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OPINION: A woman president: Borgen, Dlamini-Zuma & ‘firsts’

The popular Danish television political-drama Borgen spins its narrative on following the fragilities, disputes and personal lives at the centre of the country's multi-party coalition government. It is a seemingly unlikely plot for a successful television show. While it does not hinge on a sensational storyline, audiences around the world are hooked - perhaps for this very reason.

At the centre of its story is the country's first woman prime minister Birgitte Nyborg: a charismatic and principled yet flawed leader, played in a remarkably textured way by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Nyborg inevitably deals with issues historically entangled with her sex and gender onscreen: trying to balance family life, a disintegrating marriage and sexism in political life.

But what is striking about the show is its ability to afford all of its characters a deep sense complexity, humanity and relatability. The characters are flawed. They are not always likeable. They are just people. These are privileges rarely afforded to female characters, who are generally drenched in stereotype, tropes and stock characters.

The realism in Borgen's depiction of human relationships and personal issues blurs the line between the private and professional parts of its characters' lives. They are as entangled as in our own.

While it is perhaps true that given that politics, the corporate world and most major industries are male-dominated, 'there is still no map for women in power', there are simultaneously clear, familiar narratives that rear their heads, like the myth of 'having it all' that never seems to apply to their male counterparts. Borgen deals with this a refreshing, honest way.

It is politics coated in television's idealism and imagination. But it makes for fascinating television. It presents us both with an image of what could be, against which we can contrast our own experience of politics, while reflecting the struggles of everyday womenhood and personhood.

The debate about who will succeed Jacob Zuma has seen the re-emergence of the question of a 'woman president'. With Zuma announcing at the ANC national general council (NGC) that he will not run for another term, the race is signalled to be between deputy-president Cyril Ramaphosa and African Union commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who would become the first woman president of the party, with strong support from the Women's League.

What does it mean to be still speaking of 'firsts' in 2015? Whether we are celebrating the first black women to be on the cover of [insert magazine] or winning [insert award], like Viola Davis becoming the first black woman to take home the best actress in a drama series Emmy award recently? The very fact that we still prefix things with 'woman' or 'black', like 'woman president', 'woman pilot' or even 'black woman CEO', which would never be done for their counterparts, shows how skewed this is and highlights patterns of absence and silences around marginalisation. It points out what we view as normal - shattering any argument about us existing in a meritocracy.

We live in an age that often seems to claim to be more advanced than it is revealed to be, in realising that conjoined democratic triad: freedom, equality and justice. The very fact that 'firsts' are still being achieved signals to us that frontiers, borders and glass ceilings are still here, and in many ways we are just beginning to push through them and see the arrival of others that challenge our advancement as a society. While it is about getting more and different kinds of people through the door, this is not the only end we should be pursuing.

A video made by British Elle for their '#MoreWomen' campaign has been circulating on social media. It Photoshops men out of political gatherings and other circles of influence. But what is striking is not simply how few women have a proverbial 'seat at the table', but the absence of women of colour. It shows that it is not enough to say 'more women' but also to look at what kind of woman gets an invite to the table: who are often white women who are feminine-presenting, doesn't challenge our ideas of gender, ability and sexuality. Too often where gender is addressed, race is secondary, or where race is dealt with, gender is relegated to the side-lines. These kinds of things can be, and have to be, dealt with simultaneously and viewed as interconnected.

The challenge in thinking about women in politics or other positions of power has multiple layers. On the surface, some make it about representation alone - simply an issue of getting more women into powerful positions. But it also involves thinking about the kinds of women who are already in power, and about more than aesthetics. This allows us to challenge a particular conflation that occurs, where it is thought that by virtue of being a woman, those in power are naturally pro-women. This is not a given.

Seeing people who look like you, or share aspects of your identity in powerful spaces and places, is important because certain people have been historically excluded. But we should not conflate people's identities with a particular politics that they have not earned or do not support in their practices.

If we are being serious about things like transformation or decolonisation, we cannot simply consider comfortable frontiers that sit neatly in our politics and identities. We have to continually search for patterns of silences, consider who is not present, and think about who never gets to sit at the table. We have to ask ourselves why, and push those boundaries too.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.