In Sweden, Boys Won’t Be Boys

12/10/13
 
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from TIME Magazine,
12/16/13:

A bold social experiment to erase gender boundaries has some Swedes complaining about political correctness gone overboard.

On a Sunny afternoon in September, a 5-year-old girl played in a sandbox. The box contained more mud than sand, and as she whacked at it with a plastic shovel, globs of dirt stained her pink dress. But at the Nicolaigarden preschool in Stockholm, no teacher chastised her, and certainly no one told her that girls aren’t supposed to play like that. In fact, at Nicolaigarden, they try not to use the word girls at all.

Or boys either. One of the most popular toys at the school, for both sexes, is a set of dolls designed to teach about emotions. Each wears a different expression–one smiles broadly, another frowns–but that is almost all they wear. Except for the homely knit hats that top their Nordically blond heads, the dolls are completely naked, which makes it easy to see that they have no distinguishable gender.

And that just might be a metaphor for what this school, and perhaps Sweden as a whole, is trying to achieve. This is a country in the midst of a dramatic new experiment in gender equality–call it gender neutrality.

In the early 1970s, when the Swedish government began actively promoting women’s rights, even feminists could hardly have imagined the successes to come: near parity in political representation, a near leveling of the playing field in the workplace, and fathers who share, if not equally then at least significantly, in the raising of their children. But if Sweden has gone further than almost any other country in the world to eradicate gender discrimination, it has reached a critical turning point, moving beyond mainstream feminist goals like equal pay and equal opportunity toward a society in which gender doesn’t matter.

Supporters say that process is a necessary step toward eroding the lingering vestiges of sexism, and people around the world who care about gender equality are watching with keen interest to see what lessons Sweden can offer other societies. But critics charge that feminism has become something of a state religion in Sweden, to the point that the country is on the verge of doing away with the idea of men and women altogether–and in the process, they say, casting aside much of the joy and complexity that come with difference. For them, Sweden is a dangerous experiment in political correctness that would deny biological realities and impose artificial mandates of sameness. A country that has essentially built its national identity on the pursuit of equality, Sweden finds itself moving into uncharted territory over primal questions of justice and difference.

He. She. Hen.

Spend a few days in Sweden, a nation with a population roughly equivalent to Michigan’s, and you’ll encounter many efforts to do away with gender distinctions. And that includes hearing people referred to by a newly popular gender-neutral pronoun.

Intended as an alternative to the Swedish words han (he) and hon (she), hen was first proposed in the 1960s but burst into public consciousness in 2012 when children’s-book author Jesper Lundqvist used it exclusively in his book Kivi and the Monster Dog (neither Kivi nor the pup is identified by sex). That year the national encyclopedia included the word in its print edition, and now major newspapers like Aftonbladet routinely employ the pronoun in place of the phrase he or she.

Many of Sweden’s equality measures are enshrined in law. The process began in 1971.

But when it comes to blurring the lines between the genders, it is perhaps the country’s approach to education that is most innovative. In 1998, Parliament obliged all schools to work against gender stereotypes. Stockholm’s Nicolaigarden still stocks dolls and trucks, but neutral toys like Legos and dinosaurs predominate in the brightly colored rooms. The cozy library is carefully calibrated to contain the same number of books with female protagonists as those with male ones. Boys and girls alike twirl silken scarves during dance class, and they have equal access to pirate and princess costumes. Asked whether boys actually choose to dress up as princesses, principal Lotta Rajalin smiles and says, “They do. It’s the grownups who have the expectations.”

Marked Men?

For some Parents, it’s not always easy to navigate the new norms. Par Zetterberg, a marketing executive whose son is enrolled at Nicolaigarden, speaks easily of the boy’s dolls. But he also knows a couple who recently refused to tell anyone the sex of their newborn baby because, he says, “they didn’t want anyone to project their gender ideas onto the child.” Stuffing a jacket into his son’s backpack at the school playground, he shakes his head. “That’s just going too far.”

Some people say the same about Sweden as a whole. Critics of the country’s gender innovations maintain that for all the feminist emphasis on removing limitations, the state and other institutions are imposing a whole new set of prejudices and barriers.

An engineer by training, Par Strom has become something of a spokesman for men who feel oppressed by Sweden’s push toward gender neutrality. Society, he says, has turned against men, actively discriminating against them in things like child-custody laws and permitting inequality when it favors women (two-thirds of Swedish university-degree earners, he notes, are female). “We’re considered the bad sex,” he says in a voice barely above a whisper as he looks nervously around the busy cafĂ©, “so it’s O.K. to attack us.” And in words like hen and efforts to create gender-neutral preschools, he sees not equality but erasure.

Worse, Strom argues, is that there is no room in public discourse for a discussion of such issues. “There are anonymous antifeminist bloggers, and I get lots of e-mails from men who agree, but they stay quiet because they’re terrified of their names being exposed and their careers ruined,” he says.

He may have a point. While a respected feminist writer like Nina Bjork can publish a column in Sweden’s largest morning newspaper comparing the position of women in Sweden today to that of black South Africans under apartheid, there is little room for even mild expressions of antifeminism in all but the most conservative papers. “There is a kind of dogma, yes,” says Nilsson, who identifies himself as a feminist. “Female sexism is O.K., but not the other way around.”

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