Politics

The glitz, glamour and radical politics of The Bold Type

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One evening, Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles was angry. It was 2014 and she had just found out that Katy Perry had posted her embargoed cover shoot on Instagram. “It was the one thing we’d asked of her – and she promised she wouldn’t post anything,” Coles recalls. Perry had 80 million followers at the time and with one click she had rendered the actual cover obsolete. “We knew that our cover would look like a two-month-old picture, which would cost me directly in sales,” says Coles. “I was spitting mad.”

A few hours later, Coles arrived in West Hollywood for a meal with friends, the rage still visceral. The man sitting next to her asked what was wrong. “I explained everything, and he said my life sounded like a good TV show.” That man was a producer named David Bernad – and he was right. The Bold Type was born.

Inspired by Coles’ time at Cosmopolitan, The Bold Type is a comedy-drama series about three millennial women working at Scarlet magazine – a progressive, digitally savvy title that runs features on everything from rising female politicians to how to stalk your ex-boyfriend without social media. Watch one episode of the show – with its glitz and glamour, its lavish launch parties and fashion shows in Paris – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s fantastical fluff. But scratch away at its shiny, lacquered surface and you’ll find a series that examines some of the most poignant issues affecting young women today. Sexual assault, racism, transphobia, class, fertility, and even gun control are handled delicately, explored with a nuance that is fleetingly rare in TV.

At its heart, though, The Bold Type is a celebration of female friendship, its relationships the antithesis of the toxic ones in Girls – another New York City-based show about a group of young women. In Lena Dunham’s series, female friendship is derided, criticised and exposed as shallow. It’s a bleak point of view, made far bleaker when considered alongside its predecessor, Sex and the City, a show so famous for the in-fighting of its female cast, its stars are still asked about it in interviews 17 years since it stopped airing. The Bold Type excels because the opposite is true.

The initial reviews of The Bold Type were glowing – Vulture called it “TV’s best surprise of 2017 so far” when the show first aired, while Variety described it as “fresh and energetic” – and they have largely remained so throughout the show’s five-year run. It had fans from the start, but when it landed on Netflix in the UK at the start of this year, right in the midst of lockdown, its viewership exploded.

On the Scarlet masthead are Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens), the whip-smart journalist with shades of Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca circa 2016; Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), the spirited social media director-slash-activist; and Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy), the aspiring stylist who’s having an affair with an older, and much more senior, colleague.

Over the course of five seasons – the show ended in the US in June, though its final season is yet to have a UK release date – these three women navigate typical twentysomething hurdles. Break-ups, career pivots and general angst are tackled with the guidance of their benevolent boss, Jacqueline Carlyle (The Office’s Melora Hardin), a sort of media fairy godmother who serves as an antidote to her Anna Wintour-inspired pop culture counterparts.

As a workplace, Scarlet is as glossy as its pages. Employees share bottles of wine in an opulent “fashion closet”, wear clothes their salaries couldn’t possibly afford them, and make major professional slip-ups without so much as a slap on the wrist. Naturally, everyone is also very attractive.

Part of The Bold Type’s alchemy is down to its pairing of the spurious with the serious. The same women protesting against conversion therapy and opening up about the relief they felt after a miscarriage are the ones contemplating “butt facials” and whether or not to peg their boyfriends. It gives us a three-dimensional view of what it means to be a woman today. “I think that’s one of the most magical elements of the show,” says Fahy. “Why can’t women be interested in fashion and also be politically savvy? I think the fact that we discuss real issues in conjunction with lighter topics is one of the things people enjoy most.”

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The Bold Type season four trailer

“Real” is the operative word in almost every discussion around The Bold Type. Many of its storylines were the result of conversations between the show’s creator Sarah Watson, Bernad, and employees at Cosmopolitan. “They spent a week at our office just talking to our staff,” Coles recalls. “Everyone was so generous with sharing their experiences and all of the crazy s**t that happens at magazines. I unloaded every anecdote I could think of, too, and Sarah just had an ability to create characters and scenarios based on it all.” The verisimilitude extended to set details, too, with Coles’ office, complete with her signature treadmill desk, replicated almost exactly for the show. “I think the artwork was slightly different,” she notes.

Occasionally, it was the writers whose experiences found their way into the script. Take Wendy Straker Hauser, a producer and the eventual showrunner from season four, whose writing and production credits include The Client List and The Handmaid’s Tale. In season two, Jane writes a feature about the female founder of a menstrual cup company that donates cups to homeless women. The piece is for Incite, a Vice-type publication for which Jane has just quit Scarlet. But after running into various complications about the hygiene concerns of providing menstrual cups to women without access to basic facilities, Jane realises that the company isn’t as noble as it seems. She files a balanced article on the company, only for her editors to drastically change its tone. The result is a hit piece that leaves a horrified Jane feeling compelled to apologise to the founder over voicemail. That voicemail ends up online, where it quickly goes viral. Jane is humiliated.

A version of this story actually happened to Straker Hauser. The article, written for Page Six Magazine when she was working as a journalist in New York City, was about women who were struggling to get pregnant and were going through IVF. “It felt like it took the shape of a sensationalised piece about mothers wanting to have twins so they didn’t have to get pregnant twice,” Straker Hauser recalls of her edited piece. “In part, I got back in touch with the women because of my own sensitivity; I’d heard their struggles.” The email she sent was leaked, and Straker Hauser wound up on Gawker. “That was a learning process for me on how to deal with that when a story comes out a little differently, which can happen when you’re not an editor. It’s just part of the learning process.”

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Solidarity: ‘The Bold Type’ has tackled a number of important issues

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Solidarity: ‘The Bold Type’ has tackled a number of important issues

(Freeform)

Sometimes on The Bold Type, reality coincided with fiction in more coincidental ways. In season one, Jane tests positive for the BRCA gene, which means she is more likely to develop breast cancer, the same illness to which she lost her mother. “During the time that I was filming that, I had my own scare,” Stevens recalls. “I found a lump and immediately went to get it checked out. Thankfully it was benign and I was fine, but had it not been for that storyline, and being really conscious of checking myself every morning, I would never have found it.” After the episode aired, Stevens was inundated with messages from fans, thanking her for raising awareness.

The show has been at the vanguard of other important issues. In season one, which was filmed in 2016, Jane is assigned to write a story about a sexual assault survivor named Mia whose rapist was acquitted. Mia starts a performance in Central Park, where she carries the scales of Lady…

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