“Finland is no feminist utopia”: Gender, politics, and journalism in the age of popular feminism


In December 2019, Finland received a burst of global media publicity when Sanna Marin became the youngest prime minister in the world. While Sebastian Kurz of Austria claimed the title a month later, stories on Marin continued to appear, not only leading with her age but with a keen focus on gender. This was accentuated with stories of five women occupying key ministries in the new government.

In this paper, we analyze both domestic and international media coverage of PM Marin in December 2019 and January 2020. The coverage around the world was mainly admiring, capitalizing on the recent rise of feminist discourses in media publicity that are paradoxically framed around individual celebrities and influencers, as well as blatant commercialism such as “femvertising” (e.g., Horowitz & Feinstein 2020). While marveling the rise of women in Finnish politics, stories also included features on Marin as a fashionista, and news items on the Estonian minister mocking Marin’s work experience.

In contrast, domestic stories on Marin were news-oriented and repetitive. Narratives about her childhood and rapid rise to the category of heavyweight politicians were told already roughly a year earlier when she received national attention during an election campaign as a substitute for her party’s chairman who had suddenly fallen sick. The international coverage about Marin was reported in national media and especially in her hometown Tampere, but, curiously, no large human-interest article about her was published in popular magazines or elsewhere.

The Case Marin exemplifies three distinct aspects of today’s highly complex relationship between gender, politics, and journalism. Unsurprisingly, it highlights, as Ross and Comrie (2012) have observed, that gender and age are the key factors that impact coverage of women politicians.

In addition, the coverage of Marin is a case of gender representations in the era of “popular feminism” (Banet-Weiser 2018): Gender issues and feminism are more visible than ever—when they fit the logic of the “economy of visibility”. Popular feminism in the media is often fuelled by celebrity stories, battles between feminist and misogynist discourses, and the potential for digital virality. For international audiences, Case Marin was a popular feminist story.

Finally, the coverage highlights the stark contextual differences in representations of Marin. Only a couple of international pieces provided any analyses on gender politics in Finland. One of those rare texts challenged the dominant international media discourses by noting that Finland is far from a feminist utopia (Abdulkarim 2019). In fact, Marin’s rise was the result of a government crisis in the political climate where the rise of populist right-wing politics and an antifeminist political agenda are linked in several ways (Kantola & Lombardo 2019; Ylä-Anttila & Luhtakallio 2017). While much of the coverage around the world celebrated young women’s rise in politics, domestic stories on Marin seemed decidedly neutral.