Sarah Watson’s ‘The Bold Type’ As a Critique of Postfeminism

The Bold Type
Sarah Watson
CBS / Hulu

On the surface, Sarah Watson’s The Bold Type, a show about three young, beautiful and successful women working for a magazine in New York who run around sipping martinis in their designer clothes, appears to be a postfeminist television series driven by neoliberal capitalism, much like Darren Star’s Sex and The City and Josh Schwartz’s Gossip Girl, based on Cecily Brooke von Ziegesar’s book. Postfeminism gained momentum after second wave feminism in the 1990s, with a heavy focus on approaching issues at an individual level rather than a societal one. This gave the illusion that feminism was over and equality for women had already been achieved (Gill, p.612).

In her essay on postfeminism, scholar Rosalind Gill (p.611), suggests that a useful tool in the fight for gender equality comes from problematising, critiquing, and analysing postfeminism. I draw from different storylines to argue that The Bold Type is, in fact, a critique of postfeminism in the way that it highlights current feminist matters such as intersectional issues, discourse surrounding female sexual pleasure, and trans activism.

One of the most common critiques of postfeminism is that it is primarily concerned with the issues affecting heterosexual white women, leaving out the experiences of women of colour and members of the queer community. L. S. Kim (p.332) states that postfeminist depictions on television are generally upper-middle-class and white. Scholar and activist Kimberlè Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ as a way to describe the unique oppression experienced by people who belong to more than one marginalised group. Sylvanna M. Falcón (p. 467) defines intersectionality as a way to “describe a person or a social problem holistically”.

One of the three main characters in The Bold Type is Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), a young lesbian, mixed-race woman whose mother is white and father is black. Kat’s experience as a mixed-race woman and her journey to realising that she is a lesbian is a common theme throughout the series. In “Mixed Messages” (Season 3, Episode 7) Kat, who is running for city council is canvassing with her lesbian partner/campaign Manager Tia Clayton (Alexis Floyd) who is also a black woman. The two take a break on the steps of a townhouse when they are accused by the owner, an upper-class white woman, of loitering and casing the property. The woman implies that the two are responsible for a string of robberies and that they could not possibly live in the neighbourhood because they are black. This is in contrast to Kat’s two white friends who are also canvassing the neighbourhood and are not racially profiled for doing so.

This recognition of Kat and Tia’s unique struggle as black women goes against the ideals of postfeminism. Further to the criticism of postfeminism constructing the idea that equality has already been achieved, postfeminism is also accused of assuming that the struggle is over for black women as well. Semantic Scholar Francesca Sobande (p.436), explains that this assumption is in direct opposition with black feminism, as their core ideal is to recognise that women with intersecting identities continue to face unrelenting discrimination. After the racial profiling incident, Kat and Tia discuss the unique struggle they have each faced with finding their identities as black women who are also lesbians, labelling it the ‘one, two, punch’ (The Bold Type 2019).

Another critique of postfeminism is its strong emphasis on heterosexuality or compulsory heterosexuality (Sobande, p.443). Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that heterosexuality is socially constructed and reinforced as normal through discourse, this consequently positions homosexuality as abnormal (Katz; McRuer & Bèrubè; Trautner). Even other shows such as Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and Issa Rae’s Insecure, that have been praised for their feminist representation of black woman, have failed to explore sexuality outside of heterosexuality (Sobande, p.433).

The Bold Type, however, explores black women’s diverse sexuality through Kat’s character as she engages in sexual relations with women throughout the series and in one instance a man. Later in the series a black, trans character, Chloe Blair (Ianne Fields Stewart) is introduced, which also goes against the postfeminist television format as Gill (p.616) points out, trans activism is often overlooked in postfeminism. As it has been established, postfeminism most often fails to recognise difference. As scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson (p.343) states, ‘it is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognise those differences’.

This notion is directly contradicted in “Marathon” (Season 4 Episode 3) when Kat and the two other main characters, Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens) and Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy) are in the fashion closet discussing a situation involving Chloe. Kat comments on the moment, stating that the three of them are ‘just a bunch of cis-gendered women in a fashion closet contemplating the transfeminine journey’ (The Bold Type 2019). Kat is clearly recognising the difference between their oppression; even though they are both black and queer, their experience is not the same. She’s also checking her privilege as a cis-gendered woman.

Aside from exploring diverse sexuality, The Bold Type also focuses on the importance of female self-pleasure. The postfeminism message about sex for women is that women have the right to experience sexual pleasure (Sarikakis & Tsaliki, p.114). This idea is challenged in “Babes in Toyland” (Season 4 Episode 4), when Kat becomes concerned with the sexist double standards surrounding female pleasure when a billboard company refuses to advertise vibrators, even though the company advertise men’s erectile dysfunction medication. Kat states that the ‘advertising outlet doesn’t want to promote a woman’s desire to please herself despite not having a partner’ (The Bold Type 2020).

Kat, Sutton and Jane later visit a sex party where they witness women masturbating in a spa. Kat points out that the women could be having sex with anyone but instead, they are pleasing themselves. When she interviews one of the women for the magazine, the interviewee explains that she grew up in a religious family and was raised to think that her sexuality could be used to win a husband. However, as she grew up she realised that she was in charge of her own sexual pleasure and she could get it on her own or with the love of her life. If one of the key ways to approach postfeminism is analytically (Banet-Weiser, Gill & Rottenberg, p.6) we need to think critically about postfeminist messaging and ask ourselves who is benefiting from it. Who is benefiting from this message that women are free to experience sexual pleasure?

Clearly, the people benefiting in this episode are heterosexual men for two reasons. The first being because they are allowed to advertise their erectile dysfunction medication, which leads to sexually satisfied male consumers. Secondly, because women are not receiving the message that they can achieve sexual pleasure without a man. Scholar Michael R. Hill (p.629) describes patriarchy as a group of people who accumulate power over another group, in this context males over females. Therefore, in this example, the patriarchy is benefiting from the postfeminist message that women are sexually free because they are free to experience sexual pleasure, but only if it is with a man. This storyline shows that not only is The Bold Type going against the postfeminist idea that sexual freedom for women has been achieved, it also goes against the postfeminist notion that feminists have in fact conquered the patriarchy.

Postfeminism has been critiqued for focusing on feminist issues at an individual level rather than approaching them as a societal problem. Gill (p.617) defines this individual approach to feminism as neoliberal feminism, focusing on what women can do for themselves to achieve equality rather than what can be done by society. The Bold Type does not conform to this postfeminism neoliberal approach to feminist issues. Its nonconformity is clear in “Marathon” when Kat discovers that Chloe is not allowed to compete in the New York Marathon as a result of her gender transition. Chloe, who has transitioned to a woman, tells Kat that at the time she qualified, her testosterone and estrogen levels were the same as a female’s but she was later processed as a male so her time was no longer fast enough. Chloe says that her whole life has been filled with people telling her that she cannot be who she wants to be, from family to friends, to doctors.

The lack of acceptance from family and friends is concern often expressed by the trans community, with people who choose to cross gender boundaries often facing rejection from those closest to them (Zabus & Coad, pp.130-134). A neoliberal approach to this situation would be for the character of Chloe to realise her self-worth and gain self-love and acceptance by conquering this oppression on her own (Gill; Sobande). Kat, rather than sorting the problem at an individual level by simply finding a way for Chloe to race, approaches the organisers of the event to draw attention to the discrimination that is happening within their processes. She then uses the magazine’s platform to share Chloe’s experience with their of readers. Kat is what Moreton-Robinson (p.343) would describe as an ‘effective troublemaker’, constantly drawing attention to feminist issues on the magazine’s social media platforms and putting the onus back on society. In doing this she is disrupting the postfeminist narrative that it is up to the individuals to overcome the oppression they face.

The Bold Type is, in fact, a critique on postfeminism in the way that it highlights current feminist matters such as intersectional issues, discourse surrounding female sexual pleasure, and trans activism. Highlighting these issues that have been either left out of the postfeminist narrative or constructed through it as overcome, proves that the show is a critique of the movement, rather than being complicit with it. The Bold Type proves time and time again that there is a long way to go to achieve equality. At the same time it gives hope that feminism is alive and well.

Works Cited

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Gill, Rosalind. & Rottenberg, Catherine. n.d., ‘Postfeminism, popular feminism and neoliberal feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill and Catherine Rottenberg in conversation’, FEMINIST THEORY, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 3–24. 2019.

Coad, D & Zabus, Chantel J. Transgender experience: place, ethnicity, and visibility, Routledge research in cultural and media studies: 59, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 2014.

Falcón, Sylvanna M. ‘Intersectionality‘, in Encyclopaedia of Gender and Society, SAGE, London, pp. 467–468. 2009.

Gill, Rosaland. 2016, ‘Post-postfeminism?: new feminist visibilities in postfeminist times’, Feminist Media Studies, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 610–630.

Hill, Michael R. ‘Patriarchy’, in Encyclopaedia of Gender and Society, SAGE, London, pp. 628-633. 2019.

Katz, Jonathan. 1995, ‘The genealogy of a sex concept: from homosexual history to heterosexual history’, in The invention of heterosexuality, Dutton, New York, pp. 1–18.

Kim, L. S. ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ in Postfeminism: The F Word on Television’, Television & New Media, 2(4), pp. 319–33. 2001.

McRuer, Robert. & Bérubé, Michael. ‘Introduction: compulsory able-bodiedness and queer/disabled existence’, in Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, NYU Press, New York, pp. 1–32. 2006.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen, ‘Troubling Business: Difference and Whiteness Within Feminism’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 33, pp. 343–352. 2000.

Sarikakis, Katharine and Tsaliki, Liza. ‘Post/feminism and the politics of mediated sex‘, International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 7, no. 2, p. 109. 2011.

Sobande, Francesca. ‘Awkward Black girls and post-feminist possibilities: Representing millennial Black women on television in Chewing Gum and Insecure’, Critical Studies in Television, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 435–450. 2019.

Trautner, Mary Nell. ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality‘, in Encyclopaedia of Gender and Society, SAGE, London, pp. 156-157. 2019.