By now, political tv shows have covered it all. A renaissance of political television has touched on subjects like media culture, race relations, partisanship and globalization. But there is one subject that remains woefully underrepresented in the fictional world of the American White House: that is, the fairer sex as the leader of the free world.
I suppose it makes sense that the glass ceiling of real life, present day political power structure is naturally reflected in those of their on-screen female character counterparts. Indeed, America remains one of the final democratic countries in the world without a single female leader to boast of. And in the case of both real life politics and television, that isn’t to say we haven’t tried.
In 1985, ABC dipped their toe into feminist waters with a 30-minute sitcom called Hail to the Chief. The show, cancelled after 7 episodes, depicted a woman’s attempt at balancing the demands of the presidency with the obligations of family life. ABC made a second attempt in 2005, with an hour-long drama titled Commander In Chief.
Commander In Chief focused on the administration of Mackenzie Allen, where Allen ascends to the Presidency after the sitting president dies due to a cerebral aneurysm. The show dealt with issues of sexism in politics, and explored the likely triumphs and pitfalls of a woman undertaking the presidency. However, despite its best efforts, Commander In Chief fell flat with both critics and audiences and was also cancelled after just one season.
Since then, no American television network has taken on the main premise of a female president. Interestingly however, we can look to Europe and our friends in Denmark to fill this thematic void. Enter Borgen.
Borgen is a Danish one-hour drama series that tells the story of charismatic politician Birgitte Nyborg who unexpectedly becomes the first female Prime Minister of Denmark.
Ostensibly, Borgen and Commander in Chief contain many similarities in premise. Like CIC and its protagonist President Mackenzie Allen, Borgen navigates the world of coalition politics wherein Birgitte copes with the pressures and demands of life in office as a woman. Both protagonists superimpose a strong maternal image, each having a family that is swept along on the wild ride created by the often-impossible conflicts between the roles of mother, wife, and World Leader. Both “First Gentlemen,” Rod Calloway (CIC), and Phillip Christensen (Borgen) are intelligent and capable former career men who struggle to adjust to the role of stay-at-home parent. Both Mackenzie and Birgitte’s children struggle to adjust to their new roles as the children of chronically occupied, famous, politically powerful moms.
However, despite all of these plot similarities, there is one significant difference between the two shows: Borgen has enjoyed massive success, winning many awards, enjoying a large viewership, and becoming a hit in both Denmark and the UK, while CIC has not.
So what has elevated Borgen to critical acclaim and commercial success, leaving Commander in Chief in the dust? It may be that European sentiments and acceptance toward women in positions of power are different from those in the US, but I personally think it all comes down to the writing. In fact, Denmark’s first female Prime Minister was elected in 2011, two seasons into Borgen. Compared to Borgen’s complex depiction of politics and female leadership, the problem is that CIC seems to fall flat.
The main focus on CIC is not the presidency, but rather the effect that it has on a family. And although this could be a valid angle to take, the simplistic characters- the emasculated “First Gentleman” father, the sullen teenagers, the wide-eyed ten-year old- seem gimmicky against the backdrop of a shallow and half-baked political landscape. Furthermore, CIC’s political oversimplification lessens both the challenges, and the possible solutions and outcomes, giving viewers a less cathartic final payoff.
Another possible issue with CIC is its lack of realistic villains. Mackenzie Allen’s main antagonist is meant to be Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton. From the outset, Templeton’s character, a sexist caricature, is reprehensible beyond belief. Eighteen minutes into the pilot, he makes a menopause joke, and by the end of the first episode, he says,
“She’s a woman. And it’s so easy to deal with women once you remember that they aren’t men.”
I worry that the inclusion of these borderline cartoonish bad guys in a groundbreaking show about the first woman president risks propagating the caricature; generalizing, and stereotyping the subject matter as a whole.
In sharp contrast to CIC, Borgen’s success seems related to the more serious depiction of Brigitte and the rest of the characters as anything but caricature cartoons. Everyone has their attributes and flaws, including Birgitte, who is prone to making mistakes and needing advice from her staff members, who are mostly men. It’s a teamwork setup, instead of CIC’s us against them scenario that would never play out in real world politics.
The writers also take great care toward not over acknowledging the obviousness that their protagonist is a female prime minister, to the show’s benefit.
Another strength of Borgen is that it refuses to be a one trick pony. During the pilot, the main plot point is that the first female Prime Minister has been elected to Denmark. It is acknowledged as groundbreaking, but isn’t fetishized or treated with too much overt attention.
When it is referenced, it is done so in a subtle way; quietly referencing the pressures put on females in any walk of life, not just the Prime Ministry. As Birgitte prepares for a television interview for example, she becomes distressed because she has gained too much weight due to the stress of the election and none of her clothes fit.
Gradually, the subject matter rises above the basic novelty of a female prime minister, and the show blossoms into a complex landscape of politics, compromise, ambition, family values, and yes, even feminism. Another main character that helps to accomplish this development is Katrine Fønsmark, a beautiful young news anchor in Denmark. As the episodes progress, Birgitte and Katrine are set up as polar characters in both career moves and life decisions. Early in the first season, we see Katrine go through an abortion because she feels too much pressure to pursue her career; while Birgitte does everything she possibly can to put her family first despite her new role in Denmark. By the end of the first season, Birgitte has made a long list of personal compromises while Katrine quits her job in order to maintain journalistic integrity and have a life she is proud of.
During the last episode of season 1, Kasper is shown jogging around Borgen while he listens to Kennedy’s inaugural address, known for the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He is looking to this for inspiration for a speech he is writing for Birgitte. The choice of the Kennedy inaugural address is of course ironic. On the cusp of divorce and the deterioration of her family, Birgitte has done everything for Denmark.
But I think this choice of speech is symbolic on another level as well. Later on in the episode, Kasper is talking a secretary through the 3-stage rocket that is Kennedy’s repeated use of the phrase, “Ask not…” He explains that the rhythm and repetition make you feel something not just in your head, but also in your gut and your heart too.
And I believe that is where Borgen finds success. It is a rocket among airplanes; dynamic, complex, emotional, and ultimately explosive. It is the kind of political television that America needs, and hopefully soon we’ll get it. American rights to the series were purchased by NBC in 2011, and Borgen creator Adam Price told the Press Association that “It’s in consideration at HBO and it’s actually BBC Worldwide who is going to produce it.”
Although I look forward to America’s answer to Borgen, I am concerned that already, the remake has fallen into the old pratfalls of America’s former attempts at depicting the female president.
“It will be the story of a political widow,” Price told the Daily Telegraph of its Anglo-Saxon remake, “She was married to a politician who dies, and it is her story of trying to follow in his footsteps.”
To this I would caution that females in politics and television, as well as the viewers at home, are tired of women following in the footsteps of shoes that likely do not fit them. The time has come for them to lead.