The Danish TV series “Borgen” (2010) narrates the fictional story of Birgitte Nyborg, the first female Danish prime minister in the series’ universe. Borgen offers a new perspective on stereotypical female and male leadership styles. How? Let us look at the first two episodes of the series, when Nyborg wins the elections and forms a coalition government.
By Elisa Rijntjes/ 10.05.2021
Female vs Male Stereotypes
What are some female stereotypes displayed in Borgen? One example is the scene when Nyborg’s advisor wants to keep working on her campaign but she says she has to pick up her children at a birthday party. To her advisor’s question whether she is taking her campaign seriously, she replies: “I don’t know if you have noticed me working 16 hours a day in this campaign. (…). The next hours were promised to my kids weeks ago.” This scene hints at the stereotype that it is difficult for women to combine both their career and family life. Another stereotype can be observed in the scenes in which Nyborg refuses to blackmail others in order to win the election, also seen as typically female. “How dirty do you think I play?” she says to her advisor; “I’d never forgive myself if this was how I came into office”.
Next, we should look at some male “leadership traits”. Surprisingly, these stereotypes are also displayed by Birgitte Nyborg. One key scene is when negotiations with the new leader of the Worker’s Party start. In similar scenes throughout the first two episodes, the person who sits at the head of the table or who determines the course of the negotiation is always a male politician. But in this scene, there is a significant change: it is Nyborg who sits at the head of the table, she interrupts the negotiations, she says her party will not support the deal, and she gets up to leave the room with her mentor. It is precisely this self-confidence which helps Nyborg to become prime minister.
The fact that Nyborg incorporates both male and female stereotypes made me think: Why should we be thinking about this in terms of female/male stereotypes as fixed categories at all? Why could male politicians not pick up their children from a birthday party, too? Why could a male politician not be resilient to blackmailing, too? Why should it be typical for men to sit at the head of the table and conduct the negotiations? Borgen defies the beliefs we (unconsciously) hold about these fixed categories.
There are three levels of perspective in Borgen which help us as the audience realise these biased assumptions. The first level is the character Nyborg herself. The second level are the people producing representations of Nyborg, e.g., the journalists interviewing her. This is also the reason why the TV1 channel in Borgen is crucial. The third level are the people seeing these representations, e.g., Nyborg herself, her family, the general public, etc. This strategy not only enables us, the audience, to adopt various points of view. It also presents a chance for alternative representations of these typically female and male leadership stereotypes, which we can understand precisely because we are confronted with several perspectives.
Coming back to our initial question, Borgen seems to be neither a confirmation nor a rejection of female leadership stereotypes but creates a new narrative. As one of the writers of Borgen, J.G. Gram said: “It takes some time for reality to change so it would be as easy for a woman as a man” in their career. Of course, it takes some time for reality to change. However, popular culture has, as with the three levels in Borgen, the potential to accelerate that.