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Scandinavian man vs. Real man

By Jacob Östberg

Photography Tobias Regell

Semiotics is the study of creating meaning. Basic semiotic theory tells us that meaning is difference. As a consequence, for something to mean something, it must be distinguishable from some- thing else. In that sense the category ’men’ is only meaningful in relation to other categories such as ’women’, ’boys’, and ’elders’ (just like the category ’Scandinavian’ is only meaningful in relation to other categories such as ’Central European’, ’Latin American’, or ’Southeast Asian’).

For a long time a real man was largely characterised by what he did not do. A real man did not traditionally engage in domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after small children. Therefore it was easier to categorise a real man negatively, by defining what he did not do, than positively by what he did, simply because there was (and is) such a great variance of what a real man can do: hunt, prune roses, engage in fist fights, write poetry, fix cars, paint portraits, paint houses… well, the list is endless, which is the entire point. There has been no consensus regarding what a man can do — rather, a real man can do anything — but there has been relative consensus regarding what a man cannot do.

Enter Scandinavian Man, this mythical creature that is currently roaming the world — more literally on the streets of Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, and Stockholm, and more figuratively in other parts of the world. This creature is a source of both awe and disgust.

Awe, because he can, apparently, have it all by being a real man whilst also enjoying the full spectrum of being a human being by also engaging in domestic work. Disgust, because he defies the very essence of what a real man can do, i.e. anything but that. Perhaps the saying that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell best captures the global reaction to this creature. The reason that some react so strongly to the Scandinavian Man is that this progressive, gender neutral, handsome and well-groomed gentleman is, to many, a greater threat to the patriarchy than women’s rights movements. For if there is no longer a ’natural order’, whereby women stay at home taking care of the domestic sphere, and men enter the public sphere to bring home the bacon, the justification for the subordination of women becomes questionable. History has unfortunately shown that regressive forces have been quite good at keeping those women who demand equal rights at bay. If the Scandinavian Man becomes a model for global contemporary manhood, it remains to been seen whether these regressive forces can keep those men who demand equal rights at bay.

’Wait a second’, the careful reader might now think, ’are you really suggesting that men being involved with children is something entirely new, something radical even?’ It is easy to object to this, not least by showing the abundance of pop cultural images floating around of men, real manly men, publicly displaying their love for and closeness to their children. Just think of images of Brad Pitt carrying a handful of his kids through the airport security, David Beckham taking his kids to yet another fashion show, or Owen Wilson playing with his kids on the beaches of Malibu. One could even argue that it has become rather fashionable for men to be seen with their kids as of late. And this is exactly the issue at hand, that kids have become yet another prop, with which men can construct their identity. I do not, of course, have any insights about the family lives of Messrs. Pitt, Beckham, and Wilson, so they might be exceptions to the rule, but research has shown that engaging with children on the terms of the father has been a trend for decades; a man therefore adds yet another string to his omnipotent skillset.

To engage with children on the terms of the children, however, is an entirely different issue typically referred to as involved fatherhood.

In a recent research project I was involved in, we charted global reactions to Johan Bävman’s photo exhibition, Swedish Dads. This exhibition shows images of stay-at-home fathers in their natural settings, i.e. taking care of their kids in a very hands-on manner. The exhibition has toured Swedish embassies around the world and has garnered media attention. We could see that there were two types of reactions; those celebrating the Swedish dads and the political system that enabled them to take on board this progressive fatherhood role, and those condemning the Swedish dads for betraying true manhood. There were even those suggesting that this horrible social experiment would be the end of the Swedish population, as no sexual attraction could possibly occur when men behaved like Mister Mom and the women, supposedly, like men, figuratively wearing the pants in the family. Without sexual attraction, no sex, and without sex, no kids, and without kids, no future for the Swedish population.

Well, let’s see how that goes.

The type of involved fatherhood that we see in the Scandinavian countries would not have been possible without decades of public policy and political initiatives working to support individual autonomy and downplay dependency on family and other archaic institutions. The ideological roots of this can be found in what historian Lars Trägårdh has called ’the Swedish theory of love’.

In most countries, mutual dependency is seen as intrinsic to love and intimacy. Mutual dependency binds relationships, especially familial ones, together. In Sweden, as well as in the other Scandinavian countries, the premise is the reverse. ’The Swedish theory of love’ instead suggests that all forms of dependency corrupt true love. Only mutual autonomy can guarantee authenticity and honesty in human relationships. Hence the role of the Scandinavian states to liberate both men and women from their traditional roles as breadwinners and homemakers and instead let both have the best (oh, well…) of both worlds.

It is my assessment that the surprising global openness to the rather radical utopian social experiment we are conducting in Scandinavia is largely due to the fact that, while many Scandinavian men might indeed engage in activities that are antithetical to archaic masculinity, they do so in a way that is so aesthetically pleasing that it is hard to resist. Therefore, the mix of cutting-edge style, spiced up with just enough progressive masculinity that we find in the pages of this magazine, is just the kind of Trojan horse that can introduce these ideas to even more men around the globe.

July 8, 2018

Jacob Östberg is a Professor at Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University.