Hygge and Nordic Noir: Two Sides of Scandinavia

According to Collins English Dictionary, ‘hygge’ came second only to ‘Brexit’ as the UK’s word of the year in 2016. It has since blown up as a marketing ploy in the Western world to promote comfortable socks, knitted sweaters, and oversized mugs. The first oversight is the reduction of what hygge actually means. It is not just performative ‘cosiness’; let the record know that hygge’s Wikipedia page does not come close to describing what the word might encompass. Scandinavia has come to represent many standards aside from cosiness. We have a great welfare system, we are democratic, and Denmark was once voted the happiest country on earth. Aesthetically, it seems like Ikea embodies not only elegance but authentic easy-living. Culturally, there is Legoland, Astrid Lindgren, and H.C. Andersen, the Danish precursor to many Walt Disney stories.

The second oversight committed when the mainstream media parades around the concept of hygge is that it perpetuates an image of a ‘Nordic Miracle’. This concept glosses over Scandinavia’s shortcomings, including the rise of far-right political parties, the small but disturbing presence of neo-Nazi communities, and the lack of discourse on Nordic colonial involvement.

Humorous critiques such as British journalist Michael Booth’s 2014 non-fiction The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle do attempt to debunk the myth of the Scandinavian socialist utopia, but often rely on stereotypes about the culture and everyday life. Such books about Scandinavia rarely reach an international audience, and seldom live more than a few years before their relevance expires. Scandinavian New Wave television shows and films, however, seem to spread internationally and live on. The ‘Nordic noir’ genre (also known as Scandinavian noir), which originated in the 60s and 70s with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series has been gaining popularity since the 2000s with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, Jo Nesbø’s crime novels, and TV series such as The Killing (Forbrydelsen) and The Bridge (Broen).

So how can Nordic noir combat the Nordic Miracle? In the Introduction to Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Swedish crime writer Henning Georg Mankell, known for his Kurt Wallander series, spoke of the pair as a duo that had realized “that there was a huge unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism.” Social criticism in crime novels might not be groundbreaking, but a social critique of Scandinavia in this setting is, because it attacks the qualities for which Scandinavian countries are lauded abroad.

The series often features the everyday life of a lone investigator, usually a female police officer or detective – Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Lund, Saga Norén. The detectives are sarcastic, dry but witty, and detached from the rest of the world. Scandi humor can only be understood with proper subtitling and the often rude, highly idiomatic language isn’t always translated adequately. Nordic noir offers an alternative to the glamorized, suit-wearing Hollywood detective, and is arguably a more realistic image of what detectives go through. Shows such as The Killing and The Bridge also bring much-needed attention to gender violence, systemic injustice, and intolerance in Scandinavia. In addition, they do a fantastic job at showcasing women in leading roles, giving voices to strong female protagonists who prioritize careers over love life.

Nordic noir has become popular not only because of its critique of the Scandinavian ideal, but because the dark aesthetic and tactful use of color grading is almost antonymous to the hygge concept. There are woollen sweaters, but not a lot of cosiness; instead, monotonous landscapes, eerie piano music, and simple dialogue permeate the screen. No sunny shots of Nyhavn and picturesque panoramas, but an abundance of rain, concrete pavements, homeless shelters, and the occasional bloodied field. These images are paired with politically important buildings, and all the injustice taking place inside the walls of Parliament. This environment does not represent Scandinavia overall, though it is important to realize that on some days it does.

Harking back to the commercialisation of hygge, the United States and other Western countries quickly capitalised on Nordic noir. The series lose cultural value in their international remakes, evident in the fluctuating ratings of The Killing US and The Tunnel (the Franco-British adaptation of The Bridge) that have tried to reconstruct the Scandinavian dynamics abroad. It doesn’t work – you cannot critique a supposed ideal that is not there. Additionally, Denmark is a small country and it reuses all of its phenomenal actors: it’s quite humorous to see the murderer of one noir series become the dejected father of another.

In the end, it is easy and tempting to make fun of the media’s embarrassing ‘Top 10 Hygge Activities’ blog posts that idealize Scandinavia. However, this obscures a truth; there are more pressing atrocities to criticize. The 2011 attacks in Norway and the 2017 murder of Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall by a Danish inventor remind us Scandinavians that we cannot be perfect.

Flo McQuibban is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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Post Author: Flo McQuibban

  • Columnist (Winter 2019)