We Need To Talk About The Feminism In Freeform’s ‘The Bold Type’
"In case you haven't figured it out already, this is Freeform's love letter to modern feminism." This statement was uttered by Karey Burke, Executive Vice President at Freeform, before the premiere of The Bold Type I attended, and it sums up exactly why I am apprehensive about Freeform's newest women-led drama.
Because, here's the thing — the feminism of The Bold Type is anything but revolutionary. Anyone who's watched a Marylin Monroe movie, seen an episode of Sex in the City, or read a think piece on Britney's Spears as a feminist icon will be very familiar with the show's brand of high-femme, beauty-obsessed, and indeed, capitalist-oriented girl power.
The show itself — sans the inflated sense of political importance — is reasonably enjoyable. It centers on three young women (Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee, and Meghan Fahy) who are best friends and trying to navigate the cut-throat world of their company, a magazine called Scarlet.
The actors undeniably have chemistry, and right away you're rooting for the success of their friendship in a crazy and seemingly friendless industry.
Though she is not technically a character, the show is an homage to its executive producer, Joanna Coles — former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, current chief content officer at Hearst, and something of a legend for women in media like me. Coles told me herself on The Bold Type red carpet that nearly everything in the show comes from her real-life experience at Cosmo.
So Scarlet is clearly a stand-in for Cosmo, and actress Melora Hardin shines in the Coles-esque editor-in-chief role, Jacqueline. Jacqueline's mix of tough love and distant encouragement make her every writer's dream boss.
The show will officially premiere with a two-hour episode on Freeform on July 11, but viewers who kept the TV on after Pretty Little Liars on June 20 already saw the pilot episode in a special preview. Clearly, Freeform hopes The Bold Type will fill the Liars-sized gap in its lineup now that its longest-running original series has ended. I think The Bold Type has a reasonable shot at this — it's fast-paced, fun, inspiring, and just the right amount of cheesy. It's everything a show aimed at teen girls should be.
There is one thing The Bold Type is not though: the revolutionary feminist narrative the creators and cast seem to be pushing.
Far too much of the pilot episode is spent defending Scarlet's place in feminist literature.
"Your magazine is totally anti-feminist," accuses Adeena (Nikohl Boosheri), a character who is introduced as "a lesbian Muslim."
"That's a common misconception," replies Aisha Dee's character, Kat.
Later, in the climactic scene of the episode, the Scarlet staff attends a party celebrating the magazine's anniversary. Jacqueline gives a moving speech about how, yes, her magazine is about fashion and sex, but it's also so much more.
I don't deny there are aspects of The Bold Type that are empowering to women and indeed feminist. Hardin's character refuses to fall into the tired stereotype of "total b*tch boss" (see: The Devil Wears Prada), which is nice.
Some might even argue the mere existence of a show created and run almost solely by women (including showrunner Sarah Watson) is, in itself, feminist.
But to claim the feminism of The Bold Type is any different than the hyper-feminine, hyper-capitalist mantra that's dominated the political movement for the past 20 years is, frankly, absurd.
Here's something Hardin said to the audience during the post-premiere panel I attended:
One of the things that really attracted me to this show, when Sarah [Watson] and I started talking about it, was the wonderful irony of this being a real feminist show couched in this incredibly feminine celebration of femininity. I think that is really what is going to change the world — this feminine revolution where women don't have to be men. Women get to be women, and men get to be men.
I'm not sure where Hardin has been for the last 20 years of feminism, but "reclaiming femininity" hasn't been revolutionary since Sex in the City (a show Watson acknowledged several times as groundwork for The Bold Type). If you want the moniker of "progressive," you need to actually push barriers. By contrast, The Bold Type pilot lays the groundwork for its story to remain comfortably within barriers laid out by Carrie Bradshaw in 1998.
This feminine feminism embraced by Sex in the City, The Bold Type, Cosmopolitan, and countless other shows, films, and magazines is not without merit. If you find empowerment in finding your perfect shade of lipstick, I absolutely want you to take a million selfies wearing it.
But this movement is definitely not new, and it is definitely heavily exploited by capitalism. It's a movement that encourages women to buy more lipstick, more shoes, more bags, and more of pretty much everything found in a fashion closet — a staple setting in The Bold Type that its three main leads use as a home base.
It's worth noting too that the beauty and fashion industry is still largely patriarchal — the CEOs of L'Oreal, Revlon, Estée Lauder, OPI Nail Polish, and MAC Cosmetics are all men. So though femininity can be an important tool for empowerment, it is frequently at odds with the true goal of the feminist movement (gender equality).
Capitalist feminism, therefore, is no more revolutionary than white feminism, ableist feminism, homophobic feminism, and so on — in fact, all those counterproductive versions of "feminism" are often one in the same.
Now, did I expect The Bold Type pilot to break down the pillars of the capitalist heteropatriarchy? Did I expect the show to be rife with a nuanced representation of poor women, trans women, women of color, disabled women, and other things that would actually make the show progressive?
Of course not. But I also truly did not expect it to so audaciously crown itself one of the reigning feminist shows on TV. (Especially not when we already have so many other, more wholistic examples right now — Orange Is the New Black, Jane The Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Transparent, to name a few.)
Not every TV show about women needs to be a feminist revolution. And perhaps as the series progresses, The Bold Type will earn the progressive title its prematurely claimed. But personally, I don't want that. I am perfectly content to be entertained by Stevens, Dee, and Fahy's ridiculous situations and charming friendship without pretending their stilettos are changing the world.
My advice to Freeform? Lean away from the feminist beacon of hope narrative, and embrace The Bold Type for the fun, frivolous but ultimately static narrative that it is.