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From Suicide to Stalemate: The Questionable Power of the Vote

Jim and I were tempted to keep watching Borgen, just for the sake of its lead actress, who plays Birgitte Nybourg, the first female Prime Minister in Denmark. But frankly, the plot wasn't compelling enough for me to witness her sexy, masculine, yet utterly supportive stay-at-home husband cheat on her. You could feel this requisite twist coming.

Last night, Jim and I decided to stop watching Borgen.  We stuck it out through episode seven and were still reluctant to abandon this internationally acclaimed program because of its wonderful lead actresss, Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the first female Prime Minister in Denmark. But the plot was predictably the same every week: the first woman to head the Danish state gradually learns to be a pragmatic politician, trading her friendships and her values for power, even as her wonderful home life gradually deteriorates.

In the show, Prime Minister Nybourg has a supportive little family, a loving and politically astute husband who doesn’t mind staying at home with two kids who are very proud of their mother.  Inevitably, though, the demands of office call the heroine back from Christmas shopping and family gatherings, while simpering graduate students flirt with the sex-starved husband.  And you can just feel the denouement hovering: the husband will sleep with someone else and the young son has already started wetting his pants.

All the while, our progressive Prime Minister is accomplishing exactly nothing in her government, which constantly struggles to maintain itself under the pressure of the media. Indeed, the only interesting thing about this show is that the squeeze on the players comes not from the real demands of statesmanship, but from the 24 hour news cycle.  So, as her family life falls apart, you do really have to wonder whether it is worth it for Birgitte Nybourg to stay with the job.

In Borgen, the press is really running the government, in the person of this beautiful anchorwoman, whose rear end makes as many appearances in the last episode we watched as did her face.

In last night’s episode, the young blonde news anchor who provides the subplot insults her naive aerobics instructor boyfriend when he admits he doesn’t know who the Justice Minister is (quick:  who is the Justice Minister in Denmark?).   She gets very high and mighty, telling him that everyone should care about what she is doing because “these people are running the country.”  I have to admit that I felt a great deal of sympathy with his straightforward insistence that, in his world, what she was doing simply didn’t have much impact.  The way the show portrays government–locked in a constant, solipsistic death dance with the press–suggests strongly that what they do isn’t very much engaged with anyone’s reality.

And this view of national politics is hardly unique to Denmark, right?  In fact, the only interesting episode we watched portrayed the relationship between Greenland, Denmark, and the United States, all stacked like Russian dolls in a hierarchical power structure that can’t be changed, built on the foundations of colonialism and ethnic destruction.  I admit I was not aware that the history of Greenland echoed so strongly the experience of the Native Americans (assuming this dramatization is accurate in this regard) and so I found the whole thing quite eye-opening.  And, as always, the heavy hand of my own country in geopolitics was disturbing.  Then, to think of how our clowns behave in their own parliamentary skirmishes–well, it doesn’t inspire faith in the power of democratic politics, does it?

Emily Wilding Davison was a martyr to the suffrage movement in Britain.

These feelings about the pointlessness of contemporary national politics cast an ironic overlay across my experience the night before.  Jim and I went down to Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio to see a one-woman show about Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself under the horses at the Epsom Derby in 1913, apparently in protest of the British government’s persistent unwillingness to give women the vote.

The old suffragists had a romantic faith in the world-changing power of the individual vote that has not really panned out.  Nor has the accession of women to positions of national leadership had much effect–compare Sonia Gandhi’s failure to affect the rape culture of India to Birgitte Nybourg’s slow decline into heartless power-grabbing and you can see how it happens. Yet, in their time, militant suffragists were so convinced that the vote would save them from oppression that they endured forced feedings (Davison was force fed 49 times during 9 jail terms, mostly for her actions during demonstrations) in their hunger strikes, along with many other dangers and indignities.

Here's Jim outside the Burton Taylor Studio. In my view, every bit as attractive and supportive as Birgitte Nybourg's husband, but clean shaven.

I am less familiar with the history of the women’s movement in Britain than with the trajectory in the United States.  In America, the women’s movement was actually much broader than suffrage.  The scope included labor rights, consumer agitation, public sanitation, education reforms, property and family law, and many other allied causes.  I expect these issues, collectively, provide as much explanation for the advancement of women in the US over the past 100 years as the winning of the vote.  But suffrage became the sound bite, the lesson schoolchildren learned about what counted in the campaign for a larger freedom.

I don’t for a minute want to suggest that women should not have the vote, that democracy is unimportant, or that we should not be pushing for better representation at the top of the power structure.  (In fact, I feel a little uncomfortable even suggesting that Borgen is not a good TV show.)  I do think, however, that the incomplete victories of an era that placed so much emphasis on formal participation in parliamentary democracies and the force of statutory legislation should be taken as a sign that new avenues need to be created and considered.

I think this thing has gone three seasons in Europe and all my friends there love it. Sorry.

At the end of the day, it is probably also important to remark that Birgitte’s husband would have had just as much trouble holding the family together had he been Prime Minister.  I recognize that women feel the brunt of family and work conflict and are often more harshly judged for a familial failure.  However, I maintain that there is a second, newer, structural problem that keeps men, as well as women, working too long, day in and day out, at too high a personal cost.  The fight against the oppressive 24/7 workweek is best waged by women and men together.


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