This is the eighth installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
The Bold Type (2017-20) | Young Adult (2011)
In 2020, it is practically impossible to think of myself wanting to describe an indie movie, a TV show, a new face cream, a hit novel, an organic menstrual cup or an all-female working space as being “empowering,” in the same way that I have not ever self-identified, in jest or otherwise, as “the descendant of a witch they couldn’t burn,” or as a “girlboss.” Watching mainstream publishing and advertising adopt kicky, quirky, sloganeering Etsy feminism for the purposes of selling period underwear and yogurt since approximately 2012 has been like watching the slavering raptors in Jurassic Park learning to operate a door handle—a lesson in how effortlessly the right tools can be adapted by the very forces they have been designed to hold at bay. Factoring in this bone-deep, horrified aversion to You-Go-Girl media, I cannot quite explain exactly how I came to watch four seasons of The Bold Type—a dramedy about three mid-twenties women who meet working at a magazine called Scarlet, loosely based on Cosmopolitan—other than blaming the fact that most of my peers have done the same. When binged, the show is mildly satisfying, instantly forgettable and lacking in nutrition, the televisual equivalent of Halo Top. Its three girls, not quite archetypes and not quite individuals, either, have the air of having been dreamed up by somebody in marketing: a curvy brunette, a biracial girl and a strawberry-blonde, all very hot and very kind, all very eager to excel both at the workplace and in bed.
Jane, the writer, has the nickname “Tiny Jane” when she should really be called “Irritating Jane,” “Self-Centered Jane” or maybe “White Feminist Jane”; Kat, a mixed-race, bisexual social media genius, occasionally behaves in ways that make it clear that the show’s writers’ room is mostly filled with real-life Janes; Sutton, a smiling Midwest Barbie with a knack for gentle slapstick, is a stylist in the making. All three women, in a plot development that will inevitably feel like science fiction to most viewers who have worked in publishing, have ample time to chew the fat at work and after hours, typically on the subjects of their rocky love lives, their ambitions, their respective definitions of what is and is not feminist and the impossibility of balancing relationships and sex with a career. All three of them dress, if not well, then very fashionably; all three of them have subtly different ideas about every episode’s hot-button topic.
If this sounds like a new take on a very familiar format, it is possible that you, like me, have watched the full six-season run of Michael Patrick King’s Sex and the City, whose four leads juggled couture, cocks and careers with the élan of seasoned Cirque du Soleil veterans. Certain subplots from that show—a fledgling lesbian relationship with an “exotic” artist, a breast-cancer scare, a love triangle that eventually resolves itself when the conflicted woman ends up with the cocky asshole rather than the goody-two-shoes—reappear here, modernized for a Gen-Z and millennial audience whose tolerance for puns and tone-deaf jokes about queer sexuality is lower than that of most viewers in Nineties and the Noughties. Jane, The Bold Type’s Carrie Bradshaw proxy, is another supposedly brilliant writer who is never seen to produce brilliant work. Along with some of its hoarier story lines, it has reproduced Sex and the City’s love of cash and exterior gloss, its fondness for resolving issues in a half-hour span in order to allow more time for costume changes. Neither show is taxing; both leave you wondering about the tax brackets of their leads.
There is less sex in this particular vision of the city, despite one amusing foray into pegging; tonally, The Bold Type’s earnest attitude to feminism skews a little closer to Teen Vogue than Cosmopolitan. When it is on point with its “very special episodes,” as in a sensitive and realistic B-plot about biphobia in the queer community, it can be thoughtful and engaging. When it stumbles, it can induce the same unsettling feeling as a Hillary Clinton tweet appended with the hashtag “yas.” In Season Four, there is an episode in which Jane’s willingness to talk about her yeast infection on a panel ends up landing her a place on Forbes’s thirty-under-thirty list. The real-life all-female members’ club The Wing, which offers women a safe space in which to work and socialize at an inclusive, feminist price point of $2,350 per annum, is gently, lovingly lampooned as “The Belle.” Kat, who is not only Black and bisexual but a socialist, has a relationship with a right-wing media pundit, an alarming storyline whose point appears to be that the best way to engage in a dialogue with our ideological opponents is not to debate them, but to fuck them. That The Bold Type has been popular with otherwise smart, rational people during quarantine is likely to have more to do with its escapist vision of contemporary womanhood in New York media than with its supposed feminism, which can feel as if it lags a year or so behind the discourse. (“The Bold Type Captures Millennial New York at Its Most Annoying,” Emma Specter pointed out at Vogue in July, before adding, sheepishly: “So Why Do I Miss It?”)
There is, I think, one interesting thing about The Bold Type’s fourth and latest season, and it is the unusual bleakness of its final episode. In brief, it ends as follows: Sutton, having realized after suffering a miscarriage that she was never really interested in having children, is abandoned by her husband. She leaves New York and goes back to her hometown in Pennsylvania, discovering when she gets there that her alcoholic mother has left town. She heads down to the local bar, and drinks too much; she bumps into her high school ex, and ends up sleeping with him in the bar’s supply closet despite the fact he’s married with two kids. Back in New York, she tells her friends that Harrisburg has been “a great little reminder of who I am,” her casual tone and her omission of the details letting Kat and Jane believe that she means something less alarming than the truth. She downs a tumbler of white wine, and fills another, and pulls off her wedding ring, insisting that she’s fine and that she wants to drink and dance, letting the show end on a note that feels both like and unlike its usual fare: the girls cut loose to an electro song about “feeling so far away from everything I used to know,” the camera panning to the wedding ring left sitting on the countertop as Sutton chugs another glass. For a moment, we were led to believe she had everything the modern heterosexual woman is supposed to want to have—a man, a baby, a hard-won and envious dream job. Now, we think about the way alcoholism can be handed down, and begin to feel nervous. The song’s repeated refrain about “the good life” feels ironic, like a Hooters t-shirt on a sullen, serious Eastern European supermodel.
Knowing that The Bold Type may not end up being renewed at all, this is a curiously dark and nihilistic ending to a show that does not have a reputation for such morbid qualities. True, Tiny Jane had a mastectomy, but the specificity of this storyline made it feel somehow less distressing: not all women will undergo surgery as a precautionary measure for possession of the BRCA gene, but most have wrestled with the unhappy and injurious tension between what they want and what they get to have, the gulf widening with each new, unfulfilled year. I couldn’t help but think of Sutton two weeks later, when I finally watched 2011’s Young Adult for the first time: the story of a gorgeous, alcoholic city-slicker crashing back into her hometown with the aim of sleeping with her married high-school ex, it is quite possibly a legitimate masterpiece, a brutal meditation on the trials and disappointments of adulthood. Written by Diablo Cody, as downbeat and mordant here as she was precious and exasperating in 2007’s Juno, it follows Mavis, a blonde slob with a cold heart, as she pulls on her favorite Hello Kitty sweatsuit for a self-destructive, alcohol-fueled descent into hell. Played with a cool, frightening note of sociopathy by Charlize Theron, a straight-shooter who famously won her agent by looking extremely sexy as she threw a public tantrum, she exemplifies an unkind fantasy that uncool kids have about popular kids’ futures not quite living up to high school.
Young Adult is, in its very fucked-up way, also a story about the excruciating fact that nobody can really, in Cosmopolitan’s parlance, “have it all.” Mavis is lucky enough to have both the body and the face of Charlize Theron, and the YA books she wrote were once best-sellers; she lives in a hip apartment in the city, watching trash TV and doing workout videos, and generally acting like a person who retired at 35. Still, finding out that her ex-boyfriend has a baby is enough to send her into a furious tailspin, her desire to win him back commensurate with her desire to be the girl with the most cake: a “psychotic prom-queen bitch” whose charmed experience of high school has informed her attitude to adult life, she cannot bear to think of losing any contest in which points are won for femininity. Young Adult’s outlook is not that of Teen Vogue or of Cosmopolitan, but something uglier, more philosophical—a gothic fairy tale that has not yet been Disneyfied for little girls, full of pain and suffering and moral turpitude. (One year later, Theron played Snow White’s beautiful, wicked, deeply insecure stepmother in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.) Mavis’s aureate beauty, like a large but dwindling trust fund, is at once her greatest asset, and her downfall—it has kept her from developing the skills that other, less dazzling people need to live.
In the third act, Mavis goes to Buddy’s baby shower, asks him unsuccessfully to leave his wife and move to Minneapolis, and then reveals to the assembled crowd that she had once been pregnant with his baby, then miscarried. Her behavior begins looking less like cool, detached emotional terrorism, and more like a cry for help. “Maybe if things had been a little bit more hospitable down south, in my broken body,” she exclaims, a glass of red wine splattered over the pale, pretty twinset she has worn in order to look classy, “Buddy and I would be here right now.” Theron and Cody, working in close enough harmony that the line between what is scripted and what is interpreted becomes a hazy blur, have made a monster out of Mavis, an anti-heroine so jagged and unlikeable that even this humiliation does not quite win back the audience—the following morning, she heads home with an unshakable belief that it is Mercury, her hometown, that is wrong, and that her failure to win Buddy back is down to his not being cool enough to really “get” her. It’s a funny way to end a dour movie, in both senses of the word: a tragicomedy with no epiphanies, suggestive of a cycle of abuse and self-destructiveness that shows no signs of letting up.
If The Bold Type really does end with Season Four, it will end on a similarly hopeless note, an acknowledgement of the fact that the insistence that women ought to be and to do everything at once can lead to hurt and failure. It would be impossible to describe Young Adult as a “feminist film,” unless “feminism”—as it occasionally is—is taken to mean women being allowed to be as arrogant, as damaged, as unpleasant and as blindingly concupiscent as their male counterparts. Better by far would be to say that it is real-feeling film about the feminine experience—devoid of girlbossery and reflective of the ways in which stupidity and selfishness and pain are as much part of being a woman as a desire to earn, fuck and succeed on par with men. The impulse to destroy oneself is neither feminist nor unfeminist in its inclination—it just is.