The schoolyard at Hartvig Nissen High School in Oslo is empty and covered in snow. Stina Nighy stares through the main entrance and into the dark halls that are normally filled with Norwegian teenagers. The 15-year-old has travelled from Gothenburg in Sweden with her mother Kristin Bergander to explore the capital of Norway, but not for the reasons most tourists do. It’s because of Skam.
Warning: spoilers will occur in this piece.
Take the popular British series Skins from a few years ago and make it less ‘druggy’, more realistic and set in Oslo, Norway, and then you have Skam – the Norwegian teen drama that has spread like an online epidemic.
Skam, which translates to ‘shame’ in English, is created by Julie Andem and produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). The series follow a group of Norwegian teenagers as they navigate drinking, sex, school, religion, homosexuality, sexual assault and mental health, in real life and online.
Each season follows the story of a new main character as they explore their own personal source of feeling ashamed. With close to no promotion at all, the show first saw the light of the day in August 2015 when a cryptic trailer dropped online. The trailer introduces the first season’s main character, Eva Mohn (Lisa Teige), who has no friends, struggles in school and validates herself through attention from her boyfriend Jonas Noah Vasquez (Marlon Langeland).
With its real-time narrative and inventive publishing format, Skam operates mainly online where all the characters have their own social media profiles and where clips drop on the show’s official website at the same time as they happen in the character’s world. This means that if the girl gang are heading to a party on Friday, April 14th at 8:27PM, that’s when the clip is published on the site. Same thing goes for the Instagram posts, Facebook conversations and text message the characters send to each other. Every Friday, all clips published since the previous Friday are merged into one episode, which is then broadcast on national television.
“Skam has done something new with giving the characters profiles on social media. On the site people can read the messages the characters send to each other. I think people like that insight,” says Dina Heier Pedersen. She was a part of the production team as an assistant during the filming of season 2, which followed Noora Amalie Sætre (Josefine Pettersen) as she explored a new relationship and dealt with issues such as sexual assault and eating disorders.
Noora’s story travelled across the Norwegian borders and between May 20th and 26th, people all over Scandinavia were waiting impatiently for her boyfriend William (Thomas Hayes) to reply to her texts after he heard the news that his older brother had sexually assaulted and blackmailed her.
The show was originally intended for Norwegian teenage girls, yet it quickly caught the attention of girls, boys, women and men at all ages. What is it about this show surrounding Norwegian teenagers’ everyday lives that appeals to so many people?
Media psychologist, Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford explains that TV shows bring up autobiographical memories. “They help us, at a comfortable distance, process our own lives, feelings and experiences. In Skam, this might be thinking about one’s own experiences with teen dating, for instance. Maybe we have unresolved fears, shames and so on, and we’d like to find some meaning in those experiences. In story, the ideas are clarified and distilled as compared to real life, helping us hone in on what we need to process.”
Julie Andem, the show’s creator, spent half a year travelling around Norway talking to teenagers about their everyday lives before writing the script for season 1. She told The New York Times: “We found one main need. Teenagers today are under a lot of pressure from everyone. Pressure to be perfect, pressure to perform. We wanted to do a show to take away the pressure.”
Talking to teenagers, young adults and people in their 30-40s, it seems like the show has managed to do exactly that. “I think that’s the main thing about Skam: it’s raw and realistic. An example of that is in season 3 when we get to see a 10-minute scene of Isak and Even laying in bed just talking, kissing and cuddling. You know, the simple things that couples usually do and that don’t get enough recognition. If that’s not realistic then I don’t know what it is,” says Camilla Riccadonna, a 20-year-old student from Milan in Italy. She discovered the series via Twitter, where memes of the characters Isak and Even started circulating while season 3 was running.
The third and latest season of Skam follows Isak Valtersen (Tarjei Sandvik Moe) during his third term in high school as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. It’s the blossoming relationship between him and the slightly older Even Bech Næsheim (Henrik Holm) that caught the attention of international viewers when the season premiered last October.
“I think that the third season’s focus on homosexuality has made a difference for many young people who may share Isak’s thoughts,” says Simon Falk, 41, from Denmark. He thinks the reason why the show appeals to so many different people at all ages has to do with the multiple layers in the series. “Young people see it as an expression of the time they themselves live in, but Andem & co have managed to include many facets of their own youth in the series like for example music from the 90s and other references that people between 30 and 40 also recognise. I also think the kind of challenges today’s teenagers deal with are similar to the ones teenagers had to deal with 15, 20 and 25 years ago.”
Simon moderates a Danish fan group on Facebook called ‘Kosegruppa’, which translates to ‘the cosy group’ and is inspired by a school group from the series that intends to spread cosy vibes.
me: suddenly remembers that even joined kosegruppa just to meet isak pic.twitter.com/mPa3PjAiPw
— n💫 (@smolvaItersen) March 22, 2017
The group currently has 40,000 members and the cosy vibes abound as the Skam loving Danes share articles, theories and internal banter on a daily basis – and they’re not alone. ‘Cosy’ seems to be the key word for the online Skam fandom, which grows bigger with every theory discussed and piece of fan art explored.
Whereas Simon has had the ‘privilege’ of having access to Skam via the Danish TV channel DR TV, Camilla is one of many international fans who’ve had to search the Internet to find subtitled versions of the series. Due to restricted music rights, NRK have not been allowed to subtitle the series, but some of the most dedicated fans in the fandom have taken care of that.
“I know there are fans who translate everything, which proves that we live in a globalised world and that we aren’t as different as many like to think. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Norway, Russia, China, USA or Columbia,” says Dina Heier Pedersen.
Two people who’ve made Skam available to international audiences are Kai Xu from China and Michael Larsen from Norway. They both live in Beijing, China, where Kai studies Norwegian at Beijing Foreign Studies University and Michael studies Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University.
“We wanted to let the Chinese audience learn more about Norway, including Norwegian life style, student life and the beauty of Oslo city, as well as trying to build a bridge between China and Norway,” says Kai, who thinks the show introduces some important issues that are still officially taboo in China.
“China has made some steps in the right direction regarding their attitudes towards the LGBT community [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual+] in recent years, but still have quite a long way to go,” says Michael. “TV shows that bring up the subject are removed by Chinese authorities. We saw translating Skam to Chinese as a way of contributing to a subject we think is important.”
The two have found the translation work challenging in terms of translating Norwegian slang, but rewarding with all the feedback they have received from Chinese Skam fans. Chinese teenage girls especially love the storyline in season 3. “Our society nowadays love the cutie boys, and Even and Isak are beloved by the Chinese people. A great amount of girls just love to see Isak and Even kissing. We call them the 腐女, that is to say they love gays and gay movies,” says Kai.
In China, Isak has been given the nickname ‘Little Angel’ and the majority of the comments revolves around him. “We have noticed tendencies of a fandom around this character, especially amongst Chinese girls,” says Michael.
Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at University of Chester, Dr Mark Duffett specialises in researching media fandoms. “When people become interested in heroes or plots, they often enter into fan communities. Those communities can have their own norms, concerns, and ways of being sociable. Consequently, for many, being a fan becomes not just about having an interest, but also pursuing a social life,” he says.
Camilla Riccadonna participates in the fandom as a dedicated fanfiction writer. According to the language of fandom, fanfiction is “writing that uses characters or situations from a piece of work the artist admires.” Experienced fans often name it as ‘fanfic’ or just ‘fic’.
“As Skam fans, we’re pretty similar to each other when it comes to the mindset we have, but I feel like every one of us has that little something that makes us different from the others. For me, it’s always been the writing. Every time I get really passionate about something I find a way to write about it,” says Camilla. Her seven-part story entitled Skam Diaries has been read over 3,300 times and centres around the thoughts of the Skam characters.
“One of the highlights of writing fan fiction is definitely seeing people appreciate the stuff that you’re working on. We take what we do very seriously and it’s nice when readers take it seriously as well because it means they recognise your effort,” says Camilla, however she does at times feel pressured to satisfy her readers. “The major challenge is trying to update regularly. Sometimes you won’t feel inspired at all, but if you’re not having fun when writing a fanfiction, then it’s not worth spending your time on that.”
According to Dr Duffett, many fans want to be a better fan in terms of what the shared goals of fan community suggest. “This suggests that fans are not stuck in fantasies, but instead have accepted the aim of their communities as acceptable goals for themselves. Some can feel a bit anxious if they do not meet those goals, but that is down to them as individual people. Their anxieties usually come in the context of many of the aims of their fandom actually being met.”
Camilla feels like Italian teenagers got their ‘revenge’ through Skam. “The fact that the characters are mostly played by actual teenagers is such an important factor. Teenagers finally feel represented in a realistic way, instead of watching shows that portray flawless 30 year olds pretending to be 16. The Skam characters are not perfect in any way, they have flaws and problems, and so they do represent the majority of today’s teenagers.”
Italian fans have easy access to anything Skam related via Skam_Italia, a Twitter account run by Sabrina Bottecchia and Martina Pagani. The two 22-year-olds from Bergamo post news, pictures, ‘gifs’ and Italian translations to their almost 7,000 followers.
“I think that the show became so popular in Italy for the way homosexuality is treated: naturally. Here in Italy, homosexuality is still a taboo and we have to identify ourselves in TV series that are obviously not Italian,” says Sabrina and Martina adds: “It’s a traditional country; not-straight people are often considered ”freaks”, for example. I think that Skam could educate people here, especially the youngest generation.”
Season 3’s storyline of coming out is not the only thing that has made fans feel connected to the show. “This was the first impact and then, when people started watching not only season 3, but also 1 and 2 I think that what people liked the most is the fact that in Skam you can identify yourself very easily, there’s a great variation of characters and it’s easy to find a character you can relate to. In other countries I think what people liked the most is the fact that difficult themes are represented in an easy way,” says Sabrina.
The majority of Sabrina and Martina’s followers are aged between 15 and 16, and through their Twitter account they have discovered how much Skam has influenced Italian teenagers. “They’ve started to dress like Noora, speak about feminism, address issues like Islamophobia and, well, we all listen to Norwegian music now,” says Sabrina.
After its appearance in season 3, the three year old song ‘5 fine frøkner’ (‘5 fine ladies’) by the Norwegian artist Gabrielle landed in the Sweden Top 50 chart on Spotify and she now has more listeners in Sweden’s capital Stockholm than in Oslo. Between November 25th last year and January 6th, Gabrielle’s daily amount of streams increased by 3018 per cent on a global scale and ‘5 fine frøkner’ currently has more than 26 million streams. All thanks to Skam.
It’s not just the music that has made it across the country borders.
“In Sweden it probably got very popular because Norway and Norwegian is quite similar to Sweden and Swedish. It’s becoming more common to try to actually speak a bit of Norwegian because of Skam, people have started to respond to comments and text messages and implement some typical Skam expressions and reactions into their every day vocabulary,” says Malvina Johansson, a 24-year-old Swedish student based in Edinburgh. “Everyday I see numerous Skam related posts from Swedish friends or from Swedish social media channels. It really has become a phenomenon, with everything from ‘Test to see which character you are’, to posts like ‘Get the style of Noora Sætre”.
Malvina discovered Skam through a friend in June last year and says she was immediately hooked by how easy it was to get involved in the events of the series and the characters. “I think the hype started because of the third season. Unfortunately, still to this day, good LGBT+ representation is rare, and Skam has managed to capture a beautiful and very realistic storyline of a young guy coming to terms with his sexuality, the struggles that might come with it and how to become who he wants to be.”
Although Malvina appreciates the realness of the show and especially its LGBT+ representation, there are aspects she finds problematic. “For example, William’s very possessive, demanding and controlling towards Noora, or how Chris, the slightly bigger girl, is constantly used as a comic relief and gets ridiculed when showing sexual or romantic interest in someone. The show is also predominently white. All which are very important and interesting discussions that I think needs to be had, and should be brought to attention of the creators. Skam is an utterly amazing TV series, but as always, there’s room for improvement.”
Almost all of the protagonists in the series are Caucasian, and this lack of representation has sparked conversations and discussions amongst not only the Skam fandom, but also other fandoms. Most recently during EOnline’s poll on TV’s Top Couple 2017, in which Even and Isak from Skam were nominated against couples like Outlander’s Claire and Jamie, Magnus and Alec from Shadowhunters and Teen Wolf’s Stiles and Lydia. Even and Isak (Evak) won over Magnus and Alec (Malec) in the final vote after the most eager fans in the Skam fandom had spent days and nights voting in the poll.
The SKAM/EVAK fandom right now pic.twitter.com/cVMXLszx4R
— ISAK+EVEN (@ISAKxEVEN) February 28, 2017
“There was a lot of effort because you could vote multiple times, some people voted a hundred times a day to keep up. There was just so much negativity and everyone just wanted it to be over. I felt stressed and guilty because in the poll there were two ships, and then you had to vote which one you liked more. The other fandom that were voting against us had a ship that were also two men, but they’re an interracial couple where one of them is Asian,” says Zoe, 15, from Kent.
The term ‘ship’ is commonly used within fandoms as a noun and a verb to describe relationships or express that you wish for a relationship to happen. “Say there’s a girl and a boy, and then you want them to be together, either as a friendship or as a relationship. Then you say that you ship them because you want them to be together. If you’re talking about Even and Isak, you would say that you ship them so badly.”
According to Zoe there’s a lot of competition between fandoms because they think that their ‘ship’ is better. “That brings out a lot of drama and negativity. Like during the poll thing. The people who ship Malec accused all the Evak fans of being racist and stuff like that.”
“It was just very stressful and tiring. You didn’t even feel that glad when we won because it had taken so much out of you. It shouldn’t be decided which show is the best or which couple is the best based on how active the fandom is. That has nothing to do with the quality of the show,” says Zoe and adds: “It’s a lot more than ships in the Skam fandom. We talk a lot about our theories and important issues.”
Zoe participates by writing fan fiction, tweeting and making fan videos, which in turn has made her a BNF within the fandom. A Big Name Fan is someone who is well known in the fan community for their participation.
“On YouTube I became relevant in the fandom because of my crack videos. A crack video is made for a fandom and is intended to be very funny. It’s normally quite weird and wacky, and it involves a lot of editing to make the scenes from a show different and funnier than they actually are,” says Zoe. She has with time accumulated almost 3,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1,600 followers on YouTube. One of her edits ‘3 minutes of Isak being cute’ currently has 117,000 views. “No one wants to make amazing fan art, and then keep it to themselves,” she says.
Zoe thinks that being a part of the fandom is a social thing. “It’s nice to have someone to talk about how you feel. At the end of episode 5 when I wanted cry and hold Isak, I needed someone to talk about that with, you know. Just to express my feelings. You just talk to people a lot.”
Abby Norman, a writer based in New England, has long experiences with various online fandoms. As a child she used to feel odd for wanting to have a deep dive analysis into a character after seeing a movie with her friends.
“I felt like I must care too much or that I was thinking about the wrong kinds of things, and that was a hard feeling to sit with. When I discovered fandom, it was like — Oh! Other people do this, too. And it was very validating, but it wasn’t just about having a place to share my thoughts or observations. Suddenly I had a wealth of ideas to consider that other people had contributed, things that I never would have thought of.”
Abby thinks the concept of socialising on the internet is worth talking about. She is talking about the inside jokes and self-referential stuff in a fandom that makes you feel connected.
“Like, you make some obscure reference to something from season three and the post gets like 6,000 notes on Tumblr. I can’t speak for everyone but when that happens to me it feels akin to being in a room full of people and making them laugh. It feels emotionally rewarding, like a good social interaction.”
“I’ve made friends who became real-life friends, too. But even if you haven’t met face-to-face, fandom is really the most fun when you can engage at a level that’s comfortable for you,” says Abby.
Through her online participation in the Skam fandom, Zoe has made new friends from all over Europe, including Spain, Hungary and Belgium. “That’s cool because they experience it differently and then they might say ‘I live in Italy, it’s harder for me as an LGBT person than it is for Isak and Even in Norway’. You learn more about other people and where they’re from.”
Zoe got into Skam because of the gay storyline in season 3. “I think it was around that time I came out as gay myself. It definitely helped my own experience because the show title translates to ‘shame’ and it really helped me feel more open and proud of it. Just seeing Isak so miserable hiding who he was made me realise that’s not who I wanted to be and not how anyone should be. I actually spoke to the guy who plays Magnus, David Alexander Sjøholt, and we had a conversation about that and he congratulated me.”
She has spoken to several of the cast members to express her love for their work. “With David it was like ‘I love you so much, you’re so adorable.’ Just fangirl vomit and then I just told other cast members that I love them and that they’re amazing.”
She reached out to the cast members through Instagram, but for some fans that simply isn’t enough.
There are those Skam fans who’re happy to lurk around in online fandoms and post the occasional meme, and then there are those Skam fans who get on a plane or a ferry to go Oslo to hunt down both locations from the show, as well as the actors.
“This is not a power walk, mum,” Stina Nighy says to her mother, Kristin Bergander as two are walking alongside the Akerselva river in Oslo. Guided by Mathilde Skjerpen Fongen from Skam safari, they’re navigating Oslo to see Stina’s favourite Skam locations with her own eyes: Noora’s flat, the bridge where Noora and William kissed, and Hartvig Nissen High School.
“It’s very exciting how Skam has advertised Norway as a vacation destination,” says Nina Søraa, a 23-year-old student from Oslo who decided to offer the new stream of tourists a special guide around the city in the shape of a Skam safari.
“The idea behind Skam safari came into being when I was doing an exchange term in Cape Town last autumn. The other international students I hung out with asked if I’d heard of Skam and we started discussing the series and how its popularity had exploded. We started playing around with the idea of how cool it’d be to go on a Skam safari in Oslo. When we realised such a thing didn’t exist, I took it upon myself and created one,” says Nina who has previous experience with guiding.
She teamed up with Dennis from Denmark, who works within media and has experience in creative industries, on developing the idea and turning it into an actual product before asking two of her closest friends, Andrea and Mathilde to join as guides.
“When tourists come to Oslo they usually find their way to the opera and the royal palace on their own, but through our guided tour they get an insight to our favourite spots in the city. We show them Grünerløkka, Akerselva, Sagene and St.Hanshaugen to give them a more completed impression of Oslo. The good thing about Skam is that they use locations we used to hang out at/in when we were in high school ourselves. And because our guests often go to Oslo because they’re inspired by the series, we feel like we’ve found a good balance between the two,” says Nina.
Their target demographic were originally fans from Denmark, Sweden and Finland, but as the word spread people have come from all over the world, including Hungary, South Korea, China and USA. “We’ve had a few quirky guests, including a fan from South Korea who showed up with a gift for one of our guides a couple of days later because she was so grateful. We’re honoured to meet amazing fans from so many different nationalities.”
‘Kosegruppa’ moderator Simon Falk was one of the first people to go on the Skam safari tour. It was his participation as a member in the Facebook group that made him decide to travel from Copenhagen in Denmark to Oslo, where he also met Tarjei, who plays Isak. “I found out that a play Tarjei was in was on that exact weekend, and it turned out that other members of the group were going there that weekend too. We decided to meet at Kaffebrenneriet and go to the theatre together.”
Teaming up with the other members, Simon started playing around with the idea of giving Tarjei a gift after his performance. “I came up with the idea of giving Tarjei chocolate and a bouquet of flowers since we were seeing him perform, but then it started developing. We got him a huge card with greetings from ‘Kosegruppa’ and the Danish newspaper Politiken contributed with fan drawings and a tote bag with one of the drawings on it,” says Simon.
“The combination of planning and coincidences resulted in a gift that made Tarjei very happy and surprised.”
Simon is not the only one who planned his Oslo visit around Skam. Daniel López Chica, 17, from Madrid in Spain wanted to go to Oslo because of how pretty it looked on the show, but also with hopes of meeting his favourite actors. “The visit to Oslo was really spontaneous, as we started watching the show in late September and went in January. Our excitement for the show was what made me and my friends buy everything.”
Prior to his visit Daniel messaged some of the cast members to ask if they were willing to meet them. “Iman Meskini, who plays Sana Bakkoush, was super friendly and willing to meet us! Same thing with Henrik, who plays Even,” he says.
“It wasn’t as easy with Tarjei nor David, but we bumped into then in a cafe right by their school! Everyone was the absolute sweetest when meeting them. Henrik and Iman even asked for our names. They are really down to earth and willing to know you as a friend!”
For some fans, meeting their idols is the ultimate goal, but with it comes the risk of disappointment. “I was really scared of being disappointed. I was scared of them being offended and not being nice, as I didn’t really know them before going there.”
Abby Norman think a lot of fans question how approachable the people behind the series are. “Did this character mean anything to them or was it just a paycheck? I think with the fictional characters it’s kind of like — that’s the point. I mean fictional characters can be in and of themselves metaphors for greater things, and they are inherently immortal and able to exist across time and space, and then some,” she says.
“The real people involved are, you know, actual people. That being said, it’s not like we don’t have those parasocial emotional responses to celebrities, or in fact, that we can’t have really wonderful experiences with them if we meet them in real life and get to tell them how much their work meant to us.”
With special thanks to:
Mathilde Skjerpen Fongen
Daniel López Chica
Dina Heier Pedersen
Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford
Dr Mark Duffett