'The Bold Type' Is Fun, But It Could Go Bolder

Aisha Dee, Meghann Fahy, Katie Stevens star in The Bold Type (Photo credit: Freeform).

Is the vibe of sincerity real in The Bold Type, or merely a veneer applied like a coat of pretty nail polish because suddenly, feminism is fashionable?

The Bold Type

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee, Meghann Fahy
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "Pilot"
Network: Freeform
Air date: 2017-06-20

A conversation that takes place at around the halfway mark of the pilot of The Bold Type is perhaps key to understanding the show as a whole: the African-American social media director (Aisha Dee) at Scarlet, a Glamour/ Cosmopolitan-type publication tells the lesbian Muslim feminist photographer (Nikohl Boosheri) she's trying to feature in the magazine's glossy pages that Scarlet represents "stealth feminism": "it's no longer how to please your man -- or woman -- in bed; it’s about how to please yourself."

"Stealth feminism" is the best way to understanding the kind of show that The Bold Type is trying to, and largely succeeds at, being: the perfect 40-minute dramedy program for the summer of 2017. The story, which centers on Jane (Katie Stevens, Faking It), Kat (Dee, Sweet/Vicious), and Sutton (Meghann Fahy, Political Animals), three ambitious young employees at Scarlet, mixes an overall light tone with measured seriousness (when it’s required by the plot) that makes it a largely enjoyable experience that doesn't require the same amount of concentration or focus as a Game of Thrones, much less a Veronica Mars. Each character in the pilot comes decently well-formed, and continues to be developed at a fairly rapid pace in the following few episodes.

Jane, a new writer on staff at Scarlet, finds herself taken under editor-in-chief Jacqueline's (Melora Hardin, Transparent) wing, but struggles with figuring out how to write content she’s proud of without digging too much into her own insecurities and painful past experiences. Kat, the aforementioned social-media manager, finds herself falling for the aforementioned lesbian Muslim feminist photographer, Adena, despite previously identifying as straight. Sutton, another writer's personal assistant, is caught up in a whirlwind affair with a member of Scarlet’s board of managers (Samuel Page, Mad Men).

There's a disparity in the first few episodes of the show regarding the amount of attention given to each character’s overall arc, which my description of Jane's, Kat's, and Sutton's pilot plotlines hints at. Even a few episodes later, it’s clear that Jane's arc will have a lot to do with her own self-confidence as both a young woman and as a writer, with Jacqueline -- and Scarlet as a whole -- functioning as the female role model she never had. Each article she has to write ends up tapping into some aspect of her backstory -- a painful breakup, issues with her body -- and her interactions with Jacqueline are often heartwarming, as Hardin convincingly plays a woman who is both an incredibly successful magazine editor and a wise, warm mentor to a writer in whom she clearly sees herself.

Sutton's story gets a boost in the second episode, when it's revealed that she wants more from life than being financially successful (she wants to work in fashion rather than ad sales), but her low-income background makes her less likely to take that kind of risk. This backstory addition is particularly fortunate, as her relationship with the much-older board member seems like a mistake waiting to happen.

While it's wonderful to see Kat exploring her own sexuality and navigating the development of romantic feelings for Adena, her development seems thus far to be largely tied to this storyline, rather than giving us some idea of her backstory, or what makes her tick; that is, why she wants to work at Scarlet, and why social media in particular is her calling. As Adena is only listed as appearing in five out of the ten episodes of The Bold Type’s first season, I do hope that subsequent episodes will take more care to establish Kat as a character outside of this romance, as sweet and quietly impactful as is the romance itself.

Another issue that I do hope the show explores in later episodes is the potential emotional drain inherent in the kind of pieces Jane is expected to write for Scarlet, and how she’s continually expected to unearth and display these most painful and secret parts of herself in order to entertain readers, satisfy her editor, and take home her paycheck. While "it-happened-to-me" articles, done right about significant topics, can be incredibly important and illuminating regarding personal experiences, it comes off as a little exploitative that these kinds of tell-alls seem to be the bulk of what Jane is writing. The Bold Type would do well in addressing that aspect of her job rather than just treating each embarrassing or traumatizing event she's supposed to relive and write about as something that's easily gotten over.

The bigger question I have in mind as I continue to watch the show: is the vibe of sincerity the show throws off something that matters to The Bold Type at its core, or is it merely a veneer that the show applies like a coat of nail polish because suddenly "feminism" (or some version of it) is fashionable? In many ways, mainstream media does move more slowly than societal discourse, and it's certainly refreshing to see characters with a variety of racial identities and sexual orientations proudly discuss that they're feminists, and what being a feminist means to them, rather than presenting themselves as cool, reasonable girls in contrast to the hysterical and manipulative designated "feminist" characters (looking at you, Veronica Mars' third season).

Likewise, there's absolutely value in watching Kat and Adena have a frank discussion about why the latter's decision to wear a hijab is a feminist one, because it's answering a question that surely many viewers without Muslim women friends find themselves wanting to ask. Yet on its face, despite its feminist protestations, The Bold Type isn't really doing that much to shift the conversation about working women, or young women, or other politically relevant topics. Jane, Sutton, and Kat are all suitably conventionally attractive for television’s purposes, with endless wardrobes paid for by jobs that are for the most part secure (oh, for an episode that digs into an #EbonyOwes type of issue!); The Bold Type, in this regard, could stand to go a little bolder.

Indeed, it’s not clear whether "stealth feminism" is really enough at this point. In 2017, haven't we moved past the idea that "leaning in" to your work, taking charge of what sex positions you and your significant other are going to use, and having all the choices you could ever want isn't the goal of the fight for gender equality? Then again, it's telling that The Bold Type is a Freeform show rather than on one of the major networks or cable stations, because it's basically what Teen Vogue has become post-2016 election: pretty, fashionable, with admirable aspirations towards being politically progressive and hard-hitting, yet bound to be continually underestimated because its designated audience -- and subject matter -- is young women and teenage girls.

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