Lesley Riddoch: Borgen sets tone for equality

With Birgitte Nyborg, spin doctor Kasper and others, Borgen has rewritten roles and rules. Picture: BBC/Mike Kolloffel
With Birgitte Nyborg, spin doctor Kasper and others, Borgen has rewritten roles and rules. Picture: BBC/Mike Kolloffel
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The television phenomenon that is Borgen is helping to oil the wheels of social change, writes Lesley Riddoch

Borgen’s everywhere – on BBC4, on political programmes and at the Edinburgh Filmhouse where actress Sidse Babette Knudsen yesterday conducted not one but three Q&A sessions to captivated, sell-out audiences. One newspaper printed questions from Scotland’s leading female politicians to the actress playing fictional Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg – another caricatured Borgen’s audience as irretrievably middle class and pretentiously idealistic.

Of course, coming (very) late to a TV phenomenon is irksome. Coming late to an unashamedly positive TV phenomenon in our dour, depressing, cynical times – even more so.

But better late than never, because Borgen has managed to do what few overtly feminist efforts have ever done before. It’s charted the transformation of “old” into “new” men in a drama that doesn’t patronise, pull punches or idealise its protagonists. And in the process it may have encouraged a small army of new men viewers to stand up and be counted.

The single biggest objection to a Borgen column I wrote last month was over my assumption that viewers were mostly female. Men are demanding to be recognised as loyal Borgen fans too.

That’s an amazing and important development, because back in the grim world of macho Britain, women know they haven’t the muscle, stamina or desire to create social change on their own.

Borgen demonstrates you don’t have to be a woman to worry about the exclusion of trained and talented women from the workforce. You don’t have to be a mother to back affordable childcare. And you don’t need to be a woman to see the potential of a character like Premier Birgitte Nyborg.

Surprisingly perhaps, Borgen has an all-male writing team and a male creator, Adam Price, who says he conceived the series as “a feminist project” – a move backed by male producers, investors, schedulers and writers, not just women.

Knudsen, who plays Birgitte Nyborg, says Borgen and The Killing have simply placed women in lead roles normally reserved for men: “For a hundred years it has been about the guys. But think about it – if the family’s at home Sunday night 8pm, man, wife, two kids, who’s in charge? The woman. And they want to see women in lead roles.

“Look at my ‘husband’ Philip and how much he can get from a relatively small part. It shows if you put women as the lead, there are new opportunities for men too.”

So much has been said about the popular feminism of Borgen that is has almost overshadowed the production’s well-drawn and quietly revolutionary new men.

Like Kasper – Nyborg’s spin doctor, haunted by childhood sexual abuse and encouraged to face his demons and dump his shiftless, world-weary life by finally acknowledging his love for the supportive and strong-minded TV reporter Katrine.

Phillip – Nyborg’s husband, unable to cope with playing second fiddle to his suddenly famous, absent wife but finally unable to live without the talented politician and realistic mother she has become.

Bent – the senior adviser, friend and confidante “jettisoned” into an unwanted Brussels job and falling ill before returning loyally to Birgitte’s side when she calls for help.

Torben – yes, even the easily swayed, sensation-seeking news editor – has a Damascene conversion after being out-manoeuvred by female staff and persuaded by Nyborg to drop a story that could derail important African peace talks. Finally, gruffly he thanks the barely tolerated, veteran feminist journalist Hanne.

Indeed, Borgen doesn’t just revolve around one “head girl” and her inner sanctum. Borgen focuses too on the media and its struggle to combine popularity, ratings, with some semblance of integrity.

There’s a fabulous dynamic between Katrine, the young, worldly but highly principled TV presenter, and Hanne, the experienced hack, estranged from her daughter and struggling with alcoholic tendencies.

When Katrine and Hanne abandon their TV jobs in protest at underhand tactics used by their boss, he shouts that Katrine will get a job elsewhere but Hanne is an old, washed up, alcoholic who will never work again.

In Borgen, Hanne is saved by the tenacious Katrine who gets a temporary TV presenter’s job and insists Hanne is hired with her as a producer. Ageism and sexism combine momentarily in Borgen – but far more powerfully in real life.

What would happen if Birgitte Nyborg was played by an older, less conventionally attractive woman than the radiant Sidse Knudsen – a woman like Mary Beard perhaps?

The 58-year-old Cambridge professor of classics was subjected to unprintable online insults after an appearance on BBC Question Time a few weeks ago. She dared to suggest immigration might have benefits, but her real crime seems to have been appearing on TV without wearing make-up, struggling to appear younger or chancing to have natural good looks.

Happily, Mary Beard made her ordeal public and happily, most viewers voiced horror at her treatment. But will she ever appear on Question Time again? Probably not.

This matters. It’s too easy to leave feminism to women – and by feminism I simply mean the creation of a society freed from expectations based on gender. It’s also too easy to leave social change to parliamentarians. The White Ribbon campaigners against male violence and Scotland’s new cyber-patrollers are good examples of new men making safe spaces for genuine dialogue. We need more.

Otherwise, outspoken women are too easily isolated – physically attacked in countries like India and Egypt, socially and emotionally boycotted here. Both behaviours make young women loath to follow in their mother’s worn-out footsteps.

At one point Birgitte Nyborg says: “I don’t want to be a role model.” And yet she is. All women are. And when the constant juggling of family and career and the never-ending fight for opportunities combine to overwhelm women, our daughters are watching.

Soon they too will step into a society which educates girls for public roles that will leave them stressed, hardened or very alone. Nothing can quickly square this vicious circle. But men can make it easier.

Good looks, intelligence, drive, children, a good salary, the prospect of an accepting, supportive husband and respect from her colleagues – Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg has indeed got it all.

A million men and women are waiting and watching to see what happens next.

Social change doesn’t happen when women are ready. It happens when men are ready. In this great task, Borgen has already helped.