It has been a month since the Swedish Genitalia Song was uploaded on YouTube. Today, the much-debated video has reached over 5 million views. Swedish as well as international media quickly labelled the video as controversial and reported that it had enraged parents, complaining that its content is too explicit. Really, what is the issue here? Is it the ‘explicit’ content of the video or is it actually the continuous stigmatisation of genitalia? Perhaps we are aiming our critique at the wrong direction?
The subject of penises and vaginas is a sensitive one, even more so when in connection to children. The one-minute clip about ‘snoppen’ and ‘snippan’ (child-friendly words for penis and vagina in Swedish) was originally made for Bacillakuten, an educational programme for children between 3-6 years old, which answers commonly asked question about the body. The programme is part of the public broadcaster’s (Svensk Television or SVT) children’s channel Barnkanalen. However, it is in fact not an introduction to sex education, as some news sites has stated.
Intended as educational, the video stirred up a public debate in Sweden on whether such content is appropriate for young children. The majority of the critique came from parents who found that the visual content is too explicit. Although the Bacillakuten aims to educate children, some people argued on SVT’s Facebook page that parents themselves should teach their children about the subject matter when they find it appropriate, not public television. A lot of people also claimed that the cartoons are sexualised, in particular the penis as it is ‘upside down’.
SVT responded to the criticism by claiming that they had received plenty of questions regarding genitalia and that it was therefore time to make an episode on the topic. Every episode includes a song of the current theme, hence the ‘Penis and Vagina Song’ was created. SVT added, “For children their genitals are perceived as any other body part.” SVT argues that the song has a pedagogical purpose and that they hope that it will make it easier for parents to talk about “snoppen” and “snippan”.
Petter Bragée, publisher of Bacillakuten, stated that he was happy about all the attention and discussion the song has caused. He also emphasised that is was intended to neutralise the two body parts.
More positive commentators encouraged SVT to continue producing fun, diverse and educational content for children, and thanked them for helping to neutralised an otherwise heated subject.
Anders Lindskog, specialist in psychology and clinical sexology, argues that the song can help making children feel safe. In the Norwegian newspaper VG Lindskog said, “If children get used to talk and joke about sex and genitalia, it is easier for them to report abuse to grownups.” He added that one should start talking about genitalia and sex when the child starts asking.
To state the obvious – we all have genitals. Problematically, there is still a stigma around that one body part of our body. Children are curious about their bodies and will have lots of questions about its functions, and that includes their genitalia. By not talking about this one part, we are inevitably shaming it. We are reproducing the stigma which has existed for many generations. If adults refuse to talk about the subject, how will children learn and get answers to their questions. It is therefore important that educational programmes, such as Bacillakuten, dare to bring up otherwise tabooed topics and neutralise them.
Then, if we exclude the argument that the video is too explicit, what is there to criticise? Let’s establish that there is always room for improvement. In Sweden, the debate went further to discuss the gender stereotypes, gendered language and the heteronormativity presented in the clip.
The last scene’s lyrics contained the statement ”Baby, I love you”, which triggered the discussion on heteronormative values. ”It seems heterosexual orientated to me,” said one commentator. Kajsa Peters, the project manager of Bacillakuten, answered that it is a question of interpretation. If one understands it to be a love declaration between the penis and vagina, the video can indeed be perceived as heteronormative. However, if one recognises it to be a love declaration to our own bodies, the message is clearly different.
The song establishes that girls have vaginas and boys have penises, which caused accusations of transphobia. Taking distance from that notion, Peters responded, “We don’t put any value in the belief that all girls ‘should have’ vaginas. However, we understand that it sounds that way. And, a transgender person’s day, full of these innocent and/or ignorant assumptions, has to be really tough. It’s sad that we are part of the difficult reality.”
Unnecessary gender stereotypes are used in the clip where “Snippan” has eyelashes, rosy cheeks and is referred to as cool and elegant, while “Snoppen” has a moustache and is galloping across screen.
As far as 3-6 year olds know, genitals are used for peeing. We, adults, are the one’s stigmatising, if not sexualising, the topic for no valid reason. After receiving a lot of questions from kids about their genitals, the producers decided to address the topic in a way they found is suitable for children. By avoiding talking about or discussing the topic with children, we recreate the stigma that the genitalia are something to be ashamed of, something ugly.
The fact that the video contained gendered language, gender stereotypes and heteronormative values should perhaps be more focused on and criticised than the visualisation of body parts most of us have.