The Perfect Enemy | “Borgen” ’s Bleak View of Women in Power
August 17, 2022

“Borgen” ’s Bleak View of Women in Power

“Borgen” ’s Bleak View of Women in Power  The New Yorker

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“Borgen” ’s Bleak View of Women in Power

The show’s writers cast Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, as almost supernaturally resilient and virtuous.Photograph by Mike Kollöffel courtesy Netflix

Late in “Borgen: Power & Glory,” the standalone fourth season of the Danish political drama and cult hit “Borgen,” two women step out of a government building, ready to formalize an alliance. One is the former Prime Minister, now Foreign Minister, Birgitte Nyborg (the luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen). The other is Birgitte’s boss, the current Prime Minister, Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt). Birgitte and Signe were once rivals with a confrontational working relationship, but now they are all smiles, and all similarities: both wear black blouses, camel-colored coats, and their hair in voluminous buns. “To think that we almost needed a new world war to realize how good we can be together,” Signe says, before offering Birgitte the title of Deputy Prime Minister. The women seal the deal with a selfie, which they post to social media with a utopian hashtag: #futureisfemale.

And yet the scene is deeply sinister, representing the moral nadir of Birgitte’s time in Danish politics. The first three seasons of “Borgen,” released between 2010 and 2013, established her as an idealist: a moderate who became Denmark’s first woman Prime Minister, and who was able to maintain her beliefs amid Party intrigue and constant media scrutiny. Her assets were her charisma—embodied by Knudsen’s distinctive crinkled-nose smile—and the approachability she projected as a married mother of two. (In the series première, her candidacy was boosted by her admission, during a televised debate, that she’d had trouble fitting into her suit that day.) As Prime Minister, she dealt with issues that were often wonky, and drawn from Denmark’s real-life politics: debates over the ethics of the pork industry, the country’s role in the war in Afghanistan, reform packages, and gender quotas on corporate boards.

“Borgen” ’s writers, led by the show’s creator, Adam Price, cast Birgitte as almost supernaturally resilient and virtuous. Neither the collapse of her marriage nor her daughter’s mental-health crisis nor a possible cancer diagnosis was enough to cause a professional lapse. At the end of Season 2, Birgitte called a snap election, in order to affirm Denmark’s democratic process; in Season 3, after two and a half years away from politics, she founded the New Democrats, a party that quickly became an electoral kingmaker. She had another opportunity to become Prime Minister, by allying with a coalition that included an anti-immigration party, but, unwilling to compromise on one of her core political values, she chose to join another coalition, in the lesser post of Foreign Minister.

The fourth season of “Borgen” has arrived on Netflix nearly a decade after the conclusion of the third. (The third season was intended to be the show’s last, but the money and international exposure provided by Netflix—which acquired the streaming rights in 2020—seem to have spurred the producers to reconsider.) In the years that “Borgen” has been off the air, several young, dynamic women have ascended to the Prime Ministership of their (primarily social-democratic) countries. In fact, the first season of “Borgen” anticipated the election of Denmark’s first woman Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in 2011. Thorning-Schmidt, like Birgitte, was in her early forties and telegenic; she, too, built a coalition that wrested power from the ruling conservative-liberal alliance. But she resigned in 2015, after which she joined the corporate world—most recently landing at Facebook, as co-chair of the company’s notoriously opaque Oversight Board. (In another situation worthy of a “Borgen” story arc, Denmark’s current Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, recently avoided impeachment following a scandal involving the government’s killing of mink during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The actions of Thorning-Schmidt and Frederiksen complicate the binary that has long existed for Western women politicians, who are either widely admired for what’s perceived to be their more inclusive, equitable approach to leadership (think Jacinda Ardern, of New Zealand, or Sanna Marin, of Finland) or who become so subsumed by misogynistic discourse that it becomes difficult to critique them with nuance (Hillary Clinton being an arch-example.) Considering the past decade of women in power, one can formulate a sort of gendered Rorschach test: does the image of a woman leader seem like a threat or a liability? Is she the Platonic ideal of a successful head of state? Or is she simply another elected figure who will disappoint voters?

“Borgen: Power and Glory” puts aside the optimism and circumscribed plots of the show’s earlier outings to take up Birgitte in the latter mold—as a politician still at the height of her powers but so stymied by professional and personal roadblocks that she devolves into a cynic. The show also, for the first time, devotes an entire season to a single political story line, about the discovery of oil in Greenland. (Greenland, which has been under Danish rule since the eighteenth century, has had some sovereignty from Denmark since 1979, though it still receives an annual block grant of more than six hundred million dollars.) The question of whether Denmark ought to allow—and profit from—the exploitation of oil lets the show interrogate political fights over the decolonization of Greenland, climate change, and the hegemony of American, Chinese, and Russian interests in Danish foreign policy. This broader scope—and the willingness to engage directly, if not always successfully, with colonialism—feels like an attempt to resituate “Borgen” in the modern television landscape. (It also demonstrates how Netflix’s resources can make even prohibitively expensive filming destinations, like Greenland, accessible.)

Some figures in Signe’s government support drilling for oil because of the potential financial gains. Greenland’s Foreign and Raw Materials Minister, meanwhile, sees a generous profit-sharing agreement as a pathway for Greenland to become economically independent of Denmark. As Prime Minister, Birgitte was sympathetic toward decolonization efforts in Greenland, but as Foreign Minister she has different priorities. Initially, she opposes drilling for oil because of the environmental consequences—and because strong climate policy is what got the New Democrats elected. When crucial information about a Russian owner of the drilling company falls into Birgitte’s hands, she intends to leverage it in order to do the “right” thing—at least for her party and for the environment, if not for Greenland.

Then, an American ambassador—a suave bully, as Americans tend to be on “Borgen”—asks Birgitte to keep the information to herself. He dangles a proposition before her: perhaps Birgitte wouldn’t mind being put forward as a candidate for the U.N. Secretary-General? Birgitte is uneasy, but there’s also a new sparkle in her eye. It’s unlike her to be tempted by such obvious flattery and backroom dealing. So why is she?

By the time the ambassador swoops in, we’ve seen that Birgitte is dissatisfied with her personal life: her relationship with her teen-age son has been strained by his progressive, sometimes reckless activism, which clashes with her moderate approach. Meanwhile, her ex-husband is having a child with another woman, and her daughter is living far away, in New York City. Birgitte’s age—she is now fifty-three—is another apparent source of anxiety: there are scenes of her sweating through her makeup and clothes, and examining her wrinkles in the mirror. As she tells her mentor, Bent Sejrø, “If I’m not the woman working nineteen hours a day as Foreign Minister, who the hell am I?” The power vacuum at home has left Birgitte seeking to regain a feeling of control in her work. What is underemphasized, as a result, is the degree to which Birgitte’s concerns about her family and her appearance are intertwined with her fears about the whittling away of her legacy as Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, thanks to Signe, her younger, more social-media-savvy successor.

And so Birgitte complies with the ambassador’s request; when her deception is later uncovered, she is predictably dogged by accusations of impropriety. In a bid to protect herself—and to avoid resigning, as Bent nudges her to do—Birgitte flips on the Greenlandic oil issue: she’ll not only aggressively support the drilling but she’ll also weed out anyone who opposes her. She hires Michael Laugesen, an old political enemy, as her secret spin doctor, or media coach. (This is done right after she finishes throwing up after a night out—a comically unsubtle scene that conveys her own repugnance at the idea.) Michael wants Birgitte to refresh her image: to embrace social media and take advantage of the feminist wave in politics. He also encourages her to resort to more extreme tactics, and she does—with vigor. Birgitte treats the Greenlandic representatives with disrespect; parrots the points of climate-change deniers; blackmails her party’s deputy leader, Jon Berthelsen; and publicly repudiates her son for his political activity. She also puts pressure on Nadia Barazani, the Climate Minister, to side with her, marking the second time this season that a white woman is positioned as the aggressor of a Danish woman of color. (The other instance, involving Katrine Fønsmark, a TV journalist and Birgitte’s former spin doctor, and her employee, Narciza Aydin, is more protracted, yet neither confrontation explicitly or satisfyingly probes the gender and racial dynamics at play.)

Birgitte’s moral transformation seems so enveloping, so surreal, that it’s hard to imagine that she will come to her senses. Yet she does—thanks to an icy journey through one of Greenland’s fjords, piloted by Josva Johansen, a local fisherman whose harbor has been bought off for use in the oil drilling. As he muses on the effects of climate change, Birgitte has a moral awakening. “Perhaps all of this is more my fault,” she tells him. He asks her what she got out of it: “I got to continue to be Foreign Minister. Power.” The ease with which she comes to this conclusion is absurd, and the fact that the revelation is spurred by an interaction with a member of Greenland’s indigenous community feels cynical: only a visceral sense of connection could affect her political reasoning—a plot point that not only reduces women politicians to their emotions, seemingly rendering them incapable of abstract thinking, but also puts indigenous people into the stereotypical role of teachers. (It’s also striking that Birgitte only receives salient political advice from men this season; her tendency to exclusively view men as mentors is a realistic dynamic, but it nevertheless reduces the relationships between Birgitte and other women to prickly performance.)

In the last half of the final episode, Birgitte attempts to overturn, on environmental grounds, the oil deal that she has just signed between Greenland and Denmark—though it hardly matters, because the Americans, in a deus-ex-machina twist, shut down the oil project entirely. At a Party conference, Birgitte admits, “I might have changed as a person, but I hope never to lose the ability to admit I am wrong.” She then voluntarily anoints Jon as the leader of the New Democrats, and leaves the stage with everyone’s faith in her seemingly restored.

Birgitte’s volte-face feels rushed and unearned. Clearly, the writers couldn’t commit to fully transforming her into a villain. Perhaps they, too, are susceptible to the idea that even a flawed woman in power is better than the alternative. But Birgitte’s resignation doesn’t satisfy, not as a narrative of a girlboss learning her limits nor as a beloved politician’s return to form. That’s because Birgitte won’t be leaving politics; rather, she’ll move to Brussels, to become an E.U. commissioner. Longtime viewers will immediately grasp the bleak significance of this posting. As Prime Minister, Birgitte had tried to install Bent in the role, but he resisted—seeing the position as a way to banish one’s unwanted peers. (Indeed, she ended up shipping a political rival off to Brussels instead.) Birgitte’s exit from Denmark thus portends her obsolescence, and reads as a strange sort of penance for her moral failings this season.

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to see Birgitte’s cynical turn as a reflection of her creators’ own evolved ambitions. A reboot typically requires justification, some sort of alignment with the zeitgeist; in that sense, turning Birgitte into an antiheroine captures both the jaded nature of politics and television viewers’ attraction to messy women characters. Yet neither Birgitte’s walk on the dark side nor her decision to pull back from the edge is entirely convincing. One wonders whether the writers are choosing to leave several pathways open in anticipation of another season. (For her part, Knudsen has insisted that “Birgitte is done”—seemingly also interpreting her character’s move to Brussels as the coda to her career.)

In any case, it would be hard for Birgitte to recover from her ethical flip-flopping; her brand of idealistic politics is now deeply suspect. As unsatisfying as the writers’ choices this season may have been, they have exposed some sharp, sadly pragmatic points about women in power. Deifying them does little to serve voters, much less women specifically; and second acts in politics—or new acts post-politics—can reveal as much, or more, about a leader as their time in office did. After all, there are always jobs on corporate boards, or deals at Netflix, to be had. ♦