Tackling tough social issues is something Freeform's The Bold Type excels at. Still, it was hard not to be nervous when the show announced it'd be doing a consent episode in Season 3, especially considering they decided to tell it from the male perspective.
"Stroke of Genius" focused on Alex (Matt Ward), of all people, and his bumpy journey of self-examination when it came to a less cut-and-dry version of consent. Mirroring the anonymous Aziz Ansari consent exposé from last year, this episode presented a similar testimony written from one of Alex's old hookups, who detailed her experience with a guy who badgered her into having sex with him, eventually prompting her to reluctantly give in and sleep with him when she didn't really want to. When Alex went to interview her about her powerful piece, she shocked him by revealing that the guy in the story was actually him.
Alex was stunned to realize that because he'd promised to read her clips and help her out professionally, she'd felt pressured into sleeping with him in exchange for that favor. There was also the matter of her repeatedly trying to signal to him that she didn't want him to come home with her or sleep over, which he ignored. Many women have faced a situation like this in which a guy clearly wants sex and can't or won't take the hint that they're not into it. Unfortunately, it's also where the grey area of consent comes in, because from Alex's point of view, he had a fun night of consensual sex with a friend. From her perspective, she was pushed and prodded and forced into giving him what he wanted for fear of rejecting him and losing a helping hand in her career.
At first, Alex was defensive and angry that she was painting him as a sexual predator, which clashed deeply with his self-image of a woke, male feminist and an ally to the undermined and underserved. So who was in the right here? We asked The Bold Type's Aisha Dee, Katie Stevens, and Meghann Fahy about the show's nuanced take on consent, and how they felt about the way the show handled it.
"I think it feels like the natural next step in terms of exploring the #MeToo movement," said Dee. "To explore the nuances of 'What is consent?' We all have some unlearning to do. You can be woke and also have grown up in a patriarchal society that taught you things, and now as adults and people living in this world, we have a lot of unlearning to do. We have to figure out new ways of living and new ways of flirting and new ways of asking for what we want and saying when we want something to stop or when we want it to go further."
Dee touches on the heart of the matter here: men are constantly taught, through media and social norms, that they need to doggedly pursue what they want and not take no for an answer — even when it comes to sex. There is also an uncomfortable amount of indoctrination of both sexes into the "playing hard to get" narrative, wherein a woman who says no doesn't actually mean no, she means try harder. That's an incredibly predatory parable to preach in a world where sexual consent all too often seems mired in ambiguity, and Dee has a point when she says we have some unlearning to do. Women need to feel safe to say no, and men need to learn how to hear it, even if that means paying attention to more subtle refusals like, "I'm too tired tonight," or "I think it's time for me to go home."
As with all episodes of The Bold Type though, we don't actually get any answers or solutions to how we in the real world should address this problem or start searching for answers since that would be a pretty tall order for an hourlong young-adult series. We do, however, get a decision on Alex's part as to how he's going to approach this issue from his past and similar situations in the future.
Rather than writing a piece on his friend and her experience, he wrote his own story: That of a man who thought he was an ally but found out he was actually part of the problem. It was a bold choice to make, considering he was almost assuredly putting a target on his back. Before publishing, his friends said as much, warning him that although his intentions were noble, this admission of guilt might blow back on him considering the current climate surrounding #MeToo stories.
Regardless, Alex posted the story because he believed it to be the right thing to do. He maintained that belief, even when the comments section was predictably flooded with disgust and hatred. The Bold Type cast also took this episode as an opportunity to call out cancel culture and the dangers it presents to an open and honest dialogue in situations exactly like this one.
"I think that nuance is important and we have to allow people the opportunity to change and grow and learn," Fahy said. "When we stop allowing people to do that, that's a terrible mistake, I think, for society. We have to encourage people and allow people the space to do that. ... Even Sutton is one of the people to be like, 'This is not, maybe, a great move for you. I'm worried as your friend what this will do to you.' Even though she supports him and the integrity he feels towards the situation, [she knows] it's hard because of cancel culture."
"I think this cancel culture has taken things to a level where it makes perfectionism and having to attain perfection at an all-time high," Stevens added, "and I think that's a mistake because the people who are promoting cancel culture or the people who are starting those conversations of, 'This person did this, let's cancel them,' I think what they forget is you're not perfect, and you make mistakes. Granted, there are some mistakes that are unforgivable, but I think that people do, in certain situations, deserve a chance to correct and to make it better, however they can, and to try to learn."
Alex certainly learned a hard but necessary lesson from this experience, but it's clear that when it comes to the ongoing discussion of consent, we've all got a lot of learning left to do.
The Bold Type airs Tuesdays 8/7c on Freeform.