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Friday, September 20, 2013

Borgen and Me: The Political Gets Personal

Do you know what Borgen is? Until a few weeks ago, neither did I. Among the husband’s side of the family we’ve become obsessed with Scandinavian television and literature. Well, "literature" may be overstating the quality of the reading material. I'm talking about the genre known as Nordic Noir*, specializing in barely functioning yet mesmerizing detectives trying to solve grisly murders without themselves becoming victims of either their own weaknesses (how Shakespearean) or of the killers they’re trailing. Some of these novels have been adapted for TV, but now we’ve discovered – and by "we" I mean my mother-in-law (MIL) – original television series on DVD. The latest one she passed along to us is a Danish show called “Borgen.” She passed it along to us, and with it, she passed along a request that I blog about it.

Borgen, for those who, like me, know zero about Denmark besides that it was the land of Hans Christian Anderson, is the locus of Denmark’s parliament. “Borgen” the TV series is about its fictional first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, a forty-something brunette with a husband and two children. Turns out that the real Denmark also has its first female Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a forty-something blonde. There, now you know as much as I do about actual Danish politics. 

So let’s begin with this: what I think I know about Denmark. What I think I know about Denmark is  it’s one of those Scandinavian countries with a strong socialist system that fosters equality between the sexes and classes and where everyone is attractive, white, and wears burly sweaters. This is also what I think of when I think of Sweden, Finland, and Norway, but to prove that the MIL is right to expect something intelligent from me, let me also say that I do differentiate among those Northern European countries. For example, while my idea of Denmark is that it’s one of those socialist countries that fosters equality between the sexes and where everyone is attractive, white, and wears burly sweaters, I don’t stereotype everyone there as tall and blonde. That’s Sweden. Denmark has brunettes, and possibly redheads. Norway has brunettes, too. This I learned on my junior year at Oxford. And Finland? Cell phones and excellent schools.

This is the sum total of my knowledge of these countries. Wait, no, that’s incomplete. I know from Nordic Noir that there is a fine heroin trade with Asia, a sex slave situation from Eastern Europe, and racial tension with the few immigrants there. Despite the existence of poverty and junkies there, Denmark has come a long way since the Little Match Girl died of cold and starvation back in H. C. Anderson’s day.

Why am I writing about “Borgen”? Because the MIL was right. There is a lot to say about it. I’ll admit I’m feeling a smidge pressured, though. She expects I will have something interesting to say. And for the MIL, interesting is more than witty. There has to be pith there, too. Evidence of intellect. That kind of thing. This is a problem, because most of what I think about when I think about “Borgen” is that Birgitte Nyborg, the Prime Minister in the series, is not a super-skinny woman, but has some curves, and even half-heartedly despairs of them. So I think about how fat or not she thinks she is, and how fat or not I am in comparison to her – TV adds fifteen pounds, so really she is not at all fat, the actress, I mean, and how I’m not on TV so does the mirror add fifteen pounds or is that just life? - and what percent of her life she spends thinking about it – the fictional character, I mean - considering that she is the Prime Minister.

But despair not, MIL, because my point – and Readers, you know I have one - is that this show has a realistic, complex view of its characters. Furthermore, the main character and one of the key supporting characters are women, and the show explores the many roles they fulfill as educated career women with considerable nuance and realism that you don’t see on American television.

For example, in the third episode, a character has an abortion. Can you imagine that happening on American TV? Not only does she have an abortion, but her decision is dramatized. The viewer watches her learn she’s pregnant, get an ultrasound to confirm it, and hide it from her employer - because she's conflicted about being pregnant, not because she's worried she will be fired. Katrine is twenty-eight, and a rising TV political analyst with a public profile and obvious ambition. She had been having an affair with a married man, who died suddenly, after which she discovered she was pregnant. Both people she tells about the pregnancy expect she will terminate it. One is her ex-boyfriend, who assumes she will terminate. The second is her mother, who tells her to. Can you imagine that? And not only that, but also, her mother tells her to have an abortion despite being a practicing Christian. She tells Katrine she is hanging onto this pregnancy for the wrong reason – grief that the father of the baby has just died, and she wants to have some part of him. “You’re the one who believes in God,” says Katrine, who expected a different response from her mother. Her mother says, “God has nothing to do with this. You must look out for yourself.” 

God has nothing to do with this. From a Christian woman.

Not only that, but Katrine has this abortion (which is presumably covered by her health insurance, which is presumably covered by the taxes she pays to her government who then invest that money into a social safety net) without incident – though not without a few tears – and returns to work immediately. She is not maimed by the experience physically nor psychologically, and apparently her religious mother isn’t worried for her soul, either.

Can you imagine any of this on American TV? Or in American discourse in any way?

That Katrine Fønsmark in Denmark can get an abortion safely, legally, and with excellent anesthesia, apparently, in a clean and well-run health facility, on national television, shows that Denmark is way ahead of us. This very common plot point in the average professional woman’s actual life in America is kept hidden from view on US TV and in the movies. For wouldn’t I have done the same as Katrine if I were a young, single, rising professional who got knocked up by a married man? Yes, I would have, and most of the women I know would have – or did – too. The majority of abortions performed in the US are on women in their twenties. Over 90% of the abortions are performed at thirteen weeks’ gestation or less, and about 70% at under eight weeks’. There are about a million abortions performed a year. ( Only we aren’t allowed to talk about it. And while we are busy not talking about this very common solution to a very common problem, unwanted pregnancy, we are forgetting to fight for our right to it, and we are in danger of losing it.

There has been much talk lately about the dearth of female leaders in corporate and political affairs, and a renewed look at feminism and work-life balance, and at the challenges women face maintaining careers and families and returning to careers after focusing on raising children, and this is terrific. I am all for this kind of talk. But, as Deborah Spar, President of Barnard, said recently on NPR (she has a new book about feminism), the feminist agenda needs to focus on a few other things as well. It needs to return to the activist, civil-rights bent it had back before my generation thought we’d reaped the benefits of the women’s movement and were all set. Deborah Spar, like Madeleine Kunin, says we need to focus on equal pay; paid family leave; and quality childcare.

However, this agenda presupposes that women have control over their reproductive systems. This agenda steps around the edges of this right, because there is still that infuriating minority of legislators and deluded constituents who are working as hard as they possibly can to undermine it. If women can’t control their reproductive systems, then they can’t really control anything in their lives. Which is exactly how a few wildly flapping fundamentalist sexists want it, but is not how most people want it to be.

But also – and here’s where I start sounding like one of those liberal conspiracy theorists – while we are fighting to retain the right to abortion and birth control – yes, even to birth control - we are not advocating for those other three agenda items: paid family leave, equal pay, and quality childcare. These agenda items might cost a lot more government dollars overall than legal abortion. Perhaps it suits certain powerful minority voices to keep us plugging the reproductive rights dyke, because while we have our fingers over there, we aren’t lobbying over here for these other measures that would potentially fundamentally change the structure of our working lives and therefore of our society.

So I have to ask myself, who benefits from the way things are now? Who benefits if things don’t change? And what might things look like if this so-called feminist – but really just humanist – agenda came into being? Furthermore, if we don’t let ourselves get distracted by the assault on abortion, at least not entirely, and if we do return to the more civil-rights focused aspects of the women’s movement and get these family-friendly policies installed, then I imagine reproductive rights will be strengthened along with them.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. As Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” We all do.

* For a great overview of Nordic Noir, try this.


  1. I have to add what I know about Denmark-- there was a famous prince from there that Shakespeare wrote about:).
    And I can actually offer a sensitive portrayal of a woman (actually, a teenager) choosing to end an unplanned pregnancy on American television-- we've just finished watching five seasons of Friday Night Lights, which I highly recommend, and don't pay any attention to the fact that it's about high school football in Texas because that kept me away from it for years, but it truly is as wonderful a show as everybody says (even if you're just hearing about it from me).

    1. How could I forget Hamlet? Well, the mind is going.

      And now I'm wrong about American TV, too? This is not good. Actually - it's great! I watched the first season of FNL eons ago and loved it, but then lost track of it. So maybe it's worth going back to after all!

      By the way, if your comment doesn't show up right away on my blog, it's because I have to approve all comments before they are published, so don't worry. Sometimes I forget to check if I have any comments, because I get so few. (Sniffle)