Societal conflicts and challenges are core elements in popular Nordic television drama. “The double plot principle,” as the Danish broadcaster DR has framed it, consists of a dramatic plotline mixed with social criticism involving domestic violence, human trafficking, racism, or, say, neo-Nazism. In recent years, Arctic noir and other environmentally themed series have upped the ante, showing global warming and environmental policy in tension with economic interests. In BP&G, the double plotline features Birgitte Nyborg confronting professional and personal challenges, including menopause, against the backdrop of the energy transition, with international stakeholders competing to control oil and natural resources in Greenland. The two plotlines, we argue, are not distinct.
In recent years in the United States and United Kingdom, media outlets such as The Guardian have established menopause as a news topic, with articles covering physical and mental symptoms, their effects on family and friend relationships and in the workplace, and the challenges inherent in dealing with medical institutions. New books including The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism (2021) and television specials such as Channel 4’s Davina McCall: Sex, Mind, and the Menopause (2021) plumb relevant historical contexts and shared experiences. This is obviously a stark departure from the past: for generations, menopausal knowledge and coping strategies have been primarily anecdotal, shared among friends and relatives, and subject to social taboos comparable to those around menstruation and other “female problems.” As a result, the subject rarely came up in 20th-century television or cinema, except as a joke (notable exceptions: All in the Family, in the episode “Edith’s Problem”; The Golden Girls, in “End of the Curse”). Plenty of critics — like columnist Suzanne Moore, for instance — have pointed out that its onscreen invisibility is a form of denial. Beyond their youthful reproductive years, it has also been repeatedly said, women are either invisible or grossly devalued when visible, even as they outperform their male counterparts in an ever-increasing number of professional arenas.
Only reluctantly have popular film and television broached the subject, which makes the menopause plot point all the more daring in BP&G. Despite constituting 20 percent of the US population in 2021, women over 50 have thus far only played at most eight percent of television roles, according to Women’s Media Center. And yet they make up a significant proportion of the audience for Nordic noir in particular. It should thus come as no surprise that complex female characters in recent Nordic dramas — often depicted in moments of existential crisis or as greatly troubled — have drawn in international audiences, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. These characters are compelling because they speak to the actual contours of many women’s lives. In keeping with the antihero tradition, consider not just the aging Birgitte Nyborg but also Sarah Lund (The Killing), Lisbeth Salander (the Millennium trilogy), and Saga Norén (The Bridge).
Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) was first developed over three seasons of the Danish political drama Borgen (2010–13), during which she found herself propelled from a minor center-left political party functionary to prime minister. Shown facing the intense pressures of that job as well as marital conflicts, serious illness, and the loss of the PM’s office, she then went on to found a new centrist political party. The series gained international popularity, with the up-and-coming journalist character, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), also taking center stage. After a hiatus of nine years, BP&G depicts Birgitte as a foreign minister in a coalition government headed by a younger woman, Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt), who assigns her a delicate political task with the warning, “You’re alone on an ice floe now. Let’s hope it doesn’t melt under your feet.”
Birgitte must devise the environmentally progressive government’s policy response to the discovery of oil in Greenland, bringing her into multiple conflicts: with Indigenous Greenlanders’ aspirations toward independence, which are tantalizingly achievable if billions in oil wealth materialize; with her governing coalition’s desire to claim a share of the economic benefits while retaining some semblance of their longstanding commitment to phasing out fossil fuels; and with the United States, China, and Russia. Birgitte is still depicted as being at the top of her game, able to wield international political power and maneuver among domestic powerbrokers: she is shown making risky decisions to get what she wants, alienating supporters and befriending rivals along the way. Yet Signe’s “ice floe” comment articulates the precarity that many successful women face: once she has moved beyond the infamous glass ceiling, Birgitte stands before a “glass cliff.” As the BBC put it, basing itself on an Exeter University study headed by Professor Michelle Ryan, “women and people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be chosen to lead a company, sports team, or even country when it is in crisis mode.” In BP&G, that glass cliff, here figured as a melting ice floe, represents the danger Birgitte faces if she fails to negotiate a solution that pleases everybody.
Most episodes also feature Birgitte struggling with another challenge: her own perimenopausal body. She experiences hot flashes, headaches, appetite loss, disturbed sleep patterns, mood swings, irregular menstruation, and brain fog. She is shown discussing these symptoms with her physician, who tells her that she cannot use menopausal hormone treatment because of her history of breast cancers, as Tara Ariano points out in one of the few considerations of this plotline. We see her shedding her sweaty blouse, losing her temper at inopportune moments, blotting underarm sweat in the office bathroom, napping on her office sofa, leaving a foreign dignitary waiting while she races to procure a tampon from her secretary, and more. Borgen does not imply that Birgitte’s difficult hormonal transition is the sole cause of her problems, but it does show how menopause often affects women just as they are reaching their career peak.
By juxtaposing these two transitions, the series enables viewers to find intriguing parallels. The scholar Cara Daggett has coined the term “petro-masculinity” for a hyperbolic form of American masculinity that ridicules environmentalism and flaunts the most egregious forms of fossil fuel consumption in a celebration of macho right-wing nationalism. She compares it to a more palatable but equally worrisome “ecomodernist” masculinity, embodied by public figures more amenable to green policies, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Elon Musk, in whom “[c]are and compassion remain subordinate to techno-rationality, toughness, and economic growth.” Although petro-masculinity exists in most parts of the world, the Northern European countries lean toward ecomodernism: they typically support profitable forms of sustainability that avoid uncomfortable sacrifice and emphasize technofixes. In Birgitte’s transition from “climate correctness” to becoming a full-throated “clean” petroleum apologist, she embodies an ecomodernist in female form: she embraces oil exploration in Greenland, ostensibly made safe by advanced technologies, and Danish democracy, while trying to hold on to environmentalist supporters. Birgitte’s ecomodernism mimics the business-forward style of Nordic green policies that enable, for instance, Norway’s ongoing Arctic oil exploration and subsidies for electric cars. But the energy transition necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate crisis will require far more than such half measures.
BP&G deploys several key tropes or motifs — overheating, anxiety, and liquids out of place — in both plotlines. Most obviously, global heating drives the urgency of government policy (in the series as in the real world) to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible. Heatwaves in India, Japan, Europe, and North America fuel headlines about power grid failures and excess death rates. Even in Scandinavia, and across the circumpolar Arctic in general, rising temperatures entail hotter weather, which then triggers wildfires and the loss of permafrost, as well as the threat of shorter seasons for winter sports and other cold-weather traditions that inform national identity in Nordic countries. For Greenland, warmer temperatures herald changes for fisheries, whale and seal hunting, and polar bear habitats.
BP&G’s setting in Greenland affords numerous striking shots of Arctic landscapes with sea ice and whale hunting. Russian and Chinese oil investors, eager to take advantage of the new shipping routes that will most likely open up as Arctic ice melts, are depicted as salivating at the prospect of a deep-sea harbor. As the political drama ramps up, Birgitte finds herself very much isolated “on an ice floe,” as her political rival had put it earlier in the series, much like the clichéd photo of the doomed polar bear. The subtext: Imminent extinction, now amplified by her menopause and reinforced by her ex’s pregnant younger partner. The Greenland oil plotline thus combines images of eco-distress — (melting) ice and the damaging implications of extracting more oil for global consumption — with Birgitte’s out-of-balance, too-hot body. Both suggest entropic forces at work.
The second motif: Climate anxiety, marked by fear, sadness, and/or a sense of helplessness, as well as solastalgia (the sense of losing a familiar home, now irreversibly altered by climate change) and petromelancholia (the sadness of losing the taken-for-granted conveniences of unlimited fossil fuels). As the reality of climate crisis sinks in, people feel powerless to reverse or even slow the process. Similarly, Birgitte’s menopausal ordeal has no easy solution; indeed, this is all too discernible in her irritability with colleagues and family members, her loneliness postdivorce and after her adult children have moved out, and her frustration with the uncomfortable symptoms that disrupt her daily life.
Moreover, menopausal mood swings, operating much like extreme weather, could explain some of Birgitte’s otherwise baffling decisions as she maneuvers around the oil find and the Danish government’s policy response to it. At first, she takes the expected position that Greenland should “leave it in the ground,” in accordance with Denmark’s energy transition plan. However, she reverses herself suddenly and seeks to justify exploiting the oil and maximizing Denmark’s share of the profits, placing her in a power struggle with the Greenlandic authorities who are chafing under Danish authority. During a delicate negotiation, she loses her temper and accuses the Greenland delegation of political immaturity. They walk out. Birgitte’s colleagues feel betrayed by her uncharacteristic behavior. Does the series imply that the personality changes we see in Birgitte are due, in part, to her body’s hormonal transitions? And if so, is this a progressive acknowledgment of a previously taboo topic, or an essentialist reduction of a female character to her biology? Or something in between (probably). On the other hand, too, the high emotion in BP&G raises this question: how much of today’s decision-making around fossil fuels is driven not by science or pragmatic concern, but by impulsivity, anxiety, and collective mood swings? For instance, the hasty decision in Germany to immediately shut down nuclear power plants after the catastrophe at Fukushima in 2011 increased demand for coal and natural gas, which today creates new vulnerabilities with the invasion of Ukraine. The subsequent throttling of European fossil fuel supplies has showcased Putin’s petro-masculinity.
A third motif is “liquids out of place.” The title sequence features images of oil, ice, and the dark Arctic Ocean. We see melting ice floes drifting in the black water, which now looks uncannily akin to oil. We see gas flaring and industrial infrastructure, recalling dystopian Anthropocene iconographies that signal the urgent need for energy transition. In addition to these liquid images, the series portrays Birgitte sweating profusely and suffering from heavy menstrual bleeding. She tries to cope with her leaking body but cannot. Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection describes the disgust and shame associated with loss of control when the body cannot keep liquids like blood, vomit, sweat, and excrement inside. Symbolically, abjection is often linked to illness and death, as well as to poor discipline or poor socialization. Sweat indicates stress and discomfort, and, as in other television narratives such as The Walking Dead and Daredevil, can be linked to global heating and the climate unconscious. BP&G literalizes this connection when Birgitte’s hot flashes lead her to lament, “I’m melting.”
In BP&G, this sense of abjection and struggle for control not only marks Birgitte’s embodied experience, but also extends to Greenland. With its long colonial relationship with the Kingdom of Denmark (in which it is an autonomous country), Greenland is a site of stress and conflict, warming temperatures, melting ice, and oozing oil; BP&G figures Greenland and its mostly Indigenous populace as troublesome for Danish politicians and journalists, who stumble over protocol and chastise one another for using racist stereotypes. The political conflicts between Copenhagen and Nuuk play out as the home government seeks a transition to independence, fueled by the freedom the newfound oil promises. Although it is a land of snow and ice, Greenland makes Birgitte sweat as she struggles to maintain Danish political and economic ties. The Greenlandic surface is cracking, ice caps are breaking apart, liquids are coming out, oil is burning, the ice is melting, and the politicians and the citizens have lost control.
Birgitte, now in her early fifties, divorced, and living alone, remains an ambitious politician. In the first episode (“The Future Is Female”), she insists (not entirely convincingly) that this domestic isolation is ideal for a career-driven overachiever: “No kids at home. No neglected husband. I have no obligations. I have so much energy to spend at work.” Like many screen portrayals of midlife working women, her assertions of independence and fulfillment come across as ambivalent, as if she is trying to convince herself. As Anna North puts it, BP&G dramatizes “the decline and fall of the archetype of the girlboss.” After three seasons as a sympathetic career woman struggling to balance work and family, Birgitte is liberated from the double standard that had previously mired her in guilt over neglecting her family. Now, however, her hormone surges threaten to throw her off-balance once again; she is sweating and irritable when she needs to be calm and diplomatic.
BP&G also contributes to the ongoing and challenging political discussions about environmental regulation, fossil fuels, and global heating in the Nordic region. It spotlights Greenland as a unique, contested Nordic country, in terms of its culture, politics, and, not least, natural resources. In a shift from the three previous seasons, BP&G shows the older, newly divorced Birgitte as a consummate 21st-century neoliberal politician, contorting her policies to achieve results that benefit her and (at times) her party while maintaining very little ideological commitment to her core political values. Does she lose some of her audience’s sympathy in this hot-tempered, politically cynical incarnation? Probably, at least in comparison with the first three seasons. And yet, at the same time, her struggles with menopause might well make her more sympathetic, certainly with an older female demographic.
Both depictions in Borgen: Power & Glory are potentially risky for bringing back viewers from nine years ago, and yet both provide enough novelty — and difficult realism — to keep them and even accrue more. The series in this last instantiation also explores new ways of thinking about the climate crisis as an uncomfortable but survivable transition. Hot flashes in particular serve as a metonymic representation of a melting world. The analogy raises questions: Are we now by virtue of climate change collectively and culturally menopausal? Is being self-consciously menopausal a way to fight petro-masculinity? Perhaps. Laying bare Birgitte’s ethical failures (which essentially come about through her capitulation to ecomodernism) is not dramatically tidy, of course. Indeed, while the menopausal body may give her visceral insights into global heating and loss of control, it doesn’t automatically impart wisdom. Similarly, as heat waves course across the planet, political leaders have not suddenly become wise; they have not undertaken adequate measures to minimize future loss. Menopause, it should be noted, ultimately brings a “weird liberation.” One hopes the same is true for the world — perhaps by way of liberation from old habits of thought, whether petro-masculinist or ecomodernist or just plain capitalist in general. It may be that both the menopausal and energy transitions are painful paths to a salvageable if humbler future.
Anne Marit Waade is a professor in the department of media studies at Aarhus University, Denmark, and a recognized scholar in Scandinavian television studies. Her recent research focuses on landscape and location in TV drama, including Arctic noir, and recent books include Danish Television Drama: Global Lessons from a Small Nation (2020) and Locating Nordic Noir: From Beck to The Bridge (2017, both from Palgrave).
Julia Leyda is a professor of film studies in the Department of Art and Media Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Her current research brings together the fields of film and television studies and environmental humanities, including in her forthcoming book Anthroposcreens: Mediating the Climate Unconscious (Cambridge University Press).
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