Yet another reason I’m glad I don’t live in Sweden.”
Thus wrote Denmark’s foreign minister Kristian Jensen on Twitter last August. He was weighing in on a Swedish radio debate about whether beige-coloured band-aids are implicitly racist, an allegation the minister found ridiculous.
Danes often joke Swedes are hypersensitive about inequality to the point of absurdity. Centuries of military aggression between Sweden and Denmark has today whittled down into a sibling rivalry, punctuated by light-hearted jibes. After all, the two countries find common ground in strong social policies, egalitarian values and mutually intelligible languages.
But simmering beneath the banter is a major cultural divide over gender politics and its influence on the language we use. In 2011, the Swedish preschool ‘Egalia’ caught international attention by abandoning the gender specific pronouns ‘him’ and ‘her’. Instead, all the children were referred to as ‘hen’.
Hen is quickly becoming a normalised term in the Swedish language and was included in the Swedish dictionary last year. The Anglosphere is following suit, with the use of the genderless pronoun ‘they’ taking off across US universities and major English-language media. In contrast, Danish doesn’t have different terms for ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ like many other languages, relying on the all-encompassing ‘køn’ to discuss both biological sex and the social assumptions attached to it.
Unsurprisingly, the controversial school invited mockery from its snickering neighbours across the Øresund. Only 27 percent of Danes identify as feminists versus 52 percent of Swedes, according to a recent poll by DR program Debatten.
A 2014 EU study revealed that Denmark had the highest reported rate of violence against women among member states, indicating that Danish derision might have less to do with its relationship with Sweden and more about its own uneasy relationship with feminism.
Amalie Lhyne, a freelance writer and blogger at Danish daily Berlingske, counts herself among the Danes who believe that Swedish political correctness is spinning out of control. She says it’s pushing the country towards censorship.
“When the police fail to mention serious crimes because the offenders are immigrants, when there are demands to take down old paintings and statues, because they offend people, and replace them with modern multicultural art, and when artists are sent to jail because their work offends people, then political correctness has turned into a moral tyranny. And that is a threat to democracy, diversity and free speech.”
Lhyne argues that the gender-neutral pronoun is ultimately an empty gesture.
“It’s ridiculous. You cannot and should not remove genders from the public space. Naturally, your gender should not prohibit you from doing whatever you like, but you can have freedom without having to deny your sex. If you truly believe that women and men are worth the same, you don’t have to use the language to cover up the differences.”
Egalia also raised eyebrows within Sweden. Speaking to the BBC, Philip Hwang, professor of psychology and child development specialist at the University of Gothenburg, said the school represented a kind of Swedish naiveté.
“It’s very Swedish in a sense. Swedes have a tendency to think that if they institutionalise something, it will automatically change – it’s the Swedish way. But when it comes to issues embedded in our culture – that takes generations.”
But the very fact that Swedes are willing to experiment with language in this way means they’re better equipped to tackle sexism, say Hanna and Kajsa, the team behind the Swedish feminist website Supersnippan, in a joint statement.
“We have lots of ideas about what it means to be a man or woman based on a stereotypical and normative view of gender and using a gender-neutral pronoun means we don’t reproduce the old ideas. Why should we assume that the person driving slowly in front of us is an old woman, or that the plumber coming Tuesday is a dude?”
They also stress the pronoun’s significance for people who don’t subscribe to a specific gender.
“Also, it is extremely important to have a gender-neutral pronoun because there are people who do not identify as neither male nor female. A gender-neutral pronoun enables us to acknowledge their existence.”
Meanwhile feminist writer and activist Emma Holten, from Denmark, believes there’s a broader issue buried beneath the jibes about Swedish political correctness – ‘feminism’ has become a dirty word in Denmark.
“Every time I say I’m a feminist I have to spend 45 minutes repeating, ‘I do not hate men’. I don’t know where this idea comes from. Feminists have never committed violence against men. As I see it, there are far more men that hate women than feminists who hate men. Just look at the violence statistics.”
She argues that there’s an entrenched belief in Denmark that feminism is an outdated concept given the country’s status as a world leader on women’s rights. Indeed, Danish journalist and author Leny Malacinski argues that the feminist movement is doing women a disservice by victimising them.
For Holten, the inherent suspicion of feminism as a concept means Danes aren’t willing to discuss gender to the same degree of nuance as Swedes. That means more latent forms of sexism – such as the double standards faced by women – get ignored by the national conversation.
“Denmark is suffering greatly under the burden of its own arrogance. Our idea that everything is great and fine in terms of human rights and respectful discourse is actively combating our ability to progress in these areas.”
But it’s more than just a divergence with Sweden. In a recent interview with Information newspaper, Danish comedian Sofie Hagen described why she preferred performing her brand of feminist stand-up in her adopted home, London. On stage in the UK, discussing body positivity elicits cries of “you go girl!” whereas in Denmark, it just prompts laughs.
“It’s one of the reasons I could never move back,” she said, adding that London helped her ‘come out’ as a feminist, something she did not feel comfortable doing in her homeland.
“Feminism is a dirty word in Denmark…political-correctness is often seen as a bad thing in Denmark. But in London it’s celebrated as something positive,” said Hagen.
Lhyne agrees that Denmark is far more skeptical of political correctness, but says it’s because Swedes have pushed the concept to the extreme.
“The horrible examples of political correctness gone crazy, constantly provided by Sweden, actually pull us in the other direction – towards less of it.”
She also says that the average Swede probably doesn’t differ too much from a Dane on the subject.
“You have to separate the regular Swede from the Swedish media and the political class. I think that there is a silent majority in Sweden, who do not support this extreme political correctness. But it is hard point that out, when the elite unite to uphold everything as politically correct.”
Hanna and Kajsa agree that the initiative doesn’t speak for all Swedes, but insist that gender-neutral pronouns have been widely accepted by a large section of society, even in unexpected places.
“Transphobia and racism are unfortunately widespread, also in Sweden. But it is worth mentioning that back in 2012, one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, forbade their employees from using gender-neutral pronouns, except in exceptional cases. Today they accept its use.”
The rise of ‘they’
The Anglosphere also seems to be on par with Sweden’s approach. In January, linguist Gretchen McCulloch, writing for Quartz magazine, reported a surge in the use of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ across media last year. In North America, it’s been endorsed for usage by the Canadian government and many US colleges.
McCulloch also pointed out that language is a reflection of shifting cultural attitudes, suggesting that it’s Denmark who is late to embrace more fluid ideas about gender.
“Ultimately, it’s popular support that really matters. Language is changing constantly…it’s a grassroots, open source, democratic process – and in this case, it’s clear that people are voting for singular “they.”
Lhyne disagrees, however.
“I honestly don’t believe that the rest of the world will follow the politically-correct example set by Sweden and parts of the US.”
Gender politics is yet another battlefield where Sweden and Denmark play out their age-old rivalry, and it could be holding back their ability to cooperate. Holten believes Sweden and Denmark need to move past their bickering relationship to tackle the challenges posed by traditional gender roles.
“While I don’t agree with all Swedish people on the uses of the pronoun, portraying them as losers for attempting to expand our understanding of gender is such a sad, sad thing. We should be working together towards a world with equity across the gender spectrum, not competing like two kids fighting in the schoolyard about who’s the coolest.” M