In late 2017, The New Yorker published “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, a short story of consensual, but unwanted, sex that complicated the black and white narrative of consent presented in most forms of media. In 2019, early in its 3rd season, Freeform’s The Bold Type introduced a similar storyline in which Alex, a “good guy” and the go-to straight male writer at the fictional Scarlet Magazine, learns that he was the inspiration for the male character in a viral story similar to Roupenian’s about an unwanted hook-up. By forcing Alex to confront his own assumptions about sexual consent, the show asks the viewers to do so as well.
At first, Alex is shocked and defensive, leaning on a consent narrative to exonerate himself from any wrong doing. However, the consensual nature of the hook-up is never in question. Viewers follow Alex as he tries to understand how a hook-up that he remembers as “fun” was traumatic for the article’s writer. Eventually, Alex moves from a position of considering the hook-up just an example of sex later regretted to recognizing the complicated power dynamics—physical, professional, and social—that prevented the woman from ending the encounter. The narrative generally concludes that Alex is not a bad guy but rather “most guys” who fail to understand the ways in which gendered scripts, norms, and violence can lead women to consent to sex that they do not want because it was easier and safer to continue than it would have been to stop.
From its inception, The Bold Type has sought to wade into the mud of difficult conversations about gender and relationships. In this episode, the show tackles the limitations of consent culture and asks whether the complicated nature of sex can really be understood through a yes and no framework. Scholars such as Jennifer Hirsch and Seamus Khan, and Joseph J. Fischel, have suggested alternative approaches to sexual justice but the conversation has gained little traction in the mainstream. By foregrounding the experience of Alex, a well-liked character in the show, as he wrestles with these issues, The Bold Type challenges viewers to question our assumptions about consent and its limitations and to engage in honest, public conversation about these topics. What are the limitations of consent culture and how do we make sense of sexual justice when sex can be consensual but also unwanted and traumatic? Taking our cue from The Bold Type, let’s talk about it.