Nordic Noir's Women: Sarah Lund & Saga Noren

A couple years ago, the question which plagued the television landscape was: Can women be funny?

Now a more relevant question would be: Where are all the tough female characters on television?

The answer may be overseas.

The Danish television series, Forbrydelsen, features a prime example in Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol). At the beginning of the series, Lund is getting ready to leave the Copenhagen police squad and move with her boyfriend and son to Sweden.

The day she is due to leave, a nineteen year old woman, Nanna Birk Larsen, goes missing and is later found raped and murdered. Lund feels compelled to stay and help investigate the case, even if that means delaying her move to Sweden.

The concept may sound familiar. This series has immigrated to the U.S., but The Killing's tough female lead was not as popular with audiences here. AMC cancelled the series after two seasons, but then recently decided to bring it back for a third.

For the original Danish series, lead actress Sofie Grabol worked closely with series creator Soren Sveistrup to develop the character of Lund. During season one, when the writers wanted to imply Lund had carried on an affair with the politician Troels Hartmann, Grabol was outraged. "I rushed into the writers' office and said: 'You are not doing that. It's a sell-out.' I remember saying: 'I am Clint Eastwood! He doesn't have a girlfriend!'”

While American audiences might categorize Lund as 'unfeeling', I happen to find the character to be extremely relatable. In the first season, it's implied she sticks with the Nanna Birk Larsen case because she wants to see the perpetrator brought to justice. Justice may partly be the reason, but I think it's also her empathy for the victim and the victim's family, even if there is not any outward display of emotion from Lund.

It's the men in Sarah's life who are the emotional ones and who can't seem to understand her drive to solve the case. By the time the case has resolved, her boyfriend has dumped her, and her son, Mark, is annoyed at her for not spending any time with him.

The thing is: I like that Sarah Lund is a bit emotionally repressed. I find it a very human quality to have. You don't always do or say the right things in your relationships, even if they are important to you.

Men are allowed to be portrayed as isolated and unemotional. Look at the characters Clint Eastwood and John Wayne played. They had difficulty communicating with others, but are considered some of the great characters in film.

There is a lack of strong, often isolated characters for women, on television and in film. Last week, Enlightenedco-creator Mike White pointed out Hollywood's discernible gap between female and male protagonists: “If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is. It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large....I mean I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere.”

Looking around the current American film and television landscape, White is correct. There are not many female protagonists in general and certainly far fewer “tough” female protagonists. As he mentioned, Maya, the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty(played by Jessica Chastain) was driven by her work and not by her personal relationship with a man. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal said they wanted to create a character that was “only defined by her actions” and not by a dense backstory.

Bigelow is a master of balancing action with personal, human moments in her films, especially in her most recent outings, The Hurt Lockerand Zero Dark Thirty.

Forbrydelsendoes this balancing act as well, but the third season, which recently aired in Britain, may have struck the perfect mix.

Once again, Sarah Lund is facing a life change. She is coming up on 25 years of service and preparing for a transfer to OSHA, a career change which would probably take her out of police work (the details of her new job are never discussed and conclusions are left up to the viewer.) While investigating the murder of a sailor, Sarah is partnered with an officer from Special Branch, Mathias Borch.

Through the arrival of Borch, the audience finds out more about Lund's past. Lund and Borch attended the police academy together and dated during this time. Not only is Lund forced to partner with a former lover, but she's trying to repair her relationship with her son, Mark, who now has a girlfriend.

After Mark blows off dinner plans with her, Lund sees him and his (unbeknownst to her) pregnant girlfriend at a train station during a crucial moment in the investigation. The third series portrays Lund as more emotionally vulnerable, but in the end, her work and need for justice still define the character. (No spoilers here.)

Another Scandinavian show with a strong female lead is Broen/Bron (The Bridge). The show is set in Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden. It follows the police investigation after a dead body is discovered on the bridge connecting the two countries.

Saga Noren, a Swedish police officer, must work together with Martin Rohde, from Denmark. (Each character speaks in his or her native language.)

Saga, although a good investigator, is categorized by her co-workers as being a little “different”. Martin quickly becomes aware of this. Saga is blunt in her answers and doesn't understand why Martin is curious about the personal details of her life. “It's what partners do. They talk,” he explains.

While her devotion to her work is the same as Sarah Lund's, Saga's quirky qualities make her quite different from Lund. Her personality quirks make her a fun character to watch and likeable in an unique way.

Saga's actions seem to imply she has symptoms of Asperger's, which results in difficulty in picking up on social cues or understanding what other people may be feeling emotionally. Her relationship with Martin seems beneficial to her, because he is not afraid to point out her lack of social graces, and although she seems unfazed by his comments, by the end of the series, we see Saga trying to be more sensitive to others.

Both series are also commendable for their plot twists and high tension moments throughout the investigation, as well as the excellent cinematography.

Much like the crossover of The Killing to the States, the popularity of Broen/Bronhas not gone unnoticed by British or American TV executives. There have been announcements that a joint production between France and Britain is planned, The Tunnel, which will have the murder occur in the middle of the Channel Tunnel. FX developed the series to take place in the U.S and Mexico, between El Paso and Juarez. Diane Kruger is slated to star.

Maybe introducing versions of Sarah Lund and Saga Noren to American audiences will start to expand audience's perceptions of women and what female characters can do and be.