Swedish Girl Films

An article by
Heta Mulari, researcher at Finnish Youth Research Society and author of "New Feminisms, Gender Equality and Neoliberalism in Swedish Girl Films, 1995-2006"
Girls Lost

From the mid-1990s and onwards a number of films focusing on girl-related issues and with a critical societal perspective came out in Sweden, films that could be bracketed together as Swedish girl films.

In the beginning of Ella Lemhagen’s experimental and dreamlike feature film Drömprinsen – filmen om Em [‘The Dream Prince: The Film about Em’] 14-year-old protagonist Emelie’s beloved playhouse burns down. This devastating fire means a beginning of a new era – Emelie has to step out of her sheltered childhood and start to find her own way in a Swedish small town.

Drömprinsen was released in 1995 and, although rarely mentioned in film history writing, it was exceptional in many ways. The film introduced a teenaged girl protagonist who actively challenged norms defining and regulating young femininity; including sexuality, appearance, child-parent relationship as well as norms related to occupying and challenging public spaces. Perhaps most importantly, the film introduced a young female protagonist in a youth film production dominated by male characters and themes.

It was no coincidence that a film such as Drömprinsen was premiered in the mid-1990s. The 1990s were characterized by the cultural phenomenon of girl power as well as the rise of international post-structuralist feminist activism and theory. In Sweden this meant a rise of a new kind of feminist movement with key themes such as girlhood and young femininity, beauty standards, sexual harassment and the queer. Being young, feminine and feminist was debated on several fields of politics, media and popular culture, including essay anthologies, feminist journals and newspaper columns – and also films.

During the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, Drömprinsen was followed by several films such as Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998), Vingar av glas [‘Wings of Glass’] (Reza Bagher, 2000), Hip hip hora! [‘Hip Hip Whore!’, distributed abroad as The Ketchup Effect] (Teresa Fabik, 2003), Falla vackert [‘Falling with Grace’] (Lena Hanno Clyne, 2004) and Love & Happiness (Kristina Humle, 2005). In all of these films, the focus was on young femininity and, in the press reception, they were linked to topical societal debates over girls, gender equality and feminism. For example, as theatre studies professor Tiina Rosenberg has argued, Show Me Love exemplified a coming-out for homosexuality and queer themes in Swedish media publicity. Likewise, Hip hip hora! was linked to the debate over sexual harassment at school and was widely used in gender equality education.

These films can be seen as examples of a phenomenon I have called Swedish girl films: films that tackled the above-mentioned issues and were linked to topical societal debates over girlhood, with gender equality being the main reference point. In the films’ narratives as well as in the press reception, what it means being (and becoming) a Swedish gender-equal girl were pondered. This preoccupation tells us about the importance of the image of a gender equal girl in Swedish societal debate: most often white and and middle class, she simultaneously signaled the social problems that needed to be solved (such as sexual harassment) but also, due to her strong and independent nature, a hopeful sign for the future.

During the past decade, the portrayals of young femininity have transformed and diversified and the definition of “girl film” needs to be rethought, too. Significantly, a new breed of female filmmakers have studied young femininity on the film screens from the perspectives of, for example, gender fluidity and ethnicity. These themes also echo contemporary strands in the feminist movement. For example, Alexandra Therese Keining’s Girls Lost (2015) is a combination of youth and fantasy film portraying how three friends make a potion from a flower and temporarily turn into boys.

(published in June, 2018)

Swedish Girl Films