So I was recently tipped off to Borgen, a Danish political drama about life at "the Castle," Denmark's government headquarters. I love political dramas, and this one has a woman (Birgitte Nyborg) as Prime Minister, so I'm all about it. I've been binge watching and just finished season 1. This contains some spoilers, but also the first season of Borgen aired in 2010, so if you're really so invested, you should just watch the show.
Anyway, I'm a little behind the times on this one (not super up on Danish culture), and haven't read much critical analysis of the show, but I get the impression that it's considered to be pretty feminist. Melissa Silverstein likes it, and xoJane wrote a thing once too. And it is, in some ways, so far. On a surface level, a woman Prime Minister whose centrist platform emphasizes Danish unity and the rights of marginalized people is totally rad. There's this one cool episode in season 1 where she goes on a diplomatic trip to Greenland, which is still under the rule of the Danish monarchy (who knew? ...I didn't, ahem.), and learns about the injustices and plight of Greenland's indigenous population at the hands of the Danish government. That's pretty cool for TV! Also, at the start of the show Birgitte's husband is totally supportive and willing to put his own career aside in the interest of her career (given that she's Prime Minister and all). They have a sexy and smart relationship and two kids who seem pretty cool and well-adjusted. So hey, maybe she can have it all!
But as the first season developed, I became increasingly frustrated with how Birgitte's marriage plays out. Her job takes up a lot of time (because she's the Prime Minister) and Phillip gets lonely and misses her. Very reasonable feelings! But instead of ever having a real conversation addressing his marital concerns - or, perhaps, tabling some of his demands because SHE IS THE PRIME MINISTER AND THAT TAKES A LOT OF WORK PROBABLY - Phillip cheats on Birgitte. Well, first he starts acting like an ass, then he says some foreboding things, and then he cheats on her. (Fun fact: the word 'affair' sounds the same in Danish as in English!)
My eyes almost rolled out of my head when this "plot twist" happened. Like, come on. The show spent several episodes constructing Phillip and Birgitte as a uniquely, surprisingly, refreshingly supportive couple. And now Phillip's behavior is totally predictable. Of course it must really suck to feel abandoned by your partner while her career takes priority (though, let us remember, SHE IS THE PRIME MINISTER OF A WHOLE COUNTRY). But is there no more creative plot device the show's writers could evoke than man-feels-lonely-so-man-cheats-on-woman? I mean, you're writing one of the few political shows on television with a female lead. Do better. (Maybe Shonda should get over there for a consultation.)
Not to mention that the season ends with a whole episode dedicated to the concept that we - and mostly Birgitte - can't have it all. Kasper can't have Katrine because he's hurt her in the past. Katrine can't have her journalistic idealism and also her position at TV1. Phillip can't have his flashy job as CEO of a telecom company because it compromises Birgitte's political career. And Birgitte apparently can't have any friends, a functional family, a loyal husband or a supportive parliamentary government. Ah, feminism.
Seriously, though, I don't quite feel comfortable saying that this show promotes feminist values, or at least what I would consider to be contemporary ("third-wave"? Are we calling it that?) feminist values. Birgitte is professionally successful, but has very little emotional support or affirmation from anyone who is not her employee. It seems that to apply the word 'feminist' to Borgen is to accept a version of feminism that centers the leadership style and success benchmarks of traditionally masculine power structures, as well as to accept that the primary function of feminism in contemporary society is to allow women the opportunity to work at the highest, most alienating, most emotionally destructive level. And I think feminism means more than that. Plus, the show sets up Birgitte's career and her family life in complete tension with one another. We're not exactly observing the radical feminist revolutionary future here.
But of course, it's still totally rad to see a confident, opinionated lady running a country, even in the fictional universe of cable TV. And I super like the show and am going to keep watching it. I hope the second season will take us to a more interesting place in Birgitte's plot line so there can be more nuanced conversations about the complexities of being a powerful woman, because the "she just can't have it all" thing is honestly tired. But also, it's TV, and even great TV feminism (is that a thing? Where is it?) is still a somewhat false representation. So let's just keep binge watching and enjoy listening to incredibly beautiful people speak an incredibly beautiful language while discussing Denmark's relatively low stakes international political agenda!
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