Warning: some mild spoilers ahead.
At the outset, this may seem like something you’ve seen before: 20-something girls living their lives in New York, talking openly about sex, careers and love. Ah, that old chestnut. But this show is no Sex and the City, nor is it Girls, and it’s certainly no Gossip Girl. The women of The Bold Type would rather spend their paychecks on rent than on Manolos, can be counted on to be as vocal about the current political climate as they are about their most recent sexual escapade, and are far more likely to mix you up a Unicorn Dreamtini and cheer you on than stab you in the back.
The beauty of The Bold Type is that it doesn’t exist in its own bubble. Although it’s set in an ostensibly frothy, narcissistic landscape—a high-end fashion magazine in Manhattan—the show is anything but. Sure, it’s about young women finding their way (a narrative for the ages), but they’re doing it in 2018. And if there’s one thing we know about this Trumpian era, it’s that it’s both impossible and foolish to try to ignore the outside world. Which is why they don’t.
So what are some of the issues The Bold Type has tackled in its first two seasons? Lets see… Gun control, Islamophobia, sexual fluidity, white privilege, sexual assault, internet trolls, #MeToo… and all of this with humour, heart and honesty (and some damn good outfits). It’s easy to veer into territory either dark or preachy with socially or politically aware content, but the show is cognizant of that line, and rarely crosses it. The series’ fictional magazine, Scarlet, is a simulacrum of Cosmopolitan (former Cosmo editor Joanna Coles serves as executive producer of the series and is supposedly the inspiration behind Scarlet EIC Jacqueline Carlyle), and three of its young female staffers—Kat Edison, social media director; Sutton Brady, fashion assistant; and Jane Sloan, staff writer—serve as the protagonists.
Now, this is a fashion mag in New York so of course there’s got to be a glossy patina to it all—beautiful women with gorgeous clothes and enviable apartments, check; fabulous celeb-studded parties and events, check; a plush fashion closet filled with designer threads, check. Despite all that, there’s a grounding realism to the series, which is why it’s been resonating with women of all stripes since its premiere last year.
In one of the earliest episodes, Kat (played by Aisha Dee) realizes she’s attracted to a woman for the first time. As she grapples with her newfound sexual fluidity, the object of her affection, Adena el Amin, an outspoken Muslim artist played by Nikhohl Boosheri, deals with racism and immigration hurdles in the time of Trump. Oh, and another thing Kat is struggling with? Her biracial identity. That’s right, here is a lesbian relationship between two women of colour—an unfortunate rarity on television—given as much weight and respect as the heterosexual romances in the series.
Jane, played by Katie Stevens, is an ambitious writer perpetually in pursuit of a good story and determined to be taken “seriously.” As we follow her journey, we see her missteps, her self-doubt, and in the second season, her very realistic struggles with being a freelancer (the episode in which she buys a single piece of biscotti in order to keep her table at a busy café was too real). She also deftly deals with storylines revolving around her recently-diagnosed status as a carrier of the BRCA breast cancer gene, and what that might mean for future plans of motherhood.
Low-level assistant Sutton, played by Meghann Fahy, is dating someone who sits on the board of the publishing company that owns Scarlet. In other words, he’s a “higher-up.” Rather than pushing a storyline in which the power player intimidates or coerces his subordinate into sex, their relationship is painted as mutual and respectful. But in a post-#MeToo world, workplace dynamics are trickier than ever, and from double standards to consent forms, there’s a lot for Sutton to navigate, particularly as she juggles all that with her own ambitions to break into the fashion department as a stylist.
Jacqueline Carlyle, the commander of the ship—played to perfection by Melora Hardin—is the boss everyone wishes they had. She’s stern and demanding but supportive and encouraging, pushing the young women in her employ to dig deeper and be better. (#BeBest. Sorry, couldn’t help it.) Less Miranda Priestly, more Michelle Obama, she’s a generous and kind mentor, the sort of guiding light every young woman in her 20s would benefit so much from.
Of a show developed around women—women in fashion, no less—the expectation going in might be that its storylines will revolve around men, relationships, gossip, drama. But this series subverts that, the strong female friendships that form its core passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Several story arcs can go by without addressing a protagonist’s love life, focusing on other aspects of her personal or professional life instead. Take, for example, the episode in which Sutton has to figure out how to make rent if she ends up taking a pay cut, or the one in which Kat gets dragged by internet trolls, or where Jane struggles to understand the far-reaching impact of white privilege.
These are all the hallmarks of young adulthood, and the show veers neither towards over-the-top drama nor dismissive condescension when depicting these very real struggles. It takes young women and their career aspirations, romantic lives, and personal demons seriously; managing to be both poignant and lighthearted at the same time. Thanks to a winning combination of truthful writing and rich, layered performances by the entire cast, the show is warm, sincere, heartfelt and joyful while at the same time complicated, emotional and messy, not to mention immensely topical and attuned to the zeitgeist. (In season one, the writers even built an entire episode around President Trump and his penchant for two scoops of ice cream.)
The Bold Type is inspiring, engaging and empowering. But it’s not an escapist fantasy. The women of Scarlet don’t live in a world that’s simpler, or more sensible and equitable than ours. They live in the same messy world we do, and though there are setbacks, upheavals and heartbreaks aplenty, what this show teaches us is that when we’ve got the right people by our side—and the right attitude—we can get through it all.
The Bold Type airs in the US on Freeform and Hulu, and in Canada on ABC Spark.