How is it panning out? A feminist writer named Elizabeth Debold set out to investigate. She began by interviewing Jorgen Lorentzen, a Norwegian gender studies expert. He supports the changes:
The goal in contemporary Scandinavia is also to make gender not matter ... “Gender is losing meaning,” explains Jørgen Lorentzen, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Oslo. Jørgen studies men’s changing roles and is a member of the prestigious Norwegian Men’s Commission. The Commission was established to advise the government on how men can make the transition into a gender-neutral society.
“In some very recent studies that we have conducted, we see that gender means less and less. Gender doesn’t mean anything for employment, politics, or sharing work and family. Gender has nothing to do with who cooks or takes care of children. Men and women are equally able to do these things.”
Throughout our conversation, Jørgen makes it clear that Norway, and by extension the other countries in Northern Europe, is still in a transition. “What is your vision of a fully gender-neutral society? What will it look like?” I ask him.
“I hope that gender will lose its meaning even more,” he replies.
But when Elizabeth Debold interviews a group of Danish men a less happy picture of Scandinavian society appears:
As the conversation continues, I notice that the men speak about a vague, almost inchoate experience of victimization. “Where did this sense of victimization come from?”
Christian responds, “There’s a kind of victimization with not knowing which way to go, how you are supposed to be, what to do in your relationship. We’re in a double bind.”
“What is the double bind?” I ask.
Martin jumps in, speaking rapidly but softly. “I have tried to give women what they say they want, but they always want something else. Women think that what they want is for the man to really talk and to be at home with the kids. But she doesn’t want that for long. She wants a strong man.”
“We end up relating to women in a way that is more like woman to woman, not man to woman,” says Bo. “We are feminized in our relationships, and they don’t last.”
Jon explains that their relationships end up revolving around what the woman wants. “There’s a constant fear that I feel — like I’m doing it wrong somehow. That I should feel like this or like that, and you just don’t know what you are supposed to do ..."
Martin nods in agreement: “I think that the big problem with the new man is that we have forgotten to take responsibility. We let women make all of the decisions. And now we have no direction.”
“There’s something inside yourself that gets messed up as a man when you have no internal compass, no higher value, and then you do whatever you have to do to keep your sexual relationship,” says Jon. “You are lost.”
There were incidents that left Elizabeth Debold dumbfounded:
In my short stay, one example after another came to my attention. Each story alone could be seen as just another anecdote — like the well-known psychologist who studied “core masculinity” and was thrilled by my invitation to be interviewed but couldn’t because his girlfriend said that he would be too tired.
Or the one that really left my head spinning: an interview with a prominent Danish researcher on male roles who is himself a staunch feminist. The interview careened all over the place, bouncing off the extremes of his internal division. In a boomingly clear voice, he spoke about the need for men to really take part in gender equality. But interspersed between his pro-feminist statements, he told the story of how his second marriage had fallen apart.
(They had married after having two children together. Six months into the marriage, she told him that she had met another man—when she was pregnant with their second child—and wanted a divorce. She had married the researcher, which now gave her rights to his property, while knowing that there was another man in her life.)
Whenever he came near anything close to anger or betrayal, he howled with laughter—so loudly that I could barely hear his words. He laughed when he told me that he had been “totally understanding about everything—I only shouted once on the telephone—and then gave her a half a million!”
Then he would stop laughing and speak about “the pain in the faces of my children” and his own shattered dreams of family life. As he said right before he ran out the door to meet his new girlfriend: “I am dividing my life into smaller and smaller parts. I have my work; I have my children. I have to go to the gym four times a week. I have to eat. I have to have a sex life. In a way, there is a freedom that is fantastic.” But he acknowledged: “I have just accepted what has happened so that I don’t go bananas. I think about it in an intellectual way, and okay, well, life has to go on.”
So what did Elizabeth Debold come to realise from her stay in Scandinavia? She writes:
I was beginning to realize that killing off the patriarch — the father in the home and in the culture ... will not liberate us and society as we might have hoped.
She now looks sympathetically on the ideas of an historian, Henrik Jensen:
The masculine — which Henrik calls the “father” — is not simply about men as individuals but is an essential aspect of culture.
He sees it as the vertical dimension, which includes everything that human beings have looked up to, from God on high to ideals and excellence as well as the father’s traditional moral authority.
That vertical dimension is the source of our higher aspirations. This upward reach needs a strong foundation of healthy human relationship — which the more horizontally inclusive world of mothering traditionally has provided. As Henrik said to me, there needs to be a balance between the two.
I found it surprising and almost counterintuitive to discover that placing so much priority on nurturing and mothering functions — caring for the special needs of each child, ensuring that each person grows in his or her unique way — does not lead to a close-knit and deeply connected society. Not in our day and age. Ironically, and perhaps paradoxically, the result is hyperindividuation, which leaves us self-focused, isolated, and victimized.
If you read Elizabeth Debold's article it becomes clear that she comes from a pretty orthodox liberal politics. Clearly, though, she isn't comfortable with dispirited, unmotivated men. It's led her to something of a rethink.
One thing I believe she gets wrong, though, is her belief that Scandinavian society is putting the traditionally feminine nurturing role first at the expense of the masculine.
In fact, Scandinavian politicians openly state that it's the traditional male career role that they see as the privileged, autonomous one. Therefore, they want women to be more careerist and less feminine and nurturing. They want men to shift their priorities toward the feminine in order to make it easier for women to change to a more masculine role. So it's really the traditionally masculine career role which is unduly emphasised in Scandinavia.
At any rate, what all of the above illustrates is that an orthodox liberalism works especially poorly when it comes to relationships. We are supposed to believe, as a matter of principle, that our sex shouldn't matter. It's supposed to not matter because it's something we are born into rather than something we self-determine. It therefore violates the liberal idea that our individual autonomy is the highest good.
Scandinavian societies have used the power of the state to undermine a masculine protector and provider role. What is left to connect men and women is the sex instinct. But relying on the sex instinct alone has problems.
First, it doesn't connect men to a masculine social or familial role. Hence the complaints by the Scandinavian men about a lack of direction or inner compass.
Second, it makes relationships less stable, as the sexual impulse itself is easily transferred from one person to another.
Third, there is a conflict between the political aim of gender neutral family roles and the natural instinct of women to be attracted to masculine men.
Fourth, it makes relationships dependent on the sexual power wielded by women. There is no complementarity between men and women leading on to interdependent family roles.
So it's not surprising that Elizabeth Debold ultimately rejects the Scandinavian model, finding that it does not bring the liberation it promised and does not create a close-knit or deeply connected society.