Status anxiety

What The Bridge tells us about Scandinavian social democracy – and why it’s not all good news.

The streets are cleaner. But the equality is corrosive

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

This Saturday night I’ll be staying in to watch the final two episodes of The Bridge, the Scandinavian detective series on BBC4. I missed the first season of The Bridge when it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2012, but have since caught up on all ten episodes, as well as the first eight of season two in the past fortnight. I highly recommend it.

The bridge of the title is the one that links Malmö to Copenhagen, and the two central characters, a Swedish detective called Saga and a Danish detective called Martin, flit back and forth between the two cities. It’s hard for English viewers to keep track of which country they’re in because the two languages sound so similar. Nevertheless, you come away with a strong impression of Scandinavian society, both its strengths and weaknesses.

The programme is beautifully shot and, visually, both Malmö and Copenhagen are attractive. Both cities are great advertisements for modern architecture, as is the bridge that links them, the longest in Europe. They’re also much cleaner than London, in part because they’re less populous — another thing that makes them appealing. The impression you get is of a culture that values public spaces more highly than we do.

But in general the series isn’t a particularly ringing endorsement of Scandinavian social democracy. Judging from the backdrop to the crimes the detectives are investigating, Sweden and Denmark are beset by the same problems as Britain — poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, etc. And when it comes to political extremism, they’re worse off than us if season two is anything to go by, with eco-terrorists constantly blowing things up and murdering people.

The most striking difference is that these Scandinavian countries have made a lot more headway than us when it comes to gender equality, but the makers of the programme are clear-eyed about the cost of such progress. Saga has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the writers have saddled her with this disability in order to make a point about successful Scandinavian career women. Because she’s neurologically incapable of empathising with anyone, she behaves exactly as a man would in a more traditional society. She’s hyper-rational and lacks the soft, feminine skills that are required to excel in the modern workplace. Indeed, she often has to rely on her male partner for advice on how to behave in a more diplomatic way. In season two, she has a live-in partner and the roles in the relationship are reversed. He’s the needy, emotionally incontinent ‘wife’ and she’s the distant, cold-blooded ‘husband’.

Martin, by contrast, is a bit of a schlub. When we’re first introduced to him at the beginning of season one he’s just had a vasectomy, presumably a symbol of the emasculation of Scandinavian men. As a detective, he’s not a patch on his partner — he plays Watson to her Holmes. He’s just an average Joe whose career success depends in part on a sympathetic female boss.

At least Martin isn’t literally impotent — unlike virtually every other male in the programme. Again and again, we see liberated women ask their male partners for sex, only for them to decline on the grounds that they’re ‘too tired’ or ‘have work to do’. On my trips to Scandinavia, I’ve often heard women complain that their menfolk are undersexed and they blame it on their inability to cope with gender equality. Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the programme’s makers are highlighting some of the less attractive consequences of female emancipation.

Which isn’t to say that The Bridge is a conservative show. Rather, it’s a programme that seems to be genuinely ambivalent about the Scandinavian model. On balance, I think I prefer Britain. It’s not the equality of the sexes I mind — Britain will soon be indistinguishable from Denmark and Sweden in that respect — but the blandness that seems to go hand in hand with a more egalitarian society. The two protagonists are decidedly unheroic, seemingly incapable of tackling serious crime. Compared with their British or American equivalents, they’re downright useless. No doubt this is more true to life and our TV detectives are figures of fantasy, but so what? Nothing wrong with a bit of escapism. It’s almost as if depicting fictional characters as heroic individuals is forbidden in Denmark and Sweden, like drawing the Prophet in Islamic countries. I wouldn’t say I prefer The Professionals to The Bridge. But I prefer a society in which you’re still allowed to venerate Bodie and Doyle.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • StephanieJCW

    In summary: Women having jobs and careers and stuff, emasculates men and makes them less horny.


  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    “The impression you get is of a culture that values public spaces more highly than we do”

    Toby, in Britain we do not value public spaces because all over Europe we have witnessed what big open empty public spaces can do for democracy. People *gather* in them for a variety of reasons, on occasion not condoned by the elites. Yet, all over Europe, the Caucasus, North America, and even Northern Africa – these spaces exist.

    Whenever a big open space presents itself in Britain, we either put a temporary car park on it (thus reducing the requirement for efficient and affordable publicly owned public transport), or some politburo committee decides to allow yet another pop-up-pub to pop up right in the centre of it (thus killing off the traditional pub).

    No, you just cannot win. In Britain, we are *scared* of big open public spaces.

    • Shinsei1967

      I suggest you take a wander round central London next time you are down and you might notice there are quite a few valued public spaces in the heart of the capital – Green Park, St James Park, Hyde Park etc

      • BarkingAtTreehuggers

        I suggest you look at the Nolli plan of comparable cities and then rephrase.

  • Marcus

    ‘And when it comes to political extremism, they’re worse off than us if season two is anything to go by…’

    It isn’t.

    It’s fictional Toby.

    If you judged UK on our detetive dramas you’d think England was entirely composd of middle class fathers working as lawyers or doctors who are in fact repressed homosexual drug addicts and or murderous paedophiles.

  • La Fold

    The one thing I have learned in my working in the Nordic countries is that they are immensely BORING! I have met some incredibly nice people from there, however the man from Malmo who told me “being taken by a man is just like getting a tattoo. First 5 minutes is pain but the rest is pure pleasure!” was more than a tad disconcerting. Also The first series of The Bridge was brilliant until it fell into a predictable, sub standard “Se7en” rip off in the last couple of episodes.

  • ohforheavensake

    You do know it’s not real, don’t you Toby?

  • Eddie

    Only Wallender for me, I’m afraid. Just couldn’t be bothered with The Bridge – though if can be bothered I may rent out the first part of the first series to see if it’s worth following. I instinctively dislike the heroine-with-Aspergers riff though.

    The scary thing about Scandinavia is the rejection of the rights of the individual, and their replacement by a collective model. The opinion seems to be: ‘if we all elect a government and the government is doing good for us as a collective people then we should let them do it.’

    Sadly, of course, this led to the legalisation of child pawn (spelling due to auto-mods!), plus the sterilising of children of ‘undesirable’ people until the late 70s.

    This now expresses itself in 1) oppressive political correctness (though that does lead some to rebel against that and, say, publish the Mo cartoons – which no newspaper editor here has the guts to do), 2) gender quotas so lots of 4th rate women leapfrog over better men to be on company boards – the BBC does something similar here, unofficially of course, 3) making its education systems utterly child-centred and child-controlled, with little discipline, and an emphasis on keeping everyone ‘average’ to make everyone ‘equal’.

    Hence the worship of Finland by the sort of British educationalists whose wrecked our own school system by imposing a social-engineering US model called comprehensive education on it.

  • stevealbury

    I divide my time between England and Denmark and love both – in Denmark everything is beautifully designed and there is a calmness to the whole country that is nice – on the other hand there is a lack of verve; mediocrity is a goal to be attained so that you don’t stand out or imply that you are better than anyone else (there’s even a word for it in Danish). I like visiting Denmark but despite the uselessness of many things I think England is a better place to actually live.

  • Anna Tomlinson

    Once again, another ridiculous and stupid article appears on the Spectator. He’s judging Scandinavian society by a drama series – that’s where the obvious problems begin. Secondly, he just basically says that it’s a more boring and less masculine society – DUH. You have to have some trade-offs for being the overall happiest place on the planet. I tell you where is hyper-masculine and very exciting/dangerous – the LAST 20 placed countries on the global rankings for happiness and well-being. I’m really going to try and stay off this website – the authors seem to have the maturity and intellect of a 15-year-old planning a GCSE English statement (and not even one headed for an A).

  • Mads

    Oh my. This is terrible, ignorant journalism.
    True the show is no meant to be a ringing endorsement of the two Scandinavian societies. Because there are problems (mental illness, homelessness etc.) like in most other societies.
    However pretty much everything you read into the show, especially about gender relations (of which you seem oddly threatened..), is wrong. And just very odd to read as a Scandinavian. All those ‘hidden messages’ you seem to find are not something the show’s writers intended

  • Ross

    Possibly one of the most ignorant and infantile reviews I’ve ever read.