The Bold Type is a fantasy. I know this, because in the pilot episode the lead character, Jane Sloane, invoked my name. In the scene in which this happens, the show’s three heroines are walking into the gleaming lobby of Safford Tower, the home of Safford Publications. Jane (Katie Stevens) is a plucky 25-year-old journalist who has just been promoted to a staff writer at a glossy woman’s magazine called Scarlet (a thinly veiled mash-up of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire). Flanking her are her two besties at work and in life, Sutton Brady (Megann Fahy) and Kat Edison (Aisha Dee). While Jane is giddy about her new job, Kat reminds her that she has been walking through the same lobby every morning for four years. “Yes, but as an assistant,” Jane responds, jutting out her chin. “This is totally different. Joan Didion walked through this lobby once. And Meghan Daum. And Rachel Syme. Nora Ephron just emailed that one freelance thing in, but still.”
What imaginary magazine was this, where I was a part of this illustrious name sandwich? I have never worked at Hearst, whose giant tower is the model for Safford’s headquarters; nor have I ever been on staff at Condé Nast. I looked up Sarah Watson, a former Parenthood producer who created The Bold Type, and messaged her to ask how it happened. She told me that I seemed like the kind of writer Jane could actually become in a few years. I think of this as a kind gesture, but it also makes me laugh, mostly because I still feel like Jane every time I have the chance to enter a magazine’s marble-clad lobby: nervous, sweaty, and over-eager. The only difference is that I have a decade on Jane, and in that time, I have learned that making a life as a writer in New York is never as seamless as it appears on television, even when a show tries to tackle the more thorny aspects of the job.
To its credit, The Bold Type—now in its second season on Freeform —has approached several complex issues with sensitivity and nuance. Over the course of the first season, for example, Kat falls in love with a Muslim artist named Adena, whom she meets while covering a story for Scarlet. Having previously identified as straight, Kat now spends several episodes sorting through her newfound feelings for a woman. She and Adena explore open relationships and religious beliefs, and perhaps most refreshing, they launch a detailed inquiry into giving and receiving oral sex as someone who is new to a lesbian relationship. In season two, we also discover that Kat, who is biracial, has always struggled to identify as a black woman, because she fears that doing so will erase her mother, who is white, from her backstory. But as she advances professionally, she realizes that she needs to embrace and go public with parts of her identity—her blackness, her queerness—in order to feel that she can be herself around the office.
Sutton’s story is less tied to her personal life than to her professional striving. When she lands her dream assignment on the fashion desk, she is desperate to impress her boss. This leads her to some dark places, such as using the corporate card to pay for an Instagram influencer’s cocaine and losing a $5000 diamond necklace in a taxi. Sutton’s ambition also makes her a target at work. Her colleagues use the fact that she is striking, polished, and impossibly charming with men to fuel rumors that she is sleeping her way to the top. (She has been sleeping with an older board member at Safford, but decided to cut off the affair so as not to look as if she is getting preferential treatment at work). Admirably The Bold Type doesn’t just have Sutton deliver speech about how she would never use her sexuality to get ahead in the workplace; instead, she tells her co-workers that “this slut-shaming has to stop.”
The show’s forays into larger debates, however, are not always successful. I cringed when, in a recent episode, Sutton reveals that she still owns and keeps under her bed a rifle from her rural high school shooting club. Jane begs her to get rid of it, and the show makes a rare misfire in stretching this request out, having Sutton attempt to justify her gun ownership for an entire episode. By the end of the show, Sutton melts her gun down into a decorative vase, but her stubborn inability to let go of it feels anathema to her character. This is a show that, above all, wants to feel progressive—and so it shoehorns in Big Issues (gun control, sexual assault, cancer) into its voyeuristic peek into the women’s magazine world.
Where the show truly leaps into fantasy, to me, is in the realm of Jane, and specifically in Jane’s close relationship to Jacqueline (Melora Hardin), Scarlet’s editor-in-chief. Jane, as a writer, serves both as The Bold Type’s heart and its mouthpiece: She takes on social issues in her writing, so that the show can take them on in general. Driven by a kind of old-school journalistic purity that often works against her in a new media environment, she writes about rape, corporate malfeasance, young motherhood, and the BRCA breast cancer gene. When Jane leaves Scarlet briefly to work at Incite, a VICE clone where she is supposed to deliver controversial clickbait, she doesn’t last a month. She longs to work for her mentor Jacqueline at Scarlet. When she first asks for her job back, Jacqueline demurs in an act of tough love. One episode later, after proving that she can hack it in the freelance game, Jane returns to the Scarlet fold.
Jacqueline and Jane have a special bond: Jacqueline tells Jane about her own sexual assault (which Jane writes up into an award-winning piece), and Jane confides in Jacqueline that she carries the cancer gene that killed her own mother. Jacqueline is less of a Miranda Priestly and more of a priest to whom the women of The Bold Type turn to in times of great need. She fights for all three of the show’s leads, defending Sutton when she is shamed, and Kat when she stumbles into a bad contract. She is the kind of editor you read about in legend; she who would kill for her staffers, and who teaches them lessons in the art of living honorably just by existing.
I want this mentor-writer bond to be true to life. But increasingly, young writers I meet crave mentorship more than anything, and they don’t know where to find it. When Jane walked into that lobby, plucky and determined, she did so knowing that she had the backing of a woman who believed in her and could open doors for her. If my life splits off from Jane’s in any meaningful way, it’s that I never really found that in my youth. I have editors I love and trust now, but those relationships have been forged through the steady work of a career, rather than being the propulsive force that launches a writer upwards through the ranks. The television magic of The Bold Type makes me wistful but for the mentors that I ached for and never had.
As one friend in book publishing pointed out to me, older and more experienced editors also tend to be more realistic than Jacqueline about the perils that writers face, especially in these precarious times for the media. Jacqueline seems to intimate to Jane that her biggest enemy—the force holding her back more than anything—is herself, that Jane would find herself on the Didion-Ephron spectrum in no time if she could just find the confidence and the gumption to stand behind her ideas. What she doesn’t warn Jane about is the system: the brutal grinding down of writers’ work for less and less money, and the probability that Scarlet may not exist in a few years, let alone sustain a whirl of endless glamour and personal development.
The Bold Type is, as ever, a Hollywood vision, filmed in Canada, of what New York magazines are like. It’s easy to imagine closets full of Gucci and Miu Miu, and writers who wear Burberry trench coats to nightclubs; it is harder to imagine a staff of women who eat chicken over rice in flimsy styrofoam containers and pray most nights that they will still have jobs next month. For writers like Jane, the struggle is only half real. While she was technically out of work, Jane found a boyfriend (a doctor, no less), won a writing award and attended a gala for it, and published an essay in a tony print publication. Her free fall was met with all soft landings. This is the kind of encouragement any young writer would want. But if The Bold Type is ever going to feel real, it needs to depict the difficult, ugly side of this business, as well as the cocktail parties and the blow-outs.