Borgen : The precarious political work-family balance

Marlyn Glen

21 December 2012

The second series of the Danish political drama Borgen returns to BBC Four on 5th. January continuing to depict the grave consequences in the changes of the work-family balance for a female politician who is unexpectedly propelled into power as Prime Minister.

There are few female politicians in the top tiers of political power, and so even fewer in TV fiction.

There was the series “Commander in Chief” featuring Geena Davis as the US Vice President  who takes office after the male President suffers a  stroke.

However, her political opponents claim that she had no political mandate as she had been on the ticket as neither Democrat nor Republican, but as an “Independent”, implausible in today’s politics.

The series never returned after just one year, a quarter of the length of a real Presidential term of office.

UK parliamentary democracy in TV fiction has been the stories where men are the principal characters, represented in the famous series House of Cards, set in the time after the fall of Margaret Thatcher , where a Tory Chief Whip Frances Urquhart, plots his way to become Prime Minister with neither scruples nor conscience.

His memorable line is still with us, “ You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

UK parliamentary politics has also been cast as a mainly male world in the humorous series The Thick of It.

Its battles of egos , careers and grudges recall the saying of Gore Vidal “ Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

The series gave a new meaning to the phrase “ freedom of expression”.

In Borgen the path to power is also the Parliamentary way where Birgitte Nyborg leads the main party in a coalition government whose chief members are men.

In negotiations with the male heads of the coalition, they refer to her mockingly as “Mummy” behind her back.

To retain her authority, she learns to survive.

She remains clear-minded and true to her political beliefs when compromise involves the acceptance of the politics of the possible, and even if that means shedding those who helped her into office.

The high offices of politics can be lonely places, however, and their demands are ever-present and ever-pressing.

And because of these, her family life begins to disintegrate.

At the beginning of the first series her husband is seen at home clearing away the family dishes. 

By the end of the series, he’s filed for divorce.

She returns home each night after an increasingly lengthening day’s work in Parliament.

Combining successfully the roles of the head of state and mother of two becomes  increasingly more and more difficult.

As a politician under continual pressure from political friends and foes alike, and at the same time as a mother, she deals with family issues, such as the problem of her son wetting himself at school.

And in this dual role of striving to be a figure of perfection at both work and at home,  struggling to save her family, Nyberg is the empathetic character that has made the series the success that it has been.

Maybe this fictional world will help us all in understanding how uneven the playing field is still for women in politics.

We need more women in political office to ensure that issues which women regard as important will be regarded as important in politics.

In order to embark on any career and then to maintain it, many women are expected to make compromises in their lives that men are not expected to do.

Men do not face questions over combining their commitment to their young family with professional career commitments.

And while “to spend more time with my family” is the universal wish of working mothers, “to spend more time with my family” frequently appears in the resignation statements of men whose professional careers have come to a sudden and unexpected end. 

Getting many more women into more prominent roles in politics, business , commerce and all forms of work is the first stage in reflecting the composition of the population and their values.

The next stage is giving women much more influence over the scheduling of their work that would improve the work-family balance of millions of working women.  


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