experiment a real male-girl relation for the last time.
The results are visible straight away by the famous final coming-out in which Elin goes out of the bathroom and cries to the world, “let us pass, we’re going to have sex.” But, instead, they prefer to drink a glass of chocolate milk and renounce at sex as intended by male because corrupted, lowest and grubby.
Needless to say that Lukas Moodysson became a gender hero and inspired many people to come out definitively but this film came out at the right moment becoming the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was not possible for The Girls, both for the technique used in the film as the mental subjectivity which gives, however, several cues, and the epoch not yet ready for change.
Are we sure that Sweden was ready to welcome Show me love? Just before the premier of Moodysson’s film, in fact, the photographer Elisabeth Ohlson gave her contribution to this debate with her photographical work Ecce Homo (1998) which depict a men affected by HIV as the Pietas of Michelangelo and The Last Dinner of Leonardo Da Vinci in a transexual view. These photos sparked a riot in Sweden but, in the same period, Show me love was appreciated by almost everyone, perhaps because the mild language of the film impressed people in a positive way.
In spite of everything, women around the world are continuing to fight for their own rights and the situation is not completely solved. In Sweden now women constitute a strong presence in the policy and decisions of and for the country, but Sweden is still the european country with the highest percentage of female rape. The war is not finished yet.
Women are on the whole more sensual than sexual, men are more sexual than sensual.
Anita: swedish nympeth (Anita – ur en tonårsflickas dagbok, Torgny Wickman, 1973)
Bara Prata Lite (Lukas Moodysson, 1997)
Bäddat för Lusta (Rune Ljungberg, 1972)
Deep Throat (Joseph W.Sarno, 1973)
Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller, 1920)
Girls, The (Flickorna, Mai Zetterling, 1968)
In & Out (Ute eller inte, Frank Oz, 1997)
Lilya 4 Ever (Lilja 4 Ever, Lukas Moodysson, 2002)
Prosperity Race, The (Mai Zetterling, 1962)
Sebastian (När alla vet, Svend Wam, 1995)
Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål, 1998)
 Louise Wallenberg, “Stilleristic women: gender as Masque and Ambivalence in the Work of Mauritz Stiller,” in Aura (2000):37.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 37.
 Anders Marklund, “The new generation of 1960s,” in Swedish film: an introduction and reader, ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 239.
 Mariah Larsson, “Art cinema, Auteurs and the Art Cinema ‘Institution’,” in Swedish film: an introduction and reader, ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 217.
 Marklund, 241.
 Ibid., 241.
 Ibid., 240.
 Mai Zetterling, All those tomorrows, ed. John Cape ltd (First Grove Press Edition, 1985), unknown page.
 Mariah Larsson, “Modernity, Masculinity and the Swedish Welfare State,” in Swedish film: an introduction and reader, ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 263.
 Ibid., 266-267.
 Ibid., 268.
 Ibid., 266.
 Mariah Larsson, “Contested Pleasures,” in Swedish film: an introduction and reader, ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 205.
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 207.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 210.
 Anna Westerståhl Stenport, “Local and global: Luka Moodysson and Memfis,” in Swedish film: an introduction and reader, e ed. Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 331.
 Ibid., 328.
 Ibid., 330.
 Tina Rosenberg, “Out of the national closet: Show Me Love,” in Ellen Mortensen (ed.) Sex, Breath, and Force: Sexual Difference in a Post-Feminist Era (New York: Lexington Books, 2006), 112-113.
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 117-118.
 Ibid., 115-116.
 Gabriella Tesoro, “Stupro, una violenza diffusa in tutto il mondo. Ecco i paesi con i numeri peggiori,” International business time, January 30, 2014, http://it.ibtimes.com/articles/61998/20140130/stupro-europa-svezia-leshoto-sudafrica-nuova-zelanda-belgio-caraibi-onu-stupro-violenza-sessuale-don.htm
 Mai Zetterling interviewed by Times (1989)http://www.poemhunter.com/mai-zetterling/quotations/