Back in January I wrote about how the first two seasons of Borgen were an interesting examination of how women working in the government and the media are still facing roadblocks in the 21st Century. I wrote about how the show is just as much about Katrine as it is Birgitte, and their parallel challenges as leading women in their fields who just happened to be intraditionally male dominated institutions. My favourite thing about the third season of Borgen is that it brought them together, due to Pilou Asbaek’s other acting commitments, which is also why Kasper and Katrine were separated but trying to make it work for their son. There were some missteps in the third season, but I still enjoyed it, as Birgitte’s political comeback was more complicated than she hoped it would be.
I spent most of last year and the start of this year watching the first two seasons of the Danish television show, Borgen with my mum (I bought her the third season for Christmas, I’d like to get to it soon). Borgen begins when the leader of the Moderates party, Birgitte Nyborg is about to quit politics before she is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and has try and form a minority government. The show also follows Katrine Fonsmark, an idealistic journalist at TV1, the public television broadcaster. There are several characters, regular and recurring, on Borgen, but the show is at its best when it examines the gender politics that exist in government and the media; Birgitte and Katrine are the gender politics personified. Birgitte may be on the cover of the DVDs, but the show is just as much about Katrine.
Birgitte begins the show in a happy marriage to a wonderful man named Phillip, with two children, Laura and Magnus (the cutest child actor on television since Love Actually). As two ambitious people, they are successful in their fields; if Birgitte had lost the election, she would have retired from politics and Phillip could have gone from economics professor to a CEO of some kind. Their marriage struggles not from Birgitte’s constant absence due to her new job, but because of the demands she places on Phillip that prevent him from doing what he loves (Jason Katims pretty much took this idea and ran with it for Joel and Julia in Parenthood, where the storyline was less successful). One of the best episodes in the first season, “Men Who Love Women”, involved government policy crossing into the private sector. Birgitte proposed that Danish boardrooms should reflect Danish society, and imposed a quota that all boards have a membership of which at least 45 percent were women. This policy didn’t go down well, and there were CEOs saying that the talent pool of women wasn’t as large as that of men – despite having a female Prime Minister, Danish men were still reluctant to give up control. As Todd VanDerWerff stated,
It’s one thing to have a female prime minister. That’s the sort of symbolic change most people can get behind. It’s quite another to insist that women be given positions of power throughout society. The men who’ve traditionally held those positions aren’t going to go along with that so easily.
The other significant gendered storyline occurs throughout the second season, when Birgitte’s daughter Laura started having anxiety attacks and was admitted at a private health facility. This was at odds with the healthcare reforms Birgitte was trying to pass through parliament at the time, but it also raised media questions about Birgitte’s absence as a mother during her tenure as Prime Minister, questions that are rarely asked about male politicians (for more on this, read Annabel Crabb‘s book The Wife Drought, which stipulates that female politicians need wives rather than husbands). Borgen has successfully highlighted the double standard with which the media and the public judges politicians when it comes to gender.
Katrine Fonsmark is somewhere around 10 to 15 years younger than Birgitte. Throughout Borgen, Katrine is depicted as the moral compass/voice of reason; where Birgitte’s time as Prime Minister made her more of a pragmatist than an idealist, Katrine has not lost her idealism. As a woman, she fights against the sort of stories that TV1 and The Ekspres want her to run that criticise Birgitte for being a female Prime Minister. Katrine faces obstacles of her own in the workplace, which is just as much a boys club as Danish Parliament. When an older female journalist, Hanne Holm, is fired for her alcoholism, Katrine replaces her on camera. Hanne’s reaction is that Katrine must have been sleeping with Torbin, their boss and sent the email that got her fired. Similarly, when Katrine tells Torbin that she’s seeing Kaspar, Birgitte’s spin doctor/media advisor, Torbin starts asking her about her plans to have children (I was really surprised by this, because asking these sorts of questions is illegal in Australia).
Birgitte and Katrine, after the personal and professional challenges they face, remain determined to do their jobs to the best of their ability. What is most heartwarming about Borgen is that the female characters realise that it will take effort for change to occur in government and the media, and they mentor their younger colleagues. When Katrine is briefly fired from TV1, she ends up working with Hanne Holm, who despite her rage upon getting fired is willing to help Katrine, and in turn Katrine ensures that Hanne comes with her when she returns to TV1. Similarly, Birgitte takes Anne Sophie Lindenkrone, the leader of the Solidarity Party under her wing, when she discovered that Anne Sophie wanted to enter politics. It had nothing to do with political parties, Birgitte just saw another woman who fought for what she believed in, and helped her find a way to do that. Borgen is a great show about institutional sexism, and the fact that women are willing to help each other makes it even better.