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16 March 2017

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. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

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.

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