Swedes debate middle school’s vagina mural

Photo: Patrik Ljungman

In Nyköping, Sweden, a debate erupted last month over the appropriateness of a “smiling vagina” mural in a junior high school. The artist, Carolina Falkholt, painted the mural on a staircase in a school populated with 13- to 15-year-old students. Well known in Sweden, she frequently features vaginas in her work.

The controversy began when the municipal head of children, youth and cultural affairs in Nyköping announced that authorities had decided to paint over the artwork. Inappropriate in a school, they said. But the uproar had begun, on Falkholt’s Facebook page and elsewhere. Authorities agreed to delay any action while the debate continued.

The school’s principal, meanwhile, likes and defends the mural: “I see many pedagogic advantages to having her art in the school.”

He is supported by the vice-chair of the local culture and leisure committee, who says he dislikes censorship: “Should we censor this just because it depicts female genitalia? Maybe the students think this is a really cool thing, that they have a school that dares!”

Apparently the Swedes are far more liberal and open-minded than I am. I think the mural is totally inappropriate for a middle school. And I wouldn’t particularly like seeing it in any public place. I like the style, technique, and colors, and I don’t object to nudity in art per se. I just find the pose objectionable.

I know, I know. I’m just a prudish, inhibited old lady. So be it.

26 thoughts on “Swedes debate middle school’s vagina mural

  1. Uh, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but if you hadn’t told me it was in there, I wouldn’t have identified it. Maybe it’s a sign of age. Sigh. Now if it had been male genitalia, nobody would be in doubt. I wonder how the school would feel about that? I’m with you, PT. I think it distracts from the function of art, which ought to be harmony rather than confrontation or exhibitionism.

    1. Oh, I think art definitely can be confrontational, controversial, thought-provoking, or shocking. But there are appropriate places for the display of such art, and I don’t think the spread legs of a woman belong in a school.

      1. Agreed, not schools. But, elsewhere? I think that begs the question of the purpose of art. Heaven knows I’m no expert on it, but, just to be trite, I know what I like when I see it and some of what passes for art turns me off when it evokes controversy or shock. That museum won’t be seeing much of my money. However, I can think of an exception, and that is political cartooning. But of course that has its proper place too.

        1. I don’t care for “art” that intends only to shock or offend, but there are places for it. Places where, like you, I won’t be going. As for political cartooning, I wonder how far a cartoonist would get if he produced an illustration like the above?

  2. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been told. I think it’s well done and don’t find it at all objectionable. Definitely not pornographic. I’ve always thought our puritanical view of anything to do with sex creates a lot of repression and leads to many problems. I would think the depiction might even help to overcome the negative feelings so many girls have about their bodies.

    1. I guess I’m one of the repressed. I don’t have any negative feelings about my body, but I was taught that a lady doesn’t spread her legs in public. This mural seems to glorify just the opposite. And in an era when teen pregnancies, at least in this country, are a big problem. Just seems like the wrong thing for a school full of impressionable young people.

      1. I’m not willing to take the time to research the statistics, but I would suspect that the Swedes also provide far better sex education than we do… I’d be willing to bet their teen pregnancies are way lower than ours.

  3. This is a hard one.

    It doesn’t bother me, but, if like what Jim said, it was a penis with scrotum and all, I’d find it offensive. So, why not this?

    Don’t know. I guess, if I am okay with this, then I would have to concede to a public display of male genitalia (as long as it looked just as good, mind you!).

    But, in a school? No. Not in any public venue, really. A museum – yes. Private property – yes.

    But then again, is it bothersome only because of our collective prudish upbringing? Argh, so hard to know what is right sometimes…

    Also, I wouldn’t have seen it for what it is either if you hadn’t told me. 😮

    1. Hmm, I wonder if the principal and culture chairman would be as supportive if the mural depicted male genitalia? All colorful and flowery, of course.

      Certainly we must consider our own prudish upbringing vs. today’s society. But more importantly, we must consider the upbringing of the next generation and what we want for them. I know I’m an old prude, but I’m pretty sure my son, too, would object to this being in his children’s school. Kids grow up too fast as it is. We needn’t speed the process.

  4. like some of the other commenters, i really didn’t see it as a vagina until it was pointed out. i think it’s a beautiful mural, and i’m against artistic censorship as a general rule.

  5. I, like others here, did not see it at first. So, as I read your blog, I thought “of course, it should stay, it is hardly noticeable.” After reading everything, I went back and studied the painting. Now, I think it is totally inappropriate. I am fairly liberal, but to me this is a painting of a female with her legs spread and I believe she is depicted as having her period. Anyone else see this?

    1. That’s how I see it — a female with her legs wide spread. And yes, now that you’ve mentioned it, that rusty brown color certainly could be blood. I hadn’t thought of that. I already thought this was vulgar. Now it’s just … ugh. I can’t imagine why anyone considers this appropriate for a school … or most any other public place.

  6. This is such a prominent part of the painting…why is that necessary in a school for young people…yes…perhaps it is much more acceptable in Sweden, but it’s a very interesting choice for a school…I would be interested to know if she painted male genitals on a wall somewhere in the school…if not…then why just the female?

    1. The reports said the artist includes a lot of vaginas in her work. I can’t help wondering if she’s some sort of radical feminist, a passive-aggressive person, someone with some real issues. I’d almost bet money she didn’t paint any male genitals in the school.

  7. I wonder. In an age where everyone so eagerly pays lip service to the idea of kids, girls in particular, developing a more ‘positive’ attitude towards there bodies, is it exposing kids to such images that worries the protestors, or does their protest simply expose how far behind the rhetoric their attitudes actually are?

    1. For myself, it’s both. I know I’m way behind the curve on today’s liberal sexuality (and expect to stay that way), and I definitely object to kids being exposed to such images, especially something so blatant on the walls of their school every day.

  8. Honestly? I wouldn’t even have guessed that’s what it was. I thought of an animated toothpaste commercial with that as the smile, done in the same style as the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine. But now that I know what it is, I could just imagine it breaking out in song telling me to brush with Vagina Dentata, for a gleaming smile he can’t resist. This is what happens when your father was one of the original Mad Men, I guess. D’OH!.

... and that's my two cents