I don’t remember which book it was, but I read a history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office a few years ago, and it made the argument that, yes, Roosevelt was a great force for progressive change, but he was, more or less, because the times he lived in essentially forced him to be such. Roosevelt, an upper-class son of privilege if ever there was one, wound up in the presidency thanks to waves of populist anger. In the past, when presidents had tried to do as much for lower classes as he did, they were frequently constrained by the rich backers who tended to elevate men to the presidency or tear them back down (a long-standing problem in American politics). In 1932, though, those men were literally terrified for their lives and wealth. They could handle a little wealth redistribution if it didn’t mean outright socialism or communism, and the growing numbers of people in the street, angry and agitated and homeless, seemed all too willing to sweep some new national order into power, just as they were doing all across Europe with fascism.
So FDR got the chance to tinker with the social construct. But once the Depression was over, those walls went up again. The rich increasingly stayed rich, and the ladders of social mobility were drawn up slowly over time, culminating in where we are right now. It speaks to the fundamental conservatism of government apparatuses in democratic societies, by which I don’t mean conservatism as we understand it in a political sense but, more, their resistance to change. When a particular system is set up, it’s usually set up because it benefits enough people that there’s an entrenched group dug in against any changes to it. For all the grousing we might offer about how our leaders lack the will to truly change anything, it can be hard to see that change is a wall, and sometimes, all anyone can do is keep running at that wall, over and over again, making the indentation just a little larger that someone at a later date might finally burst through it.
All of which is to say that “Men Who Love Women” is the best episode of Borgen yet because it understands this entrenched resistance to change, but it also offers us the moment when Birgitte decides to call her opponents’ bluff, the moment so many of us wish our own leaders weren’t too fearful to do. Is it slightly fantastical and unrealistic? Sure. But I’m getting more and more used to that as the series goes on, particularly as it seems to be nailing more and more of the interpersonal dynamics. Plus, I’m loving how the series is depicting Birgitte’s increasing need to prioritize one thing over another, as when she agrees to pull back on environmental taxes so that Crohne won’t bury her initiative on having more women in the board room. Politics is a game of figuring out where you can cut corners to accomplish what you really want, and Birgitte is learning this the all too hard way.
If there’s one thing the series is doing that I’m not entirely on board with, it’s depicting the intersection of the press and politics. While I’m well aware that these sorts of things exist, it also seems like there’s some new press scandal or two or three in every episode to goose the drama. Here, it’s the Express, under the guidance of Laugesen, going after Henriette Klitgaard’s past as a model, who sometimes posed in lingerie, then creating the suggestion that she was an escort for many powerful men, which nobody denies. (Does Denmark have no libel laws? Or does Laugesen just not care?) All of this just ends up being a distraction, ultimately. The scene where Kasper figures out who’s pulling the strings here—apparently Crohne is Denmark’s version of the Koch brothers—is a lot of fun, and I always enjoy seeing Laugesen being slimy, but at some point, these press scandals have to leave a mark if they’re going to have any impact on the story as a whole. In the real world, people forget about scandals all the time—quick: When did you last think about the IRS thing Obama was embroiled in but weeks ago?—but in a fictional world, things have to leave a mark, and I just don’t know if any of these are yet.
That said, I’m increasingly impressed with the series’ depiction of women trying to make their way in a world traditionally devoted to men. When Birgitte and company present the idea that, hey, maybe boardrooms should better reflect the gender breakdown of Danish society as a whole, everybody freaks out, which is exactly what would happen. And it’s not as if Birgitte and the Moderates aren’t expecting some degree of freakout. They’re just not expecting it to escalate so quickly that the head of Denmark’s top business is threatening to take his business elsewhere. (In one regard, I can sort of sympathize with Crohne: Making his board 45 percent women will require either hiring a bunch of new people or firing a bunch of people already sitting on it. Some sort of slope up to the quota would probably be preferable.) It’s one thing to have a female prime minister. That’s the sort of symbolic change most people can get behind. It’s quite another to insist that women be given positions of power throughout society. The men who’ve traditionally held those positions aren’t going to go along with that so easily.
Once again, the series cannily contrasts this with Katrine, who’s doing her best to get the story about what’s going on inside Borgen (thanks to a tip from Kasper, who’s clearly smitten with her all over again) and keeps running into the unspoken prejudice around her that a woman won’t be able to report fairly on a bill that will disproportionately benefit women. Yet she also runs up against other, more insidious forms of prejudice, like the sense that when she pushes after a story as hard as she can, she’s coming across as somehow unlikable. Like it or not, everybody has certain boxes that we like to put women in, places where we believe them to be “most effective,” driven by centuries of institutional bias that we sometimes don’t even realize exist. Katrine’s colleague doesn’t push as hard as she does in interviews, but she also doesn’t give Laugesen a word in edgewise when he’s questioning Henriette’s morals. It’s an interesting series of story choices because it doesn’t let her off the hook. Maybe she does come across as too pushy and unlikable. Maybe she isn’t unbiased enough to cover this story.
But are those questions we should even be asking? The episode’s climax—a little melodramatic, if you ask me, but that’s not necessarily an awful thing—involves the discovery of Henriette having lied on her CV about the degrees she received, meaning she will have to resign immediately so the party isn’t dragged down by scandal. (This all comes after Birgitte has scored the episode’s big victory by calling Crohne’s bluff and striking a compromise with him.) Henriette complains bitterly that men have been lying about this sort of stuff for years, and nobody calls them on it, but Birgitte realizes that as women breaking ground and making history, the onus is on her and Henriette to be more than good enough. They have to be perfect, and perfection will ultimately swallow you whole.
- I am totally shipping Katrine and Kasper, you guys. That scene where they meet for breakfast and he’s flirting with her is just the best.
- Speaking of melodrama, the bit where Kasper is yelling at Henriette before she goes on TV about how she can’t bring up certain things, then admits that her bill isn’t going to go forward, then kisses her is ridiculous but also kind of crazily perfect. Kasper seems the one character who can handle this kind of rapid escalation, and that bit worked well for me.
- Cute touch: Birgitte has her kids read her the headlines to her every morning. If you’re going to have kids, you should really be putting them to work.