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Skam: how one Norwegian teen drama got the TV depiction of sexual assault right

“I can’t report something I know nothing about,” says a character with a sketchy memory. It's a more thoughtful depiction than anything in, say, Game of Thrones

You may not be aware of it, but it’s the best show on TV. Skam, which means shame, is a Norwegian teen drama in the vein of shows like Skins – but with an authenticity that gives it the edge over any of its predecessors. Centering around a group of teenagers at the prestigious Hartvig Nissen School in Oslo, the first season followed Eva’s guilt over a lost friendship, while the third and most recent season follows Isak, as he confronts his sexuality.

The second season follows Noora – her own personal shame seems to be her secret relationship with William, a boy at school that one of her closest friends has pined over for months. Until one scene, halfway through the series.

The context for the scene is that Noora has been fighting with her boyfriend William. She wants to make up, but he hasn’t been replying to her texts, then her phone dies. She goes to speak to him at his house, but he’s not there – instead his older brother, Nico, who is having a party, opens the door. He invites Noora in to charge her phone, then tells her that William is ignoring her because he’s off sleeping with other girls. Noora is heartbroken. She takes a glass of wine.

This is what we see next.

It’s a far cry from the shocking, gratuitous rape scenes in shows like Game of Thrones and Poldark. Nico’s hand on Noora’s leg is all we need to see to sense how predatory he is. There are no egregious scenes of violence, but we still feel deeply uncomfortable, especially when the next episode begins with Noora waking up the next day: confused, and naked, with Nico at her side.

We slowly see how the incident affects Noora in the following days. She sits at home in her bedroom for days at a time, isolating herself from her boyfriend and her friends. She snaps at her flatmates. She withdraws academically, failing to work on a journalistic opportunity she’d usually be thrilled about. She stops replying to messages on her friends’ group chat, and tries to wriggle out of their usual celebrations.

All the while, she tries to ascertain what actually happened that night, messaging Nico. At first, he reassures her that nothing happened, but then sends her a naked photo of her. “No way!” he writes. “Fucked up! Just found this picture on my phone, and then remembered EVERYTHING! You were so horny.” She asks him to meet with her, then changes her mind. Noora remains in the dark about what happened to her.

“I think it was just the uncertainty that made me completely crazy,” another Skam character, Vilde, says to Noora in an earlier episode about her own problems. For Noora, too, the fogginess over her own experience triggers a series of anxieties that cloud her brain. Was she raped? Was it just a party? Did she throw herself at her own boyfriend’s brother? Would that still be rape? Was she drugged? Or just drunk? Would that matter? Did she want it?

When she finally tells her friends about the incident, she tells them, “I think I was raped by William’s brother. I don’t know. It’s possible that I had sex with him willingly, but I don’t remember anything.” They urge her to report it to the police. “I can’t report something I know nothing about,” she says. “I don’t even know if I was raped.”

Noora’s experience has levels of complexity because, like many women, she is assaulted by someone she knows. Part of her horror stems from her fear that she might, under influence, voluntarily sleep with her own boyfriend’s brother – when a furious William demands, “Tell me you didn’t sleep with my brother,” she can only weakly whisper, “I don’t know.”

This kind of “ambiguous” assault is extremely common, and can bring with it a keener sense of guilt and shame. If I can’t remember what happened, how do I know I didn’t want it? If he thinks what we did was normal and fun, how can I think it was invasive and uncomfortable? Did I want it to happen?

It’s something that’s slowly starting to be investigated on television. As Lena Dunham said of the recent Girls episode “American Bitch”, “A lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.

“I have way less shame about my actual sexual assault than I do about some ambiguous encounters I had with some people in which I wasn’t able to properly express myself or create distance. […] When you allow boundaries to be blurred without even knowing that it’s happening, it’s a different kind of pain and shame that eats away at you for a long time.”

Noora’s story might seem a bit disappointing for some viewers when it reaches its end. After days and days of anxiety and confusion, Noora finally finds the courage to speak to another girl who was at the party. She insists that Nico and Noora never slept together, only slept soundly in the same bed as her. Noora is elated, and, giddy with relief, texts William to insist that she can promise him she never slept with his brother.

I felt an odd mix of genuine relief for a character I’ve come to love like a friend, and a strange sense of disappointment. So many women go through what Noora went through in Skam. Most of them don’t get offered the same escape route. Instead, they have to live with the shame and confusion of an “ambiguous” assault.

17-year-old Noora gets delicious revenge on her assaulter, too – as he sent her the photo he took, she is able to report him for producing child pornography, and storing it on his mobile phone, and she records him admitting to supplying alcohol to a minor. She makes up with her boyfriend. She returns to her happy, normal life.

But there are still many questions about Noora’s ordeal that we never find out. Was she drugged? “I don’t know,” she says. “I never drink alcohol, because I can’t take it. I either feel really bad or I black out.” And while the witness insists that nothing else happened, she was totally unaware of Nico’s photography – the possibility of other kinds of sexual assault never completely disappears.

And in a landscape where sexual assault is used to spice up women’s plotlines, where violence is used to titillate viewers, and where rape is framed as consensual – Noora’s story reminds us that, for many women, the daily reality of sexual assault isn’t a dramatic, cinematic plot twist. It’s doubt, confusion, guilt and, yes, shame, that lingers in the mind for a very long time.

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

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?”
“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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