London ~ Wednesday August 10 2011
Lesbian couple deserve their place in Norway's heroic narrative
Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen saved 40 youngsters from the Utøya massacre, so why have we hardly heard about them?
By Roz Kaveney
Flowers are laid in memory of the 69 youngsters killed by Anders Behring Breivik at Utøya island, Norway. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In lots of ways, it is the ideal human interest story. It is the story of heroism in the face of the unthinkable. Yet we did not get to hear about it until a week later, and it is worth asking why.
Two campers on the other side of the lake from the island of Utøya, where the Norwegian massacre happened, heard gunfire and screams while they were eating their supper. Without thought for their personal safety, they took their boat and crossed towards the firing. Bullets hit the boat, but they pulled the fleeing youngsters from the water and crossed back and forth repeatedly. It was not a very big boat, so it took four trips to save 40 teenagers who may otherwise have been shot, or drowned trying to escape. Without them, the massacre could have been considerably more bloody even than it was. So why have we hardly heard about them?
In the first place, Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen are women. A lot of the press like their tales of heroism to fit standard narratives, in which men protect and women nurture. In action films, women are mostly there so that the manly men can be rivals for their love, and to make sure that audiences never ever think that there is anything even the littlest bit gay about the boyish tussling for supremacy they enact while being heroic. Women are not, in these narratives, supposed to be competent: they don't drive well and they twist their ankles running away in unsuitable shoes.
In the second place, Dalen and Hansen are lesbians. In television narratives, the few heroines we are allowed to see are always heterosexual; even when they are allowed to be competent, and wear sensible action-adventure outfits, they always end up melting into some man's arms in the end. Mainstream culture does not like the idea of lesbians being people who would put themselves in danger to save teenagers, probably heterosexual teenagers, that they have never met. We are far more used to lesbian couples, in very special issue-driven episodes, being in danger, and having to be rescued themselves.
Third, they are a married couple and you can just imagine news editors in Washington worrying that, if they pushed the story, they would be accused of promoting "the gay agenda". American rightwing pundits that came close to saying "well, we disapprove of Breivik's methods but you have to understand that there is something quite sinister about a summer camp of leftwing youth activists" was never going to be happy with lesbian heroism, and married lesbian heroes would just have made their heads explode.
It is a shame. We all need stories about people who put themselves in danger to save lives when bad things are happening; we all need to know that there are people out there who are not ideologically driven killers. In particular, gay teens need to be told not just that it gets better, but that they, personally, may one day get the chance to step up, be heroic and make it better.