Monday, March 14, 2011

Conan, God of the Finns

One of the weirder places where American and Finnish pop cultures have met – and there aren’t really that many to begin with – is a TV studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.  It was here, the home of the late great “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, that a beautiful friendship began in 2006. 

In a gag typically quirky for the show, Conan decided to insult every country on earth, alphabetically, a few nations at a time, all for the purpose of eliciting hate mail from the more obscure corners of the world where his show was broadcast.  (This is not unlike what some bloggers do.) 

Finnish fans didn’t wait for their insult.  They jumped the gun by flooding Conan with love/hate mail even before Finland’s turn came.  Now, queue jumping isn’t in the Finnish character.  Far from it.  Neither is anything that smacks of calling too much attention to yourself, so I can only take this outpouring of mail as a sign of how genuinely popular the redheaded Irish-American comedian is among Finns. 

While I would personally chalk this popularity up to Finns’ own quirky sense of humor, Conan quickly came up with a different interpretation after he realized the uncanny (some might call it “cosmic”) resemblance he bears to Finland’s president, Tarja Halonen. 

The freakish similarity between the two has provided plenty of fodder for Conan’s writers, with Conan convincing himself that his resemblance to Halonen had made him a “Golden God” in the eyes of the Finnish people.  He even meddled in Finnish presidential politics to ensure Halonen’s reelection by airing on her behalf some amazingly tough-minded campaign ads.  No, make that simple-minded.  Anyway, it was all in good fun.  (I wasn't able to upload the ads, but you can view some of them by searching "Conan supports Tarja Halonen" on YouTube.)

For a victory lap following the epic success of his campaign, Conan actually visited the land of his people to bask in the love, or just very strong enthusiasm, of adoring fans and to meet personally with a grateful, or at least bemused, Halonen.  She’s a good sport, it seems. 

Alas, Finland hasn’t seen much of Conan since he was unceremoniously ousted from the “The Tonight Show” last year.  His new show, “Conan” is not carried by any of the Finnish TV channels, and even worse, in this age of Internet, full episodes of the show cannot be streamed from Conan’s website due to some mysterious legalities.  For Conan fans, this is a hugely unhappy situation, maybe even unjust.  And Conan himself is obviously starting to feel the strain of separation from his most loyal fans on earth, or at least the most loyal fans who have a president who looks like him. 

Last week, he finagled a way to break down – if for only one week – the legal barriers that deprived Finland of its Conan fix, allowing Finns to stream the show and enjoy a series of Finland-themed gags.  I was only able to catch a couple of these sketches, the best of which was his whacky setup of the hit video game “Angry Birds”, where players use a slingshot to propel flightless birds against enemy pigs.  On the show, Conan played a giant-sized version of this Finnish creation, with the twist of disguising the evil pigs with masks of Snooki and other “stars” from “Jersey Shore”, making their destruction even sweeter.  Only a pop culture icon, and self-appointed God of the Finns, like Conan O’Brien could dream up a way to bring bits of Finland and America together like that.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a fitting time for a few words about the state of sexual relations in Finland.  As a man, I’m obviously not in a position to say whether Finnish women should be satisfied with their lot in life.  I wouldn’t presume (or dare) to speak for them.  On the surface, however, it would seem that women here have enjoyed some considerable successes. 

Back in 1997, Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Helsinki as the American First Lady, a full decade before her campaign to be the first woman to occupy the White House in her own right.  She came closer to that elusive goal than anyone yet, and eventually was picked for the still-powerful position of Secretary of State (the third female to hold that post). 

Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi
(photo: Sebastian Derungs)
But in 1997, she was merely the First Lady, and still a year away from the public humiliation her husband would force her to endure.  During that June visit to Helsinki, Clinton met with three top Finnish government officials at the US Embassy:  the foreign minister, the defense minister and the head of the Finnish central bank – the Finnish counterparts to Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates 
and Ben Bernanke today. 

All three of these high-level Finnish officials were women.  This obviously impressed the First Lady, who publicly speculated at the time about how long it would be before women were similarly represented at the highest echelons of the US government.  One of the women she met was Elisabeth Rehn, Finland’s first (and so far only) female Minister of Defense, who had three years earlier 
almost won her own presidential bid.  Another was Tarja Halonen, then Foreign Minister, who did succeed to become Finland’s first female president in 2000. 

While Halonen’s two-term presidency undoubtedly has had huge symbolic value for women’s rights, the truth is that in Finland’s parliamentary system, the president holds relatively little power compared to the Prime Minister, who – as of June of last year – now also happens to be a woman.  Mari Kiviniemi is the second of her gender to hold that office.  The first, elected in 2003, resigned after only 69 days in office due to improperly leaked documents her campaign had used to discredit the opposition.  (Apparently, political dirty tricks have no gender bias.)  Together, Halonen and Kiviniemi today form the public – and decidedly feminine – face of Finland in world affairs. 

The prominence of women in government reflects Finnish national politics generally and is likely rooted in this country’s long history of progressive gender politics.  While still an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russian, Finland became the first European state to grant women the right to vote, in 1906, coming in third behind the apparently even-more-egalitarian New Zealand and Australia. 

The same year, women also won the right to run for Finland’s nascent parliament, giving them more complete political rights at the time than anywhere outside of Australia.  Nineteen women were promptly elected as the world’s first female members of a national legislature.  Currently, 79 women are parliament members, which amounts to just under 40% of the 200-member body.  Compared that to 17% for the current US Congress. 

World's first women parliament members, 1907
(courtesy: Ministry for Foreign
Affairs of Finland)
Not everything revolves around politics, though, and women here may feel that other aspects of their lives fall short of true equality.  (There again, it’s not my place to say for certain).  With some notable exceptions, business in Finland is still dominated by men at the higher-management levels, and salaries are probably still far from being equal.  But I think the social-welfare system here, which offers paid parental leave of up to ten months (seven of which can be taken by the father, which I did when our second child was born), a guaranteed job afterward, and guaranteed daycare, does go a long way toward giving women decent options for balancing family life with a career outside the home. 

Still, no country is perfect, and it seems that even here women can be held to a somewhat different standard than men, no matter how impressive their accomplishments might be.  The US ambassador to Finland who had arranged Clinton’s meeting with the trio of Finnish leaders in 1997 later recounted in the Huffington Post how they had discussed with Clinton the kinds of bias they still faced as women. 

They told the First Lady about not being able to join their male colleagues in sauna (the steam-filled backroom where the real wheeling and dealing was said to be done in those days).  Probably even more frustrating was the fact that, unlike the men, they also had to put up with a local media that sometimes paid far too much attention not to the political positions they were espousing, or the policies they were implementing, but rather the styles of dresses they were wearing. 

So, what else is new?