Cover of 2014-1 IssueFrom Vol 53, No 1, 2014

'Even if you aren't Swedish, even if you aren't lesbian': Show Me Love in Queer American Context

Helga H. Lúthersdóttir
UCL

Abstract

Concentrating on the film’s reception in the United States, this article analyses Fucking Åmal (Show Me Love, 1998) according to its status as a foreign film. The film’s two main themes, lesbian love story and small-town boredom, are explored, as well as the film’s connection to the genres of romantic comedy and the American teen movie. Applying queer theory I assert that the lesbian theme is central to Show Me Love, where the narrative’s acknowledgement  and  acceptance  of  the  main  characters’ queer  identity  transcends  traditional  gender  roles  and  drives the  transformation  of  heteronormative  space  and  community into  queer  space  and  community.  The  tendency  of  critics  to downplay or disregard the lesbian theme while emphasizing the film’s representation of small-town boredom and focusing on the film’s coming-of-age story ignores the radical transformative power  of  queer  acceptance  and  acknowledgement  in  general discourse.  In  my  analysis  I  question  the  ethical  and  societal consequences   of   such   readings,   exploring   the   discourse surrounding Show Me Love since its release in the United States and asking why it matters to read Show Me Love as the lesbian representation it truly is.

Key words

Lukas Moodysson, Show Me Love (film), gender, teen movie, queer theory

Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (1998), is a romantic teen comedy about budding lesbian love between two girls in a small town. It is as simple as that. And yet, it is not. Even in its home country of Sweden, the  film  was  neither  promoted  nor  received  as  a  lesbian  film,  with comments and reviews rather emphasising the theme of small-town adolescence (Björklund 2009: 38), enabling Tiina Rosenberg to use the reception of the film as a  ‘case study’ in ‘Swedish heteronormativity’ (Rosenberg 2006: 105). Upon its limited release in the United States in 1999 – the film’s first release in an English speaking country and the primary focus of the ensuing analysis – Fucking Åmål was given the  more  prudent  title  of  Show  Me  Love  (henceforth  used  in  this article) and predominantly promoted as the quaint foreign film that beat  Titanic  (James  Cameron,  1997)  at  the  box  office  in  its  home country  (Warn  2002;  Taylor  1999;  Kuipers  2000).  In  line  with  their Swedish counterparts, American critics tended to emphasize the film’s depiction of bored teenagers in a small town while largely ignoring the lesbian theme.

Concentrating  on  the  film’s  reception  in  the  United  States,  Show Me Love is here analysed according to its status as a foreign film in the context of critics’ reviews as well as wider-ranging web references and online commentary. With an eye toward queer theory I assert that the  lesbian  theme  is  indeed  central  to  Show  Me  Love,  in  which  the narrative’s acknowledgement and acceptance of the main characters’ queer  identity  transcends  traditional  gender  roles  and  drives  the transformation of heteronormative space and community into queer space and community. Furthermore, as this transformation potentially benefits all involved, queer and straight alike, it demands inclusion in all discussion of the film rather than diminishing the importance of the lesbian theme. I argue that the insistence of American critics (as   previously   their   Swedish   counterparts)   on   downplaying   or disregarding  the  lesbian  theme  while  maintaining  that  the  film’s focus  is  a  basic  small-town  coming-of-age  story  ignores  the  radical transformative power of queer acceptance and acknowledgement in general discourse. Although the intention may have been to boost the film’s  popularity  among  a  general  American  audience  by  offering  a ‘safer’, more mainstream reading, such reading actively works against queer   acceptance   and   re-establishes   or   maintains   unchallenged heteronormative rule by effectively rendering the lesbian identity of the film’s protagonists invisible. In my analysis I question the ethical consequences of such readings as I explore the discourse surrounding Show Me Love since its release, mostly through American reviews and online commentary from viewers, and ask why it matters to read Show Me Love as the lesbian representation it truly is.1

Place, People and Genre

To  acknowledge  lesbianism  and  queer  identity  as  central  to  Show Me  Love  is  not  to  ignore  the  importance  of  the  film’s  small-town theme. Indeed, the original title of Fucking Åmål neatly underscores the town’s importance to the film and its plotline, although Åmål of Show Me Love is no more ‘real’ a location than is Azalea Springs of It’s in the Water (Kelli Herd, 1997) or The Truman’s Show’s Sea Haven (Peter Weir, 1998). That there exists a Swedish town called Åmål is of little importance for most American viewers, first of all because Show Me Love does not attempt to present its location as unique or even specifically Swedish, but as universal and recognizable, and secondly because  the  film  is  not  shot  in  Åmål  but  its  neighbouring  town  of Trollhättan.  In  her  book  Lukas  Moodysson’s  Show  Me  Love,  Anna Westerståhl  Stenport  argues  for  the  significance  of  ‘the  difference between the production location and the cinematic representation of location’, especially due to the ‘idea of local specificity embedded in Show Me Love’s plot and production design’ becoming ‘a vehicle not only for rethinking national cultural connotations of the film industry but also for questioning a perception that a particular location could – or should – grant authenticity to the cinematic product’ (Stenport 2012:  99).  In  the  context  of  national  cinema,  authenticity  of  the cinematic product is unarguably a key point. However, emphases of national cinema are different from and here give way to the emphases intrinsic to a queer reading.

I argue that there are not one but two types of authenticity available to Show Me Love as a cinematic product. On the one hand we have the authenticity  that  emphasizes  the  ‘real’  place  (i.e.  Åmål/Trollhättan), accessible  to  those  who  know  the  actual  location  or  have  some knowledge of Swedish geography and culture. In the context of the film’s lesbian theme this authenticity is heteronormative, that is, secure in the real and the actual Swedish small-town norm. On the other hand, however, we have the authenticity of the generic and the recognisable, accessible to anyone who is able to relate to the idea, the construct of the small town, i.e. the town you ‘know’ precisely because it does not exist. This latter authenticity is just as  important to most of the American audience as is Åmål’s reality to many of the Swedish audience. American critics’ focus on Åmål’s recognisability as the quintessential small town confirms such a   reading as they emphasise the generic to  enable  and  encourage  audience  identification  (Stack  1999;  Ebert 2000). While it would be inaccurate to refer to this second authenticity as queer in itself, it has an embedded queerness to it because it is always  already  shaped  by  the  viewer’s  experiences,  interests  and longings, thereby offering an alternative to the multifaceted weave of heteronormative practices (Rosenberg 2008: 10).

Albeit of Swedish origin, Show Me Love is accurately described by Stenport as ‘a film that reflects prevailing trends of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood youth film’, drawing ‘quite explicitly on characteristics of the  American  teen  movie  genre’  (Stenport  2012:  77).  Jeff  Millar  of the Houston Chronicle accentuates this when he states that: ‘It is an astonishment when one of the boys finishes putting exactly the right arc into the brim of his Nike ball cap, meets a buddy, opens his mouth and Swedish comes out’ (1999). Concomitantly, the film adapts the American teen movie’s conventional spaces, familiar to the American (and  Swedish)  audience:  characters’  homes  and  high  school,  public spaces of playgrounds, parking lots and sports arenas, the party scene at  some  hapless  parents’  home.  Arguably  this  familiarity  serves  to support heteronormative practice, reading, and expectation. However, the setting of Show Me Love is effectively reduced to an extended high- school community connecting the characters’ experiences within these spaces and their emotional reactions to the dullness and limitations of the small town, any small town.

Such reading is supported by Ulf Brantås’s cinematography. For a film originally named after the town where it supposedly takes place,  Show Me Love is conspicuously void of any characterizing establishing shots depicting, for example, the Town Hall or the mall, classic long shots  of  the  Main  Street  or  aerial  views  of  the  town.  Depictions  of characters’  homes  serve  mostly  as  basic  backdrops  and  subtle confirmations of economic and class status. Not even the high school building, the closest to a central location this film has and a ‘unifying location’ for the American teen movie (Stenport 2012: 77), is granted an  establishing  shot.  Rather,  the  audience  is  thrown  directly  into  a chaotic start-of-day high school hallway by camerawork characterized by  rapid  cuts  from  medium  shots  to  close  ups  to  POVs  and  shot- reverse shots from a camera that persistently remains at characters’ eye-level.  Following  the  characters  through  hallways  to  classrooms and cafeteria, Brantås’s camera presents the space through characters’ experience, which indirectly implies this space does not exist without the characters.

Genre  definitions  are,  to  a  great  extent,  defined  by  and  based on  Hollywood  film.  The  genre  status  of  Show  Me  Love  in  American context is, therefore, already complicated by it being a foreign film – it may not be particularly Swedish, but neither is it American. Both Tiina Rosenberg and Jenny Björklund argue for Show Me Love to be read  like  a  romantic  comedy,  a  genre  characterized  by  tumultuous courtships which nevertheless lead inevitably towards a happy ending (usually marriage or the promise thereof), for compatible adult couples through  their  overcoming  of  obstacles,  Sleepless  in  Seattle  (Nora Ephron, 1993) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) providing classic examples of the genre (Rosenberg 2000; Björklund 2009: 39). According to Björklund, ‘the audience will recognize the structure  of  the  romantic  comedy  in  Show  Me  Love  and  interpret it  as  a  romantic  comedy  even  if  the  couple  happens  to  be  lesbian’ (Björklund 2009: 40). However, Björklund largely ignores the teenage component of the formula, identified by Stenport above, which invites us to consider some significant differences, most importantly the age of the protagonists. The leads of the teen romance are, as the term implies,  teenagers  and,  as  such,  subject  to  a  plethora  of  rules  and restrictions placed upon them by adult society, no matter how absent from the film these adults may seem, for example in Some Kind of  Wonderful  (Howard  Deutch,  1987)  or  She’s  All  That  (Robert  Iscove, 1999).  Consequently,  freedom,  personal  choices  and  movement  of the teen romance film’s characters are restricted, and   to an extent inconceivable  to  the  protagonists  of  the  adult  romantic  comedy.  In this context the centrality of the high-school community becomes not so much unifying as an effective reflection of (and a reaction to) the otherwise invisible adult society surrounding it.

Conversely  to  Björklund,  Rosenberg  dwells  on  the  age  of  the protagonists and identifies the film‘s portrayal of adolescents as central to its popularity in Sweden, where critics ‘unanimously praised Show Me Love as an excellent portrayal of young people’ (2006: 112). But, as in the case of the town of Åmål, the authenticity of the characters of Show Me Love transcends their Swedish origin, as is evident from the majority of American critics claiming to find the film‘s representation of teenagers both true and identifiable. Many of these critics criticize the American teen romances in comparison, thus critiquing the genre even as they approvingly confirm Show Me Love’s place within it. For example, Beth Armitage writes:

Teen  romances  are  a  dime  a  dozen  in  the  U.S.  They  tend  to focus  on  themes  like  alienation,  individuality,  and  rebellion against parents, society, and/or high school cliques. Show Me Love focuses on all these themes – and so could be counted as a classic American teenage love story. This is notable because the movie is not U.S.-made, but Swedish, and because the love story concerns two girls. Show Me Love is also remarkable because it tells this story with complexity and emotional truth, something that strikes me as a rarity in the genre. (Armitage 1999)

Although Armitage does not at this point pause to ask whether the perceived complexity and emotional truth might be present precisely because the love story concerns two girls, she unhesitatingly places the film within the genre of the teen romance in spite of its ‘rarity’. Her classification of Show Me Love is sound, both from American and Swedish perspective, as its central focus is unarguably an adolescent romance,   even   if   lesbian.   Indeed,   Jeremy   Heilman   somewhat disapprovingly states that Show me Love demonstrates ‘precisely the kind of naiveté and sweetness that one would expect to find in any teen romance’ (2004), while James Brundage exclaims that, ‘pound for pound, Show Me Love is as good of a Hughesian romantic comedy that I have seen since Can’t Hardly Wait’ (2000). That critics and audience alike tend to dwell on ways the film diverges from the norm accentuates just how rare ‘complexity and emotional truth’ of this calibre is within the genre, rather than implying nonconformity to the genre as such.

A closer look at plot and central characters clarifies the positioning of Show Me Love as a norm and/or anomaly within the teen romance genre. The film opens on Agnes’ (Rebecca Liljeberg) sixteenth birthday. Forced  by  her  well-meaning  but  clueless  mother  to  host  a  birthday party  it  looks  like  the  only  guest  will  be  wheelchair-bound  Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg) whom Agnes cruelly berates, claiming they ‘are just pretend friends because there’s no one else to be with’.2  But then Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) shows up and, spurred on by a bet with her sister, Jessica (Erica Carlson), kisses Agnes on the lips. Jessica and Elin run off, leaving Agnes stunned and hurt, but Elin immediately regrets the prank and later returns to apologize just as Agnes is making a desperate albeit inefficient attempt at slitting her wrist. On a long walk the girls reveal their innermost desires and end up kissing passionately. But, rather than calling Agnes the next day as promised, Elin starts dating Johan (Mathias Rust). Thus a lesbian twist complicates the genre norm  as  the  audience  waits  to  see  whether  Johan  or  Agnes  will  be awarded the promised happily-ever-after ending with Elin.

Narratively,  Show  Me  Love  thus  follows  the  formula  of  the  teen romance  quite  comfortably.  That  critics  continually  dwell  on  Show Me Love’s uniqueness is due to its characterization, not its plotline. Armitage, for example, states:

Where in standard teen romances, the characters are rendered in shorthand (jocks and nerds are stock characters, as are the so-called ‘outcasts’ who are so clearly real-life prom queens and kings), Show Me Love gets beyond types. Instead, characters are allowed depth and frailty. (Armitage 1999)

This  depth  is  extended  to  central  and  secondary  characters  alike, resulting  in  a  remarkable  group  of  complex  and  multidimensional individuals bound by their common experience of small-town mentality and restrictions. Agnes is shy, sensitive and unpretentious and, as is expected of the lead in a romantic comedy, deeply in love even if she happens to be in love with another girl. Although she has been living in Åmål for almost two years she has no friends. This may be due to her  shyness  or  her  sexual  orientation,  but  neither  is  confirmed.  At first glance Agnes fits the prevalent ugly-duckling lead of the American teen romance with her plain hairstyle and baggy trousers, but such a reading is undermined by the failure of  her appearance to change during the course of the film; nor is it ever the subject of discussion.

The  14-year  old  Elin  is  Agnes’  complete  opposite:  excessively feminine  and  focused  on  her  looks,  loud,  popular  and  uninhibited. At  first  glance  she  may  be  read  as  the  cheerleader-type  lead  of  so many American teen romances. According to convention she would be expected to fall for the shy boy, a possibility invited by the character of sensitive and quiet Johan. Importantly, in spite of the film’s central lesbian theme, Johan does not lose Elin because he is male (i.e. Elin’s rejection of heteronormative conformity), but due to repeatedly failing to think and speak for himself and, in spite of all his infatuation, never acknowledging Elin as anything more than the ‘pretty’ girl. Conversely, Show  Me  Love’s  gender-twist  invites  a  reading  of  Elin  as  a  female version of the teen romance’s popular boy who has the choice of every girl in the school but falls for the ugly duckling, Pretty in Pink (John Hughes, 1986) and She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999) being good examples. After all, her sister exclaims that although Elin has not slept with anyone, she has ‘necked about 70,000’. But Elin is a sensitive if bored girl who, in spite of Sweden’s emphasis on equal rights, has no illusions about the future the small-town norm offers women.

Although  her  sister  is  equally  aware  of  these  small-town  norms, Jessica  seems  eerily  satisfied  with  her  life.  A  self-assured   version of the teen movie’s party girl, she seeks fun through drinking, and validation through having a boyfriend, the chauvinistic Markus (Stefan Hörberg).  Nonetheless,  her  character  too  develops  through  the  film as she becomes increasingly critical of Markus and more aware of the choices open to her.

Moodysson allows his characters both childish vindictiveness, like Elin’s pouring chocolate milk over her sister in the opening scene, and shocking  cruelty,  such  as  when  the  tormented  Agnes  lashes  out  at Viktoria, saying she does not ‘want to be friends with a palsied cripple who  listens  to  the  Backstreet  Boys’.  But,  both  Elin’s  frustration  and the emotional anguish that causes Agnes’ outburst are recognizable and easy for the audience to relate to. Although it is unclear whether Viktoria’s indifference to Agnes’ apology stems from anger and pain or implies that Agnes was correct in claiming they were only ‘pretend friends’,  her  subsequent  fuelling  of  the  (true)  rumours  of  Agnes’ lesbianism suggests one outsider berating another one in a hopeless attempt to get in with the popular crowd rather than a vicious revenge.

Refreshingly,  the  cast  of  Show  Me  Love  is  free  of  stereotypical nerds, dim-witted jocks and bullies. Markus may be a hot-headed jerk with a baffling obsession with mobile phones, but he is planning his future and getting decent grades. That he thinks himself the ultimate authority on what girls ‘understand’ is more a reflection of the small- town mentality and conservatism than his meanness or stupidity. Even the  self-obsessed  Camilla  (Lisa  Skagerstam)  is  simply  tactless  and insensitive rather than straightforwardly homophobic or cruel.

Moodysson’s  characters  are  thus  in  conversation  with  the  teen romance  at  every  level  of  Show  Me  Love,  while  simultaneously transcending  the  norm  of  the  genre  as  their  depth  and  complexity makes them true to life. Similarly to the constructed small-town setting discussed above, the characters’ multidimensionality enables them to transcend  boundaries  of  language  and  culture  and  allows  American audience  to  identify  with  them  as  effortlessly  as  did  the  Swedish audience.

Not  surprisingly,  personal  identification  is  common  in  American reviews of the film (as it was in Sweden), where the reviewers more often than not strive to ignore or eliminate the film’s ‘foreign’ status and bring it ‘home’ (read: authenticate it). For example, Peter Stack remarks that: ‘These kids are, like, real – so familiar they might as well be in San Carlos,  Hayward  or  Novato’  (1999).  Additionally,  reviews  frequently reflect on the reviewers’ personal experiences of their adolescence as much as providing an objective reading of the film. Thus Roger Ebert’s review of Show Me Love conjures up his positive memories of those years as he muses: ‘This is all I ask of a movie about teenagers: That they be  as smart, as confused,  as good-hearted  and  as insecure  as the kids I went to high school with’ (2000). Other reviewers are more neutral but still focused on the recognisability of the characters, such as Charles Taylor (‘the two heroines are so recognizable as real girls’) or Jake Wilson (‘just real kids who don’t understand everything and are stumbling through things as best they can’) (Taylor 1999; Wilson 2000). However, most reviewers refer to adolescence as a difficult or even torturous time. Examples include Jeff Vice, who states that ‘this low-key charmer from Sweden so perfectly portrays what it’s like to be a gawky, unpopular teenager – especially one who’s longing for love and/or acceptance’ (2000); Liese Spencer, who observes that   ‘these young people are not allowed to play at being adults, but are trapped in a real teen purgatory, waiting for childhood to end and life to begin’ (2011);  and,  perhaps  most  honestly,  according  to  kissingfingertips. com: ‘The children in this film are cruel, merciless and extraordinarily naive, just like we all were at that age’ (1998).

The  strength  of  Show  Me  Love  and,  arguably,  the  source  of  its popularity, is Moodysson’s ability to present the confusion, frustration and excitement of the teenage years in a way recognisable to most, regardless  of  nationality,  class  or  sexual  orientation.  Similarly,  the construct  of  Åmål  provides  the  perfect  backdrop,  familiar  in  its restrictive hyper-normativity as we are reminded, subtly, what limited control teenagers have over their lives. Moodysson’s choice of a lesbian adaptation of the teen romance genre for bringing all of these facets of the teenage experience together demands in itself a queer reading, as all normative practices are already questioned and doubted by the film’s perspective.

 

The Importance of Queering

Through its multi-layered characters’ confused and at times desperate pursuit of happiness, Show Me Love effortlessly appeals to more than one audience. Early in the film Agnes’ father (Ralph Carlsson) attempts to comfort his dejected daughter, using his own life as an example to prove to her things will get better. He describes his twenty-five year class reunion as a cathartic moment of shedding his former identity of the unpopular boy and embracing his new identity as a successful adult; a story many in the audience may relate to. Yet, although Agnes listens patiently, she finds little comfort in the story. ‘But dad’, she says with the time-confined logic of a teenager, ‘you’re talking like, in twenty-five years. Sorry, but I’d rather be happy now than in twenty- five years’. For the teenager, twenty-five years in the future, to quote Agnes, ‘doesn’t exist’; all that exists is the here and now complete with its raw emotion and confusion.3

In  a  film  unflinchingly  addressing  teenage  angst  Agnes’  reaction to her father’s story provides a key moment. Agnes’ anxiety is never downplayed, nor is it presented as any less agonizing or unreal due to her young age. The teenagers in the audience, gay and straight alike, may  partake  in  her  distress  and  share  her  sense  of  urgency,  while the adults, regardless of their sexual orientation, may remember just how desperate one can feel at sixteen. Even so, acknowledging that Agnes is lesbian is crucial, not only for the countless LGBTQ4 teenagers frantically searching for cinematic representations, any representation, to identify with, but also in order to enable the transformative power of queering by inviting the audience to participate in and identify with the desperation of an LGBTQ teenager. Kevin N. Laforest states that, when watching Show Me Love, ‘you can feel all the anguish that comes with discovering who you are, especially when you’re different’ (1999), that is, the audience may identify with the character and still experience something greater, undergo a queering of sorts. This, however, is the step so many commentators refuse to take.

In spite of this invitation on the part of Show Me Love, a majority of reviews ignore or reject the invitation of experiencing something more.  The  same  multilayered  recognisability  that  enables  critics to  identify  with  Show  Me  Love’s  characters  is  frequently  utilised  to dismiss the lesbian theme, on the grounds of an argument that could be summed up as:  ‘I identify with these characters and since I am not lesbian/gay  this  is  not  a  lesbian  film’.   Thus,  Gunnar  Rehlin  (1998) exclaims  that  Show  Me  Love   ‘is  not  a  “gay  movie”  per  se,  and  the lesbian angle is not over-stressed’, although what ‘over-stressing’ the ‘lesbian  angle’  might  entail  is  left  unsaid.  Rehlin  then  continues  to state that, ‘lesbianism is a metaphor, in this case for doing something unusual – and ultimately liberating – in a conservative setting’, thereby reducing the main characters’ sexual orientation to an act or a game. Similarly, Marc Savlov describes the film as a ‘spot-on dissection of a Swedish teenager’s first love’, but concludes that the ‘fact that the teen in question – the lovely Alexandra Dahlstrom’s shy misfit Agnes – is a lesbian is almost beside the point’ (2000), while Peter Stack sees fit to tell us that Show Me Love ‘has a lesbian theme, but it’s handled with a refreshing sense of humanity’ (1999); what that means is entirely unclear.  In  his  review  on  UrbanCineFile.com,  Richard  Kuipers  never mentions the characters’ sexual orientation, in spite of stressing how the film is ‘about confusion, cluelessness and the painful course of self discovery which budding sexual awareness inspires’ (2000). Jeff  Vice of the Deseret News even asks the audience to ‘forget for a moment that “Show Me Love” has a gay-centric storyline’ because ‘those who can get over the fact that one character – two of them, in fact – may be gay will find it surprisingly poignant and unflinchingly honest’ (2000). Why deliberately shunning the central theme is necessary to reveal the film’s unflinching honesty Vice does not explain, any more than why one  must  ‘get  over’  the  characters’  sexual  orientation  to  realize  its poignancy.

Even   critics   who   acknowledge   the   film’s   lesbian   component frequently downplay its significance, including James Berardinelli,  who states:

Moodysson captures the uncertainty, anguish,  heartbreak, and giddy  highs  that  accompany  a  first  love.  And  we  don’t  just observe this happening; we feel it along with the characters. The fact that the romance is between two girls only intensifies the emotions, because both participants face the possibility of being ostracized. Yet Show Me Love is less about lesbianism than it is about self-discovery. The movie might have been less provocative with a traditional girl/boy romance, but it would have worked as effectively on an emotional level. (Berardinelli 1999)

Berardinelli not only elevates the subject of self-discovery at the cost of the harder-to-relate-to lesbian theme, but also effectively renders this self-discovery heteronormative by juxtaposing it with lesbianism rather than connecting the two. Thus read, Show Me Love no longer portrays  young  lesbians  discovering  themselves  and  their  sexual orientation,  but  tells  a  story  about  adolescent  girls’  self-discovery where  the  possibility  of  lesbianism  serves  as  added  spice.  Even more problematically, the all-too-real danger of banishment faced by anyone coming out in high school is only acknowledged by the critic in a romantic context where he labels it intensifying and provocative, i.e.   exciting   to   the   mainstream   (read:   heterosexual)   audience.Finally, one must ask how the emotional turmoil accompanying the awakening of a sexual identity that is challenged and even condemned by  heteronormative  society  could  possibly  have  been  conveyed  as effectively  in  heterosexual  terms.  Berardinelli  may  claim  to  feel  the characters’ anguish and heartbreak, but in reality he actively rejects the lesbian component of Show Me Love.

To reiterate, Show Me Love invites us to fully identify with its multi- layered characters. We are invited to put ourselves in Agnes’ shoes, to share her pain and desperation, to experience her loneliness and rejection and to accept it on her terms. We are invited to feel Elin’s confusion,  to  realize  the  bewilderment  and  panic  following  that first kiss, and to partake in her numbing fear of coming out to the heteronormative  community  that  has  up  until  this  moment  dictated the terms of her life. Accepting this invitation allows us to experience a  different  view  of  the  world  and  to  ask,  with  genuine  concern, what  is  needed  for  these  girls  to  be  happy  now.  An  honest  answer inevitably  calls  for  the  transformative  power  of  queering,  because the heteronormative ‘now’ must change if Agnes and Elin are ever to achieve their desired happiness, i.e. realize the required ending of the romantic comedy.

Fortunately for all the Agneses and Elins out there, there are critics who  wholeheartedly  accept  Show  Me  Love’s  invitation  to  identify, commentators  who  embrace  and  celebrate  the  characters’  sexual orientation and who share in the film’s queering of heteronormativity, such  as  Jeffrey  M.  Anderson  who  finds  himself  ‘caught  up  in  the romance and in the triumphant climax’ (1999), Lavender Menace who praises Moodysson’s ‘representation of lesbianism as itself a source of  hope  and  potential  happiness,  an  end  to  anguish  rather  than a cause of it’ (2009), and Beth Armitage, who makes no attempt to deny  the  main  characters’  lesbian  identity.  Similarly  to  Berardinelli, Armitage emphasizes the experience of a mainstream audience, but with one  significant  difference; stressing Show Me Love’s  invitation, she suggests the entire audience identify with the lesbian characters:

Show Me Love‘s impeccable acting and hand-held camerawork [...]  paint  an  incredibly  vivid  picture  of  high  school,  to  which most viewers can relate (even if you aren’t Swedish, even if you aren’t lesbian). What makes a story seem ‘universal’ is not that we share a same specific experience or identity, but that we all experience the emotions that a specific experience can evoke [...]

Show Me Love is one of those films that feels ‘universal,’ not because it represents lesbians as ‘just like everybody else,’ but because ‘everybody else’ can feel what these characters feel. It is just an added pleasure of Show Me Love that it may be straight folks who are finding representations of themselves in a ‘lesbian love story,’ rather than the other way around. (Armitage 1999)

In its fullest extent, Show Me Love’s invitation to identification is an invitation to queering. To accept it means not only being open to finding  a  representation  of  oneself  within  a  lesbian  love  story,  but being open to (or even an advocate for) continual queering of one’s own heteronormative environment. As the following analysis claims, real change does not have to be on a large scale. Even if all you may affect  is  your  immediate  surroundings,  that  little  change  is  vitally important.

 

Queer Transformation

Agnes may be lonely and unhappy almost to the very end of Show Me Love, but she is secure in her identity. That she neither denies nor declares  her  lesbianism  stems  more  from  a  lack  of  an  incentive  to come out than insecurity or fear of doing so. Agnes knows whom she loves (‘Elin!!!!!!!!!!!’), and she knows what she wants (to not have to have a party and for Elin to notice her) although she has no illusions of getting her wishes fulfilled.

Conversely, Elin has no idea what, let alone whom, she wants at the beginning of Show Me Love. Even though she loudly claims she wants to  go  to  a  rave,  to  do  drugs,  to  mug  a  pensioner,  to  become  Miss Sweden, her only rebellious act is to inadvertently take the lift without her skirt on, a transgression that gets her grounded by her mother. Her ensuing choice of going to Agnes’ party rather than to the one her high school clique is attending is a desperate if empty attempt at defying the conventions of her stifling heteronormative community, the only available option resembling anything unconventional. ‘I’d even rather go to Agnes’ [place]’ she wails; ‘maybe she knows someone really nice. People from somewhere else’.

Agnes  personifies  a  queer  alternative  for  Elin  in  the  sense  of queering  as  an  in-your-face  attitude  and  a  deliberate  defiance  of heteronormativity, not because of what Agnes is (a lesbian), but for what she is not (part of Åmål’s in-crowd).6   Indeed, at this point Elin is equally unaware of Agnes’ alleged lesbianism as she is of her own sexual orientation. However, a desire for queering is expressed and a source identified, even if the teen romance limits it to the characters’ community and confined spaces. Mark Graham reminds us that:

Geographical displacement is not in itself necessary to achieve a  feeling  of  estrangement,  what  is  required  is  ‘discursive strangeness’. Strangers are usually understood in terms of the place they arrive at, while exiles are defined in terms of the place they left behind. But queers in a heteronormative society never quite arrive like strangers, but neither are they exiles because they have not left home. (Graham 1998: 118)

In the case of Elin and Agnes the association between the familiar and the strange is even more complicated. Agnes is indeed a stranger, but she should not be; her queerness prevents her from finding home in the heteronormative construct in spite of having lived in Åmål for almost two years. Conversely, no one seems more at home in Åmål than Elin, but her own budding queerness has rendered the familiar strange in a stifling, not liberating way. Fearing the option of becoming a stranger by staying, she flirts with the alternative of leaving the construct to become an exile. However, as teenagers the girls’ mobility is restricted to the space allotted to them by adult society, i.e. Åmål. All that they have  power  to  shape  and  queer  are  their  immediate  surroundings and community, effectively expressed by the film’s constricting, even claustrophobic camerawork (Anderson 1999; Miller 2000).

For  Agnes  this  queering  mostly  means  painful  and  prolonged waiting, while every part of her lonely, tormented existence cries for happiness to start ‘now’. For Elin, queering is marked by a series of outings  (physically  expressing  the  act  of  coming  out),  the  first  one accidental  as  mentioned  above,  when  the  lift  opens  on  her  in  her underwear.  The  second  is  restricted  or  controlled  (Jessica’s  locking Elin in and Agnes out of Agnes’ bedroom), and the third is liberating (exiting  the  high  school  toilet  with  Agnes  as  her  girlfriend).  These outings are juxtaposed with series of declarations or attempts at verbal wish-fulfilment  for  life  as  she  would  like  it  to  be.  As  the  following analysis shows, each expression, verbal and physical, marks a step in Elin’s development as we, along with Agnes, wait for her to develop into the queer catalyst she has the makings of. Then, and only then, will the two girls be able to queer their environment in however limited a capacity is available to them.

The required obstacles of the romantic comedy materialize in the formofheteronormativeoptionsandadvocates,thelove-struck,moped- riding boyfriend, the eyebrow-raising female friend who ‘knows’ you are ‘not like that’ and, most importantly, the ever-present older sister, Jessica. Ironically, Jessica plays a dual role. As the unquestioning agent of  (heterosexual)  conventionality  she  promotes  the  status  quo  and criticizes her sister’s quest for an alternative as ‘exasperating’, asking why she must ‘always do the opposite?’ But Jessica’s preferences also provide Elin with norms to rebel against, and her criticisms give Elin ideas to embrace. Pointedly, at Agnes’ place, Jessica locks the room without telling Elin. Agnes, the perceived queer threat, is thus locked  out while Elin is locked in, literally closeted.

But queering has its way. When Jessica snidely shares the school gossip  of  Agnes’  alleged  lesbianism,  Elin  exclaims  she  thinks  it  is ‘cool’ and, in much the same flippant manner as her earlier avowal to become Miss Sweden, adds that she is ‘going to become one too’. This is prior to the dared kiss and Björklund argues that ‘lesbianism is unacceptable or unthinkable’ to Elin at this point. I would suggest, rather, that it is unimaginable; an alternative hitherto inconceivable to Elin (Björklund 2009: 42). That it is introduced by Jessica, the guardian of heteronormativity, is a sweet irony, and the scene ends with Elin’s second outing, rushing down the stairs from Agnes’ room after the bet-inspired kiss. It is important to note that only Jessica is laughing, that Elin throws the 20 crown winnings from Jessica on the ground, and  that  she  immediately  wants  to  return  to  apologise  even  if  she allows herself to be dissuaded by Jessica.

With  the  kiss,  queering  has  irreversibly  been  introduced  and everything  now  becomes  thinkable  to  Elin.  Heteronormative  space has  been  disrupted  and  new  queer  bonds  cut  ‘across  identitarian positionings that will remain forever incommensurated’(Weiner&Young 2011: 227). This is exemplified when later that night Elin hesitatingly voices the possibility of studying psychology when discussing future plans  with  Agnes.  Agnes’  immediate  and  unquestioning  support of Elin’s ambitions stands in stark contrast to the superficial banter between  the  two  sisters  earlier.  Thrilled  by  the  possibilities  of  new futures, but clearly dreading the prospect of creating ‘a viable queer identity’ within Åmål, Elin suggests they hitchhike to Stockholm. The big  city  offers  the  ‘anonymity  and  the  “critical  mass”  necessary  for some kind of community or infrastructure to develop’, i.e. an easier alternative to having to queer her own community of Åmål (Graham 1998: 118). But this option is not available to teenagers bound by the rules of adult society, not even in a romantic comedy. That night on the bridge, Elin realizes the possibility of an alternative future for herself, thanks to Agnes, thanks to queering, but she also realizes that she will have to create that future herself and the first step in that direction is staying and becoming a stranger, not leaving to become an exile.

I  assert  that  from  the  moment  of  her  second  outing,  Elin  is effectively reinventing herself in line with the teen romance trope of self-actualisation. That this is a form of queering is supported by her intertwining discourses of sexual orientation, educational pursuits and professional goals; success at one is contingent upon manifestation of another. Her first attempt at verbal wish-fulfilment is made on the bridge with Agnes as she voices the idea of pursuing psychology. It is too soon for her to verbally acknowledge her own sexual orientation even though she enthusiastically expresses support for Agnes’.

Elin  makes  her  second  and  more  daring  attempt  at  verbal  wish- fulfilment the following night when, sitting in front of the television with her mother, she suddenly declares: ‘Mom? I am a lesbian.’ Taken by surprise, her mother exclaims: ‘What?’ and Elin clarifies: ‘Homosexual’. A short silence later she adds: ‘No, I was just kidding’. Björklund argues this is ‘a way for Elin to figure out how her mother would react to her actually being a lesbian,’ and reads her immediate withdrawal of the statement  as  Elin  being  unhappy  with  her  mother’s  reaction  (2009: 43). Conversely, I argue that Elin withdraws her statement too quickly for it to be read as a reaction. Rather we witness Elin contemplating a possibility – an identity – and taking a step to realizing it by saying it out loud. She has done this with numerous other identities already: Miss  Sweden,  model,  and,  so  far  most  seriously,  the  identity  of  a psychologist on the bridge the night before. However, at home with her mother her statement is uttered quite matter-of-factly and in the present tense, ‘I am a lesbian,’ and when she adds: ‘Homosexual’ she does so categorically and without defiance or attempted humour. In fact, it is only when she retracts her statement claiming to have been kidding that Elin sounds unconvincing or insincere.

Elin makes her third and most forceful announcement a few days later while hanging out with her now boyfriend, Johan. The setting of an empty playground is a subtle reminder of heteronormative values, emphasized by the company of Jessica and Marcus. In the film’s most explicit  reference  to  Elin’s  class  status,  we  learn  that  the  boys  are attending  vocational  college  (studying  Mechanics  and  Electrics)  and that Jessica is contemplating courses in either Childhood and Leisure or Hairstyling. Revealingly, Johan neglects to ask what plans Elin might have for her future. Elin, however, does not wait for his question, but exuberantly declares: ‘I’m going to become a psychologist!’ then adds, somewhat hesitantly, ‘I think so, anyway’. We cut to Jessica who asks, rather  incredulously:  ‘Psychologist?!!’  Ignoring  her,  Elin  wonders  to herself which program she should take, and Jessica repeats: ‘You are going to be a psychologist?!!’

Contrary to the scene with Agnes on the bridge, the present company offers Elin no support. Rather, her statement is met with incredulity exceeding her mother’s when Elin tried on the lesbian identity earlier. But this time she stands her ground and defiantly answers: ‘Yes.’ She may not yet dare to acknowledge her sexual orientation, but she is ready to break from the career norms of gender and class. Even so, the two identities of a lesbian and a psychologist intertwine for Elin, both being new possibilities that Agnes has enabled her to envisage.

Elin’s choice between Agnes and Johan is a choice between a socially sanctioned  relationship  with  indecisive  and  unsupportive  boyfriend culminating in her nightmare of screaming kids and a husband whom she expects will in due course leave her for someone younger, and a  queer  relationship  with  a  self-assured  and  supportive  girlfriend complete with a successful career in psychology. It is difficult not to see the queer relationship like a clear winner. Although Björklund claims that  Åmål  ‘rewards  a  different  kind  of  femininity’,  i.e.  conventional heterosexual  femininity,  how  that  ‘reward’  manifests  is  something of a mystery (Björklund 2009: 46). When scrutinized, Show Me Love never presents the heterosexual norm as an appealing alternative. Elin is brought up by an over-worked and exhausted mother who evades discussing the absent father. Agnes’ parents, while loving and caring individuals, are never shown effectively functioning as a couple. Even Jessica, in all her support of heteronormativity, cannot explain why she is dating Markus, but claims, somewhat defiantly: ‘It’s just like that. It’s him and me. It’s just like that.’ Having no better argument she presents a photo of Markus as a grubby-faced child, foreshadowing her expected and accepted future role as a wife and a mother.

Agnes  functions  as  the  catalyst  of  change,  the  one  who  makes everything  possible,  whether  that  is  Elin’s  new-found  belief  in  own abilities to become a psychologist, or her yet-to-be-declared queerness. Björklund states that ‘through accepting her love for Agnes [Elin] is able to step out of small-town womanhood and claim her subjectivity’ (Björklund 2009: 46). I would argue that this is only partially correct, because  in  spite  of  everything  Elin  remains  directly  dependent  on Agnes’ support and strength to reinvent her identity. Indeed it is the prospect  of  Agnes’  love  and  acceptance  that  brings  new  meaning to Elin’s existence and enables her to envisage new possibilities for herself; a rewarding career in psychology and a love-filled, supportive same-sex relationship.7  Yet, it is telling that Elin is only able to confess her own feelings contingent upon Agnes’ corroboration of the same: ‘Is  it  true  that  you…?  Viktoria  said  that  you  were…in  love  with  me. Because…if  you  are,  then  I  am  too.  In  you,  that  is.’  Although  her declaration  of  love  may  be  ‘characteristically  conditional’,  to  quote Stenport, one should not forget that in spite of her more secure self- image, Agnes has not cared to come out on her own either. It is a scary world out there for a lone teenager (Stenport 2012: 68).

Agnes’ wait is finally over as she enables Elin’s third and official outing. Triumphantly the girls exit the high school toilet to face the crowd they will have to face for oh-so-many days to come. Whether these final scenes are ‘simply the calm before the storm’ as suggested on  kissingfingertips.com  (1998),  all  that  was  familiar  has  been rendered strange – albeit now in an exciting way. In ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’, Graham muses that:

Dorothy’s travels (brought on by a sudden blow to the head) take her ‘nowhere’ at all, and yet this going nowhere renders the utterly familiar strange. Dorothy learns that there is no place like home, but this is true in a queer sense because Dorothy has seen that not even home is itself. A queer anthropology can also help to achieve the same result on our own home turf (the blow to the head is optional). No place is, then, ever entirely what it seems. (Graham 1998: 105)

Graham   reminds   us   that   this   is   not   necessarily   a   liberating experience: ‘What is present is continually haunted by what is absent’ he  claims,  because  ‘places  are  made  as  much  by  exclusions  as  by inclusions’ (Graham 1998: 105). This is no doubt true for Åmål as well as any other place. However, the genre of the teen romance allows us to suspend this bleak view, if briefly, and join Agnes and Elin in celebrating the queering of Åmål, however limited, with a nice, large glass of chocolate milk. That is, if we acknowledge that this is a film about two lesbians coming out. If, however, all we see is a film about small-town  boredom,  then  there  is  nothing  to  celebrate  at  the  end, because Åmål is no more or less boring then than it was at the film’s opening.

 

Notes

1   Although  Show  Me  Love  is  analysed  here  as  the  romantic  teen  comedy  it certainly  is,  the  socio-political  discourse  it  encountered  in  the  United  States upon  its  release  was  anything  but  light-hearted.  On  one  hand,  the  newly-founded Trevor Project (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/HistoryOfTrevor) had created awareness of bullying of and suicides among LGBTQ youth leading to the establishment of the Trevor Lifeline in August 1998. On the other, Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in October 1998 re-kindled demands for classifying violence against LGBTQ people as a hate crime, finally resulting in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to be signed into law eleven years later, expanding the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

2   Because  the  vast  majority  of  Show  Me  Love’s  audience  discussed  here  is dependent on the film’s subtitles and the online communities in question rely on English as the common language, all quotes will be in English, using the subtitles from the U.S. DVD release.

3  This teenage urgency and emotional focus on the ‘now’ is at the core of The Trevor Project, as well as the more recent It Gets Better Project, where the lack of openly gay adults and mentors in the lives of LGBTQ youth factors strongly in  their  inability  to  imagine  a  positive  future  for  themselves  and,  thereby, increasing  the  already  high  suicide  risk  among  those  children  (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/). In this context, queering the Åmåls of this world is not just a liberating gesture, it is a life necessity.

4 LGBTQ is an acronym standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. It is an inclusive term, emphasizing a diversity of sexuality and gender identity-based cultures and, as such, sometimes used to refer to anyone who is non-heterosexual or non-cisgender

5 See the discourse described in note 3 around LGBTQ youth suicide prevention as well as bullying and other violence against LGBTQ members of population in general.

6  It is worth noting that in Sweden ‘queer’ as a term has developed a somewhat more complex meaning than within American context. See Rosenberg 2008:16.

7 Although adult members of the audience are likely to be sceptical of teenagers’ vision for the future, it is important to acknowledge Moodysson’s respect for the teenage urgency of the ‘here and now’. Even if everything will be different a few days from now, nothing is more true or more real at this moment in their lives.

 

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