I’ve been watching a Danish comedy (though I question the categorization) called Rita on Netflix. If you don’t want spoilers, (and it’s really good you ought to watch it when you have time to pay attention to subtitles) bookmark this for now and come back to it after you’ve finished Season 2.
Watching Rita has me thinking about a lot of things, including how engaging with artistic media from other countries can illuminate things about our own. I don’t think a show which deals as honestly with topics such as sexuality (including teenage sexuality), queerness, abortion, mental illness, and the ways school as an institution fails children would be possible in the US. Or, if it is, I haven’t seen it.
The titular character in the series is an unconventional (even for Denmark) junior (what we call middle) school teacher. She is divorced with three children, she smokes, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind or break any rules which stand in the way of what she wants or thinks is best for someone else. Her views are more progressive than that of the school itself, and she often pushes past the regulations she thinks are too conservative. She has an affair with the headmaster, with the father of one of her students, and with an old flame who also happens to be her son’s soon-to-be father-in-law.
Rita gets characterized as childish, impulsive, stubborn. In an argument, one of her sons queries, “Why can’t you just be normal?” I don’t think her behavior would be seen as quite so remarkable if she were a man. Yet, the series paints her as empathetic, and quite a few of the more conventional teachers actually do look up to her for her honesty and strong will.
What struck me the most in Season 2 were the relationship dynamics between Rita and the headmaster, Rasmus, and their larger implications. From what I’ve seen of the show, Danish culture is not nearly as slut-shaming as American culture. But there’s still a sense that Rita could be more prudent and less obvious about her choices, or that she is immature for sleeping around (at her age, perhaps?).
Rita and Rasmus have a FWB arrangement, but in Season 2, Rasmus’ feelings for Rita grow stronger, and he wants the pair to become a couple. Rita has made it clear from the beginning that she does not want a capital-R Relationship of any kind, with Rasmus or anyone else. But he presses, and eventually gives her an ultimatum. She cares for him, so she relents, he moves in, and they make the nature of their relationship public.
Needless to say, things do not end well. Rasmus discovers that Rita had an affair with Tom (the old flame turned family member) and had an abortion as a result. Even though that affair ended before Rasmus and Rita decided to form a Relationship, Rasmus feels Rita has betrayed his trust. Because about his insecurity about Rita’s feelings towards him, he terminates the relationship (after having sex with the school counselor, Helle, who is in the midst of a divorce).
Now, I will say the show does a much better job in the end of showing the ways in which both parties were in the wrong than an American TV show likely would. Rasmus and Rita end up parting on amicable terms by the season’s end. But I’m still troubled by the characterization of Rita as immature, and her playing house with Rasmus being framed as an attempt to “grow up.”
My currently preferred relationship style is solo poly. I have a romantic/sexual partner, but we lead fairly independent lives. We do not cohabitate. We do not share finances, though we will both offer assistance to the other depending who is fairing better financially at the time. I don’t ever want to get married. Yet, we make time for each other often and share a great deal of love and intimacy together. I don’t think that choosing to lead an independent life is a sign of immaturity, and that “settling down” with a partner is a necessary marker on the road to adulthood.
Furthermore, Rita made it clear from the beginning that she was not interested in what is called the “relationship escalator” in poly circles. She was enjoying the NSA sex she and Rasmus shared. When faced with the choice of taking the socially acceptable route for their relationship or losing everything they shared together, she compromised. So why was he surprised or hurt to learn of her relationship with another man? If he was having NSA sex with Rita, why would he think there were not others? Why do we try to hold others hostage with our feelings?
At the end of the season, Rita apologizes to Rasmus, saying she thought that she could change. But why should she have to? Why do we always blame the person who wasn’t as interested in a relationship a little bit more, if not completely? Why is the person with more depth of feeling assumed to be in the right? Rita cared about Rasmus, but she just wasn’t the type of person to be happy in a monogamous, cohabitative relationship. She values her privacy and her independence. I don’t see that as a moral failing.
In some ways, I identify with Rita. I like my dishes. I wouldn’t want someone mucking about in my garden. There’s an episode where Rasmus is upset with Rita for eating a sandwich when he was making dinner, but they clearly hadn’t discussed it. He just assumed – because that’s what you do when you’re a couple, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
If I ever did cohabitate with a romantic/sexual partner, there would need to be clear agreements. How many nights a week will we spend in bed together (because I will need my own bedroom). How many nights a week will we cook dinner together? Knock if my bedroom door is closed before coming in. Etc. Etc. Not to say these would be hard and fast – there is always room for change and compromise. But it’s better to have a discussion and come to an agreement than to make assumptions and blame someone else for not sharing them.
Even though Rita is made to be a sympathetic character, I feel, especially in the beginning of their relationship troubles, that the audience was meant to side with Rasmus. Which bothers me. Yes, Rita has difficulty saying, “I love you.” She could have been more open with Rasmus about her past. But he was also the one dealing out ultimatums, which wouldn’t make me an open book, either. And is it really Rita’s obligation to confess every detail of her sexual history to him? If she has agreed to commit to him now, everything before that day they move forward together is hers to choose when and if to divulge.
Rasmus also shares some of the blame. He blamed his insecurity on Rita, instead of dealing with it himself. Is that also not childish? He gave Rita an either/or decision to make, instead of having a conversation. Perhaps if they had found some middle ground, they would have been able to make it work. At the first sign of trouble, when he was emotionally distraught, Rasmus had sex with Helle. Meanwhile, Rita turned down a co-worker who propositioned her, because she was trying to make her relationship with Rasmus work. I think Rita was right to call Rasmus a hypocrite. Even he failed to keep the standard he was measuring her by.
As I start Season 3, my hope is that Rita doesn’t change. And I don’t mean I hope she doesn’t grow. Because she has some of her own destructive relationship patterns to work out. But I hope she finds a way to be more ethical in her relationship practices without necessarily changing the practices themselves. I hope she retains her independence. I hope that she continues to live alone. I hope she doesn’t believe that to love another requires becoming someone entirely different. I hope she doesn’t put her partner’s needs above her own.
And I hope that, as a society, we stop seeing the couple who shares everything with one another as the goal, and stop framing monogamy as “growing up.”