Gendered Military Satire in Norway
The woman: ‘Tell me, lieutenant, haven’t you also carved your lover’s name on a tree?’
The cavalry officer: ‘That would never happen in “naturhistorien” [the history of nature]. My lady, I cannot possibly walk around and carve out the entire alphabet.’
As soldiering is a male-dominated profession, it is no wonder that military satire tends to be deeply gendered. However, like other humor genres, satire can be both inclusive and exclusionary, reinforcing or undermining engrained stereotypes and inequalities. I took the picture above when reading a military humoresque book published in 1906 (Bloch 1906) that I found at the special library of the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum in Oslo. The librarian explained to me that cavalry soldiers were often subjects of mockery and ridicule. Their military specialization entailed many expenditures, and in the seventeenth century, many struggled economically. However, the cavalry soldiers were regularly depicted as self-absorbed, superficial, and stupid people who put themselves in debt to buy expensive uniforms and horses. They were also described as kvinnebedårere (womanizers) who cared more about themselves and their horses than their wives.
Fast forward to present-day Norway, and military satire still draws upon gendered stereotypes, yet in different and occasionally more subversive ways. A good example is Førstegangstjenesten (The Conscription Service), a popular sketch comedy TV show created by the comedian and Instagrammer Herman Flesvig that began airing in 2019. The show centres around four main characters, all played by Flesvig: a war enthusiast, a spoiled graduate, a white wannabe gangster rapper, and a ‘female male chauvinist’. That last character, Tanja Laila Gaup, is a brusque and vulgar young woman from Northern Norway who is far stronger and coarser than the male conscripts. Throughout the show, she caricatures and destabilizes gendered and military norms and stereotypes through, for instance, displaying force and violence, sexually harassing male soldiers, and trying to conceal her own emotions.
In the show’s second season, we also learn that Tanja Laila is the only character who passed the selection for the special forces. It is hard not to read this as an intervention into ongoing public debates concerning the role of women in the Norwegian Armed Forces. Despite official targets and ambitions, women still make up only a small, albeit growing, minority in the Norwegian war force (Stai et al 2021). However, besides the all-female special forces training programme Jegertroppen (Hunter Troops), no woman has ever been selected for the special forces. While some have objected to this and called for greater inclusion and gender quotas, others argue that introducing quotas is detrimental to the operational strength and capacity of the Norwegian war force, and the special operation forces in particular (see e.g., Høiback 2016). The debate has raised questions of not only military skills and biology, but also what it means to treat men and women (un)equally within the Armed Forces and whether or not the latter’s representation should be regulated by political ideals and ambitions of gender equality. Norwegian ethnographers studying all-male combat units have added to the debate by showing that female participation is not merely a question of physical capacity; women are also commonly described as potential threats to male asexual cohesion and solidarity (Danielsen 2018; Totland 2009). Finally, there have been multiple reports and accounts of sexual harassment in the Norwegian Armed Forces in recent years, with some suggesting a culture of impunity exists.
Førstegangstjenesten, and the character Tanja Laila in particular, address these debates by exposing and (at times) subverting gendered military norms and narratives. The show has succeeded in making many Norwegians laugh, but also invites the audience to question their preconceived ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and violence.
Bloch, A. 1906. Præsenter gevær! Militærhumoresker fra korsaren. Kristiania: Korsarens Forlag.
Danielsen, T. 2018. Making Warriors in a Global Era: An Ethnographic Study of the Norwegian Naval Special Operations Commando. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Høiback, H. 2016. Forsvaret: et kritisk blikk fra insiden. Oslo: Cappelen Damm.
Stai, N. K., Rødningen, I., Olsson, L., and Tollefsen, A. F. 2021. ‘Breaking Down Barriers for Norway’s Deployment of Military Women’. GPS Policy Brief, 1. Oslo: PRIO.
Totland, O. M. 2009. ‘Det operative felleskapet. En sosialantropologisk studie av kropp, kjønn og identitet blant norske soldater i Telemarksbataljon’. Masters thesis, Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.