The Bold Type Underestimates Its Sole Black Lead

Illustration for article titled iThe Bold Type/i Underestimates Its Sole Black Lead
Screenshot: Freeform

Thursday night marked the Season 4 finale of The Bold Type, and if viewers are lucky, an end to one of the most unnecessary and ill-advised character arcs of 2020. As dreary as the scripted landscape arena has been, The Bold Type, a Freeform show that follows three New Yorkers navigating fashion and media—starring Katie Stevens, Meghann Fahy, and Aisha Dee—has been particularly frustrating in its treatment of Dee, who plays Kat Edison, the show’s sole Black female protagonist.

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Spoilers ahead.

After coming into her queerness and working through publicly affirming her politics—first as social media director at the show’s fictional magazine Scarlet, and then as a bartender at the upscale and socially stagnant club the Belle—Kat is thrown into what can solely be described as an entanglement with Ava Safford (played by Alex Paxton-Beesley), a conservative, wealthy Republican who also happens to be a Belle member. Safford was introduced towards the end of Season 3 as the daughter of R.J. Safford, a publishing magnate and Kat’s boss at the magazine. He was positioned as one of the show’s antagonists and a representation of the whiteness and all boys club reality of mainstream media.

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After he vetoed running a story condemning conversion therapy in Scarlet, Kat chose to release Safford’s tax returns, thereby ensuring that the public saw the donations he had made to a homophobic, ultra-right-wing political candidate. The move was courageous if reckless, ultimately getting Kat fired from the magazine and setting her up for what would have been an interesting look at a queer, Black woman finding her footing after years of having financial stability and a clear cut life path. But the writers’ room had different plans, and in a move that can only be described as choosing sensational drama over sensitive storytelling, Kat ends up falling for Ava.

A majority of the show’s fans have expressed their anger online at the abrupt turn of her story, and some have been bewildered at the reactions, as it is only a show and characters should and can grow in a variety of ways. But the thing is, the online response is not a question of growth, but a critique of a writers’ room that distilled politics into something as low stakes as a disagreement on Netflix versus Amazon and pineapple or no pineapple toppings. It made homophobia something that should be “discussed” with civility when there is logically no way anyone should be expected to be polite when their life is being debated and found undeserving of liberty.

The Bold Type is a nonserious show that through its four seasons has tried to deliver serious goods, often with a predictable, candy-coated outcome that makes you roll your eyes but still tune in for the fantasy of it all. But Kat’s trajectory this season has put on display the lack of diversity behind the scenes and simultaneously illuminated an inability to show compassion and nuance for her story, especially when you look at the two white female leads on the show; one deals with a miscarriage and marriage, the other with illness and family loss. Kat is presented as myopic, reactionary, and dangerously impulsive, and while the latter can be a character trait, in her case it’s the entire basis of her personality and identity.

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In a political reality that feels more fraught than any in recent memory, a showmance that would have been annoying during the best of times is an absolute failure now. More than anything, the Ava/Kat pairing speaks volumes about the limitations of progressive white feminism. White women can afford and choose to look at their partners’ politics as a mere difference in opinion because when those “opinions” are exercised in the voting booths, they do little damage to their comfort and livelihoods. It should be noted that their biggest and most persistent battles since their suffragette days have been voting rights and equal pay, two arenas where their goal was to have power equal to that of white men, so they too could enact white supremacist policies, and equally benefit from living in a capitalist society. Their battles have never been built on a foundation of collective mobility for women, but a need for the type of power afforded to them because of their race and limited only by their gender.

Kat’s character is one of the most underwritten, along with that of Alex Crawford (played by Matt Ward), one of two visible Black men on the show. There’s a socialized self-preservation that she lacks, which makes it clear that white women created her in their own image, with a lot of righteous and unfocused political beliefs delivered as statements masquerading as rage, but which are toothless and have no practical application to her character maturation. This week, Dee spoke about her experiences on The Bold Type both on- and off-screen, highlighting her own disappointments in her character’s choices this season. “The decision to have Kat enter into a relationship with a privileged, conservative woman felt confusing and out of character,” she posted on her Instagram. “Despite my personal feelings about the choice, I tried my best to tell my story with honesty, even though the Kat I know and love would never make these choices.”

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Reading Dee’s note, her hesitation and careful word placement were apparent. As a young, Black woman, tasked with being both the voice and representative of a multitude of realities, the actress is hyper-aware of the tenuous balance between her visibility and the importance of being vocal. Her character was created to reflect so much, and yet she’s given the least amount of room to explore the layers of this individual and is reduced to someone who constantly spouts the hyphens that make up her identity, instead of being given the respect and time to have all the parts of who she is exist in tandem.

As long as Black women creators continue to be overlooked and left out of rooms where their stories make an appearance, Dee’s character will never be allowed to grow into the person both the actress and viewers know she could be. It’s a familiar disappointment, but there’s a chance that fan feedback will lead to a better Season 5, and also the sobering acknowledgment that it took five seasons, fan outcry, and a personal plea from a lead actress, for a Black, female character to be seen as worthy.

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DISCUSSION

sassachusetts
Sassachusetts

I agree I was a bit disappointed in Kat’s character arc this season as well. But I found it refreshingly realistic in that people often take 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Hopefully we will see her coming to terms with her privilege and guilty desire for financial comfort versus her values and what she is or is not willing to compromise.