The Devil Wears Prada, 13 Going on Thirty, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Ugly Betty—if there’s one thing women love as much as magazines, it’s TV shows and movies that depict the lives of women working at magazines. The latest episodic foray into this glamorized New York world premieres on Freeform today, and it’s called The Bold Type.
Inspired and produced by Joanna Coles, the real-life former Cosmopolitan editor in chief and now chief content officer of Hearst, the show revolves around three twentysomething work friends climbing the ladder at Scarlet, a fictional women’s fashion, lifestyle, and sex advice magazine. Sound familiar?
Having seen so many silver-screen accounts of the women’s magazine industry, you might not expect this young-adult drama clearly based on Cosmo to be anything special—and you’d be right. It covers all the anticipated plot points—salacious office romances, glitzy art gallery events, Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and demanding bosses. But what The Bold Type does uniquely reveal is that the confusion surrounding modern feminism is all too real—even, or especially, at a place like Cosmo.
The three main characters—Jane, the newbie writer who wants to see more politics in the magazine; Sutton, the assistant sleeping with an executive and struggling to chase her fashion career dreams; and Kat, the magazine’s sexually confused social media editor who becomes embroiled in a scandalous Twitter takedown—are all young, career-minded women with a healthy appetite for relationship drama. But what’s a bit unexpected is that the show simultaneously pokes fun at the classic Cosmo stereotypes (“how to keep sex casual with a guy,” for instance) while also showing these young women struggling to keep up with the advice that they themselves help produce for the publication.
At one point Jane tells the editor in chief that Scarlet sometimes makes her feel bad about herself because she’s not as sexually accomplished as it would have women believe they should be. That’s definitely a sentiment real women can relate to while scanning the pages of glossies filled with Photoshopped, sexualized, and over-the-top images and stories. But her moment of humility soon turns to gumption—in the form of conforming to the magazine’s espoused lifestyle by seeking out more sexual promiscuity rather than finding peace with her own point of view.
In the first episode, one of the publishing executives says to the editor in chief of Scarlet, “You’re a magazine about sex . . .” Reacting to her scowl, he quickly corrects himself. “You’re a magazine about empowering women,” he says as she grins. It’s just a moment, and quickly forgotten among the various plot lines, but that wink to the audience—a sort of joking acknowledgment of the confusion surrounding sex and empowerment—is also unsettling. Like Jane, we’ve all been fed a cultural narrative that says sex appeal is the surest or quickest way to feel empowered. In her moment of media-inflicted self-doubt, Jane marches up to a near-stranger at a party and kisses him, saying she too can be bold and fearless. One is left with the feeling that power and confidence are about sex and the Scarlet magazines of the world not only know that’s what they’re pushing, but they’re also OK with it.
Yet what we see in The Bold Type, and what so many of us experience firsthand, is that it’s not quite that simple. In one scene the three friends are tasked with fact-checking new sex positions Scarlet will recommend. Watching the three fully clothed women contort themselves on an office couch to see if these moves are possible provides a sense of relief for anyone who has ever read Cosmo and thought, “What am I even reading?” In the end, the article gets published anyway. In one sense, it’s encouraging that the show acknowledges the ridiculousness of the advice, but what’s less encouraging is that magazines publish it, and women continue to follow it. If anything, we can take heart in knowing that at least the characters are just as confused as we are.
What women—even the women in the show—long for is something that sounds more like them, that looks more like their lives. Jane wanted to know she wasn’t the only one not having the sex life of a porn star (her words, not ours). Kat wanted to see more diverse women in their content. Sutton wanted to feel less like the only person around struggling financially and doubting her abilities. Ironically, the best support they found was from each other, not from the magazine’s lauded advice. In that way, The Bold Type seems to have found a truth despite itself, reminding us that friendship is even more important than “expert” advice when it comes to navigating life’s challenges. Friends actually know and care about us.
Needless to say, if you were looking for a fun, lighthearted update to the magazine stories of your childhood, this show isn’t quite it. Among the champagne toasts in the accessories closet, focus groups on sex toys, and casual sex between assistants and higher-ups, even the show’s positive moments get lost. Luckily, we as viewers can make the choice the show’s characters don’t—to tune out. In so doing, we can spare ourselves the confusing interpretations of empowerment much of women's media seems attached to, and more freely write our own.
Photo Credit: Disney/ABC Television, Freeform