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Is Denmark a Feminist Utopia?

Lessons about gender from the Danish TV show "Borgen."

 TV site
Borgen: Danish TV
Source: Source: TV site

The pandemic has shone a light on inequities that have long existed in American families. But now locked at home, what might have been hidden is exposed to the light of day, after day, after day of spending time at home with our families. Even those of us who go out to work come home to stream TV shows and movies for leisure because nothing else is open.

A whole cottage industry has sprung up among researchers (including myself) to measure whether being at home so much more has shined a lot on just how much domestic work is hidden, and in so doing, encouraged men in heterosexual relationships to step up to the plate, to do their fair share. The short answer is maybe, but not really.

Some studies suggest men are doing more housework and child care, but other research finds that is not so. It seems, however, that the consensus is that the new job of homeschooling, often known as supervising online education, has fallen almost entirely on mothers. My colleagues and I hoped that the younger couples would be the more egalitarian ones, but we found no differences by generational cohort.

So when the slow progress toward equality here in America started to be depressing, I turned to the only entertainment available, streaming, for some consolation. I had read about a Danish television show Borgen, which centered on a fictional female premier of Denmark. Surely I could binge my way into existing at least temporarily, in my imagination, in a feminist future. After all, while the World Economic Forum ranks Iceland as the winner in gender equality rankings, Denmark (and the other Nordic countries) are close behind. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, Denmark scores 77.5 out of 100 points and leads the other European Union countries in the areas of health and money. The gender inequality most pronounced in Denmark is in the area of power, and no surprise, men still have more.

To avoid suspense, the show is incredibly depressing when you expect a feminist utopia. Here is a show with strong feminist women characters—the tough prime minister, as well as the central journalist of note, who is a young ambitious, brave, and brash young woman. The characterizations of these women are complex: Each is devoted to her work and each really enjoys good sex. Each can hold her own in any spitting test with a colleague. The prime minister even wins a political poker game with the most powerful industrialist (and of course, man) in Denmark. While gender equality is definitely portrayed as still a work in progress in the public sphere, the feminists are winning. The prime minister even manages to pass a quota system so that women have to be appointed as 50% of corporate boards.

 TV site
The women of Borgen
Source: Source: TV site

So what’s the rub? Why did I go to bed depressed once the first season was well underway? (Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know.) Because even in a Danish television show, men’s self-esteem and even their interest in sex is portrayed as tied to their success at work. Mr. Danish First Gentleman has agreed to scale back his career to accommodate his wife’s political ambitions. Now, it’s not as if the Prime Minister has demanded he become an economically dependent stay-at-home dad whose sole job is to cater to her and the children. No, he has just stepped down as a CEO to become a professor teaching international finance while his children are young. This is something political wives do all the time. Just ask Michelle Obama. But what is just expected of political wives is considered impossibly degrading for political husbands. He loses interest (or is it ability?) in sex, at least with his powerful (and beautiful) wife. He starts flirting with a student. Eventually, he takes a demanding and lucrative job without even discussing it with his wife. When it becomes clear that his new company stands to benefit from her government’s decisions, she demands he resign. He does so, and then their troubles truly begin. Poor Mr. First Gentleman cannot spend a few years as a professor, rather than an executive, while his wife runs the country. His very masculinity is at stake.

How does he get his mojo back? After taking the job, he “takes” his wife while she is sitting on the kitchen countertop shocked that he has made such a major decision affecting their family without so much as a phone conversation. He then begins an affair and insists on a divorce.

Gender still matters, even in European countries so far ahead of us in their march toward equality. There are two major feminist cautionary take-home messages from this Danish TV production. It is at home where gender equality is most entrenched. When mothers are not the primary parent, they are suspect as women. And when fathers are the primary parent, they often feel emasculated. Even in Denmark.

This leads us to the second takeaway from this show: Men are the problem for gender equality. Women have changed dramatically. We have learned to wield power, to win at poker, and even the ambiguous skill of compromising our absolute integrity to get the job done. Men, on the other hand, are stuck in definitions of success that require women to be their (and their children’s) caretaker so they can slay dragons or run big companies. The message Borgen shouts from the rooftops is that women who are powerful in the world will have to go it alone because men continue to need wives that put them at the center of their universe. Men have not learned to be second fiddles, to support their wives’ careers, even if that career is running the country.

Similarly, the beautiful, smart, and ethical journalist Katrina despairs at her 31st birthday that she is still single and childless. She avoids going home because her mother will harangue her about being a spinster. Even in Denmark.

Once again, this show reminds us that gender matters. Gender is not just an identity, nor even a set of stereotypical roles for women and men, but rather a system of inequality. The racial uprisings this summer have reminded all of us that racism is structured into the very fabric of our society. And so too, sexism is structured into the fabric of American society, and clearly, Danish society as well. Gender structures our beliefs about ourselves, our expectations for others, our ideology, and even our legal systems.

Both our sexist response to this pandemic, with women shouldering most of the burdens of more family time and responsibility for children’s schooling, and the failure of a series featuring strong Danish women both show how deeply gender is structured into our lives. As I argue in my most recent book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles With the Gender Structure, the only way forward is to leave gender behind entirely. We need a fourth wave of feminism that diminishes the sex assigned at birth from a main source of inequality and difference, leaving behind its relevance only to biological reproduction. Why raise boys and girls to be different kinds of people? Why expect female spouses to support their high flying partners, but not expect the same from husbands? Why should we impose gender socialization or expectations on one another? Some liberation stories include the refrain, "Let my people go." But here, the refrain is for all of us: Let all people go. Let gender go.

More from Barbara J. Risman Ph.D.
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