Recently, I was talking to a friend about shows with mainstream popularity that enjoy a devoted fanbase of queer followers. In conversation, Ai Yazawa’s 2000s y2k series Nana cropped up, with my friend describing it accurately as a “straight show for gay people”, which got me thinking further about all the media I’ve consumed over the years. I was thinking specifically of those shows with or without explicit queer representation, but which have nevertheless come to the forefront of queer discourse in online spaces, particularly amongst young people. Which brings me to SKAM.
Starting out as a niche Norwegian teen drama about school life, young love and female friendship, SKAM, which aired 2015-2017, more or less became an overnight sensation among global audiences when its third season premiered, with Wikipedia statistics stating that “it broke all streaming records in Norway, along with viewership records in neighbouring countries Denmark, Finland and Sweden, and attracted an active international fanbase on social media, where fans promoted translations.” Clips of the show were religiously distributed across social media, often shared through discreetly linked Google drives and online archives, all maintained by devoted fans. By the time the fourth season aired, SKAM was pretty much a one-woman success story: the director, Julie Andem, had won multiple prestigious awards, several international remakes of the show had been greenlit and it was outranking popular and well loved big-budget shows like Game of Thrones when it came to word-of-mouth generated buzz.
I was there through the entirety of it. Through its entire air-time, I was an ardent SKAM fan, reading fanfiction on Tumblr, running a fan-page dedicated to my favourite pairing and live sharing my responses to each episode. I can say, with certainty, that where shows like Euphoria and Elite zero in on dark, racy themes and explicit sexual content to market themselves as realistic, SKAM was grounded and quietly compassionate towards its young audience – managing, within four short seasons, to address with tact, issues as multifaceted as bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia, Islamophobia and academic pressure. It was definitely a rare gem of a show, one that did not sacrifice its ethics in favour of glamour and shock value to cater to young audiences.
Andem marketed the show as an educative story for young girls. With that in mind, I decided to re-watch the show from a queer female perspective, and what I discovered was a troubling insensitivity in its approach to lesbians and any sort of queer female desire. Jokes are constantly made by the characters at the expense of lesbians and the only scenes that can remotely suggest any sort of Sapphic desire are either simple queerbait or actually harmful lesbophobic rhetoric. I divide my observations among the scenes of three main female characters: Eva (the lead of season 1), Noora (the lead of season 2) and Vilde (a recurring character).
When SKAM begins, Eva Mohn is a quiet and disillusioned 16 year old, reeling from a nasty friendship breakup and dealing with being a school outcast. Her relationships with the guys around her are unsatisfactory: her boyfriend, Jonas, is condescending and secretive, and Chris, the senior boy she pursues at school, already has a girlfriend and a bit of a nasty reputation. Amidst this, Eva meets Noora, a pretty and outspoken feminist, through a classic meet-cute in a bar. The two girls soon partner up for classes and become fast friends, with Noora becoming Eva’s support system through her ups and downs.
Any queer person can easily see that Noora plays the role of Eva’s new love interest in season 1. Nearly all of the scenes they share are mirrored by other canon couples in the series, including Isak and Even, the gay romance in season 3. Eva stalks Noora online (just as Isak does to Even), accidentally sends her flustered messages, and is giddy with relief when she sees the other girl has accepted her friend request. Noora serenades Eva (once again, a direct parallel to Isak and Even), playfully flirts with her in class and sticks up for her against her bullies, something even Jonas is unable to do. Had Noora been a boy, nobody would find it weird to ship them. Then why are they firmly relegated to “just gal pals”?
Further, the trailer for Eva’s season shows her languidly embracing other girls in dreamy, romantic lighting and telling the audience, “Sometimes, when we are drunk, we make out with each other,” a claim supported by the many scenes of Eva drunkenly kissing other girls in parties, usually as boys look on gleefully. Why was this necessary in a supposedly educational show? Why is female queer desire simplified to drunken urges between straight girls?
Perhaps worse than Eva’s is the queerbaiting around Noora, who is quite possibly the most popular female character of SKAM. Noora is confident, beautiful, altruistic and a vocal feminist. While I have mentioned before that she is set up as a will-they-won’t-they love interest to Eva, she also seems to cultivate a rather passionate distaste against lesbians, which is strangely at odds with her picture-perfect persona. There are multiple scenes of Noora looking disgusted as two girls kiss at a party, and these scenes reinforce that queer female desire is something wild and shameful, violating public ethical code. When a friend asks her if she is a lesbian, Noora laughs outright into her face and later wonders why gay people are so interfering and “determined to think of everyone else as gay.” Later, when she wakes up at a party, the thought that she might have slept consensually with a girl is shown to be as frightening as the thought of being sexually assaulted. This is frightening rhetoric for a show apparently aimed at young, impressionable girls. It must also be noted that Noora’s season revolves around her heterosexual romance with an older boy, but the trailer shows her waking up in bed next to a woman and looking terrified. Why is lesbian sex demonised and sensationalised in a season of straight romance? What was the necessity of baiting queer girls with the hope of Noora’s sexual awakening (indeed her friends often jokingly refer to her “secret girlfriend”) only to have it shoved at us as something dirty and scary?
Oh, Vilde. Practically every scene of this character screams lesbian with intense internalized homophobia. I am not joking, there is practically a scene in season 2 when she says that she kisses Eva and certain “feelings arise”, but they surely don’t mean she is a lesbian, right? There is an infamous scene where she is unable to feel sexual excitement with a male partner, with Noora famously saying “I can make you horny”. To top it off, Vilde is shoved into the arms of a male side character despite her innumerable scenes of speaking about how it is completely okay to be with a girl (usually as a recurring joke, thanks Julie!). I wonder, if the show was really about guiding young girls, why was the third season dedicated to a male queer romance instead of making Vilde a central lesbian character and giving her a coming-out-journey? It would be a powerful story that addressed themes of comphet and sexuality. So why was a male lead only necessary when it came to the queer storyline? Why are lesbians completely written out of the script except as a joke or a threat?
Since it released, the SKAM universe has expanded to the aforementioned remakes, and while many of the remakes faithfully copy and propagate the casual lesbophobia of the original, certain remakes like Druck (German), SKAM España (Spain) and SKAM France have actually made alterations to include Sapphic female characters into their storylines and create a safe space for young queer girls. While Druck has several casually queer characters, (including a central romance between a Black lesbian and a Vietnamese bisexual girl), SKAM España made history for directing the first Sapphic POV of the SKAM universe – the coming-of-age of a young bisexual Spanish girl named Cris. I am happy that these remakes, while paying tribute to the source material, have also dared to make their own changes and bring queer girls to the forefront, because we deserve representation beyond offensive jokes and titillating scenes for male attention. As a bisexual girl, I can acknowledge that SKAM was a very important show for its time, while also recognising that it had glaring flaws and a very deliberately tailored lesbophobic approach to its female characters. We can only hope that future female-directed teen dramas will be kinder to us, because funnily enough, one of the many catchphrases of SKAM was “Be kind, always” yet somehow the kindness did not seem to extend to lesbians and other Sapphics when it actually mattered.