Finland in Finnish Popular Culture, Part II: The Moomins and Global Popular Culture

Moomin World provides readers the chance to now walk through Moominvalley (image courtesy ).

Moomin World provides readers the chance to now walk through Moominvalley (image courtesy msaari).

One of Finland’s most celebrated contributions to the world is the herd of bleached rhino’s known as the Moomins.  The phenomenally popular Angry Birds have no pretensions to being anything but pure entertainment, and they betray little that is distinctively Finnish, so their entry into global popular culture as an absent-minded leisure and commodity has been without Finnish opposition. In contrast, the Moomins are literary creations that lay a genuine claim to being a work of art as well as demonstrating some distinctive cultural roots, so their potential reduction to saleable products in marketplaces that cannot fathom the Moomins provides slightly more Finnish angst than the global conquest of the battling birds.

The Moomins remain obscure outside American children’s literature circles, but in Finland Moomins have become commodities on a scale rivaled only by Angry Birds.  Moomins have long been reduced to commodities in Finland and at least some international markets, with a universe of oven mitts and tableware decorated with Moomins as well as a theme park and a museum.  Their consumption by an international readership reaching from the UK to Japan to South Africa suggests that the Moomins’ handlers may aspire to conquer the American market.

The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945.

The first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945.

Characterizing the books’ narrative appeal to children and adults is challenging.  The Moomins series began in 1945, when Tove Jansson published The Moomins and the Great Flood, followed a year later by Comet in Moominland.  Eventually the series included eight novels, one book of short stories, five picture books, a comic series, and a scatter of movies and television shows. Moomin lives are chaotic and fraught with danger and apprehension in the form of floods, comets, dark forests, or the depressed, lonely, and terrifying Groke whose icy touch freezes all it contacts.  The Moomins approach that world with curiosity, optimism, and trust in family and friends.  Moomins hibernate each winter and have a distinctive Nordic connection to nature, facing its undersides and complicated rhythms as they actively explore it.

The narratives unfold unpredictably with fantastic storytelling moments (compare the story profiles on tor.com’s 2010 Moominweek page), and for many young and old readers alike the novel narrative elements weave a compelling reading experience. The text narratives are amplified by Jansson’s distinctively precise artwork that places Moomins in the midst of various crises and providing a strangely comforting presence.  Many of the graphics have little or no background and simply rely on the absurd and sincere expressions of the massive bleached trolls and their universe of creatures, yielding a distinctive and much-imitated Moomin aesthetic.

Moomins grace the exterior of this Finnair plane (image courtesy Antti Havukainen).

Moomins grace the exterior of this Finnair plane (image courtesy Antti Havukainen).

We could ask why these books (or any other cultural product) provide compelling narrative themes; for instance, we might psychologize Jansson’s life, contextualize the historical wartime experience and Finnish sentiments that yielded these stories or, dissect specifically how Moomin stories fabricate a distinctive narrative.  Yet perhaps the deeper question may be why particular works enter the mass popular imagination and enchant people from a very broad range of different backgrounds.  Articulating “enchantment”—an absolutely emotional and instinctive reaction to stories and graphics—is exceptionally difficult if not impossible to do successfully, though.

A Moomin snow sculpture at the Saporro Snow Festival (images courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch).

A Moomin snow sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival (images courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch).

The Moomins perhaps have struggled to secure American audiences because their universe is a very different form of imagination than traditional American children’s literature.  After misidentifying Tove Jansson as male, a 1961 New York Times review of Moominsummer Madness lamented that the story “badly needs a down-to-earth mortal to measure things by,” because “as it is, a bothersome nightmare quality is never quite dispelled.”  In 1968 another reviewer complained in the Times that “the more one reads about Moomins the less one knows about them. … Some vital links have been lost, and these seem to be plot, character, theme and common sense.”  Yet in the wake of these stale judgments, many Americans have flocked to non-conventional narrative and aesthetic oeuvres like anime, even though mass culture ideologues are often reluctant to champion a novel popular form if they are not convinced it can become profitable.  Ultimately, how Moomin commodities and the narrative reach America will have as much to do with decisions made in American marketing board rooms as it has to do with the fundamentally creative and fascinating dimensions of Moomin stories.

This sidewalk plaque using the bohemian Moomins to critique yuppies was found in Sydney Australia (image courtesy mr. lynch),

This sidewalk plaque using the bohemian Moomins to critique yuppies was found in Sydney Australia (image courtesy mr. lynch),

On the one hand, Finns are proud of the Moomins, whose lives in Moominvalley negotiating nature with quirky grace and curiosity provide a flattering reflection of Finns’ own experiences and perhaps their self-perceptions (for instance, Finns routinely identify their favorite Moomin and how that particular Moomin mirrors their essential personality attributes).  On the other hand, though, Americans in particular may not fathom the Finns’ national stewardship over Moomins, since Americans somewhat arrogantly assume that the planet is universally receptive to and eagerly awaiting our popular cultural products.  Where American popular culture mirrors our confident national swagger and powerful international marketing reach, Finland is a much more modest place that has looked beyond its borders somewhat more circumspectly and more protective over its cultural products.

References

Layla AbdelRahim

2010 Geneaologies of Wilderness and Domestication in Children’s Narratives: Understanding Genesis and Genetics in the Untangling of IdentityThe Paulinian Compass 1(4):1-100.

Pamela Marsh

1961 Cheery and Dauntless (Review Moominsummer Madness)New York Times May 14:BRA28.

Cobus van Staden

2010 Mutations in Moominvalley: Globalization, Capitalism and the Cultural Identity of Fiction.  In Imaginary Japan: Japanese Fantasy in Contemporary Popular Culture, edited by Eija Niskanen.  International Institute for Popular Culture, Turku, Finland.

Barbara Wersba

1968 Moominlore for Moominlovers. New York Times May 5:BRA43.

Images

Finnair Moomins image courtesy Antti Havukainen

Japanese Moomin Sapporo Snow Festival image courtesy Crowbeak.Sasquatch

Moomin World House image courtesy msaari

Moomins not Yuppies image courtesy mr. lynch

Is Finland in Finnish Popular Culture? Part I

The McDonald's in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

The McDonald’s in Oulu hopes to entice consumers with the flavors of America (image by author).

It initially seems somewhat oxymoronic to suggest that there might be a distinctive Finnish popular culture:  that is, most of the mass cultural products in Finland are the same as those nearly anywhere, with popular cultural staples like Batman, Lady Gaga, and Halo firmly situated in Finnish consciousness.  It is not especially shocking that Finland cannot claim an array of unique popular cultural products, because most popular culture does not have isolated roots in a specific nation or culture;  that is, popular culture emerges from a transnational media and circulates in a widely shared global consumer culture that only strategically identifies its origins (e.g., the transparent nationalistic sales pitch of “Made in the USA”, the anti-consumption politics that cast McDonalds as American, or suggesting that Finlandia captures some “real” essence of Finnish vodka).

Video games, television programs, fast food, movies, clothes, theme parks, and sporting events are all manufactured and marketed by corporate consumer interests committed to profit and the reproduction of power inequalities, and some theorists reduce them simply to economic vessels, mechanisms of oppression, and something “inauthentic.”  Yet those products are the contested ground of popular culture, sources of widely shared desire and pleasure that cannot be reduced simply to ideological incorporation.  Much of the appeal of popular culture is that it can be defined in so many contextually distinctive forms, and when Big Macs, Downton Abbey, and Rihanna arrive in Finland they inevitably are received in a vast range of ways.  Donald Duck (Aku Ankka), for instance, is featured in the most popular weekly publication in Finland, where he enjoys more popularity than he has ever secured in the US and easily outpaces the popularity of Mickey Mouse.  Finnish author Hannu Raittila suggests that Finns glimpse themselves in Donald Duck, who is “forever getting into difficulties or coming under threat from some direction or another. The duck hero has to get himself out of all manner of unexpected and unreasonable scrapes using only his wits and the slim resources he can put his hands on, all of which meshes nicely with the popular image of Finland as driftwood in the crosscurrents of world politics.”  Introduced to Finland in 1951, Donald’s arrival “coincided with Finland’s metamorphosis from an agrarian state to a post-modern, post-industrial one.  Little boys and girls in the rural Finland of the 1950s thirsted for the tales from Duckburg, which contained such modern features as urban life, the spread of the motor car, self-service shopping, large supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and golf.  These were details taken from American culture that have subsequently become part and parcel of the reality of a modernised Finland.”  In 1999 Donald’s Uncle Scrooge even was featured in a comic adaptation The Quest for Kalevala, adapting Finland’s national epic.

Angry Birds' most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ most recent version joins forces with Star Wars (image courtesy Rovio).

Nevertheless, there are a few prominent Finnish contributions to the global popular cultural landscape.  Few of those products are better-known or compelling than the story of the multi-colored Angry Birds who are seeking the return of their eggs from a herd of green pigs.  There may be nothing particularly Finnish about the Angry Birds game, and in that sense it is actually quite a lot like most popular cultural products; that is, it hides it origins unless they help sell the product by somehow giving it more desirability.  Angry Birds’ makers at Rovio Entertainment continually launch new versions of the game (including a Star Wars themed Angry Birds version in November, 2012), and the game is now a brand that appears in a wide range of commodities.  Angry Birds is the single most profitable iPhone app ever sold in the UK, and Apple indicated that it is the most downloaded paid app ever.

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

An Angry Birds promotion at a Chinese McDonalds (image courtesy dcmaster).

The success of Angry Birds has reportedly encouraged more apps developers from Finland, including Clash of Clans’ Helsinki-based developers Supercell, and Fingersoft (based here in Oulu), the producers of Hill Climb Racing.   Angry Birds may owe some debt to Finns’ fervent attachment to mobile phones; the world’s first mass-marketed mobile phone (the Nokia 9000 Communicator) was sold in Finland in 1996, and the country has always been among the world’s most devoted users of cell phones (in 1999, Jukka-Pekka Puro recognized that no other country equaled the 78% of Finnish households already owning a mobile phone, and Finns remain deeply committed to cell phones today).  The international shift to mobile phones and tablets benefitted the gaming industry in Finland while Nokia’s simultaneous contraction reportedly has provided that emergent Finnish gaming industry more skilled engineers.  Supercell’s CEO Ilkaa Paananen suggested that “Helsinki is the best city in the world to build games at the moment.  People understand that it’s possible to become global from Finland.”
The mass success of Angry Birds, though, may have more to do with its aggressive branding and international corporate investment than it has to do with the creative climate in Helsinki, even though government support and groups like Play Finland (which publicizes gaming firms and projects across the country) are certainly important.  In November, Bloomberg reported that Rovio had secured $42 million in venture capital in 2011, and 30% of Rovio’s profits come from branded commodity sales including $400 million in plush toys alone.  Angry Birds soda is selling as profitably as Coke and Pepsi in Finland and is set to soon be sold in New Zealand and Australia; an Angry Birds debit card is coming to the US in early 2013; an Angry Birds cookbook features egg recipes; Finnair has painted some planes with Angry Birds’ motifs; Rovio offers location-based Angry Birds games in 1500 Chinese McDonalds; an Angry Birds Land opened in Sarkanniemi Amusement Park in Tampere in 2012, another opened in Sundown Adventureland in the UK, and the parks are expanding to China.  An unlicensed Angry Birds temporary attraction was opened in September, 2012 in the Window of the World amusement park in Changsha, China as part of its month-long “Stress Reducing Festival,” and in an odd referentiality the attraction sat in the park’s “American Zone, next to a scaled-down replica of Mount Rushmore.”

Angry Birds' Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Angry Birds’ Helsinki shop (image courtesy Rovio).

Every staple of popular culture eventually is self-referenced in other popular discourses (as when The Simpsons parody everything from Behind the Music to Rush Limbaugh), and Angry Birds has reached that standing.  Angry Birds’ music was featured in the Israeli comedy Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), and the video Angry Birds Peace Treaty has more than 12.5 million YouTube viewings.  Pinterest has hundreds of Angry Birds’ boards with Angry Bird products and craft ideas, and Rovio has an official Angry Birds Pinterest site.  Angry Birds’ branding of Star Wars pairs two of popular culture’s most prominent symbols; in March, 2012 Angry Birds Space was introduced to the world by astronaut Donald Pettit from aboard the international space station, using the angry birds to demonstrate microgravity patterns employed in the new game; British Prime Minister David Cameron, Salman Rushdie, and Conan O’Brien are all among the fans of Angry Birds; and Angry Birds has been referenced in television shows including 30 Rock, tosh.O, and The Daily Show.  The most interesting popular reference may be from artist Evan Roth, who produced a work called Angry Birds All Levels.  Angry Birds All Levels reveals the 300 exact finger swipes needed to complete the game, underscoring the innocuous hand and finger movements that we use to manipulate knowledge and experience filtered through handheld devices.

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included its introduction aboard the International Space Station and this bird attached to Seattle's Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

The March 2012 debut of Angry Birds Space included this bird attached to Seattle’s Space Needle (image courtes Rovio).

It is not clear that any country has a truly “national” popular culture, even the US, which is often blamed for inflicting a wave of questionable products like Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber (technically Canadian, but America’s fault nonetheless), and Thomas Kinkade on the planet.  Mass cultural industries nearly all have a significant presence in the US and aspire to satisfy American consumers’ tastes, acknowledging the wealth and sheer numbers of American shoppers, so inevitably much of global popular culture reflects what marketers are trying to sell to Americans.  Yet ultimately the most lucrative popular cultural products secure international success, which demands being embedded in global networks of venture capital and marketing that reaches beyond any single country’s shores, including Finland.  Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, Finns’ foothold in international popular culture is reflected in the general absence of references to such products as distinctively Finnish, including Angry Birds.

In Part II, we will turn our attention to perhaps the most prominent and culturally distinctive of Finland’s popular cultural products:  the Moomins.

Taina Kinnunen, Tiina Suopajärvi, and Johanna Ylipulli

2011 Connecting People – Renewing Power Relations? A Research Review On The Use Of Mobile Phones. Sociology Compass 5(12):1070-1081. (subscription access)

Jukka-Pekka Puro

2002 Finland: A Mobile Culture.  In Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, edited by James E. Katz, Mark Aakhus, pp.19-29.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

McDonald’s China image courtesy dcmaster