The Bold Type and Sutton’s Right to Choose

I’ve mentioned recently that I’ve become enamored of Freeform’s The Bold Type, which centers on the wildly unrealistic careers of three best friends in their mid-twenties working for Scarlet Magazine, a fictional analog for Cosmopolitan. The show was inspired by Joanna Coles, who was the former editor of Cosmo and Marie Claire before briefly becoming Hearst Magazine’s chief content officer. Years before The Bold Type premiered, I was familiar with Joanna Coles—Cosmo was a lifeline to me as a young woman. It was a window into a glamorous world that I sometimes still yearn to access—the beauty, the fashion, and the pleasure. Now, more than a decade on from my serious readership, I’m aware of the many criticisms that have been lobbed Cosmo‘s way, but my life does look a lot more like the pages. I own more than one designer handbag, by house is colorful and cutely-decorated, and I actually own a vibrator or two. I have a job I’m not ashamed of in a business-casual office, a graduate degree, and a bright yellow car. I may not have the career-minded, go-getter spirit of the target Cosmo reader, but I fit the aesthetic. I think teen Chels would be proud.

But back to the show. There are a lot of things one could write about The Bold Type, like the fact that no one achieves the amount of success that Kat, Sutton, and Jane have by age 25 in the fashion/publishing/journalism industries, every queer woman depicted on the show is thin, femme, and gorgeous, and that your bosses, even if brilliantly played by Melora Hardin, are not supposed to be mother-figures. But none of that has bothered me in the least. The Bold Type does the work to be progressive and in many ways succeeds, but it has the elements of Sex and the City magical realism—impeccable clothing, gorgeous apartments, and a shiny, clean New York City that is most definitely actually Toronto. None of these, however, is what I want to talk about. I want to talk about babies.

That’s right! In a show where the main characters are twenty-six years old, I am forced to discuss reproduction, and no, I’m not referring to Kat’s past abortion. I’m talking about how The Bold Type absolutely fumbled the ball on the topic of being childfree.

The background: in season four, after marrying beau, Richard, 15 years her senior, Sutton becomes pregnant, only to miscarry a few episodes later. The plot device of Sutton’s miscarriage was expected—a baby in the mix would permanently alter the tone of the show, which is dependent on its independent, professional women. What wasn’t expected is that a show that for three seasons was so on the pulse of the cultural moment would hand the “I don’t want to be a mom” plotline to the character with the notoriously fraught relationship with her own mother.

The Bold Type': Can Sutton & Richard Compromise About Having Kids ...
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I’m not in the business of disbelieving women when they say they don’t want children. If I were, I don’t think Jen Kirkman could be one of my favorite comedians (she quite literally wrote the book on this topic). Just because want to become pregnant and be some little jerk’s mother doesn’t mean that anyone else should have to do the same. I’m a monthly donor to Planned Parenthood and I believe that abortion is healthcare. It shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s healthcare that protects the lives and autonomy of people of all genders. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I believed otherwise. My feelings on the topic are so strong, in fact, that I’m outraged that they wouldn’t write Sutton’s story to be bulletproof. Sutton (like Kat, who similarly doesn’t want children) could have been a role model to teens and women in their early twenties who don’t want to follow traditional heteronormative, patriarchal paths. But the writers of the show penned Sutton’s story on crumbling rice paper, not giving it the dignity of credulity and leaving Sutton open to the same horrible question that every uterus-haver hears from the day he, she, or they graduates college until menopause or hysterectomy: “When are you having kids?” If the answer is anything but, “My insemination ritual is this evening, I’ll be registered for organic diapers at Target,” you hear the same refrain: “You’ll change your mind.” I don’t want to tell Sutton that she’ll change her mind. She deserves better. But sweetie…you honestly might change your mind someday. And here’s why:

First, most of Sutton’s story arc has revolved around her relationship with Richard. In the beginning, it’s a torrid, secret affair. Then, after they split, he gets company policy changed to allow them to date. Then it’s above-the-board, hunky-dory, and serving rom-com realness in Paris. Before you know it, they’ve moved in and married, overcoming challenges like long-distance with panache. Just prior to their wedding, Sutton plans to sacrifice her New York career to move to San Francisco with Richard (holy recycled Gilmore Girls plotline from 2007) and start anew. It’s only when her boss, Oliver (the glue who holds the damn show together, quite honestly), gives her the promotion she’s been angling for that she decides to stay, throwing a wrench into the plan and eventually leading to their split. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the show would fight for a relationship to which they’d devoted hours upon hours of airtime? In their epic fight scene, Richard makes an excellent point—their major life decisions have rarely been instances of compromise; they’ve mostly been instances of him caving to her whims. As much as I’m loath to give a man credit for anything, he has been very patient and indulgent, sacrificing many of his own desires to act as Sutton’s support system. A decision that Sutton makes overnight and that they barely discuss shouldn’t be what ends their four-season relationship arc.

Second, when Sutton finds out that she’s pregnant, she’s pretty into it. When her friends ask her if she’s happy about the pregnancy, she earnestly responds that she is. Her relationship with Richard during this brief period deepens; he’s overprotective to a ridiculous degree, but until this point, they’d never acted quite so…married. As someone who has been married for nearly four years, the whole glamorous hot-sex dinner-party life they’d been leading is hardly realistic (not that anything on the damn show is realistic). Even the wedding they throw together in a matter of days is stunning and perfect. The scene where Richard accidentally takes allergy medicine instead of a painkiller and winds up half asleep and barely able to move? That’s some husband shit right there. When Sutton miscarries soon after and, numbly unable to grieve, discovers that she’s relieved about not having the baby, it makes perfect sense. She’s 26 (very young to be a mother these days) and on the precipice of beginning her dream career. Just as she couldn’t have predicted where she’d be now two years ago, she can’t predict where she’ll be in two years—a baby could have cost her so many opportunities. It’s only when Richard expresses an interest in immediately trying to conceive again (which, what the fuck, dude? Maybe don’t try to rush a woman who’s barely recovered from a miscarriage into immediately getting pregnant again.) and they agree upon a 5-year-plan that she begins to discover that she doesn’t want children at all. Adding deadlines always makes things stressful. Even five years, which seems like a pretty big window, is still a clock ticking down the seconds until you have to irreparably change your life. Sutton, still probably dealing with imbalanced hormones, stress, and grief from her lost pregnancy, gets thrown into a pressure-cooker. Again, as a person who actually wants a baby, sometimes I remind myself that doing so would prevent me from going out for random weeknight Mai Tais and it really throws me for a loop. Momming is a lot.

Third—speaking of moms, we’ve gotta talk about Babs. Sutton’s estranged mother, Babs, with whom she’d recently reconnected, is a serious alcoholic whose negligent parenting left Sutton to fend for herself her whole life. Since no one on this show will go to a goddamn therapist, Sutton’s disappointment in her mother’s many relapses breeds bitterness, resentment, and denial. Ask any woman with a rocky relationship with her mother (I am well-qualified to speak on the topic) and she’ll tell you that that particular childhood trauma complicates her relationship to her own pursuit of parenthood. Will I be the same way? Will I overcompensate in the other direction? Will I fuck my kid up? All you want is to give your kid a better life than the one you had, but who among us has the tools to be a perfect mother? Who could possibly ever be “ready” for it? For Sutton, whose mother’s negligence is tantamount to abuse and whose father was completely absent from her life save one meeting (and whose bizarre aversion to therapy has left her without perspective and coping tools), it is impossible that she has a healthy relationship to the idea of family. Throughout the series, Sutton is pathologically unable to accept help or charity from anyone, preferring to tough things out on her own. Mothering can, in real life, be very isolating, but what it should be (as anthropological observations bear out) is a community endeavor. Mothers must ask for help—from their spouses, their families, their friends. The phrase “it takes a village” is a cliché for a reason. Sutton’s happy marriage to a loving man has already triggered the ways in which she cannot function in “healthy” relationships. I mean, the man (who’s a millionaire!!!) tries to buy her a sewing machine for like $2,000 and she loses her mind. I wouldn’t think twice if someone tried to give me a $2,000 present, and all of our wedding rings total didn’t cost that much. Her inability to accept it is a knee-jerk, fear reaction that, AGAIN, could be worked through over years with a qualified psychotherapist. By refusing to seek professional help for her inability to seek help (ahh, the complexities of mental health), she manifests her greatest fear—the fracturing of her relationship with Richard.

And fourth, we gotta talk about that. I mean, not to be a shallow, materialistic monster, but the man has more money than God and lets you live rent-free in his apartment that must have cost more than most small towns in America. Your engagement ring alone definitely cost more than my car. He’s also been your rock while you’ve pursued your various dreams and has actually started working on his own emotional issues regarding his fraught relationship with his recently-deceased father. And he also offered to do 100% of the parenting while you go live your best life. I understand that this offer in itself runs counter to Sutton’s entire being and brings up her fears about being a bad mother and continuing the cycle of abuse, but on the other hand…you can’t just give this man a baby? I mean, Kat’s living in your makeshift bedroom now…where are you planning to go? This, I know, is a Bad Take™, but it’s the one that really tugs at my heartstrings (my husband and I have a similar age gap to Sutton and Richard but I’m definitely the Richard in the situation). I’d volunteer to fill Sutton’s shoes faster than Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fill Primrose’s. I go to therapy. I’d turn myself into a human Pez dispenser if I never had to earn money again.

But that’s entirely unfair of me. I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t believe Sutton, or that she bears an undue portion of the blame. Far from it. Hey, Richard—if you wanted to be a dad so badly, you couldn’t have gotten married before your early forties, to a woman your own age? “Unlucky in love” doesn’t apply to this extremely attractive, wealthy, intelligent man: men like this hold the keys to the world. Him being a bachelor into his forties was a choice, just like Sutton deciding not to have children is a choice. Men like Richard are given decades to put their careers first, to follow their ambitions, and as such, have no right to even suggest that women whose frontal lobes have only just finished developing stall or abandon their own dreams to raise his offspring. And I’m sorry, but his hypothetical, as-yet-non-existent children are more important to him than his relationship to the love of his life? What if Sutton did want children, but was unable to bring a baby to term? Are you open to adoption? Would you leave her if her inability to proliferate your DNA was a physical shortcoming, rather than a willful decision? Also, how could you legally marry someone before ever having one (1) discussion about children? Did you really think that the offhand comment “I want what [my friends] have” was sufficient to inform your future wife of your desire to procreate? Literally get the fuck out of here with your inability to effectively communicate.

Ultimately, neither of these people should be parents any time soon, and this show has a responsibility to start normalizing therapy and communication. Therapy is not just for people with mental illness or huge problems in their lives—therapy is a space where anyone (with health insurance or immense wealth because this country is an absolute dumpster fire) can go to talk things through, gain perspective, or simply unburden themselves of boring work stories so that they don’t stupefy their friends at Happy Hour. Sutton deserves better—not just better character development and storylines, but better treatment. No one should have to recover from the wounds of negligence and abuse on her own. Sutton has every resource available to her—it is incumbent upon the writers to grant her the dignity of peace of mind. And five, ten years from now, after regular therapy and a robust understanding of her issues? She may still not want kids, and that decision will be fucking rad. But the current writing trajectory leaves open the possibility for the dreaded prophesy of our nosy elders—that she will change her mind, undermining the hard-fought and hard-won rights of women who don’t wish to become mothers.