Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which ran for three seasons, was widely lambasted by critics for its overwrought depiction of what covering the news is like, and whatever was going on with Sam Waterston. The key detail of these reviews, however, was that they were critiques made by people working in the very industry they were critiquing.
An outside fixation on the accuracy of industry-based shows is not unique to The Newsroom. Dick Wolf and Shonda Rhimes have made entire television careers out of the prospect, and the fruits of their labor have been positively and negatively received, by firefighters who are impressed with the lengths to which show creators will go to make their fictional counterparts look sufficiently realistic, or doctors who make it clear that they don’t see that many weird medical cases in their day-to-day work.
But this problem is multiplied when you involve those in media, whose ready access to an outlet for their grievances—or compliments, however rare—make said grievances that much more common. I fall into this trap attempting to write about Freeform’s new show The Bold Type, the second TV series to come from former Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief, now Hearst executive Joanna Coles’s highly successful marketing of the magazine, which wrapped its first season Tuesday night. The aforementioned tendency of those in media to tear apart fictional depictions of this line of work makes the generally positive reviews The Bold Type received following its premiere, and continuing throughout the season, relatively rare. Variety described it as “fun, if this type of fun is your cup of tea”; Vanity Fair wrote that “In These Trying Times, we could all use a chance to sit back, relax with a glass of rosé, and escape to a world in which upward mobility is possible, and everyone finds love, and, yes, duh, all dreams are possible for those who are brave enough to chase them.” New York went so far as to call it “the best surprise of the TV year so far.”
The premise of The Bold Type is simple; it follows the lives of three young, hustling women working at the women’s magazine Scarlet, as they attempt to move up in their careers and work out their dating lives, all while under the leadership of their editor-in-chief Jacqueline (Melora Hardin). The show has been praised for its mostly accurate depiction of working for a magazine in our modern times; the chemistry between the leads (Katie Stevens as Jane, Aisha Dee as Kat and Meghann Fahy as Sutton); the refreshingness of watching a show where there are few wolves in sheep’s clothing; and where women’s career aspirations are treated as legitimately interesting plot lines. None of these are inaccurate characterizations. While the pilot exuded the awkwardness of any show struggling to set up its tone, it evened out quickly after the first few episodes, settling into a pithy rhythm.
But watching it I found myself, at first, stuck in the problem of being someone too close to something to really wrap my head around it. Stand the show on its own, and it’s one thing. Compare it to the magazine from whence it came—which its creators are doing in order to promote it—and it becomes something else, particularly when that incorporates using the concept of feminism to sell a project that is artistic as well as capitalistic.
This was a problem faced by Sophia Amoruso and the show that was based on her life, Girlboss, which has since been canceled. As an executive producer, she was heavily involved in the promotion of Girlboss, becoming the poster child for a modern take on women’s empowerment, a role she seemed to relish. Yet when it ended, Amoruso changed her tune, writing in Instastories: “While I’m proud of the work we did, I’m looking forward to controlling my narrative from here on out. It was a good show, and I was privileged to work with incredible talent, but living my life as a caricature was hard even if only for two months.”
The media campaign for The Bold Type has been heavily spattered with the idea that the show is accurately representing a new wave of “empowering” women’s journalism, and a key part of the narrative has been that it was based on Coles’s life. Show creator Sarah Watson has spoken repeatedly in interviews about spending time at the Cosmopolitan offices for research. But the message throughout starts to get murky and borderline inaccurate, with write-ups like this one from The Wrap, which seems to suggest that women’s magazines are more popular now than they were before, based on no evidence at all: “‘The Bold Type’ also couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time,” it claims. “Women’s magazines like Teen Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo and others have been around for decades, but have seen a popularity resurgence in the past year.” Or this one, from The Hollywood Reporter, which smashed together former Cosmopolitan reporter/current Jezebel senior reporter Prachi Gupta’s work with that of another writer.
One got the sense from these early pieces that the authors of them didn’t actually know much about their topic, which in turn allowed their subjects to spin a show about a complex publication as a purely feminist product. When describing the aforementioned Jacqueline, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his New York review that “the character is supposedly based on Cosmopolitan’s chief content officer Joanna Coles—and that’s how this series was originally pitched in early press releases, for whatever reason.” The reason is quite clear—this show is more than just a show, but a way to package and present a specific, advantageous vision of the Cosmo brand to the world, just as their (now-canceled) reality show So Cosmo was, part of Cole’s successful rebrand of a magazine in its latter years known predominantly for its sex advice. (Coles, incidentally, voices the recaps at the beginning of each episode of The Bold Type, makes a cameo on the show, and she and fellow Hearst executive Holly Whidden are executive-producing the project.) So Cosmo was often stilted and awkward in the way that shows are when they’re neither documentary/reality nor scripted TV, but it ultimately painted the magazine as a place that was bustling and glamorous, with more of a focus on how many perks there are to working at the Cosmo office than the actual reporting and editing being done there. It might be bustling and glamorous sometimes, but such a depiction ultimately does more for the financial success of Cosmo than it necessarily does for the viewer.
Initially, The Bold Type fell into this same trap of depicting what those working at Hearst would probably like people to think such an environment is like rather than what it truly is like. “When she took over the magazine, she shifted the focus,” social media editor Kat explains of Jacqueline to a skeptical potential interview subject in the magazine. It’s a set of lines that sounds like it was directly pulled from any one of the profiles published about Coles for the past few years. “She calls it stealth feminism. It’s no longer how to please your man, or woman, in bed; it’s how to please yourself.” Jacqueline herself states this even more clearly later on: “When I was considering taking this job at Scarlet, it was a very different magazine, much more conservative.”
In the show, Scarlet’s parent company is called Steinem Publishing. One plot line involves Jane and Jacqueline trying to do more political coverage (sound familiar?) but getting pushback from board members who don’t think they should cover such topics. “Young women want to be politically engaged. So let’s engage them,” is Jaqueline’s line. “The congresswoman’s press secretary literally looked me up and down and said ‘Not tonight Scarlet’ as if all we’d write was fluff,” Jane complains. “Even if we’re fluff, we’re fluff with a huge millennial voter readership.”
Had this narrative continued with such a heavy hand, the representation of Cosmo-cum-Scarlet would have been hard to get past—the way it presented a rah-rah, girl-power world as an accurate example of what it’s actually like to work at a women’s publication. (It’s a fixation on lip gloss—and politics, too!) At the end of the pilot, Jacqueline gives a speech at a Scarlet anniversary party. She is framed by a blown-up photo of the magazine; Demi Lovato is on the cover, a carbon copy of a Cosmo cover. “Our little magazine has gone through quite a few changes over the past six decades,” she says. “And for those of you who say we are still a fashion and beauty magazine, I say yes. Yes we are. But for those of you who say we are just a fashion and beauty magazine, I say, here’s the next great mascara giving you bigger eyes to see the world. Here’s a fabulous pair of jeans—now go climb a mountain.”
As the season progressed, though, this tone seemed to relax. À la Dick Wolf, storylines were literally ripped from the headlines, sometimes to the frustration of those who had originally experienced them. For instance, a former Wall Street financier-turned stripper sued Scarlet for allegedly outing her. (The outcome of that was likely accurate, if a gross reality for a risk-adverse major magazine: “If we remove the article from the digital article, she’ll agree to settle.”) Another drama involved a new employee tweeting rudely about Kylie Jenner, which Jacqueline was worried would get in the way of featuring Kylie on Scarlet’s upcoming cover. The consistent pressure from corporate to not do anything to rock the boat too much rang very true.
But it was last night’s finale that went the hardest on a ripped-from-the-headlines story, featuring a hardly veiled interpretation of former Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight); in it, Jane wants to profile an artist who was sexually assaulted and is standing in Central Park carrying weights, her project (and the episode) called Carry The Weight. For this story, the writers got help from Break the Cycle, an organization devoted to preventing dating abuse, specifically among teens. As closely as it honed to reality, the episode featured some moving scenes, particularly when Jane learns that Jacqueline was raped by a male colleague when she was first starting out in media and never reported it.
It was this, and other small details, that turned The Bold Type, like Freeform’s other recent programs, into more than frothy fun—that Kat enters an interracial lesbian relationship without a huge to-do, that the finale finds Jane quitting Scarlet to try her hand at a new bloggy start up, that Jane and Sutton’s apartment is realistically small. That the romantic foibles in which the characters find themselves are hugely important to them but not the only thing that is; The Bold Type is well aware of the media that has come before it, ahem How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Whether or not this is exactly the show I would make to depict this world doesn’t much matter does it? These days, there is something for everyone, and one is left feeling that it is truly nice that there are young women out there who now have this.