Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why can't Sweden just accept it as normal?

From Sweden we get the following news:

The Swedish Consumers Association has reacted angrily to one of the ice pops in GB's new line. 'Girlie', a star-shaped, pink ice-cream with glitter make-up stored inside the stick, is entirely inappropriate, according to the association ...

According to GB, the 'Girlie' ice pop signals a "sense of summer", "star status" and "a disco feeling".

The Swedish Consumers Association however uses an entirely different word: "gender-profiling".

"Girlie, GB's new ice pop, is pink and has make-up inside the stick. It says a lot about what GB thinks about girls and how they should be," said the association in a statement.

According to the consumer watchdog, Sweden does not need more products that reinforce existing prejudices surrounding young boys and girls.

"Especially with a product as neutral as ice cream," said Jan Bertoft.

He would like to see alterations made to the product to make it less gender specific.

"They can call an ice pop 'Girlie' if they want, but it doesn't have to be so clearly aimed at young girls and telling them how they should be," said Bertoft.

GB's marketing manager, Christoffer Schreil, considers it unfortunate that some people have viewed the ice cream as being directed solely at girls ...

Schreil ... admits there have been a few complaints.

"We reply to everybody who gets in touch and tell them that we certainly did not mean to reinforce or cement gender roles in any way," he said.

I think I can explain this. An important strand of liberal thought is the idea that we are distinctively human because of our ability to self-determine who we are and what we do.

We don't determine traditional patterns of gender for ourselves, and therefore such patterns logically strike the liberal mind as being impediments to the self-defining individual.

Hence the fears that pink girlie ice creams might tell girls "how they should be" and reinforce gender roles.

The story doesn't end there, though. If traditional gender roles are oppressive, liberals have to explain how they came about. It's been common for left-liberals to claim that they exist as social constructs in order to shore up male privilege.

This means that there is even more reason for liberals to fear a traditionally feminine gender identity: it is thought to contribute to female oppression and gender inequality.

The Swedes are serious about this kind of ideology. Just a few years ago a Swedish minister, Jens Orback, declared that:

The government considers female and male as social constructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideologies.

At about the same time a county government in Sweden removed funding for a book because it contained an interview with Annica Dahlstrom, a leading neurobiologist, who has recognised differences between the male and female brain.

If there are differences between the male and female brain, there might be reasons within human biology for traditional gender patterns, and this would violate the Swedish government policy of social construction. So there was to be no interview with Annica Dahlstrom and no book.

A Swedish newspaper editor wrote in support of the county government that:

Our Swedish gender equality policy is based on us being equal and socialised into different gender roles. Annica Dahlstrom is an essentialist feminist and believes that boys and girls are totally different. The county government cannot publish material with that opinion.

So the ice cream story isn't just political correctness gone mad. It reflects mainstream liberal politics within Sweden.

One interesting thing to note about the above quote from the Swedish editor is the sense in which the term "equality" is used. The quote suggests that men and women can't be equal if there is a real basis for gender difference. In other words, it is assumed that gender equality is based on a fundamental sameness between men and women.

Perhaps this is an outcome of the whole social constructionist argument. If you believe that gender differences are constructed to oppress women, then you will assume that eliminating gender differences will create gender equality. So gender sameness will be associated with equality between men and women.

This isn't an easy concept of equality to defend, since few people would really want, or think it possible, for men and women to be the same. So I think we could expect liberals to run both an argument that gender sameness equals equality, and a denial that gender sameness is an outcome they are aiming for.

There is also another difficult aspect of the liberal view of gender equality. If the liberal measure of equality is how autonomous or independent we are (allowing ourselves to be self-determined), and if men are assumed to be a privileged class, then men must be assumed to be highly autonomous and independent.

This would explain the assumption that I've heard expressed by feminists that men historically could do as they wished. Yet, when advocating for a modernist view of the family, liberals often tell men that they will have a liberating expansion of "choice" if they give up the breadwinner role.

So men are being given opposing accounts of their historical role according to the particular matter at hand: that they have had too much choice historically, as a privileged class, but that they have suffered from lack of choice in their traditional role within the family.

Note too another unfortunate aspect of the liberal view of gender equality. If the measure of equality is how autonomous or independent we are, and men are identified as the historically privileged class, then the male role is the one to be envied and sought after.

So you can expect liberals to fall into the idea that women, to be equal, must have more of the "superior" male role and men more of the "inferior" female role. In particular, this will mean advocating careers for women over a more traditional motherhood role.

Again, I don't think that even liberals find it easy to embrace the logic of this position. Most liberal women will retain at least an aspect of a traditionally feminine identity and instinct and won't want to regard this as inferior. So it won't be surprising if liberal women fluctuate uneasily between the claim to a "superior" masculine role, and an identification with the more traditionally feminine.

Finally, given that "equality", understood the Swedish way, requires men to act against a deeply embedded provider instinct, and women to act against an even more deeply embedded motherhood instinct, it's not surprising that the Swedes have accepted the necessity of state coercion in achieving equality.

According to Jens Orback, the Swedish minister quoted earlier, the achievement of gender equality requires government action in all policy areas:

Our work for gender equality is governed by our understanding that a gender-based power structure exists, meaning that we see that women are subordinate to men and that this is something we want to change.

To be successful in making these changes we must ensure that a gender perspective is present in all policy areas. The gender mainstreaming strategy is therefore essential if we want to achieve a gender equal society.

I have focused on pointing out some difficulties in making the liberal view of equality coherent or persuasive. The larger task, though, which I won't attempt now, is to question the liberal assumptions on which their view of equality is based.

Meanwhile, we'll have to expect "advanced" societies like Sweden to be flummoxed by the concept of pink ice creams for girls.


  1. I am so glad I don't live in Sweden. I think that perhaps Sweden must be Ground Zero of the Western liberal sickness. That country is going to be positively devoured by the muslims emigrating there. And nothing will change until Swedish men stand up and find some of that Viking blood in themselves and say "enough!" Considering how thoroughly emasculated Swedish men have become, that is probably going to require a lot of suffering. Meanwhile, many Swedish women will find themselves strangely attracted to the swarthy, uber-masculine muslim "bad boys" taking control of a growing portion of the country, and will convert to Islam.

    Again, I am so glad I don't live in Sweden.

  2. How come the gender conscious Swedes don't think that the pink ice cream was an attempt to reinforce the current trend of men in pink t-shirts and apparel?

    I can just see those Swedish men with their pink Ts and pink ice cream as a fashionably edible accessory.

  3. :P I'd rather live in Sweden than live in that toilet bowl you call home. You don't like it, stay in your pit.

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  6. This was a really good post and I agree with most of it. The only problem that could arise as far as I see it is that I don't think you would want women or girls to define themselves along the pink, "girlie" ice cream model. So how do you define it? The problem with the opposite assertion, that of essentialism, is that it almost forces you to accept superficial things like the colour pink for "girlie" girls. You almost have to accept and defend it because the opposite, or Swedish version of gender is worse. But I certainly don't like women for the amount of pink they have. But I get your basic point. Hopefully this made sense. I lost my train of thought.

  7. I am Swedish and conservative... I am definitely in favour of traditional gender roles. (See article here if you are interested in an alternative Swedish view!: http://www.vikingprincess.net/60/femininity-and-womanhood-today
    Unfortunately I didn't realise that until just recently...

    Today I am a successful career woman who feels like a phony as I pretend to care about my career while I secretly dream of being a Domestic Goddess...

    Actually, the absurd situation with regards to gender roles in Sweden is one of the reasons I am hesitant to move back there (I live and work in London at the moment).

    Great blog, keep it up!

  8. Viking Princess, thanks for providing the link to your site. The articles there are very interesting. To read about how a Swedish woman actually experienced the gender policy in Sweden adds another dimension to what I've written myself.