Borgen Season 4: How the Show Portrays Women in Power

Early in this new season Borgen, the hit show about a fictional version of Denmark’s first female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg stands in the kitchen during her son’s birthday party and washes dishes with her still hot, but now ex-, husband. It’s an intimate scene that in past seasons would have ended with Nyborg guiltily running off to address some brewing crisis; for all its political emphasis, Borgen was always, at its heart, about the double bind that women face as they attempt to balance their professional obligations with their families’ needs. Birgitte is now in a hurry to get back to work, so she barely gets time to finish drying the plates. However, she doesn’t feel guilt. “I am so happy,” she confesses to her ex, “not to have to apologize for working so much.”

Nearly 10 years passed since Danish TV aired the original series on June 2. The fourth season of Netflix’s Fourth Season was streaming online on Netflix. Borgen’s finale, and in that decade, a lot has changed. It’s all about social media and climate change. This is reflected in the show which, although it loves to reference real-life situations, has been unable to keep up with this trend. Much of this season’s plot revolves around the multifaceted crisis that unfolds when oil is discovered in Greenland, an autonomous region of Denmark, whose valuable natural resources —in both the show and real life—are both the object of intense geopolitical grappling among the U.S., China, and Russia, and seen domestically as a way of funding independence.

Yet the larger shift is within Birgitte and, in some ways, the show’s portrayal of accomplished women in general. No longer head of state but Denmark’s foreign minister, Nyborg is 10 years older than when we last saw her, with her kids grown, no husband to take care of, and a naked urge to hold onto power at any cost. Highly principled and idealistic in the past—a Danish version of The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett—she now abandons some values in favor of political expediency, betrays allies and even family members, and undermines anyone she perceives as threatening her power—which, in this case, happens to be a lot of other women.

Within the show’s framework, there is a logic to this transformation, and actor Sidse Babett Knudsen continues to play the character with subtlety and grace. The transformation might cause cognitive dissonance for those who are used to Birgitte Nyborg being a feminist icon. It depicts powerful women acting just as bad as men. Borgenreached a post-feminist, new version of equality? Is it a reversion to a more misogynistic view of women in power, or is this a newer version? Or is the show, which on many occasions has seemingly predicted real social and political change, a recognition that the reality of feminists—and women in general—lies between the poles of idealization and demonization?

Knudsen plays Birgitte Nborg in the 10th anniversary of her appearance.

Mike Kollöffel—©Mike Kollöffel

It was a surprise when it debuted in 2010. BorgenWith its geeky emphasis on Scandinavian coalition politics and nerdy approach,, became a worldwide hit. That it did so—the series was syndicated in 70 countries—is due in part to its portrayal of an idealistic politician who is good at her job. “I would get letters from people who were inspired by this woman, and who really like her,” says Knudsen. “They would write me—even American soldiers—to say that, in their current situation, it’s really nice that there’s a politician in some weird little country who is doing things well.”

Birgitte was loved for the man behind the politician. “Even though she was very professional, her vulnerability was there at all times,” says Adam Price, the show’s creator and co-writer. “You saw it in the first episode, in the first speech she actually gives where she says, ‘You know what? I’m wearing the completely wrong dress for this occasion. But the thing is, I’ve gotten too fat for the business suit that I should actually have been wearing.’ And everybody was just like, yes, yes, that’s what we want; we want the real stuff.”

One year later Borgen’s debut on DR, the Danish public broadcaster, Denmark elected its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt; currently, not only its leader, but those of Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Estonia are all women. It would not be unreasonable to say that Borgen influenced the Danish vote, a show watched every Sunday by 1.5 million—that’s 1 in 4 people—may well have shaped the environment in which the election took place. “She was definitely the kind of woman that Danes would like to see as a reflection of their society,” says Susanne Eichner, professor of media studies at Denmark’s Århus University, in reference to Nyborg. “It’s a bit far-fetched to say that there was a cause-and-effect. But I will quote the Geena Davis Institute: ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ A show like this is paramount in enabling us to see alternative realities and futures.”

As in real life, the role of female leader is not as commonplace on the fourth season. Although the new prime minister now tags her social media posts with #thefutureisfemale, so too is the present: the show’s Swedish prime minister, Greenlandic premier, Russian ambassador, and majority of Danish cabinet members are all women. Among them is foreign minister Nyborg, who finds herself with a boss (in the form of a prime minister with a marked resemblance—down to her tight bun and homey Instagram posts—to Denmark’s current head of state, Mette Frederiksen), who is just as determined as she is to assert her authority. Conflict between these two women forms the core tension of the series.

The newsroom is another key plot point in the series, where women also have to fight for their rights. Former reporter Katrine Fønsmark has become head of news at the public network, and she quickly finds herself in conflict with a younger, more openly political colleague. “She fails to realize the importance of making sure her employees feel heard and seen,” says Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who plays Katrine. “And she has the added pressure of a rising sh-tstorm on social media, so the room for her to maneuver becomes very narrow.”

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Katrine Fønsmark

Mike Kollöffel—©Mike Kollöffel

Echoing an experience her character suffered in Season 3, Hjort Sørensen had a very BorgenMoment during production, when her nanny, who had just returned from her maternity leave, called off the script reading and she was forced to take her child to work. In the second season her character gave care of her baby to her patient, hagiographical partner. Nyborg for her part is able to resolve the double problem by simply getting out of it. Now in her 50s, Birgitte’s children have left home, leaving her to eat sad supermarket sushi alone, even while she insists on her liberation. “She is actually able to work 24/7 now,,” says Price. “Which seems like a blessing, but tastes like a curse.” That, says Price, is a central storyline this season: what happens to a woman when her roles as a wife and mother move into the background.

The only thing left is power. As any Shakespearean student will know, power corrupts. “The first time you taste it, it’s amazing, because you actually get to realize many of the idealistic dreams you had as a young politician,” says Price of his lead character’s trajectory. “But power is a slow working poison as well. And it drips into your cup of coffee every day, until, as a politician, you’re almost not able to taste that it’s coffee anymore.”

Borgen was never one of those shows that promised women they could have it all; Birgitte’s marriage collapsed because her husband grew to resent her job. Now, as the roles of mother and wife have been eliminated, the show explores another facet of womenhood in order to keep the tension between the private and public. It focuses on aging and menopause. In the new season, the foreign minister struggles with hot flashes, grows irritable from lack of sleep, and sees things she doesn’t like when she looks in the mirror. Knudsen is 53 years old and says that she was excited to be able to portray a real woman in this stage of her life. “We talked about how to show that she has menopause because that’s what happens to women at a certain age and they live with it,” Knudsen says. “I thought it was just another tool in the box of showing a whole person.”

She says that many people have asked her whether it is difficult for them to reveal what they perceive as their vulnerability. “I have friends who have said about the age thing, ‘Oh you really see it. There are many ways to make your life easier. It is really see it,’” she says with a laugh. “The interesting thing about not doing things to your face is that your face shows what’s been happening for the last 10 years.”

In Birgitte’s—and the show’s—younger days, the question of women’s suitability for power was made explicit. After Nyborg took leave from the government to care for her mentally ill daughter, a political opponent sniped, “I’m glad Birgitte Nyborg is a good mom. But do we want a good mom for Prime Minister?” The audience hardly needed to wait for Nyborg’s rousing speech before Parliament for the answer.

But this time around, the show’s reply is a little less clear. The new show might have a lot of strong women. BorgenThey all do their best, however none of them are particularly admirable. Menopause—read, hormones—makes Birgitte irritable, less cool-headed, even less responsible as she abruptly leaves important meetings to deal with her changing body. Stress and her own sense of falling short lead Katrine Fønsmark to a nervous breakdown. Some of the signs are reminiscent of the old stereotype of women being too emotionally charged or out of control to lead. And Birgitte’s newfound will to power, BorgenIt seems like he is arguing. He does this because he feels the need to fill in for his children and husband.

Does that represent feminism? Or postfeminism? “The image of a woman who has lost her family so now she has nothing is stereotypically negative,” says media studies professor Eichner. “But there is also something progressive in that the show allows women to feel the whole spectrum, to be good and evil, broken and ambivalent.”

Knudsen used to say, especially in the past when Birgitte was often compared with Helle Thorning–Schmidt that she considered herself the prime minister and not the female prime minister. And although she initially worried about the direction this darker Birgitte was taking, the actor relished the opportunity to emphasize the character’s more complex humanity. “When I was young, we were always talking about the roles that weren’t there for women: they were either the bitch or they were put on a pedestal. Whereas men, in their parts, could move around, they could be in between,” she says. “I think it’s really important in a feminist sort of way that we don’t pretend that women have to be perfect. It’s also interesting to show somebody who gets lost. Because that is part of the human condition.”

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