No longer just the Blade Runner: since the death of Reeva Steenkamp, Oscar Pistorius’s story has become “a classic tragic hero’s fall”. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We are drowning in stories that privilege the perspectives of white males

Women’s bodies – naked, airbrushed and objectified – are everywhere but our names, passions and histories remain invisible. Too often, women are reduced to a footnote in the tragic story of someone male who still gets to take centre stage.

Prior to the death of Reeva Steenkamp, the Oscar Pistorius story veered towards the schmaltzy. An inspirational, against-the-odds cockle warmer, it never quite seemed to suit the man himself. It’s only now, following the night of 14 February 2013, that it’s achieved some gravitas. Finally we have, to use the words of biographer John Carlin, “a classic tragic hero’s fall”:

. . . there's a universality about this story. It fits into a recognisable narrative pattern going back to Homer.

Fellow Pistorius biographer Barry Bateman takes a similar view:

This is a classic tragic tale, the man who overcame disability to compete in the Olympics, the beautiful girl . . . He was a national hero and lost it all on 14 February.

No longer just Blade Runner, he’s now Othello, or Woyzeck, or Raskolnikov. Killing women: the ultimate genre boost.

While I don’t expect the current slew of Pistorius biographies to turn up on GCSE reading lists in the near future, the use of terms such as “classic” and “tragic” – applied to Pistorius, not Steenkamp – horrifies me. It illustrates, if nothing else, the extent to which much of the literature we revere centres male subjectivity. Women die, yes, but this matters only in relation to how their death makes their killer feel. Women are expendable, not really there at all; it’s the man who’s left behind, making his excuses, expressing his remorse, despairing of his future, who gets all the attention. It is, we tell ourselves, intriguing; if slaughtered women didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them (and even though they do exist, in shocking numbers, we carry on inventing anyhow; you can never have too many plot devices).

It is for reasons like this that campaigns such as For Books’ Sake’s attempt to achieve greater diversity in GCSE English Literature specifications seem to me vitally important. We are drowning in stories that privilege the perspectives of white males; in spite of ourselves, we buy into the view that the world as they see it is all that there is (if Pistorius is “the only person who can say what his state of mind was,” does anything else matter?). I know there are arguments against demands for more female viewpoints: some of the most prolific crime writers are women; women write about women dying; not every female writer is a feminist by default. I know all this yet I still think it matters that women write, and that young people get to read women writing, whatever the subject matter. It matters because women have stories, too, and all too often ours get cut short. When narration is seen and experienced as male, so, too, is real life.  

Whenever women ask for greater representation in politics or the arts, we are of course reminded that not all women are the same. We don’t have some monolithic shared experience so what could we have to offer that isn’t available already? If there’s no single definition of womanhood, then why should we care if most of time it is men who speak? But this is to miss the point. What matters is not that our stories are the same; it is that these stories are ours.

If we have a shared experience as women, it is that of not being seen as, and instead being defined by, men. And yet we are neither mirrors, nor props, nor decoration. We are not mere plot devices in the lives of self-styled tragic heroes; it is just our lot to be positioned that way. When members of the ANC Women’s League stood outside in the courts in protest at the Pistorius verdict, they knew that Reeva Steenkamp’s life – the life of a privileged white woman – had been nothing like their own. They still spoke for her, in sisterhood and solidarity. Steenkamp’s life was not emblematic of other women’s lives but her death, and the shoddy, shameful responses to it ever since, symbolise the low esteem in which all women’s lives are held simply by virtue of them not being the lives of men.

Feminists who focus on (among other things) the representation of women in public life tend to be mocked and derided. Why should they care about bank notes or GCSE specs or all-women shortlists, when there are more pressing matters to deal with? Yet representation is never a side issue; it is a fundamental challenge to the pervasive denial of our subjectivity. Women’s bodies – naked, airbrushed and objectified – are everywhere but our names, passions and histories remain invisible. We cannot expect men to believe that we are people, too, when every newspaper, magazine, political debate, court room, film, music video and novel suggests otherwise. Why wouldn’t a man feel that to lust after a woman, to rape her, even to kill her, is his tragedy alone, given that a woman’s perspective on anything at all is such a rarity?

Men do not notice that they own life’s narratives; most of the time, women don’t, either. It is what passes for normality. Nonetheless, this is the normality which goes on to justify a million “isolated incidents”, each one reducing a woman to a footnote in the tragic downfall of someone male who still gets to take centre stage. The dead women pile up, wasted flesh, useful only to those who wish to imbue the hate-filled souls of killers with complexity and meaning. If you find it hard to see the link between this and the objectification of women in society at large, just pick up any newspaper. Try rewriting each story, one by one, as though the perspectives of women mattered just as much as the perspectives of men. Imagine a world in which women were always represented in this way: not as objects, but as subjects. Imagine the mirror talking back.

We need women writers on GCSE specifications not because of what women write, but because of what women are: people, with as much right to occupy space as anyone else. It is an absurdity that the equal representation of women in public life – in arts, literature, politics, media – is still seen as both unnecessary and impossible to achieve. It is neither.

If our concept of “universality” only extends to what men experience, then it is not universal at all. I am sick of “classic tragic tales” in which a woman’s main role is to lie still, either being fucked or being dead. The subjectivity of women is not some outlandish feminist hypothesis; we, too, must speak. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: NRK
Show Hide image

Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496