You Need to Watch Borgen Now

Watching the show is like watching a chef making food in a kitchen: it feels like a reality show in its detailed presentation of the nuts and bolts of government, politics, and TV journalism. Borgen is skillfully made and is ridiculously entertaining. It is well worth your time.

Borgen is an overtly feminist show. It tells the story of two strong willed women. One is the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, Birgette Nyborg, and the other is Katrine Fonsmark, a young, ambitious political reporter and anchor of Denmark’s major TV network. Both are fighters, hardworking, ambitious, ethical, strong willed .

The creator of the show Adam Price, a Danish screenwriter and restrauteur, admitted in an interview that the series is a feminist project. The series emphasizes feminist themes by portraying women as intelligent and effective in political roles usually held by men, so it is not surprising that it attracted many women around the world including female political leaders such as Scotland’s first prime minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to name a few. In one interview Sturgeon admitted watching Borgen and suggested the show’s star Sidse Babett Knudsen could play her in a movie of her life.

The feminism of Borgen is prominent from the first season when Birgitte becomes Prime Minister and she faces a difficult choice that impacts her marriage. Her husband is about to begin his new dream job but Birgitte must ask him to decline the position because if he takes the job it will create a conflict of interest for the government. Birgitte’s husband complies with Birgitte’s request, but he is deeply frustrated by his situation; and eventually he asks Birgitte for a divorce. This plot development highlights a major theme of Borgen: the difficulty of navigating a life in politics while maintaining a normal personal life. The show deals with this theme masterfully, creating powerful drama.

Birgette is a very clever and tough woman, an idealist, ambitious, a political mastermind, and a charismatic leader. Nothing intimidates her, not even her divorce, her daughter’s mental-health crisis nor even her possible cancer diagnosis. She risks a snap election at the end of season 2, and later founds a new party called the New Democrats, and then manages to pass a 50% quota system so that women have to be appointed as 50% of corporate boards. How cool is that? 

However, she may be successful but she is also vulnerable; she is lonely and has no friends other than her mentor whom she fires despite their closeness. At one point she is desperate for some kind of intimacy and she engages in a one night stand. 

Katrine Fonsmark is put through hell: she was with her married lover when he suddenly died and then covered multiple political crises as anchor of the major Danish news program – all while remaining smart and dedicated to her work as a journalist. However, she is also stubborn. In season 1 she gets a scoop from an anonymous source about an important security policy and instead of following the order of her boss to kill it she pursues the story. She then finds herself in trouble and is put on indefinite leave. Towards the end of season 4 she had a hard time dealing with her colleagues and like Nyborg her managerial style causes troubles.

For the first two series the show was written exclusively by a team of male writers. The writers skillfully portray the lives and work of women in politics and media, the interaction of the two, and the struggles they face. What has made Borgen successful is that it combines familiar soap opera elements with a realistic portrayal of the realities of politics and the media.

So what is the takeaway from this show? One of Borgen’s main themes is that we are still a long way from gender equality because even in Denmark men  feel emasculated and domesticated when they are the primary parent. The First Gentleman feels humiliated when he has to derail his career to accommodate his wife’s political ambitions. Isn’t this something political wives do all the time, but if it is the other way around it is insulting? He does not have the stamina to be a good and supportive husband. Eventually he lost interest in his wife, and asks for a divorce.

Another take away is that it is impossible for female politicians to have a normal life and succeed at the highest level unless the husband is willing to be domesticated and willing to not see his wife often. Men still want to be the head of the family and to to be the bread winner in order for them to feel good, look good, and look “like a man”. In other words, they still want women to play a traditional role. 

The travails of prime minister Birgette Nyborg has been widely popular since its first broadcast in Denmark in autumn of 2010 and it has been sold to 75 different countries and most notably it became a British sensation, winning a BAFTA and millions of views around the world. Interestingly, most women in Britain stop working when they become mothers and, although in some couples both work, many women do like the idea. When you go to a nursery or  a playground you’ll see more women tending their children than men. Which raises the question, why is Borgen so popular with British women? Perhaps the feminism of the series is appealing to British women despite their own lives following a more traditional path.

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