In “The Breast Issue,” The Bold Type unfurls one of the most powerful narratives about breast cancer I’ve seen on television since Kristina Braverman’s cancer arc on Parenthood. It’s raw, personal, layered, and grounded by an incredible performance from Katie Stevens. We have yet to see great emotional range from Stevens, and Jane’s storylines up to this point have all had to do with her ambition in the workplace and her determination to figure out who she is as a writer. But Stevens turns in the kind of performance that sticks with you in “The Breast Issue,” which probes deeper into who Jane is outside of her work as a writer.
The Bold Type maintains its girl power voice throughout, Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” chiming in twice during the episode, and Kat and Sutton participating in a free the nipple rally in Central Park in the very first scene. But the episode goes darker than the show ever has, shedding light on the brutal realities of breast cancer through Jane’s emotional arc. Kat’s Twitter campaign to promote women’s health and destigmatize women’s breasts has good intentions, but for Jane, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 32, the feel-good awareness campaigns aren’t what she needs or wants. She’s scared, and she wants everyone to know how scary this really is.
Not knowing about her family history, Jacqueline sends Jane to interview Lisa Hendricks, a doctor who advocates for women with a family history of breast cancer to get tested as early as in their 20s for the BRCA gene, which can indicate a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life. Jane thinks it’s irresponsibly aggressive to test women when they’re so young, and her fear clearly stems from the fact that she’s a strong candidate for the testing. Jane returns to the office exhausted, angry, hurt, scared, and those emotions all compound and explode when she’s interrogated by Jacqueline, who wants to know how the interview went. Jane blows up on her boss, who quickly realizes the story is very personal for Jane. Stevens rips back the layers of Jane’s pain. She lost her mother when she was very young. She doesn’t want to write about it, doesn’t want to turn her personal trauma into clicks for the magazine. She directs a lot of this anger at Jacqueline, accuses her of exploiting the emotions and sensibilities of her writers without ever letting them in on her own life.
The Bold Type gets at something deeper than Jane’s family history here, revealing how emotionally exhausting it can be to build a career around writing about your lived experiences. Jane seems to write a lot of what would be considered personal essays, a genre of writing often stigmatized and derided as frivolous and self-absorbed (but only usually when written by women…no one seems to care when men amass careers out of writing about themselves), but that ignores the fact that personal essay writing is hard, tolling work that often reopens wounds. Jane writing about never having had an orgasm was an embarrassing process for her, even though she was proud of the final piece. When it comes to her mother’s cancer, she draws the line. This isn’t content; it’s her life.
Sutton’s storyline this week isn’t directly tied to the episode’s overarching breast theme, so it’s unsurprisingly the weaker of the three. Her first day on the job in the fashion department proves to be a lot less glamorous than she hoped. It isn’t much different from her former job on Lauren’s desk, but now she’s fetching coffee instead of green juice. Oliver keeps her in line, calling her Red even though her hair isn’t red (he thinks it would look better if it was). I really love Oliver, especially the way Stephen Conrad Moore characterizes him as tough but even-keeled, infusing Oliver’s remarks with a sharpness that’s somehow also laid-back. He’s elegant, poised, witty, chill. In “The Breast Episode,” Oliver challenges Sutton to secure some sort of fancy pendant, and she taps into her assistant network for fashion mission impossible. Again, it’s refreshing to see women in the same industry working together instead of competing with each other.
I also love that Sutton doesn’t just listen to what her boyfriend tells her to do when she ends up losing the pendant in a cab. Sure, Richard’s professional legal advice to report the jewelry missing and let insurance cover it is wise, but Sutton feels that she needs to do things her own way, and she forges ahead with her ridiculous plan to get security footage from a nearby laundromat in order to get the cab’s license plate. She goes on this mission with Alex, who eventually confirms that he’s indeed supposed to be a conflicting love interest for Sutton when he figures out she’s dating Richard and says it’s too bad because he wanted to kiss her. Alex and Sutton no doubt have charming chemistry (more than Richard and Sutton do), but Alex is still a shell of a character. Ultimately, I like Richard’s somewhat passive role in Sutton’s character development. He’s around to offer advice and his support, but she remains very independent, determined to make her own decisions, even if they’re risky. She gets the pendant back and proves herself to Oliver, who is impressed for all of three seconds. Have I mentioned I love Oliver?
Inspired by a text from Adena, Kat starts posting photos that will trick Instagram into flagging and deleting the posts. Her mission to expose Instagram’s sexist censorship rules is honorable and all, but the truly important takeaway here is that Kat and Adena are still texting. Kat and Adena may have ended their relationship, which hadn’t even had a real chance to start, in a whirlwind at the end of last episode, but it clearly isn’t over. The Bold Type hasn’t forgotten about Kadena, and Kat is fooling herself if she thinks the two can get away with just being friends. They’re clearly still flirting through their messages, and isn’t Adena supposed to be in Paris to smooth things over with her girlfriend Coco? Texting Kat every second of the day seems counterproductive to that goal. She may be out of sight, but Adena is far from out of mind.
After Jane’s explosion in the bullpen, Jacqueline tells Jane to take a walk, doesn’t let her come back to the office for the rest of the day, and tells her to make herself available for a meeting the following night. That mysterious meeting turns out to be an invite into Jacqueline’s personal life. Jane meets Jacqueline’s husband, her two sons, her poodle Frida, and sees the Scarlet queen’s absurdly beautifully apartment. Jacqueline demonstrates that she’s willing to let Jane into her private life to an extent, but she still keeps professional boundaries in place. (Fashion side note: Jacqueline’s casual at-home look — a buttoned white tank with ankle jeans and gold bangles — is one of my favorite outfits she has rocked.) Jane and Jacqueline have a moving conversation about fear. Jacqueline points out that Jane is so detail-oriented, that she craves control, that she loves to have as much information as possible. It’s easy to extrapolate that a lot of these defining qualities of Jane likely have something to do with losing her mother at such a young age. Cancer destabilizes control.
Jacqueline also ends up having an important conversation with Kat the next day about walking back her social media crusade against nipple-censoring policies. Kat is a loud and proud feminist, and she often uses social media to get out important messages, but in the process, she sometimes forgets about the very real people at the center of the issues she’s fighting for. She wants to use breast cancer patients who have had double mastectomies as props in her campaign, and Jacqueline points out that Kat has someone close to her for which this is much more than a hashtag.
Kat and Sutton eventually join Jane in the fashion closet for a pivotal moment. In every scene after her initial meeting with the doctor, Jane seems slightly off, distracted. Stevens plays that sense of being unmoored provocatively. In the fashion closet, she appears a little more focused. She asks Kat and Sutton if they’re busy, and Sutton replies “not too busy for you.” They join Jane on her doctor’s appointment, where she’s tested for the BRCA gene mutation. Jane records the appointment, hoping it can help someone else find the strength to go through with it. Kat and Sutton try to keep things light, joking around in a way that makes the whole thing feel more comfortable for Jane.
A week passes, and it’s time for the results. The Bold Type shocks by having Jane test positive for the gene. As the doctor details how to move forward with finding the best course of action, the focus remains on Jane as she digests the news. This is the second episode in a row to end with a very emotional blow for one of the characters, and The Bold Type’s determination to be a fun and sexy show that can also tackle real, meaningful conflict elevates the show from its initial premise. Afterward in the park, Jane declares that she’s going to keep living her life, that she feels good knowing and isn’t going to let it define her. It’s a much better and bolder ending than the alternative would have been. And the final words of the episode punctuate The Bold Type’s strong sense of self: “We don’t want to cause a riot.” “Sure we do.”
God this show.
I actually didn’t have time to watch this episode yet, but even just your recap (beautiful btw) is enough to make me cry!
Two things I didn’t like in the episode.
1. Alex in general, for most of the main reasons you have already talked about. I still don’t know what it is he actually does on the show and I just have a general dislike for these superfluous male characters shows toss in (Wynn, Jimmy, and Mon-El in Supergirl, Simon in Shadowhunters, etc) who they then have to find stories for in future seasons.
2. Kat checking out hot guys at the park while still obsessing over Adena. Maybe it’s because her personality is so radically different than mine (both the actress and the character), but that’s something that didn’t ring true to me.
Ugh, right there with you re: Alex and Generic Pining Men. I didn’t have a problem with him until he came on to Sutton right after finding out she’s in a relationship. It just seemed so rude and disrespectful, especially with the way he phrased it. Not “I would want to kiss you,” not “I would ask if I could kiss you,” just “I would kiss you [and wait to find out until lip touchdown whether you’re okay with that].”
Got to agree about Alex. He was the non-talking gay best friend before and needed depth. Now they’ve made him non-gay and fancy Sutton in an effort to give him depth but it’s not working – he’s still just super supportive (of all of them, he was great to Jane before anyone else) but they’ve twisted it to make it look like he wants to be nice to them to get into Sutton’s good books and they’ve STILL not really added anything to his character except he might be a creep rather than just really nice. Shame.
I was less bothered by Kat checking out the guys in the park. Through every stage of my relationship with my partner I’ve looked, but never strayed, even in those first, really giddy, days. I would get teased about it, but she’s pretty visual too and does it as well, I’m just old enough I admitted it earlier than she did. OK, the focus of our gazes never went to the boys, but for me that rang pretty true.
Perhaps especially since Kat describes herself as “not doing relationships.” She’s used to the chase, then one or a few nights, then looking again, guilt-free, and hooking up again. Yes, she was prepared to commit, she’s perhaps reached the point in her life where she wants to commit, but although she’s invested in Adena, she’s also been told Adena isn’t available (even though Adena isn’t exactly acting like she’s unavailable). Looking at the eye-candy doesn’t seem out of character. Before she fell for Adena the impression she gives of herself is that she’d hook up with one of them – the fact she doesn’t says something about how she feels and that’s she’s not over Adena.
I saw Kat checking out guys in the park as very performative for her friends. Like, “Look friends! Look how much I’m not thinking about Adena! I’m totally over and her and totally fine and isn’t life just peachy?!”
I’m still frustrated by the show’s use of Alex and by Kat’s naivete, but, boy, did Jane’s storyline hit me right in the feels.
A close friend/mentor of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-20s and, much like Jane did with memories of her mother, I got emotional thinking about how the scientific advancements mentioned in the episode could’ve changed her life. I also related to Jane’s struggles (and Jacqueline’s critiques) as a writer so I feel a lot more connected to her character now.
damn i LOVED Jane’s story in this episode. stevens’ performance especially in her moment of being triggered and yelling at jaqueline was so so spot-on.
But Sutton’s story was so annoyingly cringe-worthy and distracting! it felt like such a formulaic Freeformy annoying suspense-for-the-sake-of-suspense thing. there are more interesting ways to show Sutton proving herself (and stumbling) in her new job, and also to show the complications between her, Richard and Alex. this show is so much better when it’s going into how the characters grow and learn and show up for each other, and i hope that moving forward, we see it relying on that instead becoming a neverending trainwreck like the Fosters.
Yeah all the beats of Sutton’s storyline were so predictable and boring and then all the beats in Jane’s were super surprising but grounded and real.
Great recap, Kayla! I agree about the breast cancer narrative being one of the most powerful ever on TV. I’ve been working through a similar thing this year with my own health and my mom’s history of early breast cancer and the whole time I was just like, “Yep. Yep, that’s it. Mmm hmm. Yep.” And that’s very rarely a thing I feel about women’s storylines on television.
Also, this is the reason I love Autostraddle so much. This recap (and all of the comments) articulate nuanced truths that hold the show accountable to its failings (Alex’s unsettlingly “Magical Negro”-esque role being by far the worst offense, imo, but also the very weird narrative choice to have him tell Sutton he “would kiss her” as if he wouldn’t even wait to see if she was into it?) but also raise up all the ways that this subversive, breath-of-fresh-air show is challenging sexist bullshit left and right.
I love a lot about this show, but especially how the characters are allowed to be flawed, fuck up, and still love each other anyway.
As a fellow impulsive, obsessive person in my mid-20s, I relate to Kat a lot. If the ’91 in her handle is her birth year, I’m within a few months of her age, and she feels very real to me in a way that I feel like I haven’t seen before. She’s capable of handling most of her life, but occasionally she doesn’t listen to the people around her, loses sight of the forrest for the trees and goes too far without seeing the big picture. I don’t want to call it immaturity (it probably is), but she’s not a fully formed adult yet, she’s still growing and learning.
I really enjoyed how this episode acknowledged that her intentions were good, but she took it too far for all the wrong reasons and lost sight of those intentions. And that was a mistake, and it hurt Jane, but Kat was able to realize what she was doing and make it up to her. And Jane loves Kat whole-heartedly in spite of her flaws (and vice-versa of course).
Like, this sequence of events and characterization shouldn’t feel revolutionary to me. But I’m struggling to think of another show.
“Kat is a loud and proud feminist, and she often uses social media to get out important messages, but in the process, she sometimes forgets about the very real people at the center of the issues she’s fighting for. She wants to use breast cancer patients who have had double mastectomies as props in her campaign, and Jacqueline points out that Kat has someone close to her for which this is much more than a hashtag.”
This was such an eloquent and succinct summary of a concept that seems particularly appropriate and timely right now. It’s important to remember that allyship can be harmful, however well-intentioned.
I totally agree that Sutton’s storyline this episode was by far the weakest. I was also frustrated to see her surprised that she was going to be fetching coffee, because what did she think she was going to be doing on her first day? She’s in a new department, but she’s still an assistant. I like her ambition and her assertiveness, but did she really think she’d be [insert whatever a fashion person in a magazine does] right off the bat? To me, Sutton was the most naive one in this episode.
But even though I have objective criticisms of every episode, I still cry at some point in every one. I find Jacqueline so wonderful, being willing to let Jane in a little bit and to mentor her through something obviously emotional and hard, while also saying “I’m still your boss and here are my boundaries.” (Also how cute were her kids in their “we’ve been trained to introduce ourselves this way so we are omg can we go play video games now?”)
And at the heart of this show is the friendship between the three girls, the legit real I-Am-Here-For-You ness that always punches me right in the feels because it feels like if I have friends like that then maybe I really will survive this garbage fire of a world.
I got tested for BRCA when I was 20. I very luckily was negative but it was scary and this episode made me cry A LOT! I also do 6-month breast ultrasounds for another high-cancer-risk issue so I feel for Jane on that one – they’re pretty inconvenient, especially since I keep moving and I have to find a new PCP pretty much immediately upon getting to a new city so I can have time to get the recommendation written and find a radiologist in time for my next one. They also make you feel like your boobs are like weird mannequin boobs instead of a part of your body because you have strangers covering them in goo and poking at them all the damn time. It can feel pretty dehumanizing. I hope they follow up on this storyline instead of just letting it be a one-off.
-Jane tested positive for that gene. That was a blow, but credit to the show for taking that step.
-Jane & Kat. Kat rightly apologising to Jane was a great bit.
-Jacqueline is an amazing boss. How is she so cool & perfect?
-Sutton. Creepy when Alex said he would kiss her if she wasn’t involved with Richard. Without consent?? But looks like they are setting up the possibility of a Sutton-Alex pairing ahead.
Kat-About the part of the review that they haven’t forgotten her with Adena? Really? Even after that first scene of the three in the park where Kat doesn’t show any feeling at all that she is missing Adena? Even after her overt checking-out guys in the Park? I am expecting that Kat & Adena are over or will be over in a next few episodes and Kat will go back to guys. Neatly tied up I-Kissed-A-Girl-Now-I-Am-Back-to-guys-for-ever story-lines for her.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and half ago. She’s fine now – finished chemo and radiation and was declared cancer-free a year ago, but she’s still going to be on meds for a few years. Luckily, she tested negative for BRCA, so it’s not as important for my sister and I to get tested ASAP, but it’s definitely a conversation I’ve had with my doctor, especially since we’re Ashkenazi Jews, so we’re already at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. So needless to say, this episode hit me hard. I completely agree that Katie Stevens has never been better than that scene in the bullpen when she was yelling at Jacqueline.
I also loved how the show managed not to forget about Adena, but still remind us of Kat’s (presumed) bisexuality. I think the fact that Kat and Adena have been texting, and the show made a point to SHOW us their texting, instead of just telling us it was happening, is a really good indication that Adena is for sure going to be back. And in the meantime, Kat is reverting back to her old ways of chasing boys. I love that, that falling for a woman for the first time hasn’t inherently changed who she is.
I completely agree about Sutton’s storyline this week. From the moment she stepped in that cab, I knew she was going to forget the necklace. Every step was so predictable. EXCEPT the Alex thing. I did NOT anticipate that he’d be a love interest for Sutton, until that one slightly-too-long lingering look at the camera. It seemed to come out of nowhere – until this episode, he’d treated her the exact same way as he’d treated Jane and Kat. On the one hand, it would be great to see another biracial relationship on TV, especially since Supergirl dropped Karolsen so ungracefully. But on the other, watching Alex and Richard sword fight over Sutton is BORING. I hope next week they can find Sutton some agency in this love triangle.
Finally – I think I’m probably the only one, but even after this episode gave us a peek into her personal life, I am STILL not feeling Melora Hardin as Jacqueline. Likes cooking Cambodian food? Plays the cello? Did anyone else think that sounded like they picked a few activities or interests at random out of a book? I still know NOTHING about this woman, nothing REAL anyway. Well, except that her having a husband makes it all that much harder to ship her with Jane…