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Walking while female: how Flâneuse encourages its reader to take to the streets

Lauren Elkin's study of women walkers shows how putting one foot in front of the other can be a radical act.

“Place names were the most powerful ­magic I knew,” Martha Gellhorn wrote in her memoir Travels with Myself and Another. The pioneering photographer and traveller is one of the abiding spirits of Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, an intense meditation on what it means to be a woman and walk out in the world. Gellhorn – intrepid observer, wife of Ernest Hemingway, friend of Robert Capa – is an icon of independence. Elkin is a New Yorker who now lives in Paris, though she has also spent time in Tokyo, Venice and London: but in the 21st century this is not all that unusual. Elkin is under no illusions that her peripatetic life, spent studying in Europe or following a boyfriend to Japan, confers any sheen of glamour upon her. But Flâneuse isn’t after glamour: it’s a book that encourages its readers to lace up their shoes and go for a walk.

Flâneuse,” you might well ask – “what’s that?” The male form, flâneur, means “an idler, a dawdler, usually found in cities”. As for its feminine form, Elkin admits that official recognition is hard to come by. “The Dictionnaire vivant de la langue française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.” No matter. The word began to be heard towards the middle of the 19th century; usage peaked during the Roaring (or perhaps they might be called the Walking) Twenties. Yet, for Elkin, it was her move to Paris, one of the greatest cities to experience on foot, that marked her self-identification as a flâneuse. “Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.”

The book blends memoir, social history and cultural criticism in an intriguing mix. Deborah Levy has called Elkin “the Susan Sontag of her generation”. Luc Sante and Rebecca Solnit spring to mind as influences, too; both appear in the text, and in a sense the book is an explicit answer to the question Solnit raises in her terrific book Wanderlust: a History of Walking (2000). Dickens strides through the city, Wordsworth through the Lakes, but Solnit reminds us that we must ask “why women were not out walking too”.

On the surface, the answer is simple. See the word “streetwalker” and only one thing comes to mind. So, to move as an independent woman through a city makes a statement, especially if that movement has no goal. What’s the difference between strolling and loitering? A fine one, indeed. Elkin lets the reader become a companion to many women who have thought seriously about the relationship between a woman and the path she chooses to tread: not just Gellhorn, but George Sand, Sophie Calle, Agnès Varda and Virginia Woolf.

Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting”, published in 1927, is a touchstone for Elkin, presenting the pavement as another way to define the self. “As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room,” Woolf wrote. For Woolf, Elkin says, writing is “stepping out of bounds”; walking the streets of London offers another way of gaining access to that freedom.

Freedom is what Elkin seeks as she stalks the byways of one great city after another. New York is where she begins, yet she is careful to note that she grew up not in that city but in the suburbs, on Long Island, where New York was viewed as a perilous place in the 1980s when the family dared to visit. “‘Don’t make eye contact,’ my mother would warn as we walked in Times Square.” But although New York becomes familiar, it does not become home: Paris is the city she circles repeatedly as she tries out the pavements of Europe and Asia. Tokyo is the most rebarbative, the most resistant to her efforts to understand a place on foot: she feels “marooned” there, she writes. Yet even in her beloved Paris she can find herself at an angle to the city, “displaced, dislocated”, despite the romance of its place names, the intrigue of its alleyways. Such is the fate of the flâneuse. One of this book’s delights is the consolation it offers to those of us who never feel quite at home.

While Elkin’s heart clearly remains that of a wanderer, she is now firmly settled in France. British readers – at least, 48 per cent of them – may find reading about Elkin’s desire for French citizenship a bitter-sweet experience. Her US passport imposes a border, through which she wishes to break; in Paris she meets people from all over the world and has the powerful sense that to be a citizen of France involves being part of something much larger. Yet even in France the European project is under threat, as all around are those who defend “a white, Christian Europe, even if this is largely their own fiction”.

The flâneuse strolls for her own purpose; the transgressive nature of the act recedes into history. Those who set out to flee oppression come with a purpose that threatens those who would reinforce the borders between us: but putting one foot in front of the other can be the beginning of building a new world.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

Photo: NRK
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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?”
“No!”
“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.

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