Why this story matters:
In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, Swedish society has appeared more willing to get to grips with the issue of sexist harassment and discrimination at the workplace and in the media than almost any other country. Surveys show the majority of Swedes are optimistic the movement will lead to change, and indeed it already has, with a parliamentary debate on how best to tackle sexism among the measures taken so far.
But there are also those who claim Sweden's battle for gender equality has gone too far. Fredrik Skavlan, the Norwegian host of an award-winning chat show broadcast in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, has said that Swedes are “obsessed with gender” in response to accusations of sexism in his interviews.
A recent interview with Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström saw the host ask the Olympic athlete whether she cleaned and cooked while at home.
Cissi Wallin, a journalist and high profile voice within the Swedish #MeToo movement, criticized the interview on social media, along with many other viewers, while critical articles were written in the Swedish press -- though Skavlan also had his supporters.
In his first comments on the controversy last Friday, Skavlan said that he interviews people “based on who they are” and that gender doesn’t play a part in his questioning. He also said those who said he had treated Sjöström in a sexist way were depriving the Olympian of “the power of self-definition”.
The criticisms of his interviews with women date back several years, however. A 2009 article on former Swedish debate site Newsmill noted that he asked the Norwegian finance minister if she had had plastic surgery, told a female war reporter she smelt good and asked how she managed to shower in Afghanistan, and regularly sexualized young women on the show.
While Sweden has reacted strongly to cultural figures accused of harassment, with investigations launched into multiple high-profile media figures and programmes featuring some of the accused taken off the air, it now faces the challenge of how to address more insidious sexism in the media and other parts of society.
Details from the story:
- Fredrik Skavlan’s chat show is on its 19th season, regularly pulling in 3 million viewers across the three countries, half of that figure in Sweden alone. Its first season was produced solely by Swedish broadcaster SVT, but since then it has been partly produced in Norway.
- It’s one of the biggest and longest-running chat shows across Europe, and Skavlan has built up a reputation that has brought in guests including Swedish royals and politicians, Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu as well as many more international celebrities.
- Sjöström herself has defended the host, saying the comments were “a fun little twist” and she didn’t see anything sexist in the questions.
- She told the Aftonbladet daily she thought there were “more important things” to talk about. Skavlan has stirred up controversy in the past, notably in 2015 when he invited the leader of Sweden’s far right Sweden Democrats onto the show.