This story contains minor spoilers for The Bold Type Season 4 finale.
In the final episode of The Bold Type’s fourth season, Kat Edison (played by Aisha Dee), a Black queer activist and social-media-manager-turned-bartender, and Ava Safford (Alex Paxton-Beesley), noted bigot and conservative pundit, are attempting to flirt. I think. I’m unsure because I physically recoil every time these two speak. They are huddled together on a couch at a swanky social club. “All I’m saying is Kim Kardashian deserves props. She helped pass criminal-justice reform,” Kat says. “You’re right on some level, but... ” Ava counters. “I know I’m right,” Kat interjects. And they giggle.
This moment is supposed to show their palpable chemistry, but the conversation embodies everything that’s wrong with this season of The Bold Type, the dramedy about three twenty-something best friends living in New York City and working at a women’s magazine: From the writing (which was never going to win an Emmy, but is laughably bad when it whittles down a complex issue like criminal-justice reform into a cute quip about a Kardashian) to the frankly implausible budding sexual relationship between Kat and Ava. The latter is what inspired Dee to bravely speak out about the show and the storyline that has pissed off viewers — this writer included. It has been extremely frustrating as a fan of The Bold Type, and Kat’s character specifically, to watch her digress into a blushing airhead pining after Ava, something, as Dee notes, Kat Edison would never do. And it turns out, Dee's just as disappointed as we are.
“Despite my personal feelings about the choice [for Kat and Ava to hook up], I tried my best to tell the story with honesty, even though the Kat I know and love would never make these choices,” she wrote in a lengthy Instagram post published Wednesday, a move unprecedented for an actor starring in a series that’s still waiting to get renewed. What she did was bold as hell. It was also necessary. In this moment, we’re seeing countless Black women, like Dee, stepping up, courageously, at great personal risk, so that those in power pay attention. “It was heartbreaking to watch Kat’s story turn into a redemption story for someone else, someone who is complicit in the oppression of so many," she added. "Someone whose politics are actively harmful to her communities.” THAT PART.
In an interview with TVLine done before Dee's post, The Bold Type showrunner Wendy Straker Hauser doubled down on the narrative that these two women are engaging in mutual unproblematic sparring. She completely ignored how damaging this line of thinking is, especially in the current climate when being an anti-immigrant Republican means you are supporting a racist president and willfully allowing the oppression of Black and brown bodies. “They have a sort of spark that comes from being on opposite sides [of] the debate. They also have a respect for each other,” she said. “Our hope was that we could bring both sides together, learning from each other… It was a challenge for Kat, and had we had more time, we would have seen that challenge pay off,” she says referring to the season’s early end. (They weren’t able to shoot their final two episodes because of COVID-19.)
The thing is, there is never a time I would want to watch a Black queer woman fall for a white woman who believes in her oppression. (Ava’s dad supported conversion therapy and she defended him, leading to Kat getting fired from her job earlier this season.) Equally troubling, Straker Hauser and the show’s writers have cast Ava as the more-sensible character who is willing to engage in “healthy debate” with the “opposite side,” while Kat’s reluctance is portrayed as a sign of immaturity. They are trying to make us like Ava. Someone needs to tell The Bold Type writers’ room that there is no other side to oppression, injustice, and human rights. Also that bigots aren’t likable and conversion therapy isn’t up for debate.
This Kat/Ava storyline isn’t the first time Dee has had to face anti-Black racism in her career or performative representation in front of the camera at The Bold Type. “We got to tell a story about a queer Black woman and a lesbian Muslim woman falling in love, but there have never been any queer Black or Muslim writers in the room,” wrote Dee, of her character’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Adena (Kat + Adena forever!).
We’re in the middle of two pandemics and a racial reckoning on the media industry. Black employees who used to take this shit silently are now loudly calling out the inequalities in their workplaces. Dee is just the latest to refuse to put up with an unfair work environment. “It took two seasons to get a single BIPOC in the writers' room,” she wrote in her post, also noting it took three seasons for the show to hire someone who could do Black hair, another experience all-too-common for Black women in Hollywood. “And even then the responsibility to speak for the entire Black experience cannot and should not fall on one person.” Just as Dee taking on the risk of speaking out against her employer is also a responsibility she shouldn’t have to bear.
Sure, Dee’s Kat is one of the show’s leads and she is a fully formed Black queer character with her own storylines and depth, but the lack of diversity in the writers’ room has impacted her portrayal on screen. The Bold Type has never really known what to do with Kat. They’ve never delved into why Kat doesn’t have any Black female friends and how not having that support would affect her. The episode about her blackness in Season 2 was rushed and superficial. There has been barely any mention of her Black identity since. She’s also a light-skinned Black woman with rich parents (she was living in their loft until this season) but her privileges have also been overlooked. “Kat is privileged, but she’s too busy being “woke” to explore this in a real way,” Zeba Blay wrote for The Huffington Post. “The same can be said for The Bold Type as a whole.”
Kat’s character devolution is even more insidious when you look at what her white counterparts Jane and Sutton (played by Katie Stevens and Meghann Fahy) have been up to this season. The series handled Jane’s double mastectomy recovery with care and sensitivity. Through Sutton and Richard’s unravelling relationship, they’ve depicted a very raw and real deconstruction of a marriage. Sutton and Jane get to mess up, but in ways that are true to them. They don’t have to sacrifice their beliefs for a hookup.
This is why representation behind the scenes matters.
On the one hand, it has been so frustrating to watch this season, on the other hand, none of this should be surprising. Glossing over big issues is what The Bold Type does. Silencing Black voices is what Hollywood does. Watching The Bold Type is an exercise in turning off your brain and letting the glitzy fantasy world of three women going on implausible misadventures in outfits they’d never be able to afford. The series has basically become sci-fi for people who actually work in women’s media — it’s unrealistic but addictive — but there is one part of it that is incredibly true to real life. It has built a brand on inclusive feminism by leaning on its Black employee for clout while refusing to practise what it’s preaching behind the camera. (The same could be said for Refinery29, which has been accused of the same treatment of its employees of colour.) As Sesali Bowen wrote for Refinery29 in 2018, The Bold Type is “flexing its feminist muscles. Per usual; however, that feminist spirit is really cute, and really white.” Now we know why.
To borrow from Dee, “I’m critical because I care.” I do really love The Bold Type, but enduring this season, and watching Dee put her livelihood on the line to speak up for marginalized voices, has been deeply upsetting. Dee says she asked herself, “What would Kat do?” Well, Kat would never blindly defend a Kardashian, but she would call out her employers to do better. In response to Dee’s post, the producers of The Bold Type said in a statement to THR, “Our goal on The Bold Type is and has always been to tell entertaining, authentic stories that are representative of the world that Kat, Jane and Sutton live in — we can only do that if we listen.” Vulture is reporting that the show made a last-minute change to last night’s finale so that Kat — spoiler — breaks up with Ava.
Now, that’s exactly what the old Kat Edison would have done.