The miseducation of The Bold Type’s Jane Sloan: When a teaching moment goes wrong in women’s TV
Jo Bromilow | On 22, Jul 2018
Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 7 of The Bold Type Season 2. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review of the second season’s opening episodes here.
Primetime (women-led) TV shows are riddled with tropes. Giggles over cocktails, frank conversations about men, sex over said cocktails, and at least one motivational makeover or shopping trip. Now, I love prime-time women-led TV shows – give me a gaggle of girls gossiping over Cosmos any day – but there are certain things about them that I don’t like, and one of those reared its ugly head on the most recent episode of The Bold Type (Betsy – Season 2, Episode 7).
While Season 1 of The Bold Type was primarily about introduction, the second has been about exploration. In the first season, we met magazine employees Jane, Sutton and Kat and discovered their motivations, hang-ups and challenges. Now we’re in the second season, we’ve moved more into exploring the deeper workings of these characters and exposing those through the politically charged storylines that were writ large across its first season – from Islamophobia and Trump’s travel ban to sex and sexuality.
Other popular, female-led shows have used societal storylines to reveal certain traits – and flaws – in their characters. Sex and the City is a classic example of this, from the painful episodes covering bisexuality and transgender issues to the more benign ones about things such as sex and money. In both these shows, our intrepid journalist character – Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City and Jane Sloan in The Bold Type – is most often the one confronted with the big issues to investigate and enlighten themselves, as well as the audience. And in both cases – as particularly demonstrated by the most recent episode of The Bold Type – this type of exposition is often at odds with the ‘female friendship conquering all’ and empowering ethos of the show.
In a mid-run SatC episode, Carrie’s spending habits are thrown into sharp relief when she finds herself facing homelessness, following the breakdown of an engagement to the man who owns her apartment. Naturally, as any person caught in a cycle of fear would do, she takes her fury out on Charlotte – the soon-to-be divorced gallery manager who is currently looking for volunteer work, as she has no need to pay a mortgage on her gifted apartment, still trotting around with her extravagant Tiffany’s engagement ring. The showdown – in which Charlotte reveals her wearing of said ring is only to hark back to happier, more secure times and the fact she’s only volunteering because she can’t get hired – culminates with Charlotte guilted into handing Carrie said engagement ring as collateral for her downpayment on the apartment. The only repercussion for Carrie is the awkwardness of being in both literal and emotional debt to the friend she gaslit into helping her – an awkwardness that we never seem to see come back to haunt her.
Episode 7 of The Bold Type Season 2 is a meaty one, in which the hot topic of gun control is the backdrop for the latest piece of exposition. In it, the discovery of Sutton’s rifle (from her childhood days in a shooting team) leads to another character nugget for Jane (making that three major bombshells she’s thrown about her upbringing and history since the show began). It adds extra emotional weight to Jane’s dislike of guns as a whole, which, in turn, leads to a showdown between her and Sutton about guns, safety, and whether ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ is true or not.
By all accounts, it’s classic The Bold Type territory – a topical and timely discussion debated on camera by its beautiful and beautifully woke young cast. But like so many recent discussions on The Bold Type that are driven by Jane, its impact is hamstrung by the fact that, as the show progresses, Jane is becoming increasingly less likeable. Like Carrie Bradshaw before her – who shamed her best friend for her healthy sex drive, while having the nerve to call another of her friends judgemental, and pressured yet another friend into subsidising her lifestyle – Jane has already clashed with a boyfriend on religion, a former fling on journalistic integrity, and a best friend on white privilege this season. But unlike Carrie in many of the above incidents, Jane doesn’t seem to be learning anything. Despite this being a three-woman story, Jane’s perspective has always been the defining one and her learning experiences – or lack thereof – are the focus of it.
TV shows aimed mostly at women are littered with examples of teaching moments like this – Gossip Girl tackles everything from a parent accepting their child’s coming out to a child accepting their parent’s flaws – and often they are driven by women, commonly in positions of tremendous privilege, often obnoxious and often never changing their behaviour beyond a neat final tableau to show everything’s golden. A comparable example of a learning experience by or for a male character might be Gabe in Dear White People, nobly on a mission to expose his own white privilege through the means of a head-turning documentary. And yet, when he clashes with old flame Sam in an electric episode of the second season, it throws her hypocrisy into far starker relief than his, as part of an overall season-long teaching experience for her. When a show leans into a timely political issue to entice viewing numbers, do broader themes (often female-led) fall to the wayside, to the detriment of the characters?
Learning through these issues is a huge potential benefit of tackling them in a show watched by a young female audience, such as The Bold Type – a point noted by the show’s guiding star Jacqueline, Jane’s editor, when she takes Jane to task over her first draft of the decidedly one-sided piece she’s written on gun ownership. As an aside, the episode a few prior to this one, where Jacqueline bluntly refuses Jane’s rather entitled pleas to return to the job she left on the basis of it not being right for her, was a hugely important and impactful moment, one that did have at least a few episodes of justified soul-searching from Jane. But the issue is when a show’s writers try to handle a subject with a seemingly natural conclusion that subsequently jars with the show’s overarching nature, something the job refusal plotline did not do. If the issue were something other than guns (a pet she hated or a boyfriend she didn’t like), Jane’s merciless critique and calculated emotional blackmail of Sutton into giving up her rifle (and, in a Charlotte-like twist, actually gifting a reworked version of it to Jane as a symbol of their friendship) would be an open and shut issue of being, quite frankly, a bad friend. But it’s a gun. And yet, even then – and not only as an archer who keeps a bow and arrow at home and knows, like Sutton, how to use them safely – I sided with the gun owner. In the situation where Jane was refused a job because there was no real justification for her to come back, it felt cruel, but just. Likewise, one less gun being in the world (of the show) should feel just and not cruel. But when achieving that triumph is allowed this level of unpleasant emotional manipulation, it feels both just and cruel.
Maybe that’s the point of confrontations like this in shows such as this. Naturally, we should have sided with Charlotte in Sex and the City, as Carrie bullied her into rescinding a small portion of her unearned wealth (and then we open the huge can of worms about unpaid emotional labour), and we should have sided with Sutton in The Bold Type, as she had to give up something she loved for the comfort levels of her friend. By having the seemingly logical person – the struggling penniless woman and the traumatised gun control advocate – behave in such an odious way to achieve their goals, maybe these seemingly liberal shows are encouraging us to examine our own privileged viewpoint on issues outside our reach. Or maybe Jane, like Carrie before her, is the entitled millennial inside us all and, like so many millennial TV stars before her, is entirely created to become an embodiment of the traits we’re meant to hate.
The Bold Type: Season 1 to 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. Season 1 to 3 are also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.