Apprehensive and shy, Isak opens up about his feelings for a guy for the very first time. He is sitting on his bed with a gay friend, Eskild, who seems overjoyed to be witnessing Isak’s coming out moment.
Then Isak seems to hesitate.
“But I’m not a gay gay. Like you,” he tells Eskild, whose character embodies many homosexual stereotypes.
Eskild listens calmly, and then explains that the homosexuals Isak is distancing himself from aren’t just trying to be different. They know that being openly gay was and is dangerous, but they would rather risk their lives than live a lie.
It’s a watershed moment in the Norwegian youth series SKAM – meaning ‘shame’ in both Danish and Norwegian – which follows a group of friends at a high school in Oslo. The focus of the third season is 16-year-old Isak, who is slowly coming to terms with his sexuality.
Much to the surprise of Norwegian broadcaster NRK, SKAM has established a cult following beyond the target audience of Norwegian teenagers – a third of the online audience is Danish, and many are in their 20s and 30s.
The reason could be SKAM’s unique success in faithfully portraying the difficult moments in our tender teenage years – moments that resonate with us for many years after.
“I experienced Isak’s same internalised homophobia when I came out,” explains Mattias Lysgaard, a 29 year old from Kvistgård who now lives and studies in Copenhagen.
“I figured that if I talked in a homophobic tone, I might not come under suspicion. I went through years of not wanting to be seen as a gay person that would attend a Pride parade, or just simply be proud. Even though I came out, I was still afraid of how people would see me.”
Kristoffer Hegnsvad, editor of Politiken’s Film & TV section, argues that the show is the world’s best youth series, and that its success rests in representing the feelings and experiences of its characters in a relatable and realistic way.
“In this season, they mastered Isak’s story in the same way they did straight stories before. There were no unrealistic conflicts and no stereotypically tormented young gay guys. Instead, it follows Isak’s own problems and his sense of shame in coming out. It seems truthful and realistic because everyone can relate to it somehow. I haven’t seen any show in mainstream TV broadcasting where gay love stories are portrayed in such a subtle and truthful way.”
A story about prejudice
SKAM’s portrayal of coming out is rather unique, by focussing on prejudice rather than homosexuality itself. From paradoxical homophobic sentiments, to living a secret life, Isak shows that the personal and emotional fight to come out is not solely dependent on societal issues.
“This season shows exactly what me and my friends went through when coming out of the closet, step by step,” says Troels Hedegaard Mortensen, 30, who works in the communications department at Copenhagen Central Library.
“The whole internal struggle is portrayed incredibly well – you always have to come to terms with who you are first before reaching out to others. And this is exactly what SKAM is so accurately portraying,” Mortensen says, adding that he related to Isak’s thoughtfulness.
“I was a difficult teenager and people around me were wondering what was wrong with me, and I just couldn’t put things into words. I feel like with Isak it’s the same thing.”
Universal gay characters
Eskild, Isak and his love interest Even, are not the first gay characters to appear on a popular TV show. Glee featured the love story of Kurt and Blaine that was intertwined with their passion for music, while Carrie’s friend Stanford in Sex and the City was often portrayed as a wise and positive character.
SKAM does things differently, however. Glee and Sex in the City never directly focused on the struggles and thoughts of their homosexual characters, and they also perpetuated the stereotype of gay men as fun and “feminine” companions.
Not all gay men nurture a passion for Dior bags and cocktail bars that are typical of mass media representations, which limits the extent to which the gay audience can relate to the characters.
But by focussing on Isak’s thoughts and struggles, rather than on specific gay personality traits, anyone can identify with his predicament.
“I came out when I was 20 and I was struggling with the exact same feelings as Isak’s,” says Mads Laurids Petersen who, together with his colleague Naja Helene Hertzum, publishes a blog about SKAM for lifestyle magazine Soundvenue.
“So many scenes in SKAM seem to be taken directly out of my youth, which is really special to see on TV. In the 90s, when I grew up, there were some gay characters but they were normally tragic supporting characters that were killed off. Everyone’s been a teenager struggling with their identity, relationships and friends, so everyone can relate to SKAM because it’s so realistically made.”
Petersen and Hertzum dicussed back and forth the success of the Norwegian series, and agree that much of it rests on its relatability. Both are openly gay, and although their coming out experiences differ substantially, they both feel that Isak’s thoughts and struggles represent them both.
“You get drawn so much into Isak’s feelings, it makes you remember that a big part of coming out was actually staying in the closet as long as it takes for you to be ready,” says Hertzum.
Reigniting teenage memories
30-year-old student Jeppe Berrig is more than a decade older than SKAM’s intended audience, but it still made him reflect.
“I am definitely not in Isak’s same place right now, but it brings back feelings that I had not felt in years”.
A gay man, he remembers how it felt to grow up in the Copenhagen district Vesterbro during the 1990s – before it became hip.
“When I found out that I was gay, I was in a very homophobic environment. I lived in Vesterbro before its gentrification, in a dominantly working class environment. ‘Gay’ and ‘faggot’ were regular bad words, and I used them as well. If I heard some music that I felt was a little gay I wouldn’t listen to it because I was afraid of being associated with being gay or the idea of it. I was trying to hide, and this is exactly what happens to Isak,” he says, adding that SKAM is one of the first popular series to take gay people seriously.
“I feel that all the small steps Isak takes are incredibly realistic. You see his fight and so many different moments where he is clearly ashamed of himself and feeling different from everyone else,” he says.
Not feeling alone
Mattias Lysgaard also experienced that SKAM took him back to when he came out when he was 21 and still living in his hometown Kvistgård. The memories are bittersweet – he is happy to have let go of his shame, but sad at not having lived those years of his life to the fullest.
“It makes me think, could I have done things differently? Yes, probably, but I also know that I did what I could with what was available to me at the time. That was my way, and Isak did it his way. SKAM bittersweetly reminded me of what I never got to have, to experience these feelings at 16. I wish I would have been able to,” he says, before reflecting on SKAM’s potential to help young people today.
“The most precious thing about SKAM is that it preaches that people need people, and that when you’re courageous enough to involve your friends in your problems, life will go on, and there will be someone to catch you. It shows that it’s not easy but you’ll get through it”.
Lysgaard adds that SKAM could be a useful medium for teenagers to help facilitate their experiences. Troels Hedegaard Mortensen also reflected on this point, and hopes SKAM could help his family and friends better understand what he was going through during his teen years.
“I wanted people to understand me when it came to being different. It’s a struggle when nobody understands, and that is the biggest issue. There is prejudice, but it’s more about making people understand where you are coming from and what you’re going through. And SKAM truly nails this,” he says.
“I hope that people like me can use SKAM to tell their parents, ‘watch this, this is why I was weird and distant. This is why I’ve been reacting in certain ways’.” M