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‘The Bold Type’ Wants You to Believe in Women’s Magazines Again

The Freeform show is a not-so-secret PR vehicle for an industry — and film and TV genre — in decline

(Freeform)
(Freeform)

The print and visual arms of women’s media have long enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiosis. Glossy magazines have given studio movies (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Devil Wears Prada) and prestige series (Sex and the City) a glamorous, recognizable setting in which to stage maximally aspirational lifestyle porn. And in those films and TV shows, magazines got an affirmation of their power and central place in the culture. So entrenched is the magazine plot that it’s hardened into a subgenre unto its own, complete with eyeroll-inducing tics and predictable clichés. Show me a movie starring a female journalist and I’ll show you a love interest who also happens to be her professional subject.

These days, however, the power balance between story and source material has shifted. In the face of competing cool arbiters — read: Instagram influencers — and declining subscription numbers, even the most premium of women’s magazines is neither as omnipresent nor as all-powerful as it once might have been. But magazine-based stories, both scripted and non-, haven’t disappeared — just adapted, like any good institution operating in the Darwinian environment of trend-setting. Fiction is of course free to take advantage of its creative license and ignore the shifting media landscape, creating a parallel universe where, for example, a previously unknown writer can turn a Modern Love column into a nonstop torrent of assignments and then, eventually, a full-time academic position that can support both a child and a house. But the 2010s have also given rise to a new kind of magazine fiction: one that attempts to reestablish the industry’s bygone significance, acting more as a full-frontal PR assault than as a narrative. That’s The Bold Type in a nutshell — a TV series that isn’t set at a women’s magazine so much as it’s making the case for one, strenuously and constantly.

The Bold Type technically takes place at Scarlet, a fictional magazine targeted at young women, but there’s no mistaking where we’re actually meant to picture the eager 20-somethings who work there. Editors delight in scaring off stodgy male board members with cover buzzwords like “vajayjay.” As part of the fact-checking process, a writer attempts to confirm the feasibility of a particularly exotic sex position. And most tellingly, there’s an executive producer credit for none other than Joanna Coles, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines and former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, with an onscreen surrogate to match. Jacqueline Carlyle (Melora Hardin), the intimidating, inspiring, stiletto-wearing commander of The Bold Type, is trying very, very hard to fit into the mold of 2017 Miranda Priestly. It goes without saying that this would make Coles the 2017 version of Anna Wintour, even though Anna herself is very much still in the game and breaking it down on Salma Hayek’s Instagram.

Not only did the Freeform drama’s showrunner consult directly with Cosmo’s editorial staff — The Bold Type isn’t even Coles’s first effort at self-mythologizing this year. February saw the brief run of So Cosmo, an E! reality show that cut out the middleman and directly dealt with Cosmo’s editorial staff, doing its best to follow Coles-issued bons mots like, “Always say both names. It’s what a man would do.” It’s almost surprising that The Bold Type doesn’t dispense with the formality and simply call Scarlet what it is; it’d certainly be a more direct route to driving subscriptions and pageviews. Coles clearly wants a boost in brand recognition out of this.

To argue for Cosmo and the women’s magazine in 2017, however, The Bold Type has to differentiate itself from the many iterations that came before. (Otherwise, why not simply rewatch the “drunk at Vogue scene for the umpteenth time?) The show has come prepared, using its characters more as bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation about why capitalism and feminism really can get along. In 2017, magazines care about the internet and social justice, and so we have social media director Kat (Aisha Dee) lecture a lesbian Muslim artist about how Scarlet practices “stealth feminism” alongside its fashion editorials and sex tips. In 2017, magazines have swallowed the xoJane-bred personal-essay-industrial complex whole, and so we have newly promoted staff writer Jane (Katie Stevens) — it’s unclear whether the name is a conscious nod — pressured to write almost exclusively about intimate details of her personal life. (Two episodes in, she’s yet to conduct an interview.) And in 2017, magazines still retain the starry-eyed mystique of their glory days, and so we have assistant Sutton (Meghann Fahy) chase her dreams in the fashion department rather than settle for ad sales.

The Bold Type reminds me of TV Land’s charming sitcom Younger, and not just because of their shared DNA. (The Bold Type merely owes a creative debt to Sex and the City; Younger was created by Darren Star.) Younger, too, acts as a peppy briefing book on the state of a somewhat faded creative field, dramatizing the book publishing industry with playful riffs on Marie Kondo or the hygge craze and creating a fictional, with-it imprint called, I kid you not, Millennial Press. But where Younger is content to dwell in a parallel universe where publishing is still a power center, The Bold Type is almost openly propagandistic, writing in what it considers misconceptions about Scarlet/Cosmo just to knock them down. From the pilot’s capstone speech, delivered by Jacqueline at an anniversary party: “To those of us 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 to give you bigger eyes to see the world.” The Devil Wears Prada’s blue sweater speech it’s not, but it gets the point across loud and clear: There’s nothing wrong with being feminine and serious, especially when that combination proves good for sales and morale.

The show is a perfectly enjoyable piece of entertainment — the cheerful raiding of the fashion closet is always a pleasure, no matter whose closet it is — but clearly I have some skepticism toward The Bold Type’s core message, perhaps born of being too close to the source. (For example, I think the “smart and sexy” angle is undercut by Jane’s slate of assignments. Apparently Scarlet is running pieces about dissident artists like Kat’s friend, but Jane isn’t encouraged to write any of them.) Though the Coles connection is undeniable, Scarlet works as a stand-in for not just Cosmo, but an entire genre of newly woke, still-commercial magazines like Glamour, Seventeen, and Elle. These publications cannily recognize that rather than ignore social movements that threaten to invalidate them — body positivity, identity politics, political engagement — it’s best to co-opt and incorporate them alongside more traditional mainstays like beauty advice and celebrity coverage.

Chief among this group is Teen Vogue, which earned so much condescendingly rapturous and/or condescendingly dismissive attention for political columns like “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” that it warranted correctives like “Teen Vogue’s Political Coverage Isn’t Surprising,” though it can also be found in the pages of Seventeen and Elle. It’s an approach that reads simultaneously like a good-faith attempt to address criticism and a savvy strategy for obviating any in the future — a strategy that The Bold Type exports to a medium that only amplifies the new party line’s reach. Scarlet is advocating for its own executive producer, of course, but in doing so, it’s presenting a broader vision of what the women’s magazine can symbolize here and now: relatable but still unattainable; democratic but still wish fulfilling. More than that, The Bold Type wants to convince us that the women’s magazine still can symbolize something. These days, that’s not a given.