While it certainly indulged in the perennial magazine-writer fantasies of bestie co-workers, glittery parties, a high-rise headquarters and a bottomless “fashion closet” from which to borrow designer goodies, it did so at a time when journalism roiled under the dual crises of reputational attack and unprecedented job losses. Yet no one at Scarlet seemed remotely concerned with layoffs or ever skeptical that first-person essays, hashtag campaigns or well-meaning photoshoots couldn’t change the world for the better.
But the show wasn’t always so behind the times. When it debuted in 2017, “The Bold Type” became a crossover hit with teens and adults alike, perhaps because it cannily tapped into the feminist concerns and aspirations of a micro-generation ago.
Premiering a couple of years after executive producer Joanna Coles’s much-publicized revamp of Cosmopolitan as that title’s editor in chief, the show put forth somewhat novel fantasies — at least for TV — about young women in the workplace. These fantasies were mostly of female solidarity: that girls’ magazines written by millennials for Gen Z could be serious and stylish and sex-positive all at once (a promise actually realized in real life most successfully by Teen Vogue); that girlbosses could rise together at the office by supporting one another; that every last one of them could be nurtured by a faultlessly giving leader; that friendships across lines of race, class and sexuality never had to be too difficult or complex.
The series’ charm early on had much to do with its earnest revisions of its predecessors’ tropes. Unlike, say, Carrie Bradshaw, staff writer Jane (Katie Stevens) came to grips with, say, her White privilege at the workplace, and she and her friends, stylist Sutton (Meghann Fahy) and onetime social media manager Kat (Aisha Dee), treated the city not just as a playground but a classroom, in which they learned about the many different kinds of people and struggles around them.
That could lend “The Bold Type” an after-school-special quality (rather often), but it added to the your-first-job-as-a-second-adolescence observation that energized the first couple of seasons, while affirming its career-focused characters as also curious, outward-looking and socially aware. That emphasis on learning was solidified by the title of Jane’s vertical: the Failing Feminist.
But the feminism of 2021 — and I’m referring to the largely online discourse and projects about gender and equity among young people that “The Bold Type” wanted to channel — doesn’t feel like even the feminism of 2017.
Since that year, we’ve had the #MeToo movement and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — responses to the Trump presidency and the accompanying backlash to social progress that’s already never felt like enough. Those two phenomena, combined with mass unemployment and the health-care crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, contributed to preexisting disaffection toward structural injustices and the inadequacies of an individual-focused, just-keep-hustling ethos like “lean in.” The increased visibility of violence against communities of color and the LGBTQ community underscored the necessity for mainstream intersectional feminism, while the shredding of an already frayed safety net that we saw in 2020 renewed the urgency of rethinking feminism’s relationship to capitalism.
But for a show that so foregrounded learning, “The Bold Type” seemed to have absorbed none of these cultural shifts.
It’s not a bad thing for the series — any series — to peddle desire and escapism; daydreams tell us what we idealize and invite us to ask why. It’s not insignificant that “The Bold Type” took seriously the fantasies of teenage girls and young women, groups historically derided for the supposed frivolity of their wants. But fantasies also change over time, as “The Bold Type’s” creative team initially understood, particularly in the figure of mother-employer Jacqueline (Melora Hardin), the anti-Miranda Priestley. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” which premiered in 2006, Anne Hathaway’s tortured underling gets to prove that she does know better than her beastly boss. On “The Bold Type,” Jane doesn’t want to defeat Jacqueline but rather become her, or at least a version of her.
The final three seasons, but particularly the calamitous just-concluded one, highlight just how dramatically the show went from aspirational to out-of-touch, especially when it attempted to comment on contemporaneous political shifts.
The show featured a #MeToo story line, for example, about a coercive female photographer that, in lieu of grappling with the workplace power dynamics that the movement had reframed as racked with exploitative potential, pointlessly asked (as if anyone denied the possibility), what if women could be just as bad as men? And much of last season took place at — and mostly glamorized — a women-only co-working space called the Belle obviously modeled after the Wing, which has been under fire for pretty much its entire existence for representing exactly the kind of exclusionary feminism that viewers would expect Jane and her friends to deplore.
But the biggest way “The Bold Type” failed the feminist fantasy it peddled was in its repeated bungling of the character of Kat, its sole Black and queer lead. The writers never seemed to know what to do with the burgeoning activist, who was fired from Scarlet midway through the series’ run and ended up, uh, running for city council before serving drinks at the Belle. Most disappointingly, the show paired Kat romantically with Eva (Alex Paxton-Beesley), a conservative lawyer whose powerful father, a board member at Scarlet’s parent company, finances conversion therapy. Kat was dinged by the writers for being too closed-minded about dating Eva despite the latter’s compliance, at best, with the active harm her father enacts on a community Kat belongs to.
The story line — and the misreading of the stakes by the writers who’d created it — led to a revolt not just by fans but also by Dee, who plays Kat. In an Instagram post, Dee also pointed out the lack of diversity in the show’s writers room, the directors’ ranks and — for the show’s first few years — the hairstyling team, arguing that, essentially, the show’s creative leaders didn’t live up to the ideals they championed through their series.
It’s also worth mentioning that, while Jane’s relationship with her long-running love interest Ryan (Dan Jeannotte) and Sutton’s eventual marriage to Richard (Sam Page) were grounded in character beats, Kat’s on-again, off-again romance with Muslim photographer Adena (Nikohl Boosheri) too often relied less on emotional arcs than on politicized learning opportunities (like the risks of speaking out as a Muslim woman without American citizenship, for instance) to separate the lovers.
Rushed story lines rendered the show’s truncated final season an unmitigated disaster, which rushed through Sutton’s flirtation with alcoholism, the unsustainably low wages at Scarlet for assistants and Jacqueline’s head-spinningly abrupt retirement with even more surface-level treatment than usual. But the show did come full circle for Jane and Sutton, who quit Scarlet to pursue more life lessons in Paris and who reunited with her estranged husband, respectively. In contrast, Kat’s story line felt like an afterthought, concluding with her taking on a job she’d hardly expressed interest in before.
“Now it’s time to make the corporation work for you,” Jacqueline told the anti-establishment Kat as the older woman passed the editor in chief baton to the younger one. In classic “Bold Type” fashion, it was an ending that airbrushed all the complications away.