#MeToo vs. The Nobel Prize

What’s the opposite of “above reproach”? “Below reproach?” If so, then the prestigious Swedish Academy, which oversees the Nobel Prizes, finds itself way below reproach: convulsed in scandal. Eighteen women have accused Jean-Claude Arnault, a French-Swedish photographer and cultural figure with close ties to the Academy, of sexual assault.

Arnault and his wife Katerina Frostenson run Forum, a private cultural club receiving funding from the Academy (that in itself is against Academy rules, since Frostenson, a poet, is an Academy member). The entire situation first came to light last November with a story in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. At the direction of Sara Danius, the Academy’s Permanent Secretary, the Academy then severed ties with Arnault and with the club, and hired an independent law firm to review its past links to the couple. Danius, Professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University and Docent of Literature at Uppsala University, was appointed in 2012 as Academy Permanent Secretary; she’s the first woman to occupy the post, has been praised as a force for modernization, and has questioned why there have been so few female literature Laureates. (True, she also defended awarding the Literature Prize to Bob Dylan, but hey, nobody’s perfect.) Meanwhile, three Academy members resigned in protest at Jean-Claude Arnault’s behavior, and despite requests from other members for Frostenson to resign, she refused to do so. Normally, I’d note that it’s unfair to blame a woman for her husband’s behavior unless it’s clear that she participated equally in it—but they are financial partners in the club, and the law firm’s investigation turned up “financial irregularities” sufficiently substantive as to inspire their recommendation that the Academy alert police investigators.

Dramatic developments ensued. The internal investigation also confirmed long-standing rumours that Arnault had leaked the names of Nobel winners in advance. (He seems a consistently nasty piece of work in details small and large.) Intensifying the scandal, newly unearthed evidence shows that as early as 1996, a textile artist, Anna-Karin Bylund, wrote to the Academy’s then Permanent Secretary, Sture Allen, about having been abused by Arnault—she has alleged that Arnault raped her in his apartment while she was preparing for an exhibition of her artwork at Forum—but Allen did not act on her letter because “its contents didn’t seem important.” In its statement last Friday, the Academy described itself as “deeply sorry that the contents of the 1996 letter were put aside and not acted on”—an understatement of gargantuan proportions, especially since King Gustav XVI of Sweden and The Nobel Foundation that administers the prizes expressed grave concern that confidence in the Academy and in the prizes themselves had been severely, possibly permanently damaged.

The crisis has exposed a deep schism in the Academy, between a powerful conservative “old guard” and reformers more in step with Sweden’s international image as possibly the most progressive country in the world. One old-guard example is Academy member and Arnault supporter Horace Engdahl, who dismissed Arnault’s sexual assaults as “indiscretions” and blamed the “controversy” on—who else?—Sara Danius, of course! After all, she had brought in the independent law firm to investigate Arnault in the first place, thus committing the apparent sin of airing secret Academy matters (and dirty linen) to the lowly public.

But wait! Women to the rescue! Engdahls’ ex-wife, Ebba Witt-Brattstorm, herself a professor of Nordic literature at the University of Helsinki and no slouch, then stepped up to publicly denounce her ex-husband Horace, called the academy “incredibly patriarchal,” and added that Sara Danius was being bullied for being an outspoken woman.

I know, it’s like an Ingmar Bergman film on steroids! Hurry, get the popcorn.

Then, two weeks ago, it looked as if the misogynistic old guard had won. Sara Danius was fired from her post as Permanent Secretary.

Engdahl, Allen, and others in the old-guard faction claimed the reason was that Danius was “a weak leader.” But Ebba Witt-Brattstorm charged in again like a Valkyrie, pointing out that on the contrary, “the men orchestrated a palace revolution, a coup to get rid of [Danius] because she’s headstrong, and a headstrong woman is not what they are used to.” Danius herself gave a press conference surrounded by women authors, at which she said little about herself but expressed concern about the damaged reputation of the Nobels. She did note that the Academy should work against “outmoded power structures or manifestations of misogyny.” She then resigned from the Academy. Later, so did Frostenson.

But the story wasn’t over. This is Sweden we’re talking about, forgodsake—where they’re trying to introduce the use of gender-free pronouns! Sweden, from which Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations after Foreign Minister/Deputy Prime Minister Margot Wallstrom established and openly proclaimed that her nation has a Feminist Foreign Policy! Sweden, where non-Swedish feminists around the world who believe in an afterlife fantasize they will be reincarnated!

Sure enough, the day after the firing, women all across Sweden began wearing blouses with pussy-cat bows in a show of feminist solidarity with Sara Danius, who had worn such shirts frequently and become identified with them, like Hillary and the pantsuit. Previously, pussy-cat bows were mostly worn by older women professionals and scorned by younger women–but now they’re hot. The Minister of Democracy and Culture, Alice Bah Kuhnke, posted a picture of herself in one such blouse on Instagram, as did Social Affairs Minister Annika Strandhall. Millennials are sporting the look—and men have expressed sartorial support as well. Michael Damberg, Sweden’s Innovation Minister (don’t you just love the names of these Cabinet ministries?), posted a picture of himself wearing a scarf knotted at the neck, along with members of his team in the Ministry of Finance. #MeToo activism has engulfed Swedish social media with pussy-cat-bow vengeance.

On Thursday, April 19, thousands of protestors—many wearing you-know-what—gathered in Stockholm’s Stortorget Square outside Swedish Academy headquarters, demanding the resignation of the entire secretive panel that awards the literature prize. Parallel demonstrations took place in Göteborg, Helsingborg, Eskilstuna, Västerås, and Borgholm. Women are coming forward in every field to reveal that daily Swedish reality is still largely sexist and patriarchal attitudes still deeply entrenched, although compared to that of most other countries, Sweden’s government policies are so far ahead that they could induce vertigo.

So here’s where we are at the moment. On Friday, April 20, the Academy committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature acknowledged in its first collective public statement that “unacceptable behavior in the form of unwanted intimacy” by Arnault had occurred, and said that it was turning over results of its investigation to the police, who are now exploring charges that Arnault repeatedly abused women at the club as well as at other Academy-owned properties in Stockholm and Paris, over a 20-year period. The King has stepped in, urging a restructuring of Academy procedures and membership rules and in general trying to calm the furor. But other members of Sweden’s very democratic royal family were spied wearing pussy-cat bows. So stay tuned. . . .