On the LGBT conundrum

Like pretty much everyone else in Norway, and apparently, the rest of the world, I have been sucked into the world of Shame – that is SKAM, the Norwegian drama series for teens that broke into the scene last fall and caused everyone within their demographic reach and beyond to utterly lose their minds. This post will obviously contain spoilers, so do not proceed if you haven’t seen the end of season 3.

I’ll be frank, to begin with I went from being clueless as to what this was, to being mildly annoyed at the hype, and then finally, a couple of eps into season two, this spring, I caved and binge-watched the episodes during one weekend where I was supposed to revise for exams. At first, I was skeptical, but I quickly found myself oddly compelled by the characters, despite the fact that the first season in particular deals with a lot of typical teenage things that I have never associated with neither as a teen nor as an adult. But the way that the series itself has been created; the way it realistically portrays these kids, and in particular, how different it is from the glossy American drama series that we are served on TV, focusing on rich teens who experience anything from arson to murders and all kinds of drama. SKAM is a lot more down to earth, even if it is situated around Norwegian teens from more well-off families, who seemingly only care about parties and Russefeiring. Regardless, it is real, it is intimate, and it ensnares and allures its audience by giving small drips of action throughout the weeks, as we are treated to several short clips that are compiled into a long episode on Friday night, but also real-time text messages, instagram and facebook updates by the characters themselves. It’s quite ingenious, and helps make the series extremely addictive – especially for anyone who’s looking for a good reason to procrastinate when they should be studying (Norway basically stopped functioning for the entirety of the period where William wasn’t answering Noora’s texts this spring).
Season two however, was the one that really convinced me that people were right concerning this show. The previous season dealt with more “typical” issues, like teenage angst and drama, and a pregnancy scare, but season two delves into sexual assault, and offers a very natural way to deal with the issue. SKAM doesn’t point fingers, but functions as a kind of older sister, or friend, giving advice and information in a way that is easily understood and remembered, and which was applauded by audiences as well as the Norwegian police.

With that said, despite that long-ass opening paragraph, this is not a blog post about SKAM. Or, yes it is, but not really.
Season 3 is what caused the massive rush of international viewers, and made the series rise to international fame and popularity, as we follow 17 year old Isak, who may or may not be homosexual. This season is massively important, but also ambiguous. I will get to this.
It’s been hinted at earlier in the series that Isak might be gay or bisexual, but the season doesn’t limit itself to the question of sexuality. Rather, it shows the context of the question. This season deals more specifically with the idea of identity, and being true to oneself. We are given small glimpses into feelings of displacement, uncertainty and despair, not all of which are connected to sexuality, but also to mental illness, divorce, religion and expectations from society and peers. It’s all interwoven together in a way that becomes very natural in the sense that the creators of the series aren’t attempting to over-explain or solve all the problems, but rather allow them to be presented, some of them to be explored more than others, and some of them to remain unresolved, but perhaps less pressing, very much like how we pick our battles and find our coping strategies in the real world.

The ambiguity then, lies in what I refer to as ‘the LGBT Conundrum’, and so, this post is sparked by a quick rant I wrote on Facebook somewhere mid-season, as I had just finished watching a particularly  jarring episode.
It is well known by anyone who has dedicated some time to watching and reading LGBT fiction, that in addition to non-heterosexual relationships being way underrepresented, there is also a distinct lack of not only happy, but also realistic stories of same-sex love. A typical trope is the tragic love story: often ending in death. Another trope is the ‘coming out of the closet’ or ‘will they or won’t they’. Here, the story typically focuses on a set of characters who seemingly are into each other, but struggle to convey it – in itself, not unrealistic, but the problem is that these stories (particularly in my field; BL), often end once the couple share their first kiss (or,  if we’re “lucky”, a night together). It seems that this type of representation presents the idea that once the hurdle of confession or outing is passed, that’s the end of all problems. Rarely do we get to see what comes next; the every day lives, the spats, the forehead kisses, the expired milk, the holidays.
There’s also the fetishization of female love in particular, where the relationship between two women seem to be more focused on the sex, than their relation, and very often seen from the male perspective. Increasingly, this type of fetishization is also becoming more visible in terms of objectifying male couples, not only in otakudom (BL has to take some blame for this I fear), but also in more mainstream circles, such as presented in the final episode of season 3, where a group of girls explicitly point out that they think it’s “cool” that Isak and Even are a couple, because “two boys are so cute together”.

LGBT characters are rarely cast as protagonists, and unless they are on their way out of the closet, they are often pushed aside, neutralized, or used for comic relief. In one episode of the series Queer as Folk, the flamboyant Emmett is informed by his friend that the reason he has been given a job as part of a newscast team, is because he is the type of ‘fun’ and effeminate gay man that makes him ‘acceptable’, because there is nothing sexual about him. We have a tendency of accepting the stereotypical gay man as a form of accessory; the BFF, the comic relief, the non-sexual character. The fetishization of the gay man is also very much present in this type of representation, as many seem to see him more as an accessory for a straight woman, than as an individual person/character. Making the gay man into a side-kick with a limp wrist and passion for shopping neutralizes the inherited perception of obscenity, and allow the audience to feel less threatened.
This is a representation that is as harmful as it is true; because let’s face it, gay people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are effeminate, others are masculine, some are monogamous, some aren’t, some are asexual, some are poly amorous, some raise families, some don’t, some have a straight, female bestie, others don’t. The damage comes in the form of the over representation of this type of character, which creates a stereotype that not everyone can associate themselves with, and in some cases creates a form of inherent homophobia – as presented in the masterfully performed scene between Isak and Eskild, where Isak is trying to explain that he’s not “that kind” of homosexual, while Eskild, clearly hurt by his words, is precisely “that kind”.

But I digress, the main focus here is that most of these tropes tend to be on the depressing side – I should know, the way all my writings concern boys who struggle, die and are subjected to scrutiny, bullying and self-inflicted suffering.
One reason why I think that this is such a common trope is because obviously, being young is never easy, and being different is always hard. In a world that is so very focused on heteronormativity , and consequently presenting LGBTQIA as some obscure ‘otherness’, it will be a struggle for a large portion of anyone not fitting into the mainstream mold. Homophobia, bullying, sexual assault, mental illness, discrimination and alienation are all factors that are all too common in the lives of LGBT youth and adults, so it’s only natural that these things become central in television and other fictional representations, where the main focus generally is on dramatic events and effects.
In the event that a story is “too happy”, it can be criticized for being unrealistic. The reason I started writing and publishing BL, aside from obviously loving the genre too much for words, was that I felt BL was all too black and white; often lacking in realism or overflowing with inherent and internalized homophobia, but finding a balance is difficult.
There is no such thing as a problem-free life, especially when existing within a society that is obsessed with an illusion of normalcy, so portraying someone’s life as rose-red will immediately be considered unrealistic.
Nobody lives a perfect life where they always get what they want, where they never get sucked into conflicts, or suffer heartbreak, or where nobody dislikes them, where they don’t lose anyone or where they have to see their dream job go off to someone else. But sometimes, that’s what we want to see. Sometimes we need to see that there are good things; that people fall in love, or that the dog survives, you know?

The conundrum therefore presented itself in season 3 of SKAM, by rearing its ugly head just as we thought that perhaps the main couple wouldn’t have to suffer any kind of conflict. Isak was conflicted enough, with his own identity, and how to break it to his parents, who are recently divorced and with a mother who seems not only zealously religious, but also struggling with mental illness.
When the conflict then bares its teeth, complicating Isak and Even’s relationship further by revealing Even’s own struggles as a person suffering from bipolar disorder, a lot of us got very worried. For several reasons.
As someone dealing with mental illness myself, I both worried about how this would be portrayed and dealt with in a season that has far fewer minutes a week than its predecessors, in addition to already having the issue of identity and coming out to deal with – as well as a huge disappointment that this had to happen now. I felt unnerved by the prospect of yet another tragic story where the creators felt the need to complicate something that is already difficult, by presenting another seemingly uncrossable obstacle. Silently, I was grumbling why can’t they be happy?!


I was also concerned because while I was glad to see them touching upon mental illness, which is something more and more people are becoming familiar with either through their own struggles, or through family, friends or loved ones struggling, I didn’t feel like this was something that necessarily would be given enough time or respect in this season. It felt overcrowded, and it was beginning to feel trope-ish.

The last few episodes of the season were touch and go for me, as I was terrified of which way they would take this story. On one hand, you just want Isak and Even to be happy, on the other, you want the show to be realistic; you want to see the creators respect the fact that bipolar disorder doesn’t magically go away, that even when you swear to be there for someone, it’s not always that easy in the longer run, and that struggling with your own identity and your relation to your parents isn’t necessarily something that can be conquered only once – but rather can be an ongoing battle. We didn’t want a quick-fix, but I don’t think anyone wanted to see the two of them part ways and be sad either. It’s a very difficult balance to maintain.

However, at the end, now having watched the final episode only moments ago (and then not posting this until two days later), I feel satisfied with how NRK’s production company chose to handle it.
When I wrote Jaded, I purposely left an open ending, some loose threads on purpose, because the boys and their relations to themselves and others were far too complex to be realistically tied up. I don’t allow Aki and Yuuki to define their relationship, because I can’t define it (yet). I can’t decide for them what their future is. And Isak tells Eva that he doesn’t know whether Even is The One, to the dismay of many romantics out there, and perhaps unnerving to those who really just want them to be together and happy. It might feel as a blow to their newly established relationship, that he is seemingly expressing doubt already, a way for him to brace himself for an impact that might very well come – but also a way to stay level-headed in a volatile situation and in a relationship that is ultimately, very new.
In a youth culture where the weighty words “I love you” (Norwegian; “Jeg elsker deg” which is the highest declaration of love, as compared to “Glad I deg” – which is also translated to ‘I love you’ but really means more like ‘I care for you’)  are said mere weeks or even days into the relationship, it’s an opposition, but also a more reflected and mature take on the difficulty that is human relation.
Ultimately, I would like to take my hat off for Julie Andem and the creators of SKAM, for yet another realistic and emotional rollercoaster-ride.  Through season 3, we have seen examples of self-doubt and uncertainty, wrestled with identities related to, but not confined by sexual orientation or status of mental health, and we’ve seen that even though it’s easier than before to be LGBT in Norway, it is still hard; sometimes on a personal level, sometimes due to external reasons. We’ve seen that ignorance often comes from curiosity, and that questions that often are interpreted as offensive, might actually be meant well but worded wrong, and yet again I find myself mentally apologizing to characters who prove me wrong as my judgementality is confronted (I’m sorry Magnus).

This isn’t a blog post about SKAM, but it is a post where SKAM shows us the ambiguity and difficulty of portraying subjective reality while at the same time making it relateable, and where the tropes are seen as more than tropes, but seemingly appear at their most basic level; where they come from, but without being allowed to define the season. The relatively open, yet content ending shows us that ultimately, we have been following two individuals who just happen to have fallen in love, despite the circumstances and context surrounding them, and creating ripples that aren’t necessarily positive, but reaffirm that nothing is one-dimensional. Hopefully, we will see more portrayals like these in the future, and the portrayal of same sex relations will be less tropey and more realistic and diverse.

(I’m lazy, so I haven’t proofread this text since writing it, sorry for any sloppy mistakes. Also, SKAM has been sold to the US, so watch the original version while you can.)