The Kim Wall Murder Trial Starts in Denmark

A hundred and eight years ago, the International Conference of Working
Women in Copenhagen voted to honor the struggle against male oppression
by creating an International Women’s Day, now held every year on March
8th. If the celebration represented a dream, it was one that emerged
from centuries of women’s individual and collective nightmares. Today,
as the trial of the man charged with the murder of the Swedish
journalist Kim Wall gets underway in the City Court of Copenhagen, the
irony of the anniversary is painfully evident to women the world over.
This is especially felt in Scandinavia, where the journalist’s fate, in
a submarine, highlights the fact that, even in a progressive and
egalitarian region, women remain unsafe.

The alleged torture and killing of Wall—to which the Danish inventor
Peter Madsen pleads innocence—has garnered huge international attention,
much of it prurient. She went missing after boarding Madsen’s
submarine—a cramped iron box—and diving deep beneath the surface of the Baltic.
Divers later found her torso and body parts. It’s hard not to be
queasily aware of the tragedy’s parallels to the début episode of the
Scandinavian TV series “The Bridge,” in which a woman’s dismembered body
is planted strategically on the mid-point of the sea bridge that
connects Denmark and Sweden. Yet, while the show is part of a thriving Scandi-noir industry, crimes like
the murder of Wall are actually rare in high-trust, low-crime

Denmark and Sweden are both small countries, and Wall and Madsen were
well known. By the time of her death, at thirty, Wall had published in
the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and The Atlantic. Her
parents are Swedish journalists. Madsen’s tireless promotion of his
crowdfunded submarine and space projects, and his ambition to be the
first man to enter space in a D.I.Y. rocket, has made him a folk hero
and a media darling. That Madsen and Wall should meet was no surprise.
But the divergent reactions to the alleged murder committed in the
Øresund—the stretch of water that divides Denmark and Sweden—reveals the
gulf between the two countries.

Denmark and Sweden play very different psychological roles in the
Scandinavian family. While Swedes generally find Danes uninhibited to
the point of rudeness and relaxed to the point of laziness, Danes regard
Swedes as uptight, reserved, and moralistic. Denmark is the cheeky,
mischievous little brother, aggressively asserting his freedom of
expression at every opportunity; Sweden is his joyless, finger-wagging,
self-censoring big sister. The Danes, embracing their image as “the
Italians of the North,” like to invoke the concept of frisind—the
nineteenth-century anti-authoritarian “free-spirit” movement that paved
the way for women’s suffrage, in 1915; the pioneering legalization of
porn, in 1969; and, more recently, same-sex partnerships, in 1989.

Danish frisind has also allowed for a string of unconventional
“maverick” personalities—usually male—to thrive as colorful exceptions
to the joyless, militant egalitarianism that dominates cultural life. In
1973, the artist-provocateur Jens Jørgen Thorsen ignited a global
scandal when he announced plans to shoot the government-funded film “The
Sex Life of Jesus,” prompting a denunciation from the Pope himself.
Around that same time, the flamboyant airline tycoon Simon Spies
provoked feminist ire by referring to female staff as morgenbolledamer or “morning-fuck ladies.” His contemporary equivalent is the film
producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who, until very recently, spanked his
interns at Lars von Trier’s film company, Zentropa, as “punishment,” in front of their co-workers, and has often posed naked for the media.

The man known popularly as Rocket Madsen can be added to that roll
call. For years, Madsen was portrayed as the twenty-first-century
embodiment of the beloved, bumbling Hans Christian Andersen character
Klods-Hans—a clumsy amateur who wins the princess’s heart through charm
and cheek rather than worldliness and sophistication. When Madsen’s
submarine went missing, in the early morning of August 11, 2017,
concerned friends and fans flooded Facebook asking for help. Soon, “the
mystery” became breaking news. At first, some suspected a typically
Madsen-esque media stunt. Even after he was rescued from his sinking
submarine, held in custody by the police, and charged with manslaughter,
many believed Madsen’s claim that Wall had died accidentally after a
heavy portal hit her on the head and Madsen had given her a “sea
burial.” An intruder gained access to the recovered submarine and
sprayed the words “FREE Madsen innocent” on the side. It was as if
high-trust Denmark couldn’t imagine one of its own citizens capable of
such violence.

In Sweden, by contrast, the media saw no “mystery.” Instead, they feared
that a fellow-journalist had become the victim of a crime, as the
headlines reflected: “Woman from Scania Missing Since Submarine Trip: A
Crime Is Suspected” (Sydsvenskan), and “Submarine Owner Is Suspected
of Killing Swedish Woman” (Kristiansbladet). A few days later, the
journalist Victoria Greve concluded, in Expressen, that the suspected
death of her friend and colleague Kim Wall “speaks to the
vulnerability of female freelance journalists.”

Wall’s alleged murder opened a debate in Sweden about women’s vulnerability in
the workspace—two months before the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s
sexual misconduct in Hollywood. Since then, Sweden has embraced the
ensuing #MeToo campaign. In early November, the
Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published more than four hundred personal, anonymous accounts from Swedish
actresses of sexual harassment they had experienced in the Swedish and Danish film industry. Meanwhile, several figures in the
Swedish media—including a female radio host—were fired for allegations
of sexual harassment. Swedes working in the trade unions, the legal
system, the music business, the media, and the sex trade all signed
statements denouncing workplace sexual harassment.

In late January, more than a thousand members of the Danish film
industry went public with a similar declaration, but, until then,
#MeToo had little impact or follow-through in Denmark. Instead, several
high-profile men have belittled and ridiculed the campaign by presenting
their own misogyny as freedom of expression. The writer and director
Christian Braad Thomsen calls #MeToo a “witch hunt” in which the
activists are the “transgressors” and the men victims, and the film
director Ole Bornedal has depicted #MeToo as an “inquisition” and a form of
oppressive “socio-fascism.” In the leading Danish film magazine Ekko,
the biologist Kåre Fog and the director Søren Grinderslev scoffed at the
Danish actors and actresses who chose to wear black at the Danish Film
Academy Awards “in sympathy with self-appointed MeToo-victims.”

In the months leading up to the trial, the Danish tabloids, capitalizing
on the Danish judicial system’s openness and transparency, have let rip
with the grisly details of Wall’s alleged torture and dismemberment: “This Is
How Kim Wall’s Panties Fell Off” (Ekstra Bladet) or “She Has Been Sawn
Into Pieces” (Berlingske). Meanwhile, the Danish journalist Thomas
Djursing seized the opportunity to re-issue his laudatory three-year-old
profile of Rocket Madsen, though, after much criticism, the book was
recalled. In an interview with a woman’s magazine, Femina, the
celebrated Danish author Jens Christian Grøndahl, commenting on a photo
of Wall on Madsen’s submarine, said, “It’s never the woman’s fault if a
man decides to attack her. But, that said . . . well, when I look at the
picture of the victim, the way she has let herself be photographed, the
look she gives the camera . . . I can’t help but think that this is a girl
who’s looking for trouble.” He withdrew his statement and apologized,
but, with gut reactions like these, it’s hard not to feel despair for
women in Denmark.

As the trial of Madsen continues in the weeks to come, Denmark will face
a time of reckoning. With its “utopian” reputation under an
international spotlight, can a small, nationalistic country recast
frisind in a way that will truly honor the spirit of independence,
curiosity, humor, and openness that Kim Wall’s life embodied? That
would be something.

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