The Delights and Discomforts of “The Bold Type,” a Woke Fantasy of Magazine Journalism
Two years ago, “The Bold Type,” a show on Freeform about a trio of twentysomething besties working at a glossy women’s magazine called Scarlet, opened with a scene of highly stylized imperfection: the basic brunette Jane (Katie Stevens), the almost-redheaded Sutton (Meghann Fahy), and the biracial Kat (Aisha Dee) looking youthfully radiant in formal wear, standing in a very fake-looking subway station, yelling their wordless frustration into the deafening white noise of a passing train. “The Bold Type” was created as an homage to Cosmopolitan and the magazine’s former editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, who serves as an executive producer on the series and, for the first two seasons, narrated the “previously on” recaps that kick off each episode. The show offers a vision of magazine journalism that mixes the fanciful—Jane, after a promotion from assistant to writer, is given a literal seat at the table, alongside company executives, and sends her pitches straight to Scarlet’s longtime editor-in-chief—with surprisingly on-the-nose story lines. Kat is mass-trolled after writing an article titled “Hey, VR Bros, Don’t Forget the Female Gaze.” Jane goes viral with a classic preaching-to-the-choir piece about how fashion is actually political, and then she pursues a job at a Web outlet called Incite (a mix of Vice, Gawker, and Slate). When Sutton reveals to her friends that she has been secretly sleeping with a young executive at the magazine’s parent company, they freak out, fearing damage to her professional reputation. The company’s ambient misogyny is a given, and it is also surmountable: Sutton breaks up with the executive, in a fit of self-protection, but they get back together after H.R. policy changes.
“Here’s a fabulous pair of jeans—now go climb a mountain,” Scarlet’s E.I.C., Jacqueline (Melora Hardin), says at the magazine’s sixtieth-anniversary gala, explaining her vision of marketable feminism. The show works in a key of woke fantasy; in this alternate-universe version of glossy women’s media, being a good person is as professionally essential as the ability to walk briskly around an editorial floor in a statement dress and spike heels. As with “Younger,” a show about the publishing industry that is quietly but obsessively tracked by people in publishing, “The Bold Type” became catnip to many young women in media, myself included. By filtering very-special-episode topics concerning race, class, and sexuality through inside-baseball industry drama, the show produces a bifurcated sort of rom-com pleasure: it’s fun to hold the show at arm’s length when it’s comically improbable, and it can be unexpectedly affecting when it veers toward the real. In the Season 1 finale, Jane, who is positioned as a Jacqueline-in-training but appears, from all available evidence, to be a firmly mediocre writer, was assigned to cover a performance artist modelled on Emma Sulkowicz, the former Columbia student who protested the prevalence of campus sexual assault, and its adjudication, by carrying a mattress around for a year. The artist on the show stood in Central Park holding two weights shaped like scales: according to the rules of the performance, this burden could only be relieved by other assault survivors. Jane, having a bit of a breakdown, quits her job and runs away from a Fashion Week event, ending up in Central Park, where she finds the artist and stands next to her. Kat and Sutton track her down and join her there. Then Jacqueline shows up and silently takes the weights—giving Jane, and Scarlet, a blockbuster story, and moving Jacqueline’s narrative into new territory. For the first time, “The Bold Type” had made a real and complicated statement about its true subject, which is the way that this era, with its rapidly shifting ideals and incentives, is altering our pathways as we walk.
Amanda Lasher, who executive-produced the self-aware confectionery “Gossip Girl” and the prescient rape-revenge series “Sweet/Vicious,” took over as showrunner for Season 2, and the series became noticeably sharper. Sutton, hoping to increase her clout at work, befriended a demonic, blond influencer. Kat, who was being pressured to identify herself as Scarlet’s first black female department head and was sought out as an Instagram influencer by a conservative-leaning company in need of good P.R., started dating a woman and began to understand her identity as both a potential commodity and a genuinely, wonderfully flexible thing. Jane got her own vertical at Incite and was steamrolled by the buzz and aggression of digital media, failing to live up to her hype. As the season went on, her role as a vehicle for hot-button moral day trips made her more overtly insufferable: she threw a tantrum when a company prioritizing diversity failed to hire her, and, when she learned that Sutton kept a rifle in their shared apartment, she reacted so poorly that keeping a secret rifle seemed comparatively sane. (Sutton, nested in the fashion department, doesn’t care much about journalism, but Fahy plays her with such control and naturalism that she feels like the show’s true mini-Jacqueline.) Of course, despite her foibles—and because of her willingness to examine them in first-person writing—Jane was hired back at Scarlet before long.
“The Bold Type” is now four episodes into Season 3, which has brought in a new character, the head of Scarlet’s digital department, Patrick: a progressive trickster whose ways of caring for his staff seem an awful lot like exploitation and who is casually gunning for Jacqueline’s job. The show is becoming more inadvertently funny—it is getting harder, every week, to contort the boundaries of the show’s quasi-realism to make media seem navigable and fun. I let out a grim cackle when Jane, who’s supposed to be in her late twenties, said confidently to Patrick, “I don’t write for the dot-com.” Jane has the BRCA mutation, and she decides to freeze her eggs; Patrick insists that she and her boyfriend write a co-bylined article about the process. He urges Kat to turn herself into even more of a social-media personality, for the good of the brand; when this depresses her, he encourages her to post Instagram stories of herself crying with no makeup on, because authenticity is an even better play. The third episode featured a “Cat Person” plotline: a woman named Kristen wrote a viral short story for New York magazine about gendered power dynamics and was interviewed by a male Scarlet staffer named Alex—who discovered, during the interview, that the principal male character in Kristen’s story was partially based on him. But “The Bold Type” wrenched each of these arcs into a bittersweet-yet-hopeful conclusion. Jane and her boyfriend got closer because of the assignment. Kat’s friends tells her to think about all the people she’s inspiring. Alex writes a piece called “I Am Jeff,” and Kristen texts him, “Thank you for being an ally.”
One of the most pleasurable things about “The Bold Type” is the way that its characters’ professional choices are shown to be as intimate and complex and important as anything else about them. And there has always been a thread of implicit media criticism in its depiction of young people freely offering the magazine the raw material of their lives. Now, much to my delight and discomfort, the show seems to have tasked itself not only with finding a glamorous yet emotionally resonant group-hug moment in every work week but also with admitting a fundamental fact that ultimately kills the glamour and the group hugs: the current default in the media industry is to understand your job as precarious, like a balloon at the mercy of many intensifying winds. The show’s attempt to bend the trajectory upward, episode by episode, only highlights the bleakness below. In the latest episode, Jacqueline realizes that her job is endangered: the higher-ups want to kill the print magazine and make Scarlet digital-only. In a speech at yet another gala, she suggests that trying to keep the magazine alive when the future is uncertain represents the “essence of Scarlet,” the spirit of putting on those fabulous jeans and climbing that mountain, because “we’ll never know what we are capable of” unless we try. Jane, for now, is still climbing. Not incidentally, Kat and Sutton are both considering changing careers.