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The Bold Type Embraced Its Worst Self This Season

Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Freeform

Think of every Black girl you’ve ever dreamed could grace your television screen on a weekly basis, and you still might not come close to the character of Kat Edison. In The Bold Type, Kat, played by Aisha Dee, occupies a unique and consequential role as a Black main character known for her unabashed sense, and celebration, of self. The joy imbued in this fully developed character helped make The Bold Type a very different fantasy than the one it initially appeared to be. A series that was marketed as a walking Net-a-Porter ad for surface-level feminism, The Bold Type quickly and skillfully crafted an escapist media-world fantasy where, one night a week, a career in journalism was as easy as a fully funded magazine, 500 words in sans serif a day, a million-dollar fashion closet to ease any relationship woes, and bosses that supported a version of “lean in” feminism that was inclusionary and intersectional in a way real life never was.

While The Bold Type always presented a glorified view of the media industry, the show’s initial marketing sold it to audiences as a feminist fantasy based on the life of former Cosmo editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, where powerful (and nasty) women used hustle and will to triumph against the man’s world trying to hold them back. An early television spot promoting the series perfectly encapsulates this surface-level “#Girlboss” vibe.

But by the time The Bold Type debuted in summer 2017, the #Girlboss movement seemed to have run its course, ultimately failing to revolutionize neither feminism nor business, as its glorification of capitalism above all failed to uplift anyone except white women willing to make it their religion. Seemingly desperate to avoid the perception that it was moments away from playing the opening strains of 5th Harmony’s “BO$$,” The Bold Type immediately introduced a different strain of feminism in its first episodes, one where intersectionality and inclusion weren’t just mentioned but actively personified in the life and actions of one Kat Edison, a successful social-media director whose problems stemmed from love, not competency in her work. While Jane (Katie Stevens) was learning about intersectional feminism, Kat was living it, each season bringing more activism and nuance to her character. So it’s no wonder that Kat’s rapid season-four decline from successful department head to Republican-dating bartender sent viewers’ heads spinning.

The season started with the truest version of the Kat that fans have come to love, fresh off her run at City Council and encouraged to use her high-ranking role at Scarlet to advocate for worthy causes. With Jane and Sutton (Meghann Fahy) stuck in frustrating relationships with straight white men we are still supposed to care about, Kat was free to step into the limelight as an activist and bisexual icon who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go for it. Instead, Kat went from on top of the world to the bottom of The Bold Type food chain in a series of bafflingly out-of-character decisions. When she was blocked from publishing a spread on the dangers of conversion therapy by a board member who supports the practice, Kat took him to task, only to be threatened by his lawyer daughter, Eva (Alex Paxton-Beesley). But rather than seek counsel from the authority figures she has easily gone to in the past, Kat bizarrely dug in, forfeiting her job by publishing illegally gained tax returns. If only she knew journalists could publish articles with anonymous sources.

While this plot could have been salvaged as a bold stance on the futility of fixing a system built on corruption, Kat’s firing is instead treated as a set of deserved consequences. In the span of ten episodes, Kat finds herself forcibly divorced from the fantasy world of Scarlet and once again at odds with Eva, the same lawyer who cost her her job. In the past, Kat’s confrontations about relationships and desires have always centered her own idea of self. When her ex-girlfriend Adena El-Amin (Nikohl Boosheri) revealed biphobic views, an entire episode was devoted to Kat confronting Adena about how her phobia directly affected her life. But with the arc of Kat and Eva’s relationship, the Bold Type offers a hotter take: If you disagree with the system, sleep with it.

The decision to have Kat consider a relationship with a right-wing media personality is such a regressive character beat that it only makes sense that season four also features a carbon copy of the recently chastened co-working space The Wing. With it, The Bold Type trades its idealistic media-world fantasy for its originally implied surface-level feminism, where the ideological differences between Kat and a devout conservative who supports her father’s conversion-therapy beliefs can be easily solved with a roll in the sheets. The fact that this card-carrying Republican is a lesbian is treated as a “gotcha” moment, with Kat relegated to the role of fawning apologist. Kat is forced to argue not only her ideals, but her existence, for the sake of proving she is able to “tolerate different beliefs.” When Eva baits Kat into a fight about politics, it is only by her good graces that Kat is allowed to keep her job. In order to start a podcast, she is convinced she needs Eva as a guest, and must prove she is capable of being civil before Eva agrees. At a Republican mixer she attends to get on Eva’s good side, her sexuality is belittled, treated as something the white woman in front of her doesn’t want her child to “catch.” Instead of arguing that progressives and conservatives can agree on some things, which is the kindest interpretation of the intent behind this story line, the show goes further to establish Eva as the only way Kat can make a difference, placing Kat in the unfamiliar role of second fiddle in her own story.

By treating Kat and Eva’s relationship like a “Modern Love” vignette, The Bold Type casts the pair as an example of forbidden romance, rather than an antithetical set of beliefs. In the caricature of Eva, critiques of conservative ideology are placed on equal footing with attacks on queerness, which seems especially careless given that a literal physical persecution of queerness — conversion therapy — is the first sticking point in the two’s relationship. The show treats their problems like simple complications, using Kat’s podcast to bemoan the difficulty of “identity politics” rather than actively distinguish between simple disagreements and the harmful legislation that affects the lives of minorities on a daily basis. The season finale cements this skewed view, discarding this monumental plot point as recklessly as it was created when, thanks to a sloppy pre-premiere edit, Kat sleeps with Eva and then leaves her in a text.

While all of this is in line with the surface-level feminist fantasy that The Bold Type initially appeared to be, the negative reactions to Kat’s story line from both viewers and Aisha Dee herself make it clear that these decisions are a betrayal of what the show has actually become. The Bold Type’s decision to position Kat as a success without the slightest hint of turmoil in her work life helped catapult the show into its perfect niche of fantasy media escapism. It was comforting, and exciting, to see Kat given the room to explore and grow into her sexuality, and even bolder to see intersectionality practiced so openly. The decision to create a fully fleshed-out Black character and then have her reduced so exhaustively in one season feels like more than just a betrayal of the show’s established themes — for fans who feel an overwhelming sense of connection to Kat’s character, it feels like violence.

But the reality of how much Kat’s character represents lies in more than just viewer backlash. In an open letter published on Instagram, Dee critiqued her character’s portrayal, pinpointing the lack of representation in the writers’ room that led Kat to this moment. More than just a simple character misstep, this season of The Bold Type is the perfect example of what happens when white feminism moves beyond the confines of entertainment and into the open spaces of real life. When issues that can be flattened into easily digestible pillow talk are placed into a real scenario, they fail to hold up actual fact and experience. In the end, the promises of #Girlboss feminism are as empty as they are exclusionary. And once again, Black women are left behind.

The love and support for Kat Edison is clear evidence of a still unquenched desire for Black women to see themselves onscreen. And the success of earlier seasons of The Bold Type show that Kat’s character does more than just live well — her openness and joy is a definitive marker of what makes the show great. So Kat’s baffling season-four journey does more than do her character a disservice; it shows that as long as diverse voices are kept out of the room, the era of the #Girlboss might not be as dead as we think.

The Bold Type Embraced Its Worst Self This Season