I’ve been enjoying the new season of via Danish television for a while now Secure (to be seen on Netflix in early June). Don’t worry, what follows contains no spoilers, it’s about something else for me. In the first three seasons, the successful politician Birgitte Nyborg became Denmark’s first female prime minister. In the fourth season, she no longer struggles with her work-life balance – you may remember the sex date with her husband: “Every Tuesday and Friday, honey?” – because she is divorced and she has no private life. Nyborg, in his early fifties, is working day and night as Minister of Sustainability. Another woman, from the rival political party, is now prime minister. Her motto is: ‘The Future is Female’. female? The only thing that still betrays that she and Nyborg are women are the moments when Birgitte changes a soggy blouse or wipes the gushing sweat from her forehead.
Somewhat hilarious is the ‘tampon moment’. Birgitte has to keep the Russian ambassador waiting because she has unexpectedly had her period. When the problem is solved, via apps from the toilet, she appears as if nothing is wrong, ready to continue the new oil negotiations. It is clear: everything that has to do with being a woman is a nuisance.
Ola Mafaalani, director of the theater version of Secure in the Netherlands, recently mentioned exactly this in a wonderful interview with de Volkskrant: As a successful top director, she had lost her ‘feminine energy’ – ‘play, surprise, creativity, inspiration’. In meetings, surrounded by men, she was mainly addressed on the masculine part of her character – ‘planned, purposeful, competitive, businesslike’. She says that during a sabbatical she went on all kinds of courses and retreats to recapture the female part. Her search resulted in a major project: Women in the batha ‘transforming theater ritual’.
I saw enough leads to sign up. In my working life as a philosopher a lot revolves around cognition, competition and individual excellence, in short: the roll call. And so, for five evenings, I stepped into a steaming bath, surrounded by thirty-nine other women. Women in the bath turned out to be a special crossover between theatre, self-care, sensuality, music, including – sometimes hilarious – homework assignments (‘do something lavish this week, for example appear in a tango dress at work’); the setting was dazzlingly operatic: forty transparent baths on the stage whose bathwater colored with the theme, for example ‘pleasure’, ‘surrender’ or ‘erotica’.
If Western emancipation focused mainly on the conquest of the mind, the traditionally male domain, then this was the call to embrace the sensory, the body, the female domain. Next to an ‘room of one’s own‘, as Virgina Woolf wished for every woman – a private room to write and reflect – a bath for yourself. But not on your own. Every night I met a strange woman, in the bath next to me. Side by side, in the bath, ambition, age or function didn’t matter much, we spoke from the biography of our bodies, about pleasure, pain, wishes.
The week after the war in Ukraine broke out, it seemed to be a bit of a squeeze: can you relax in your bath while women elsewhere are fighting for their lives? It could. The theme was ‘anger’, a Russian cellist played, our mothers’ names were sung in unison. That connected us with history, with the fate of all women in the world, and it was a moving tribute to the connecting power of art and culture.
Mafaalani fills a need with Women in the bath; those who grow up as a woman in the West are not aware of the ritualistic habit of visiting a bathhouse and meeting other women. In terms of content, her mission fits in seamlessly with the movement initiated by the recently deceased sexologist Ellen Laan: exploring and exploring your own body, (sexual) pleasure and well-being of women, and positive language, such as vulval lips instead of labia.
I know Birgitte Nyborg is a fictional character, but the fact is that fact and fiction mixed up from the start in Secure† The Danes loved the fictional Birgitte Nyborg so much that they wanted her as prime minister of Denmark. The Birgitte from season four has turned into a feeling-poor power politician, unwillingly, nothing new female leadership. I give this business, burnt-out woman a healing bath with Ola Mafaalani. I give it to all women.
Stine Jensen is a philosopher and writer. She writes a column here every other week.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 8, 2022