Let me start this off with a declaration: I really, really love “The Bold Type.” On paper, this is not a show that would normally appeal to me. It has extreme “white feminist” energy, extreme “girl boss” energy, and a kind of naiveté about the world as it actually is that would normally repel me. But it is also a deeply earnest, good-natured show that, I like to tell myself, is always trying its best. It is a fantasy, and that is part of its appeal.
In the seemingly alternate universe of “The Bold Type,” a junior writer can become the head of her own vertical (with her own office) in less than a year, a fashion assistant making less than $40,000 a year can afford Rachel Comey and Ganni ensembles, a writer can scream at an editor in front of the entire newsroom and keep their jobs, and magazine websites are referred to as “The Dot Com” and “The Dot Com” only.
This fantasy is what drew me in not long after the series premiere in 2017, but in 2020, it just hits differently. Instead of feeling like an escape, this current season of the Freeform prime-time drama has only heightened my awareness of the things I’ve often chosen to ignore about it: the fact that the show often has a wobbly understanding of race, gender, identity and the “girl power”-infused message it wants to deliver. This comes to play most glaringly with the character Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), the Black girl.
There’s a scene in Season 2 in which Kat, who is biracial (her father is Black, her mother is white), has her first real confrontation with race on the show. The daughter of well-to-do psychiatrists, Kat opens up to fellow Scarlet magazine colleague Alex, who is also Black, about how she feels about her racial identity. Kat’s boss has asked her to write an official bio for herself, and she turns to Alex for advice. But she bristles at his suggestion that she include the fact that she’s the “Scarlet’s first Black female department head.” She sees her race as unimportant.
After some soul-searching, she tells Alex: “So you know how everyone always wants to be able to put you in a box? Black, white, girl, boy. Even those standardized tests they make you take as a kid. I remember getting to the section that says ‘Select your race.’ Caucasian or African-American, you don’t have any other choice. And thinking, how do I pick? If I pick Black, then I’m rejecting my mom. And if I pick white then I’m rejecting my dad … I just left it blank. It was easier to reject both than to pick one.”
This scene is important, and I’m glad it was included in the series, which until that point hadn’t really explored Kat’s racial identity at all. Yet it encapsulates who Kat is as a character in ways I don’t think even the show is aware of. She is a woman with a deep sense of justice, but she’s also a woman who struggles with the idea of picking a side. Indeed, Kat looks at the world in binaries — good/bad, right/wrong — despite living at the intersection of so many identities and experiences. In other words, Kat is privileged, but she’s too busy being “woke” to explore this in a real way. The same can be said for “The Bold Type” as a whole.
Over the last four seasons, we’ve watched Kat work through her identity as a queer woman and her burgeoning feminist politics with a series of righteous crusades: freeing the nipple, saving the last lesbian bar in Manhattan, running for city council, and outing the head of the board of Scarlet’s publisher as a major donor to conversion therapy.
This last crusade, by Season 4, has gotten Kat fired from Scarlet. Unemployed, she can no longer afford to pay the mortgage on her funky loft apartment, which her parents own, and has to move in with best friend Jane. To make ends meet, she takes a job as a bartender/barista at a women’s social club called The Belle, where Jane is a member.
This storyline suggesting that her and Ava’s sexual tension is a balm for their differences (their differences on human rights, not the best ice cream flavors or something) is sloppy at best, irresponsible at worst.
The first episodes of Kat, Jane and Sutton hanging out at The Belle aired in tandem with Audrey Gelman, CEO of The Wing (the real-life social club on which The Belle is clearly based) stepping down from her position amidst controversy regarding racism at the organization. Black women who worked there came forward with allegations of neglect, harassment and racist microaggressions from both their employers and club members. Some of these allegations were new, but there had been several incidents and complaints about The Wing going back to 2018.
I hoped that, maybe, this season would find Kat on another crusade, experiencing life as a working-class woman, confronting her privileges, and rallying other employees to confront issues of mistreatment at The Belle. But I quickly realized that something else was about to go down when Ava Safford, daughter of the board member whom Kat had ousted, was revealed to be a member of The Belle.
In episode 12, Kat and Ava get into a heated argument about politics while she’s serving her, resulting in Kat getting fired by her manager. Kat’s job is saved at the last minute when Ava tells the manager, “If you’re firing Kat on my account, please don’t. Kat can stay. If she wants.” The optics of this powerful, rich white woman who provoked her into the argument letting Kat keep her job was so egregious I had to pause and take a walk around the block before finishing the episode.
Kat later asks Ava why she would choose to be a member of a club that has mostly “liberal” members.
“I belong to many clubs,” Ava responds. “And I belong to this one because I want to hear opinions that differ from my own. So that I can listen, and process, and think.”
And this is the moment I knew Kat wasn’t going to fight racism and the exploitation of workers at The Belle. This is the moment I knew Kat and Ava were going to hook up. I’d hate this arc at any time, but during this current cultural moment, it feels especially like a betrayal. Pairing Kat, a Black, progressive, bisexual woman, with someone who is anti-immigrant, a bigot, and a defender of conversion therapy is so disappointing. Honestly, it’s kind of depressing. There’s definitely space to explore how Kat’s half-baked liberal views blind her to other perspectives. But this storyline suggesting that her and Ava’s sexual tension is a balm for their differences (their differences on human rights, not the best ice cream flavors or something) is sloppy at best, irresponsible at worst.
The messaging that Kat’s arc is sending, especially in this moment, is that many of the things people are fighting against right now — white supremacy, the exploitation of working-class and poor people, transphobia and homophobia, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies to name a few — are merely differences of opinion, worth agreeing-to-disagree over in the name of romance. Yikes.
And yet, this tracks for “The Bold Type.” Largely, the series hasn’t really known what to do with Kat other than put her in situations where she has to choose a side. As lovable, feisty and impassioned as Kat is, her character has often felt deeply superficial, deeply attracted to power and deeply misguided. And she feels superficial because, on some level, the show is superficial. Again, this is part of its appeal in a sense. How do you make a fantasy more “real” while keeping it fun and campy? Perhaps that’s something the writers have struggled with.
In many instances, the show has effectively tackled heavier issues in ways that felt real. In the most recent episode (where Ava and Kat finally make out for the first time), Sutton and Richard’s relationship hits a major roadblock over kids. Here, we see real, complicated, nuanced, painful conflict between the couple for the first time ― Richard calls out Sutton’s constant flip-flopping, she calls out the fact that he doesn’t take her career as seriously as his. It’s a beautiful scene, and one that reminds me that “The Bold Type” actually has so much potential to dig deeper, to do more. That’s why I love it.
In my dreams, this season and Kat’s burgeoning love-hate relationship with Ava would result in Kat truly grappling with how important her politics really are to her, with her exploring whether her sense of justice truly comes from a place of wanting more equity in the world or wanting more power in the world, and what that means. Maybe that will be the case, maybe my disappointment in this storyline thus far isn’t warranted, maybe we’ll all be surprised by the places this arc will take her. Yet the politics of “The Bold Type” have always been well-intentioned but wobbly at best, and so the likelihood of this is anyone’s guess. This is, after all, a fantasy show, first and foremost.
The show can (and will, of course) go in whatever direction the writers see fit, but this particular aspect of the season more than any other has left me questioning if the show’s good intentions are enough to make up for such a thoughtless story arc, especially for the enthusiastic contingency of Black women I know who watch the show religiously. There are, to my knowledge, two Black women and one brown writer in the show’s writers room, and hopefully the conversations kicking up around this season will bear out some interesting and deeper storylines surrounding Kat moving forward.
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