Scandinavian Drama: It’s not PC it’s good TV

Should TV drama reflect reality or ask ‘What if’?

Jed Bartlet in ‘The West Wing’ (played by Martin Sheen)

At the height of the Bush administration The West Wing asked its viewers ‘What if we were to have an intellectual democratic president?’  We were fascinated by the question, and it so happens that they got one – and he’s black.

The Danish drama Borgen asked ‘What if we were to have a female prime minister?’

Birgitte Nyborg in ‘Borgen’ (Sidse Babett Knudsen)

And then Denmark got one, with Helle Thonrning-Schmidt becoming their first female prime minister heading a coalition in 2011.

–  For the UK viewers the question remains fascinating as a ‘What if’? (Yes I know about Thatcher but an anomaly doesn’t change the game nor negate the need for debate.)

I’m not saying TV drama has the ability to change politics or should play the part of social oracle. But I think there is a choice when making it. Do you reflect the status quo, or do you ask ‘What if?’

Part of that ‘what if’ is ‘what if the real world were like this?’ and the other aspect is ‘what if TV drama were like this?’

The current popular Scandinavian dramas ask ‘what if’ and also reflect their more gender balanced and slightly less discriminatory workplace and attitudes.

Sarah Lund in ‘The Killing’ (Sofia Grabol)

But I think the main reason Saturday night has become Scandinavian drama night in this country is that there are more strong, intelligent female characters in leading roles in Scandinavian TV drama.

It is interesting and refreshing to see strong women working alongside and in conflict with strong men. And women are a bit fed up with watching ourselves depicted as victims, whingers, perfectly presented, physically weak, intellectually inferior and discriminated against. In UK TV it’s rare to have a woman in a strong role without the accompanying sexist comments from the men around her, just to remind us of our reality. (Or is it an outdated clichéd portrayal of reality that the writers think is gritty and real?)

It’s not just women who like these shows, not just women who like watching strong women on TV. It’s not about being PC, it’s about making good TV – strong, complex, contradictory characters and good storylines – characters that don’t conform to a particular set of moral standards.

The UK and Swedish versions of Henning Mankell’s Wallander brought out the differences in approach. The Swedish version depicts Wallander’s daughter Linda as a tough and intelligent detective, a brilliant character in herself.

Linda Wallander (Johanna Sällström)

In the British series she is played by Jeany Spark and for some reason is not a cop, or a detective, but a one-dimensional, sweet, lip glossed, eyelash curled and stereotypically emotionally connected girly girl.

Linda Wallander in British version (played by Jeany Spark)

The lack of strong female characters in the British version weakened the series despite the strength of the Wallander character and Kenneth Branagh as an actor. This may have changed as the series developed, I don’t know as I was too bored with it to catch up and The Killing was on.

On first viewing, The Bridge’s female detective character Saga Noren appears to be a parody of The Killing’s brilliant Sarah Lund. – A strong female detective who is focused on the job and not on being liked or being pretty.

Saga Noren in ‘The Bridge’ (Sofia Helin)

At first I thought that with the character of Saga they were just trying to recreate a formula that works. But keep watching, and it becomes clear that this character is not a parody of Sarah Lund, but is asking new questions…

What if a TV series were to have a strong intelligent female character with a social disability as a lead character, and lead investigator?

And now I need to have a rant because this made me so damn angry.

Saga, a Malmo cop whose non-sympathetic attitude to colleagues, witnesses and victims verges on Asperger’s. (Mark Lawson in the Guardian blog)

I find this criticism of the series and the character so shocking it’s hard to begin to unpack it. Is it an attack on people with this disorder? – Suggesting that to have Asperger’s is somehow an intentional non-sympathetic attitude? Or even worse than an intentional non-sympathetic attitude? Is Mark Lawson saying how on earth can we like a character with a social disability? That they shouldn’t write a central character with a social disability? And a woman too!

In British TV, characters with social disabilities as well as characters with mental health problems are under represented and when represented they are pointed out clearly, portrayed as victims and the ‘issue’ is the subject of the work. If it had been pointed out that Saga had Asperger’s from the first episode, perhaps Mark Lawson’s PC radar would have been alerted and prevented his small-minded synopsis. Saga mentions in an early episode that she won’t be climbing up the career ladder; a subtle comment about discrimination in the workplace. The theme is woven throughout the series. Parallels are drawn between the criminal’s profile and Saga’s, and the theme comes to the surface when it is highlighted as one of the problems within society that the criminal at the centre of the series is aiming to draw attention to.

Saga (played by Sofia Helin) is not a victim, not a character lightly sketched to draw attention to an ‘issue’ or to tick a diversity box. She is a fascinating, intelligent detective with Asperger Syndrome and a no nonsense attitude to sex.

Viewers in the UK are enthralled by characters like Saga, like Sarah Lund, like Birgitte Nyborg and like Lisbeth Salander because we are starved of strong, intelligent, flawed and unselfconscious female characters in English speaking TV and film. We don’t watch these dramas because they address equality issues and the under representation of women, we watch them because strong female characters alongside strong male ones makes entertaining TV.



Filed under Film, TV

5 responses to “Scandinavian Drama: It’s not PC it’s good TV

  1. timothyjohnking

    Yes absolutely – couldn’t agree more or put it any better. Go Hannah!

  2. Pingback: From Plymouth to the Bush Theatre | Opposition

  3. Eleanor

    Emmm.. wasn’t aware that Aspergers syndrome was a mental health problem! It’s a neurological difference, different wiring, although often mental illness accompanies it as the person with Aspergers struggles with their difficulties in assimilating into non-autistic society.
    I’ve found the series fascinating as it compares her Aspie ‘faults’, the honesty, bluntness, openess, with the NT (‘neurotypical’ or non-autistic) partner Martin.. as it becomes clear that his emotional response affects his capabilities at work (for example his losing his temper when he’s unsettled by home life etc)
    Also interesting to see that her Aspergers trait of narrow focus on a special interest has led to success and enormous usefulness in her field ;with appropriate and sensitive support from her supervisor (HOW funny were the scenes around Saga making good the visit from Martins son? 😉

    I wasn’t quite sure if I was watching a female playing a male Aspie though? As I understand it, women usually create a cognitive working model of social relationships that improves as they get older (they’re better at faking it in other words). But that wouldn’t have made the point as beautifully!

    Anyway, I love that aspect of it, the bridge between NT and autistic strengths and weaknesses.. and Hannah is spot on to point out that it’s a fabulous what if.. what if someone with a social disability got to the career position their skills deserved?
    (I’ve skipped over the sensory overload issues, self-soothing mechanisms and other aspects of the syndrome which appear to be considered quite usual for those with Aspergers and haven’t been mentioned in the programme)
    But superb acting, intelligent characters with great dialogue, twisting plot, atmospheric cinematics and amazing music.. well, it’s bloomin great isn’t it!! 🙂

    and I’m not an Aspergers expert by the way, so if anyone would like to add or improve anything I’ve said (respectfully and politely of course!) then go for it 🙂 xx Rudy Simone, author of Asper girlys is great to read on the differences in the way Aspergers appears in women (from her own experience and from observation/interview) if anyone’s interested 😉

    Great piece though, completely agree, and thankyou, enjoyed reading it!

  4. Hello Eleanor,
    Thank you very much for reading, for your thoughts and for your correction. Of course, I apologise, and am embarrassed by my mistake so have corrected. I guess the right vocabulary doesn’t come naturally as it is so little talked about. Perhaps it is a fear of saying/writing the wrong thing that explains why many reviewers have avoided the topic. I get the sense Saga is a little over acted, or the syndrome is stereotypically drawn, but it is still fascinating. There’s something on women’s hour right now about autism and Asperger’s, and differences between the condition in men and women….
    Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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