Near the end of the pilot episode of Sex and the City, which aired in the summer of 1998, Samantha sees Mr. Big at a restaurant and leans over to tell Carrie, “You see that guy? He’s the next Donald Trump, except he’s younger and much better looking.”
When Sex and the City debuted, it was lauded as a groundbreaking show that featured four single, complex women who (gasp!) had sex and enjoyed it. Unapologetically feminine, the show was threatening enough that at least one male reviewer wrote of Sarah Jessica Parker, “It took some sort of perverse talent to make her unattractive, although the producers were clever enough to insert a shot of her in a wet clinging top during the opening credits.”
While Sex and the City may have been ahead of its time, it was still certainly of it. As Caryn James wrote in The New York Times, “The heroine cultivates an anti-romantic pose that suits Manhattan in the 90’s, with its post-politically correct attitudes.” There are aspects of the show that naturally feel out of date, from the fetishization of Donald Trump (a string of words I never thought I would write), to the fact that the main characters seemingly have not a single financial worry and live in a predominantly white and heterosexual world.
Which may be why the quest to find the new Sex and the City—an updated show that can push the boundaries of televised feminism in our time—is so enduring. Is it bad dog-owner Lena Dunham’s Girls? Was it actually Gossip Girl and we missed it? Is Broad City the “millennials’ answer” to Sex and the City? Is the new Sex and the City a reboot of the old Sex and the City? Twenty years have passed since that pilot episode and Manhattan—along with the rest of the world—has changed, very much starting with the transformation of Donald Trump from desirable rich person to pariah president.
This month, Freeform (the “not your mom’s ABC Family” rebranding of ABC Family) premiered The Bold Type, which seemingly has all the ingredients to be a Sex and the City 2.0 contender. The plot centers around three female friends in their mid-20s who live in Manhattan and work at a women’s magazine called Scarlet, which invokes both Cosmopolitan in its sex coverage (Cosmo editor Joanna Coles is an executive producer of the show) and Teen Vogue in its desire to bring politics to millennials. The show’s creator, Sarah Watson, has openly acknowledged the influence, saying, “The reason a show like this gets to exist is because of Sex and the City.”
And like its predecessor, The Bold Type is decisively of its time (let’s call it the age of post-post-politically correct attitudes). As Watson told Variety, the show was inspired by Trump’s relationship with the press and the new cachet that women’s magazines have gained over the past year. “These are strong, fierce, politically savvy women. We are very much living in modern America and all that comes with it,” she said.
Granted, frank conversations about sex and the peculiar challenges of womanhood are no longer groundbreaking in 2017. That the characters—Jane, Kat, and Sutton—write about orgasms (or lack thereof) is not radical, nor is a scene in which Jane has to ask Kat to pull out her Yoni egg (a jade egg you put in your vagina for “good energy,” as promoted and made famous by Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop).
Rather, the boldness of The Bold Type comes from storylines surrounding contemporary issues, such as when Kat writes an article criticizing sexism in virtual reality software and starts receiving rape threats from trolls on Twitter. She brushes it off as a joke at first, but by the end of the episode it is clear that the abuse has affected her deeply—an attempt to put on a brave face that any female journalist writing online in 2017 can relate to.
Sutton, meanwhile, constantly grapples with the fact that she grew up poor and went to a state school, which still burdened her with student loans. This makes her uncomfortably self-aware in a workplace full of FIT and Ivy League grads—so much so that in one episode she even fakes having gone to FIT. It’s the kind of story that Sex and the City, with all of its high-end, success-wielding career women, rarely tackled.
The women of The Bold Type are also wonderfully supportive. Kat, Sutton, and Jane spend most of each episode checking in on each other in Scarlet’s enormous closet. (This is also where the notorious jade egg operation takes place.) The magazine is helmed by Jacqueline Carlyle (played by Melora Hardin, a.k.a. Jan from The Office), who is a young journalist’s dream boss: tough yet supportive, pushing her employees but also (literally) bailing them out of jail. As many have pointed out, it’s a refreshing contrast to the cutthroat boss bitch trope à la Devil Wears Prada.
But for a show that is meant to tackle Trump’s America, The Bold Type leads from behind. Yes, the cast is diverse. Yes, it tackles issues like immigration, sexuality, and student debt. Yes, it features supportive female friendships and inspiring female bosses. Yes, it acknowledges that young women care about politics—as they always have. But today, those aspects should be standard. And the apartments of The Bold Type are still unrealistically huge, the women wear outfits that are way out of their price range, and life is just a little too glamorous for entry-to-mid-level magazine staffers.
The characters are constantly in the office late at night, working extra hours to impress management and move up in their careers, but the show never pauses to ask if such arrangements—common in the journalism ecosystem—are exploitative. And, while the bosses at Scarlet magazine are good-hearted and faithfully mentor their assistants, is that really an accurate, across-the-board representation of reality?
When asked how a Scarlet writer would define feminism, Watson told Refinery29, “To me, it’s all about believing that women can do everything and empowering women to do everything. It’s as simple and clean as that.” That is the fantasy that The Bold Type sells—that with good friends and a good boss, women can do anything they put their minds to. This type of feminism isn’t pushing any boundaries in 2017. As Watson herself acknowledged to Variety, “We’re not out to send a political message.” But if a show wants to be the Sex and the City of the Trump age, it may have to do just that.