Beartown starts out with an ironic reflection on the “unimportance” of hockey: “[I]t’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.” These functions of hockey play out in various ways throughout the book. They are most evident, however, in the story of Maya’s assault and the town’s response, which largely invalidates Maya and empowers her attacker, star player Kevin. By tracing the ways that an obsession with winning shapes character, Backman argues that Beartown’s culture ultimately encourages the objectification of others, especially women.
Beartown loves winners. Sune, Beartown’s professional coach, is soon to be replaced by the more successful youth coach: “They’ll replace Sune with the coach of the junior team, for one simple reason; when Sune talks to his players before matches, he gives long speeches about them playing with their hearts. When the junior team coach stands in the locker room, he says just one word: ‘Win.’ And the juniors win. They’ve done nothing else for ten years. It’s just that Sune is no longer sure that’s all a hockey team should consist of: boys who never lose.” Though he’s being phased out of the hockey club’s leadership for this attitude, Sune suspects that the club’s emphasis on winning, even if it’s working on the ice, is also having a harmful effect on the players’ characters. Sune observes that obsession with winning can have a destructive effect on both players and their fans: “…[P]erhaps it’s more noticeable in a small community. We love winners, even though they’re very rarely particularly likeable people. They’re almost always obsessive and selfish and inconsiderate. That doesn’t matter. We forgive them. We like them while they’re winning.” In other words, endless winning creates people who only focus on what they have to do in order to keep winning, not on other people’s needs; and because the watching community enjoys victory, they keep enabling that culture of winning.
A culture of uninterrupted winning creates boys who think of themselves as untouchable and entitled to whatever they want. Jeannette, a high school teacher who is blatantly disrespected by the players in her classroom, observes that “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are […] Those boys have been told that they’re bears, winners, immortal. Hockey wants them that way. Needs them that way. […] No one stops to think about how to switch [aggression] off when they leave the locker room. It’s easier to pin the blame on her” for not being able to control them.
This observation is confirmed by new players’ intoxicating experiences. After Amat’s first victory with the junior team, he’s swept up in the adulation of the town: “Amat bounces around between the hugs and pats on the back […] and he hears the others singing louder because he does, because they want to feel that they’re participating in what he represents now. The rush lifts him up, his endorphins are bubbling, and afterward he will remember thinking: ‘How can anyone possibly experience this without thinking he’s a god?’” Amat has never been in the center of the town’s adoration before, so it stands out more starkly to him: being worshiped changes the way a person sees himself, and, presumably, the way he sees others.
Beartown’s winning-obsessed culture ultimately allows its boys and men to dehumanize others. Not long after Kevin Erdahl rapes Maya Andersson, Mr. Erdahl chooses not to ask about the scratches he sees on Kevin’s face—marks Maya left during the assault—and instead tells him, “And the final isn’t just about hockey. It’s about what sort of man you want to be. A man who goes out and grabs what he deserves, or one who stands in a corner waiting for someone to give it to him.” This message, which Kevin has heard all his life, confirms his belief that he’s expected to take what he wants—even unconsenting women—if he wants to be a real man. While the message ostensibly applies to hockey, Kevin never seems to be taught to distinguish between dominating on the ice and relating to others.
When Maya’s best friend, Ana, is the target of degrading insults from a neighbor, she “feels like pushing her neighbor up against the wall and telling him that the locker room where those boys sit telling their stupid jokes ends up preserving them like a tin can. It makes them mature more slowly […] so they learn that hockey only belongs to them, and their coaches teach them that girls are a ‘distraction.’ So they learn that girls only exist for fucking. She wants to point out how all the old men in this town praise them for ‘fighting’ and ‘not backing down,’ but not one single person tells them that when a girl says no, it means NO.” Ana identifies the heart of the problem with Beartown’s culture—it doesn’t teach its boys a healthy respect for women; in fact, it doesn’t really have a place for women at all. Until that changes, Beartown’s culture will tacitly encourage even more dehumanization of the kind that Maya and Ana experience.
At one point, General Manager Peter Andersson thinks about the Beartown Hockey Club’s motto: “Culture, Values, Community.” Sune had once taught him that “Culture is as much about what we encourage as what we permit.” Sune’s instincts about Beartown’s obsession with winning turn out to be exactly right. The culture of winning has encouraged players to view other people, especially women, as prizes to be conquered, not as fellow human beings to be respected.
Culture, Character, and Entitlement ThemeTracker
Culture, Character, and Entitlement Quotes in Beartown
All the love this town could thaw out was passed down and still seems to end up devoted to [hockey]: ice and boards, red and blue lines, sticks and pucks and every ounce of determination and power in young bodies hurtling at full speed into the corners in the hunt for those pucks. The stands are packed every weekend, year after year, even though the team’s achievements have collapsed in line with the town’s economy. And perhaps that’s why— because everyone hopes that when the team’s fortunes improve again, the rest of the town will get pulled up with it. […] So they’ve coached their junior team with the same values their forebears used to construct their community: work hard, take the knocks, don’t complain, keep your mouth shut, and show the bastards in the big cities where we’re from.
His mom always says they must be grateful, the pair of them, and he understands her. No one is more grateful than her, toward this country, this town, these people, and this club, toward the council, their neighbors, her employer. Grateful, grateful, grateful. That’s the role of mothers. But the role of children is to dream. So her son dreams that his mother will one day be able to walk into a room without having to apologize.
He blinks the sweat from his eyes, adjusts his helmet, and pushes his skates into the ice. One more time. One more time. One more time.
Sooner or later any sports team has to decide what it really wants to achieve, and Beartown is no longer content merely to play. They’ll replace Sune with the coach of the junior team, for one simple reason; when Sune talks to his players before matches, he gives long speeches about them playing with their hearts. When the junior team coach stands in the locker room, he says just one word: “Win.” And the juniors win. They’ve done nothing else for ten years. It’s just that Sune is no longer sure that’s all a hockey team should consist of: boys who never lose.
It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.
One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are. The teacher has always been told she’s too young for this. Too attractive. That they won’t respect her. Those boys have been told that they’re bears, winners, immortal.
Hockey wants them that way. Needs them that way. Their coach teaches them to go hard into close combat on the ice. No one stops to think about how to switch that attitude off when they leave the locker room. It’s easier to pin the blame on her: She’s too young. Too attractive. Too easily offended. Too difficult to respect.
Sune was like Beartown: a firm adherent of the old faith that no tree should grow too tall, naively convinced that hard work was enough. That’s why the club has collapsed at the same rate that unemployment in the town has rocketed. Good workers aren’t enough on their own, someone needs to have big ideas as well. Collectives only work if they’re built around stars.
There are plenty of men in this club who think that everything in hockey “should be the way it’s always been.” Whenever he hears that, David feels like rolling himself up in a carpet and screaming until his vocal cords give out. As if hockey has ever been constant! When it was invented you weren’t even allowed to pass the puck forward, and two generations ago everyone played without a helmet. Hockey is like every other living organism: it has to adapt and evolve, or else it will die.
The storm of laughter from all the juniors makes the room shake. In the end even David smiles, and he’ll think back to that moment many times afterward: whether a joke is always only a joke, whether that particular one went too far, whether there are different rules inside and outside a locker room, whether it’s acceptable to cross the line in order to defuse tension and get rid of nerves before a game, or if he should have stopped Lars and intervened by saying something to the guys. But he does nothing. Just lets them all laugh. He’ll think about that when he gets home and looks his girlfriend in the eye.
Robbie Holts is standing alone in the street, hating himself. […] It’s a peculiar sort of angst, the one he lives with, knowing that you had the greatest moment in your life at the age of seventeen. While he was growing up everyone kept telling him he was going to turn professional, and he believed them so intensely that when he didn’t make it, he took it to mean that everyone else had let him down, as if somehow it wasn’t his own fault. He wakes up in the mornings with the feeling that someone has stolen a better life from him, an unbearable phantom pain between what he should have been and what he actually became. Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite your memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.
Amat bounces around between the hugs and pats on the back, and hears himself join in a shouted rendition of “WE ARE THE BEARS FROM BEARTOWN!” so loudly that his chest stings, and he hears the others singing louder because he does, because they want to feel that they’re participating in what he represents now.
The rush lifts him up, his endorphins are bubbling, and afterward he will remember thinking: “How can anyone possibly experience this without thinking he’s a god?”
Even in Hed people recognize them, and they get slaps on the back and congratulations. After the movie, when Amat thinks they’re on the way home, Lyt turns off the main road just after the Beartown sign. He stops by the lake. Amat doesn’t understand why until Kevin opens the trunk of the car. They’ve got beer, lights, skates, and hockey sticks in the back. They put their woollen hats down to mark the goals.
They play hockey on the lake that night, four boys, and everything feels simple. As if they were children. Amat is amazed at how straightforward it is. Staying silent in return for being allowed to join in.
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe— comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her.
“It’s never your fault, is it? When are you going to admit that it isn’t ‘hockey’ that raises these boys, it’s YOU LOT? In every time and every place, I’ve come across men who blame their own stupidity on crap they themselves have invented. ‘Religion causes wars,’ ‘guns kill people,’ it’s all the same old bullshit! […] YOU’RE the problem! Religion doesn’t fight, guns don’t kill, and you need to be very fucking clear that hockey has never raped anyone! But do you know who do? Fight and kill and rape?”
Sune clears his throat. “Men?”
“MEN! It’s always fucking men!”
Ana feels like pushing her neighbor up against the wall and telling him that the locker room where those boys sit telling their stupid jokes ends up preserving them like a tin can. It makes them mature more slowly, while some even go rotten inside. And they don’t have any female friends, and there are no women’s teams here, so they learn that hockey only belongs to them, and their coaches teach them that girls are a “distraction.” So they learn that girls only exist for fucking. She wants to point out how all the old men in this town praise them for “fighting” and “not backing down,” but not one single person tells them that when a girl says no, it means NO. And the problem with this town is not only that a boy raped a girl, but that everyone is pretending that he DIDN’T do it. So now all the other boys will think that what he did was okay.
My name is Amat. I saw what Kevin did to Maya. I was drunk, I’m in love with her, and I’m telling you that straight so that you lying bastards don’t have to say it behind my back when I walk out of here. Kevin Erdahl raped Maya Andersson. I’m going to go to the police tomorrow, and they’ll say I’m not a reliable witness. But I’m going to tell you everything now, everything that Kevin did, everything that I saw. And you won’t ever forget it. You know that my eyes work better than anyone else’s in here. Because that’s the first thing you learn on the Beartown Ice Hockey Club, isn’t it? ‘You can’t teach that way of seeing. That’s something you’re born with.’
Inside the house his dad is sitting with a newly opened bottle of whisky in front of him. They didn’t get everything they wanted this evening, but they haven’t lost either. Tomorrow their lawyer will start to prepare all the arguments why a drunk young man who is in love with the young woman is not a credible witness. Then Kevin will start playing for Hed Ice Hockey, taking his team with him, almost all the sponsors, and all their plans for life will be intact. One day very soon everyone around them will simply pretend that this has never happened. Because this family does not lose. Not even when they do.
None of them sees the first skate of the child who’s the last one out. She’s four years old, a scrawny little kid in gloves that are too big for her, with bruises everyone sees but nobody asks about. Her helmet slips down across her eyes, but the look in them is clear enough.
Adri and Sune come after her, ready to hold the girl up, until they realize that there’s no need. The four boys at the center circle will build a new A-team next season, but that doesn’t matter, because in ten years’ time it won’t be their names that make the people of this town stand taller.
And they’ll all lie and say they were here and saw it happen. The first skate of the girl who will become the most talented player this club has ever seen. They’ll all say they knew it even then.