"The Bold Type," "Dietland" and fashion: The feminist army is assembling (literally) in the closet

Fashion is both a balm to and the bane of women. It fits these two TV shows about female ambition like a glove

By Melanie McFarland

Published June 13, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Meghann Fahy, Katie Stevens, and Aisha Dee in "The Bold Type" (Freeform/John Medland)
Meghann Fahy, Katie Stevens, and Aisha Dee in "The Bold Type" (Freeform/John Medland)

Whenever the three young women at the center of Freeform’s “The Bold Type” have serious business to parse, they convene in a closet. A stupendously outfitted closet, mind you, appropriate to the series fashion magazine setting.

The closet can serve as a woman’s a treasure chest, a keeper of valuable items for special occasion and everyday use. “The Bold Type,” airing new episodes Tuesdays at 9 p.m., treats it as a safe space; meanwhile AMC’s “Dietland” views the fantasy closet of its women’s magazine, Daisy Chain, as an arsenal and armory for a secretive band of feminist insurrectionists. They hide their agenda from their intended targets with smiles and samples of hundred-dollar face cream. Even their recruit Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) does not fully comprehend while she’s there that she is standing in one of the staging grounds for a revolution.

If it is true that each generation gets the TV series they deserve, ones bespoke to suit their world view, their needs and their voices, then working women of all ages in 2018 have quite the wardrobe to choose from, including — especially — recent offerings that filter about career struggles through the prism of fashion.

Think about that for a moment: Here we are, just past the 20th anniversary of “Sex and the City,” still heralded and begrudgingly loved as a television series that celebrated style as enthusiastically as it lauded friendship and a woman’s right to live life in the manner of her choosing and no one else’s. Only rarely did the series walk viewers through the career lives of its archetypical characters, and even then, these brief glimpses only served a more central tale about love and sex or the power of glamour.

But those shoes! The effortless chic! That show trained several generations to want some version of what Carrie Bradshaw, and her best friends Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte symbolized and stood for and, yes, wore, even after reality set in. The average American woman wears a size 16 or 18, according to a 2016 study; that means only a precious few of us are fitting into Carrie’s tutu.

That lack of realism, we get. This is television in the end, and audiences are conditioned to grant writers and producers plenty of creative leeway in the recreations of the life and, yes, work. Plus, work is boring. You want the reality of a columnist’s life? Go watch “The Fourth Estate” and count the number of times you hit pause on your DVR to examine a bag and say, “Ooh, if only I could have that bag Maggie Haberman is carrying!”

Or let me save you the trouble, because you will do that precisely . . . never. (I mean no offense to Haberman's taste in accessories, but boots-on-the-ground reporters choose what they wear and carry with an eye for utility. Whatever she carries her stuff around in, it probably doesn't carry the price tag of a used car, and I can guarantee you there's no years-long waitlist for it.)

Hence our burning desire to live in the skin of those illusions, to have some version of the lives experienced by the TV characters we adore. A real-life version of Carrie could not afford a closet filled with Louboutins, let alone her swanky apartment. Fantasy Carrie, though, leads people on quests to snag some version of her dream life, which leads us to the department store which, more often than not, leads many of us down the road to disappointment.

The pages of fashion magazines are vellum-thin panes dividing the mundane reality of skin problems and unruly body hair and an unattainable realm where everyone has thigh gaps and lacks pores. Only aliens with staffs of specialist and mountains of money can attain such impossibility in the physical realm.

This is why fashion as a framing concept for a series about feminism and, more than that, about the workplace, contains an element of danger, making the subject an apt springboard for “Dietland.”

Plum writes for Daisy Chain, an edgy fashion magazine run by the elegant, sharp and skeletal Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies). But she’s not on staff, oh no. Instead Plum answers the letters to Kitty in a column designed to convince the reader that Kitty is a fount of magnanimity and wisdom, the modern Helen Gurley Brown.

And Kitty plays that game some people take glee in, cloaking insult and deprecation in a faux compliment. In a recent episode she gives Plum the opportunity to cover "a show for big gals" because she understands “what these people want.”

Ah, but the rub is that Plum will remain the magazine's “hidden resource"; Kitty uses that phrase in her sales pitches as she instructs Plum to cover the show from her apartment via social media feed. Plum is to stay in her closet while Kitty will send a staff reporter, likely a size 0, to fly the flag in person. But Plum's name will finally be seen — she'll get a byline, and isn't that enough?

The AMC series airs new episodes Mondays at 10 p.m.; in the next one Plum is sent on a vision quest of sorts, meant to show her all of the pain and torture women subject themselves to in the quest to be “bangable.” Her Virgil on this quest is a former sitcom star played by Alanna Ubach who consciously embraces her aging instead of fighting it; imagine if Jennifer Aniston decided to halt her weekly spa treatments, stopped slathering on the Aveeno and dropped her personal trainers and opened the floodgates to her grays, and you get some idea.

The point, she tells her charge, is for her to understand what the quest to fit society’s beauty ideals nets her, and to comprehend what it takes away. And it’s an arduous, uphill challenge, because years of being the focal point of insults, slights and attacks, along with being invisible to the opposite sex, has made Plum desire more than anything else to be someone else — a thinner woman named Alicia who can fit into a regular sized dress.

“Dietland” explains why fashion is both a balm to and the bane of woman, just like the glossies designed to drive us to stores each season to snap up the latest clothing, accessories and cosmetics, or to the gym to attack our physiques. What we wear reflects our status and ambitions. Who we wear it for . . . that’s a psychological profile for another piece on another day.

This adds a different layer of interest to “The Bold Type” a series that revolves around twenty-something women who embrace ambition as a birthright, as natural and necessary as any desire — and essential, in the long run, to one’s sanity and survival.

Women know that in the real world, the truth of a career path is a lot trickier, requiring compromise with the possibility of high rewards alongside sizable sacrifice. And we learn this very early — right around the time that we figure out the value of fashion, of dressing for success and the positive promotional power of natural-looking foundation and a daytime eyeshadow.

“The Bold Type” evolved into a decadently subversive series through its first season by embracing these core truths while dressing them up in fashion glossy fantasy. At first blush, it wears the clothing of that classic young woman making it on her own, throwing her hat all the way up in the air kind of show, a story dating all the way back to “Mary Tyler Moore” and before that, Marlo Thomas’ character on “That Girl,” mutating in the decades since to become, well, "Girls."

To be honest, the initial focus on what one of the characters in “The Bold Type” referred to as “stealth feminism” did not inspire total confidence in me. Its intent felt too consciously Cosmo, as if it needed to convince its audience not to worry, that this isn’t your spinster aunt’s hairy-legged version of feminism, oh no! This is no coincidence: Scarlet, the magazine around which the series revolves, is a fictional stand-in for Cosmopolitan, where series executive producer Joanna Coles once served as editor-in-chief.

“The Bold Type” isn’t totally free of the marabou fluff that makes other series directed at women, well, pretty darn delightful in doses, let’s be fair. But the writers employ it sparingly and with purpose. Besides, it doesn’t take long for the second season to roll up its sleeves and get down to the business of workplace politics as they pertain to women.

In case we’re unclear on its intent, the first episode of season two, currently streaming on Hulu, is titled “Feminist Army."

Season two’s new showrunner Amanda Lasher maintains the course set in the drama’s freshman run, which builds a romance between Scarlet’s social media maven Kat (Aisha Dee) and Adena (Nikohl Boosheri), a Middle-Eastern photographer who wears a hijab.

A more “conventional” (by TV standards) secret affair between Sutton (Meghann Fahy) and Richard, a manager in the company’s legal department who happens to be 15 years older than she, is shown as a dance that stands to penalize one party more than the other.

And if “The Bold Type" took knocks as well as praise in its first season for giving Kat, Sutton and aspiring writer Jane (Katie Stevens) the world’s most understanding, forgiving and supportive boss in Melora Hardin’s Jacqueline Carlyle, the editor-in-chief of Scarlet, this new season balances that out by tossing Jane to a driven, ethically-dodgy female boss — Jacqueline, in negative — at her new job, a Vice-styled online vertical ruled by sensationalism.

Here is where Lasher’s pedigree as a writer on MTV’s under-appreciated “Sweet/Vicious” comes in handy. In the same way that show’s characters disguised their brutal vigilantism by presenting the image of the harmless, vulnerable co-eds, the second-season storylines of “The Bold Type” cloak the brutal realities as well as subtler thorns concerning identity in the professional world in oh-so-stunning glamour.

Kat, Jane and Sutton conspire and confide in each other in closets, yes, but the problems they discuss aren’t insubstantial. In the premiere, Kat faces the very real fear that thousands of young women floating in the embryonic stages of their sexuality face. She admits to her friends that she has no clue as to how to give another woman, one she loves, an orgasm.

We should all be raising a glass to such frankness and candor. Generation Xers were subjected in very limited amounts to the career trajectories of Rachel and Monica on “Friends” or presented with unrealistic visions of what working in publishing is actually like in “Girls,” or good old “Sex and the City.” “The Bold Type,” in contrast, throws the door open so we can witness the less-appealing truths about the air up there, just under that glass ceiling.

Scarlet is a magazine for women where the executive class structure is almost entirely male, and that’s real and reflective of how the publishing world works, and by proxy, the professional one.

But Sutton and Jane are dealing with their own female relationship issues — work related, in both of their cases, and matters that force them to choose between trusting in their own talent or bending either to fit or dispel the image others wish to force upon them.

“The Bold Type” earned praise during its first season for refusing to perpetuate the cliche of professional women battling and manipulating one another, specifically shirking off the trope cemented in place by “The Devil Wears Prada” that portrays female managers as heartless harridans ready to slice up any junior employees threatening their crowns. That’s still a refreshing aspect of “The Bold Type,” as is the trio’s unfailing loyalty to one another.

“Dietland,” on the other hand, doesn’t merely embrace the wicked witch of fashion editorial trope personified by Kitty. Series creator Marti Noxon clasps it in a bear hug and gives it a lusty snuggle. It serves a purpose here, revealing Kitty as an irony made flesh, a woman who stakes her image and reputation on the concept of female empowerment, making a fortune on the bankability of feminism while enabling a sexual predator in her midst.

When magazine staffer Malick Ferguson, a minor character modeled after legendary fashion photographer and multiply-accused sexual predator Terry Richardson goes missing, Kitty expresses concern about his well-being, explaining that he’s part of the family. When someone posits that he could be targeted by the radical vigilante group targeting sexual abusers and predators known as Jennifer, Kitty poo-poos the possibility.

“Mal’s a character. Never convicted!” she says. When it’s pointed out that he’s been slammed with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct she shrugs. “Oh, ‘he said, she said’ . . . rumors. You know the lines get blurry with creatives. Kiss kiss!”

Any TV series worth sticking with melds stark realism with fantasy and the denial of that reality. “Dietland” holds that notion up to our faces like an unforgiving mirror.

The new season of “The Bold Type” cases that iron spike in velvet, but it acknowledges that part of the reason patriarchal structure and discrimination exists is that some women still participate in games pose them against one another.

Jane’s new boss, for example, manipulates her nuanced story of a female entrepreneur into sensationalist and inflammatory clickbait, punishing Jane for being honest and empathetic when she goes off-script in a subsequent TV appearance meant to double as damage control.

“The Bold Type” premiered prior to the #MeToo movement, but both seasons crash its characters into the realities that spawned it, especially with regard what it means to be a visibly successful woman in a climate where abuse, shaming and threats of violence can be delivered anonymously via tweet and go viral.

But some of its greatest lessons are delivered using classic TV romance structures; this season for example, Sutton navigates a minefield of slut-shaming and backbiting from her co-workers who believe she’s trading sex for workplace opportunities. Handling her relationship by the book doesn’t help. In the end, she has to confront the gossip, using confidence as her weapon and integrity as her shield.

For Kat, a biracial woman raised to refuse being assigned any identity labels, gaining more responsibility at Scarlet means creating a public profile meant to empower young girls of color. A senior staffer — a black man — points out that opting out of checking the race box does not serve the cause of inspiring young black and brown strivers which, at a certain level, becomes something of an unspoken obligation. The subplot explores how something so simple can prove difficult on a personal level, with a simple, non-inflammatory conversation about race.

Even as we view Kat sitting in on a board meeting, interrupting the confident declarations of the older gentleman who decides he knows the best way to boost the magazine’s flagging circulation numbers and confidently proving him wrong, it’s also impossible to ignore than she wouldn’t be there at all without an invitation from Jacqueline.

And had she not received that invite, Jacqueline would be the sole representative of her gender in that room. Nothing in the script specifically calls attention to this — we see it, and that’s enough.

Fashion is understood as a dream peddled to young girls from the moment they connect the image of magical portions in fairy tales to the beautiful bottles on their bathroom counters of the women they idolize. At that tender life stage, more girls dream of looking like the women in those magazines as opposed to writing for one, or running it. With maturity the world opens up many realms of possibility with regard to a woman’s agency, personally and professionally — and reveals its walls as well.

And it’s inspiring as well as massive entertaining to see these series claim fashion, and critique it, in ways their predecessors did not dare to. “Dietland” sums up its inspirational motif in a line one character delivers to Plum: “We are too smart for the lives we thought we deserved. We are special.” It could be that one day she learns to acknowledge that one dress she doesn’t have to wait to fit into, that makes the most of everything she is, exactly as she is. Fashion can achieve that, too.

It also lends beauty and a kind of armor to the hard moment we all face, in life and in work.

In the second season premiere of “The Bold Type,” which aired this week, Richard aims to take advantage of a new company policy that enables employees involved in a relationship to fill out paperwork to make their relationships official. This opens an avenue for him and Sutton — as well as inspires those aforementioned snipes.

As Sutton points out in a scene designed to be heartbreaking, a contract cannot protect a reputation. Regardless of how real their feelings are, Sutton declares, “Its a gamble, all of it. But I am putting my money down on my career and believing that love will fall in place.”

The scene features the two of them at a candlelit table — she in a stunning rose-colored gown, him in a flawless suit, with the Empire State building lit up as a backdrop. We can’t forget that old adage about pictures and what they're worth in the currency of word count. But Sutton's line, her declaration of purpose, says so much more about the image this drama is walking down the runway.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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