I have a handful of “personal policies” that give me guidelines for making decisions. Always order the Reuben if it’s available. Cheap whiskey is cheap for a reason. When in doubt, buy the book. Stuff like that.
One of those personal policies is that, because of my fondness for Manhattan, I give strong preference to television shows set there (which is quite a few) whenever I’m looking for a new show to watch. This policy led me recently to try The Bold Type, a new dramedy series that started this past June on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family). As it happens, my wife enjoys the show, so I ended up watching every episode with her through the end of this first season.
Whenever The Bold Type gets feminine boldness wrong, it is by mistakenly—and ironically—conforming to whatever our dominant culture now tells us is normal and expected.The Bold Type portrays the lives of three unmarried women in their mid-twenties—Jane, Kat, and Sutton, best friends—as they work in various capacities for a global young women’s magazine named Scarlet, housed on Fifth Avenue. Although it is scripted and fictional, the show is heavily inspired by real-life women’s magazine Cosmopolitan. Joanna Coles, one of the executive producers, is the former editor-in-chief at Cosmo, and the show itself makes this inspiration obvious.
In true Cosmo form, The Bold Type includes some provocative elements that might turn more conservative Christians off from watching it, such as casual sex, lesbian kissing, “stealth feminism,” and occasional talk of orgasms and sex positions. It is unlike me to watch a show like this, to say the least, which makes me all the more interested in reflecting on what it communicates about being bold in the city, especially for young women.
Granted, at the somewhat superficial level, it is entirely possible to watch The Bold Type and simply enjoy the well-paced plot lines, likeable characters, and good music. The show is easy-watching, and some viewers undoubtedly will slide into an almost mindless state of media consumption.
The show is full of elements that can hold one’s attention well enough—mundane obstacles (Sutton loses a valuable necklace in the back of a taxi), complex relationships and love interests, anxieties about breast cancer, rooftop parties in SoHo, Internet trolling, and difficult life decisions. Add in plenty of bright, scenic shots of Manhattan, and it’s fair to see The Bold Type as something to help you zone out, not to think hard about.
One level deeper, though, the show has a not-very-subtle theme running through every episode: female empowerment for the modern millennial woman. This theme also has an unacknowledged class dimension to it—that is, whatever else we might want to know about this imagined millennial woman, she almost certainly is middle or upper-middle class and has a college degree. She likes wine and sushi.
More specifically, the show revolves around a particular, commercialized version of women’s empowerment, in which issues of choice and liberation and politics are intimately tied up in the latest in fashion, shoes, and makeup. In The Bold Type, as with the women’s magazine ethos it depicts, one begins to understand how “the logic of feminism often chafes against the logic of capitalism,” as Megan Garber observes. The Bold Type exemplifies what has recently been called “you-go-girl” culture.
When it comes to the story of what it’s like for these three young, vibrant, educated women to work and write and tweet for Cosmopolitan/Scarlet, the show is not merely telling it; it is selling it. The Bold Type itself, then, functions as something like the television version of what (I imagine) Cosmo does in and for the magazine world. Make your own rules! Define yourselves!
The pilot episode culminates in a gala celebrating Scarlet’s sixtieth anniversary. During a champagne toast, Jacqueline Carlyle—the Joanna Coles figure—delivers a touching sales pitch for this lifestyle to the young women (and men) under her wing:
I expect you to have adventures. I expect you to fall in love, to get your hearts broken. I expect you to have sex with the wrong people. To have sex with the right people. To make mistakes, and make amends, take a leap, and make a splash. And I expect you to unleash holy hell on anybody who tries to hold you back. Because you don’t just work for Scarlet—you are Scarlet.
At a third and final level down, then, it is important to question what it really looks like for young, working women to “be bold” or “make a splash” in global urban contexts like Manhattan (or San Francisco, Austin, D.C., Madison, Denver. . . ). What can we say about this new you-go-girl mentality? Here we’ve arrived at that contested intersection of feminism and Christianity.
Not surprisingly, The Bold Type gets some things right. Few people will object to the idea that it’s admirable for young women to have the courage and skill to say or write important things in public, for instance. Throughout the first season, one watches Jane, Kat, and Sutton stand up for themselves at work; take care and time to maintain close friendships; try new, unfamiliar experiences; and even help to raise awareness of the problem of sexual assault. We all could use more boldness of that kind.
But The Bold Type gets some things seriously wrong too. Most obviously, the young women engage in what sociologists investigating the dynamics of the contemporary dating and mating scene as a market call “cheap sex.” In short, Jane and Sutton are quick to “supply” what the men “demand” without the “cost” of commitment, let alone marriage. In an era when premarital sex is the cultural norm, restricting the supply and raising the cost of sexual intimacy would actually require more boldness from young women.
The show unabashedly buys into contemporary feminism’s vision and project of sexual liberation. “I can screw whoever I want!” Sutton declares, and she does. Early in the series, Adena (Kat’s lesbian Muslim love interest) is detained at the airport in her home country “simply for wanting to own her own sexuality,” Kat asserts. How so, exactly? By illegally smuggling vibrators in her luggage to the Middle East.
Additionally, the female characters are intrepid when thinking about feminism and progressive politics but not so much about the weightier things of human life. We know that Adena prays the five salats most days and Jacqueline Carlyle doesn’t attend church. Other than these tidbits, however, the series so far is mostly silent on matters of real, enduring significance and meaning. What constitutes a good and virtuous life? Jane, Kat, and Sutton, one learns, are far more interested in Senator Elizabeth Warren, “RBG,” and this week’s Planned Parenthood fundraiser.
Whenever The Bold Type gets feminine boldness wrong, it is by mistakenly—and ironically—conforming to whatever our dominant culture now tells us is normal and expected. The series’ title is a double entendre, referring both to Jane, Kat, and Sutton’s scrappiness and to the magazine headlines they’re working to produce and promote. But by the end of the first season, one gets the sense that something is missing in the boldness of their “bold type.” A little reflection reveals that what’s missing is the courage to live and believe differently.
For women in the city, that’s much bolder.
Of course, there are limits to evaluating the messages and assumptions of a television show that was never intended to be “a Christian show.” Overall, The Bold Type is pretty okay. It is worth checking out—whether it’s for a mental vacation to Manhattan or a cognitive exercise in the meaning of contemporary womanhood.