In a summer filled with some impressive TV offerings, Freeform’s The Bold Type really stands out. Inspired by the life and career of Joanna Coles, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, the series is set at a Cosmo-like publication called Scarlet. It stars Katie Stevens (Faking It), Aisha Dee (Sweet/Vicious), and Meghann Fahy (Political Animals) as a trio of friends who are the up and comers at Scarlet, with Melora Hardin (Transparent) as the editor-in-chief of the magazine.
During the ATX Television Festival last month, we had the chance to chat with showrunner Sarah Watson and co-executive producer Holly Whidden about this refreshing show and how the timing of it couldn’t be more perfect. Even an incident that took place during the course of this round table interview reinforced why we need shows like The Bold Type on TV now more than ever.
When presented with this idea for a series, Watson didn’t hesitate to get on board. “The project first came to me almost two years ago now,” she told us. “Dave Bernad, who is one of the executive producers, had a relationship with Holly and with Joanna Coles. When he said that he wanted to do a TV show inspired by behind the scenes at Cosmo, I nearly leapt off the couch and said, ‘You have to let me do that. I am the writer for this.’ Cosmopolitan is such a dream, and the women who work there are just so bold and empowered. To get to tell that story of these strong women in this heightened, wonderful fantasy of a world has been a dream.”
Workplace equality continues to be an issue in the world, and Watson shared that this is a prominent theme in the first season. “We’re very much set in the world we’re in right now and everything that women are dealing with, everything that the world is dealing with,” said Watson.
I have to note that at this precise moment, a man interrupted us — in a shared press room environment with several round table and other interviews going on — to ask us to be quiet so he could finish his interview. Watson’s response was spot on. “Let’s pause to appreciate that a man just came over to tell us to be quiet. That is why we’re doing this show. We are all women around this table, and I was just about to applaud and say how amazing it is that we’re sitting here doing interviews with four journalists who are all women.”
It is really easy, and even lazy, to make the “boss” character in a show like this very one-note, or like a Devil Wears Prada-esque Miranda Priestley. After seeing the pilot, one of The Bold Type‘s greatest strengths is that Jacqueline (Hardin) proves that powerful women don’t have to be bitchy. They can be dynamic and vulnerable and understanding, much like the real life woman who inspired the character, Joanna Coles.
“This was so important to me,” Watson explained, “and the first time I met Joanna, I was so inspired, and not just by her. It’s amazing how her employees see her. Every woman I talked to at Cosmo, and every man, has this absolute reverence for her. She is not a bitch, and she is not harsh. She pushes her employees to be their best. That’s the kind of mentors I’ve been lucky to have, and that’s the kind of mentor we don’t often see on TV. I feel like it’s really important to show women not only to strive to have those kind of mentors, but to be those kind of mentors. You don’t have to be a backstabber. You don’t have to be pushing other women down to succeed.”
Whidden added, “There’s a misconception out there that every editor is The Devil Wears Prada. If you look at Joanna [Coles] from the outside, she seems incredibly intimidating, but she is so invested in bringing up the women underneath her. If you look at her last four executive editors, they’ve all gone on to be editor-in-chief. She empowers everyone that’s worked for her in a way that many women could learn from. We haven’t seen a lot of that in television and film.”
The first episode gives us a taste of how Jacqueline mentors and challenges Jane, Kat and Sutton, and Watson assured us that this continues throughout the first season. “You’ll especially see it with Jane because they have a special bond, but we’re really going to see Jacqueline push all of her [female] employees to be their best, and the men as well.”
There is a culture in many industries where female executives feel that because they were put through the paces, it has to be a right of passage for the next generation. Some women wear that as a badge of honor if they make it through those potentially abusive situations. The Bold Type can definitely help foster a shift in the culture that a woman in power can be firm with staff and give direction without beating them down.
“There was a generation of women who, in order to succeed in a man’s world, had to behave like a man and be meaner than a man,” Watson observed, and then shared this anecdote. “I had a friend who worked in investment banking. She had a female boss who was just brutal towards her. One day, my friend finally snapped and said, ‘Why are you so mean?’ And [the boss] said, ‘Because I am jealous of you. You’re never going to have to behave the way that I’ve behaved.’ We have the opportunity to change things, so let’s change them.”
“It’s very much what Sheryl Sandberg says, ‘The more successful a woman is, the less likeable she becomes,'” Whidden chimed in. “I don’t know if you’ve experienced having a boss who is a woman who does just that. When Joanna and I got to Cosmo, there was a lot of re-training.”
Melora Hardin really was the perfect person to play Jacqueline, and Watson shared a bit about casting her in the role. “As soon as the name Melora Hardin came up, we were like, ‘Yes, her!’ I thought that never in a million years would we be able to get her — she’s dream casting — and then I got a text that she read the script and wanted to talk to me.” Watson continued, “Melora has a lot of Jacqueline in her. Empowering and mentoring women is something that’s really important to her. She talked about it on our first call, and wanted to make sure that’s where the character was going, that [Jacqueline} wasn’t going to turn out to be a Miranda Priestley. Melora has daughters and also mentors young actors, so it was the most natural casting int he world. What’s been really fun is to see her as that figure to the younger actors on set. She really does embody this character.”
We get a hint of romance in the first episode, but the core relationship is between Jane, Kat and Sutton, and how they deal with the challenges thrown their way. “You see them go through challenges together,” said Watson, “but it was really important for me that at the root of this, they are good friends and they do support each other. That’s something else that I feel like we don’t see on TV a lot. We see a lot of frenemies and backstabbing, especially in a workplace [setting] where people are competitive. Yes, they fight and they go through tiffs, but ultimately they always have each other’s back. I joke that I call it ‘friendship porn’ because these are the friendships from your fantasies that you wish you had.”
As important as it was to create these dynamic roles on screen, it was equally important for Watson and her production team to staff women behind the scenes. “It was a huge priority,” disclosed Watson. “A huge priority for me personally is hiring and mentoring women. We have great female directors this season. We have a female director of photography, and in my entire career I have never worked with a female DP.”
The Bold Type premieres on Tuesday, July 11th at 9/8c on Freeform.
Photo by Waytao Shing, courtesy of the ATX Television Festival