When you are a woman with a job, you often get contradictory advice. Negotiate for your salary—but not too aggressively, since women get penalized when they ask for more. Don’t apologize, use upspeak, or qualify your statements—but avoid being too outwardly dominant (pdf), lest you trigger a gender-biased backlash. Don’t have long, flowing hair (too feminine) or wear plain dark suits (too masculine). Call out sexism and other workplace injustices, but always be graceful and cautious.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg popularized—or at least articulated—the idea that women need to lean in at work. But much of the advice given to women implies that they should do less leaning and more strategic waffling, following a very specific set of rules, if they actually want to get ahead.
All these well-meaning tips can have a stifling effect on women, who already face enormous pressure to navigate office life with an excess of caution. I spent much of my 20s feeling panicked about every minor workplace misstep, agonizing over perceived mistakes while scrambling to please everyone around me. Tips on how to behave or speak weren’t going to help me; I was already drowning in them. What I needed was to give myself permission to speak my mind and act with integrity, without worrying too much about the consequences. And that is why I am deeply in love with the first season of the Freeform TV series The Bold Type.
The Bold Type, the season finale of which aired on Sept. 5, is not the sort of show that most people are disposed to take seriously—mostly because it’s girly. It airs on a TV network that caters specifically to young women, and focuses on three young women who work at a women’s magazine, called Scarlet, that also caters to young women. The main characters call each other “munchkin.” They care about dating and beauty and clothes. They jump up and down when celebrating good news, take selfies to commemorate big moments, and drag each other into the fashion closet to gossip.
Even positive reviews have tended to interpret all this unabashed femininity as a sign that The Bold Type is basically enjoyable fluff. But much like women’s magazines themselves, the series knows it can be both fun and political. Its subversive heart is right there in its title. The Bold Type is a show about young women who are consistently courageous in their approach to their careers. And that’s a portrait that our culture doesn’t offer up nearly enough.
The show’s central three characters are all in their mid-20s, but at different stages in their careers. At the show’s outset, Kat—the outspoken daughter of two therapists—has already risen to the prominent role of Scarlet social media director. The lovably neurotic Jane has just become the magazine’s youngest staff writer, while warm-hearted Sutton remains stuck in assistant purgatory.
The professional challenges faced by each woman vary accordingly. But what all three have in common is that they consistently take risks in their young careers, and that the show applauds them for it. The Bold Type’s mission statement is laid out early on by its stern but kind editor-in-chief, Jacqueline Carlyle—a stand-in for former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, who serves as an executive producer on the show. “I never met anyone who made a career happen by hiding out in the supply closet,” Jacqueline tells Jane, her budding protégé.
Amen to that. The young women of The Bold Type are remarkably good at articulating what they want, backlash and double binds be damned. In the show’s first episode, Kat interrupts a presentation by a higher-up to advocate for an article that’s been cut from the next issue. The interjection is a bit naïve and irritating, and Kat’s comments get a frosty reception. But when her friends warn her that the magazine’s editors want her to back off, she waves away their concerns. “How did she get to be so confident?” Sutton asks. “She was over-praised as a child,” Jane replies.
The same professional fearlessness blossoms in Jane as her first piece for the magazine winds up riskier and more introspective than it was originally assigned. “That’s not what we discussed,” Jacqueline says after reading a draft. “I know,” Jane says. “I took a swing.” Jacqueline pauses: “It’s excellent.”
Not every risk pays off on The Bold Type. In fact, what I love about the show is that it doesn’t punish its characters when they do screw up. Sutton loses a $5,000 necklace in a taxi; Kat accidentally fires off a tweet complaining about her love life from the Scarlet account; Jane even impulsively lashes out at Jacqueline when she feels pressured into taking on a sensitive assignment. In real life, maybe some of these mistakes would turn out to be big deals. But it’s deeply gratifying to see Bold Type characters bounce back. In this way, the show assures young women that a mistake here and there needn’t be the end of their world.
The Bold Type also directly addresses how money and other practical concerns can influence our career choices. Early on, Sutton is weighing a lucrative job offer in Scarlet’s ad sales department. Her heart is in fashion, but she’s got a mom who can’t pay her own bills and student loan debt to worry about. “Fashion is too risky,” she tells her friends. “I can’t afford to fail.” (Print ad sales aren’t exactly stable either, but that’s another show.)
Sutton’s concerns are valid: The pay in the fashion department is actually lower than her assistant salary. But as her friends gently remind her, “You get to have a dream too.” Sutton doesn’t have a parental safety net, so Kat offers her a room rent-free while she sorts things out.
All this is pretty emotional stuff for me; when I was trying to make my way into journalism, the people who cared about me urged me to be cautious. I understand why: It’s a competitive field and a tumultuous industry, and I didn’t have any real connections or experience.
But I didn’t need my friends and family to tell me that building a media career was going to be hard, or that I might not make it. I knew that already! Women start internalizing self-doubt from the moment they’re born. What I wanted, more than anything, was for someone to tell me, “Screw it—go for it anyway.” I’d bet a lot of women—young and old—don’t have many people in their lives who feel comfortable encouraging them to run hard and fast at their goals, telling them that it’s okay to make mistakes. In the absence of this kind of real-life support, we need books and movies and TV shows that provide it for us.
I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I often think about a line in the show delivered by Daenerys Targaryen, breaker of chains and mother of dragons. “I am no ordinary woman,” she says. “My dreams come true.” The declaration gives me a genuine thrill: How fiercely it seems to warn off anyone who would try to discourage her. But it nags at me too, the phrase “ordinary woman.” The implication is that most women could never make such a claim.
Will the women of The Bold Type have their dreams come true? It’s hard to say. The world is a brutal and unfair place. But here’s what’s remarkable about the show: I can easily imagine any of the characters making Daenerys’ declaration. Even more importantly, I can see them saying it about each other. Think of the power that comes from believing such a thing about yourself and the women around you. The Bold Type knows that too many women aren’t dreaming big enough.