WARNING: MAY OFFEND OPRAH WORSHIPPERS
Several months ago it was announced that the Queen of American Television, the mighty Oprah Winfrey, had cast her benevolent eye upon the Icelandic female population and wished to feature it on her program, as part of something called ‘Oprah takes you around the world’. After considerable speculation, unconfirmed reports and secrecy, it became official: Oprah’s minions had come here and done their thing with the help of two well-known Icelandic women, one an actress, the other a TV presenter. They had taken the Oprah people on a tour of Reykjavík nightlife, had been interviewed, and finally one of them, Svanhildur Hólm [the TV presenter] had flown to the US to appear on the show. So far, so good.
The program was screened in the US a few days ago, and within 48 hours all hell had broken loose. Letters rained in to the editor of Morgunblaðið [writing letters to the newspapers is what Icelanders do when they get really mad] castigating Svanhildur: evidently she had claimed on national US television that Icelandic women start having sex at 15 and were not considered promiscuous, that Icelandic women routinely have sex on the first date, that teenage pregnancy is rampant here and nobody thinks anything of it – in short, that she had worked to propagate the common misconception that all Icelandic women are sluts – and proud of it.
So two evenings ago, Svanhildur was invited to appear for questioning on the news-related Kastljós* program, which follows the Icelandic Broadcasting Service’s evening news. What she revealed was exceptionally unpretty. According to her, her answers were edited in such a way as to fit in with the governing misconception of the Icelandic slut-woman; in other words, it was engineered to present an image that the show’s producers had clearly already decided they wanted to present – irrespective of the truth.
Example. They showed a clip. In the clip, Oprah asks Svanhildur, ‘Is it true that having sex when you first meet someone is the norm?’ and Svanhildur answers, with a wry smile, ‘It happens, yes.’
According to Svanhildur, that answer came at the end of a long-ish discourse in which she had said things along the lines of, ‘No, I would not say it’s the norm, I feel it’s wrong to generalize like that about a whole nation, surely it’s different for every individual…’ etc. – trying, by her own account, ‘to protect myself against this line of questioning’. Yet Oprah, apparently, was astonished that life in Iceland was so much more puritanical than she had been led to believe, and eventually asked, “So, are you saying it doesn’t happen? Because this sort of thing happens all the time in America.’ To which Svanhildur responded, ‘It happens, yes.’
And that’s the answer that 60 million Americans – and many more millions across the globe – get to see.
In other words Oprah edits out what Oprah doesn’t want to know. Oprah engineers the interview to present an image she wishes to display, irrespective of whether it is accurate.
SO WHAT’S REAL?
What would have been infinitely more interesting was what Svanhildur, herself, wanted to focus on – and indeed had been led to believe would be focused on: ‘our maternity benefits, women’s participation in the labour market, the standard of education of Icelandic women, the Icelandic welfare system, how we try to nurture the individual here, the system of day-care that allows people to have children while they’re still at university…’ and the real truth about Icelandic women: ‘that the workforce participation of Icelandic women is among the highest in the world, that over 60% of university students are female, that Icelandic women actively seek higher education and use that education, that virtually all Icelandic women are breadwinners along with their partners, by choice.’ Yet clearly the Oprah show producers did not consider this information sexy enough, strange enough, or sensational enough to keep 60 million Americans watching.
Svanhildur was asked to wear something by an Icelandic designer, which she did; there was no mention made of that. She also brought Icelandic water, award-winning Icelandic literature; she wanted to bring other things that were not as ‘sensational’ as, say, the Icelandic shark they asked for – but there was no interest in that. Too dull. Too banal. Instead we got the shock-effect of supposedly-rampant teenage pregnancy and promiscuity, and the eating of putrid shark.
Makes you think. A lot. About how things are cooked up and fed to the masses. About manipulation. About how stereotypes are created; about how the truth is sold for a few cheap thrills. About the fundamental necessity of questioning everything.
It’s been gorgeous window-weather for the last couple of days – sunny and bright, but with a cool northerly wind that makes it a tad uncomfortable to go outside without a scarf and some gloves. And now I’m going to end this because I’m still fuming and not in the mood to say anything clever: suffice it to say that current temps are 4°C and daybreak was at 03.26, nightfall is set for 23.27.
* Should anyone be interested in watching the program, go here, click on ‘Sjónvarpið’ up at the top, then click ‘May 4’ on the calendar, then click on ‘Kastljósið’.