Brudpris and the power of ‘skav’
It seems like I am fated to digest my Solmukohta rant from 2012 many times over. The larps “Just a little Lovin” and “2027” may not have changed the world, but they have certainly taught me a lot about the world and about myself. And now, I have played Brudpris, beautifully designed by Anna Karin Linder Krauklis and Carolina Dahlberg, in this year’s Norwegian run produced by Tor Kjetil Edland and Trine Lise Lindahl, and got another reality check.
Brudpris is quite possibly the most terrifying larp I have ever done. This is a larp about a fictional Nordic honour culture, the ‘Mo’ people who live apart from the rest of society and uphold an oppressive lifestyle. In ‘Mo’ everything hinges on how much honour the ‘patriarch’ (the husband and father) of a household is considered to have; and honour hinges on keeping your own emotions and those of your family under tight control. An excellent report from the larp is available here.
In ‘Mo’, women are considered emotional and dangerous, and must be kept under close control. The household patriarchs hold all power and decide all marriages, never to be looked into the eye by a woman. Women serve, obey, and are regularly beaten. The name of the larp – Brudpris – means ‘the price of the bride’. Patriarchs pay to get their daughters married off, to men who can ‘take responsibility’ for them.
My role in Brudpris was that of a woman anthropologist, who coming from a gender-equal society entered Mo with the aim to understand how the Mo women lived. The anthropologists are primarily written into the larp to provide a mirror for the participants playing Mo people, highlighting the differences between Mo and the world outside. As such, they are rather thin characters with little opportunity for development. Yet, playing Beatrice was a horrifying experience. Starting out as a high-spirited, outspoken and active woman Beatrice became more and more subdued and controlled as the larp progressed. She ended up married off as the third and very slighted wife to a widower. who took responsibility for two unmarried women for money and honour. I have no doubts that Mo would eventually crush her, and that she never would write that spectacular book she was dreaming of writing.
What makes Brudpris a terrifying experience is however not its story, but what happens after playing it. Some larps are fairly easy to shrug off even when they are tough to play. KAPO for example, depicted a horrible and slightly absurd concentration camp that I (as an intern, I need to get back to the guard experience) could shake off quite easily as it had little to do with the life that I – or anyone else in the western world – lives. It was hard to see the KAPO camp as realistic, even when it was. For similar reasons, some characters are possible to shrug off even when they are quite despicable. I had great fun playing a racist anthropologist in Terra Incognita (a Lovecraftian horror larp). While enacting a kind of pre-war racism that I had dug up in antique books, I never for a moment considered myself to be racist.
Brudpris didn’t offer those ways out, as became obvious during the debrief. The first part was kept separate for those who had played women and men. The women started to talk about their backgrounds, how they had played their grandmothers, or how similar their patriarch had been to their own fathers. They told stories of abuse. Among the men, those who had played young boys told stories of guilt, and of how much they had to give up to become men. The patriarchs – at least those played by women – told stories of how vigilant and lonely the oppressor must be. But what only gradually dawned on us – sometimes weeks after – was that it had been all too easy to play Brudpris. That we (who played our everyday gender) found it all too easy to succumb to the destructive Mo culture. This same larp report, written by a man who played a young boy in Brudpris, is a good example. What makes Brudpris so terrifying is not only a ‘bleed‘ experience, but one that has been called “skav” (friction) in Swedish. The feeling of awkwardness in a socially dysfunctional setting, and the discovery that that fictional culture we enter as an alien world is in fact all too similar to our everyday experience.
An it is here I have my only real critique against Brudpris: this experience seems not to be all that accessible to the men who played patriarchs. When I first read their post-game reflections, I was struck by their intense desire and ability to distance themselves from their roles. They had a tough experience enacting oppressors, wrote about how horrible their roles were, and how they hated them. There is a distinct difference between these stories and the story told by a person playing the even more abhorrent role of a guard in KAPO. The KAPO guard tells a harrowing story of how easy it was to become a torturer, how it became routine, and how difficult it was for him to acknowledge this as a side of himself. Seen in this light, the patriarchs in Brudpris had it easy.
I have one possible idea about why this happened. In the pre-game instructions for the larp, the men playing patriarchs were instructed to take a great deal of off-game responsibility for the people playing in their families. As a result, they tended to organize also the off-game discussions and decide when and where they would happen. Essentially, they played patriarchs also off game, albeit of a benevolent character. These roles came easy to them and were accepted by their families, the groups were enacting well-known frames of social interaction from our everyday world. I do not believe that these men recognized their off-game roles as benevolent patriarchs.
Myself, I wrote this as my farewell to my stupid, smart, Beatrice:
“What made it so easy for you to go native? Where did that body language come from, so different from your own? You didn’t have it in you. You are brought up in an equal society, you are used to foreign cultures, you are already a recognized academic. You wouldn’t know how to bend your head or knee.
It came from the teenage girl who wouldn’t ask a boy to dance. Who felt awkward if she laughed too loud or talked too much. Who never could tell a boy that she was in love; since he should be the one to ask. Who could not show her sexual desires for fear of being a slut. It came from the twenty-four year old who fell in love with a man because he was much older and seemed to be able to support her – and fell out of love two years later, when it was clear to her that the support went the other way. It came from me.
I learned to stand on my own and I carried out my career in a male-dominated environment. I am a professional project leader, manager, teacher, and mentor. I found a man who needed not carry me and neither I him, and our relationship is equal. I laugh, I swear, and I dance with whom I want.
And yet, that alluring lack of responsibility for my choices, that wish to be carried, that fear of talking and laughing too much, all resurfaced in you and moved you to give up everything. I wish it all had come from you – because I certainly didn’t want to find that in me. I’m sorry.”