This spring the Norwegian public debate has been all about gender studies. The attention was sparked by a TV infotainment series “Brainwash” focusing on biological and social explanation models of human behaviour, especially within the realm of gender and sexuality: Are men biologically destined to be rapists? Are you born gay or do you choose to be gay? Why are so few women choosing careers in male-dominated fields?
It was clear from the outset that the producers had the agenda to promote biological explanation models over against social ones, but lately they have also admitted to hiding their agenda from the interview objects from the fields of social and cultural research. This confused situation with regard to what the series was supposed to be about, combined with some dubious cross-cutting, produced some statements by the gender scholar interviewees that neither they themselves nor the Norwegian public at large were very happy with, hence the debates. The debates have focused on the importance of natural sciences in explanations of sex; other main theories about gender and sexuality; main topics in gender research - what falls outside its remit?; the role of gender scholars in a state feminist country – are they supposed to be in opposition to the government or help them introduce research-based policies? The debates have also raised issues of media ethics, and how to produce catchy popular science programmes. The debates have on the one hand shown all the characteristics of a scapegoat chase (after all, only 4-5 gender researchers were interviewed, altogether there are less than 50 academics, Ph.D. students included, working at gender research units in Norway). On the other hand it has provided gender researchers with a unique opportunity to spread awareness about their existence and to convey some of their research to the general public.
If webpage hits are anything to go by, the intensity of the debate is indicated by the following fact: On March 25th, Aftenposten, the main broadsheet newspaper in the capital Oslo had more online hits on the webpages containing that day’s online debate between readers, two gender scholars and a third gender studies-critical commentator than on the webpages containing the latest news on a freak accident with a train in the capital, in which three people were killed, many people injured and many buildings damaged!
How was this possible? Norway is a relatively small country population-wise (4.7 million), which means that less patience is needed to turn around popular opinion and transform utopian ideals into social reality - for better and for worse. On the good side: Norway is consistently ranked by the UN as one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. There may be many reasons for that, but one of them is certainly that equality and justice (including gender equality and gender justice) are considered the highest values. Thus gender equality has been high on the agenda for the last generations. On the worse side, intellectual debate was not really cultivated until the foundation of the university of Oslo 199 years ago – while Norway was still a Danish colony. Still two centuries later intellectual debate is seen as somewhat un-Norwegian among the general public, and this, combined with the modest size of the population, means that the interested parties are not comprehensive enough to sustain many ongoing debates at the same time – as is the case in e.g. the 15 times larger and now-multicultural-formerly-colonial-power, United Kingdom.
Small utopian tribes can only chase one goat at a time.