ingenue: 1. a naive girl or young woman. 2. the stage role of an ingenue; also : an actress playing such a role
by Emily J
For decades, the role of the ingenue has been a way to introduce a dynamic female character into a series. They come in many forms: A potential love interest (Jennifer Morrison on HOUSE), the control-freak ruining the protagonist’s fun (Genevieve Angelson in BACKSTROM), or the person doing all of the work and getting none of the credit (Penny in INSPECTOR GADGET). Comedy often pushes the boundaries of these common archetypes more than dramas, depicting the trope without criticising the character. Here is a closer look at this common TV trope in the world of comedy to see what is working and what we as writers can build on in creating further well-rounded roles for women in television.
DET. AMY SANTIAGO, BROOKLYN NINE-NINE
Amy has seven brothers who all became police officers, and she is the first woman in her family to wear the uniform. The series begins with Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) joining the precinct and clashing with the popular Det. Jake Peralta. Amy is smart, hard-working, and fairly OCD. She is not the only girl in the precinct, so while she is very different in personality from her coworkers, she does not act as the odd woman out.
Captain Holt’s arrival is incredibly exciting news for Det. Santiago. She wants to make captain one day and is desperate to follow all the appropriate steps to reach that position. The next step for her is to have a loving mentor guide her. Sadly, Holt is not great with outward emotions. He likes Amy and guides her in the series, but Amy struggles to “read” Holt, making it difficult for her to know if she is “mentee-ing” correctly. All the humor of their relationship hangs on the terrible communication between these two, and while Amy unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) smothers Holt, the uncomfortable love between them never grows old for audiences.
Amy is a love interest for Jake Peralta. Jake was the clear protagonist when the series began, but the more episodes air, the more the series becomes an even ensemble. Jake is now the self-appointed leader more than anything else. His crush on Amy is occasionally brought up from Jake, though he has too much respect for her to do anything to jeopardize their work relationship. The pair is definitely no Sam & Diane, but they are incredibly cute towards one another and the ending of Season Two hints at a positive potential future for them as a couple.
Amy is part of a growing trend in women television roles that began with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope (which makes sense, considering they were both created by the wonderful Michael Schur). Both Amy and Leslie are high-energy, ambitious, creative, enjoy scrapbooking, and provide a support system to those around them. While Leslie was already aware of her skills and proud to share them with the world, Amy shows a slight obliviousness to her quirks but a higher degree of self-awareness that can get in her own way. The shorter story: Leslie is a confident woman, and Amy is still learning. That is why we love Amy. Watching her learn is watching the process of someone who is so close to fully accepting herself and owning her confidence.
ANNIE EDISON, COMMUNITY
Alison Brie is an incredibly enigmatic and attractive young actress. On many other series, her hourglass figure would be the focus of many jokes and she could easily have been relegated to love interest. On Dan Harmon’s COMMUNITY, Annie’s attractiveness is used to start a dialogue with Britta, resident feminist, on how/if women use their bodies to an unfair advantage in various situations, and while she has taken on the love interest role with three of her co-stars it is usually fleeting and typically reminds the audience that Annie is still figuring out who she is and who she is attracted to. Annie’s sexuality was discussed early in the series, but in the pilot the focus is squarely on her over-achieving and perfectionist attitude.
Throughout the series she has also taken on the role of ingenue with each of her costars, but this has been especially prevalent as COMMUNITY has been revamped. After Dan Harmon’s return to COMMUNITY in Season Five, the creator changed the setup of the show, allowing his characters to return to college after having graduated and failed in the real world. They form the “Save Greendale Committee,” and while Jeff Winger may be the defacto leader, Annie Edison is clearly the administrative leader of this group. In Season Six on Yahoo!, we are finally seeing Annie come into her own alongside her mentor Frankie, played by Paget Brewster. Both characters are organized, focused, and productive, but Frankie does not own a television set and struggles to keep up with the inside minutiae of this meta-world.
[Check out the Dan Harmon Story Circle, a method for structuring your script.]
Annie has been at Greendale for so long that in some ways she has been stunted. Dan Harmon has often discussed in interviews that eventually these characters have to grow up and leave. Annie came to Greendale because of a pill-addiction, but she was always ambitious for more. Her sisterhood relationship with Frankie appears to be getting Annie back to who she was when the show began, while still maintaining her love of the Greendale world.
COMMUNITY is not a traditional story or sitcom, and continuing the game to keep these characters in this beloved school is growing difficult. It is still one of the best written shows, but it will be very interesting to see if Alison Brie wants to stay in the role after this season, or if Dan Harmon can justify keeping her, as the current season appears to be slowly pushing her out of the nest. Annie’s new mentor is showing her what audiences have been seeing for some time: Annie has already emotionally moved on from Greendale.
JEANNIE VAN DER HOOVEN, HOUSE OF LIES
If Amy is an aspiring ingenue and Annie has the unceasing soul of one, then Jeannie van der Hooven is the definition of the word. Jeannie, Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), and their two cohorts Clyde (Ben Schwartz) and Doug (Josh Lawson) work together in their “pod” to bring in major businesses as clients to the firm Galweather & Stearn (and later on Kaan & Associates). The consultants tell the companies what they are doing wrong and how to improve and take home millions of dollars in billable hours, but what the show smartly does week to week is prove how little these consulting agencies actually do outside of manipulating their CEO clients. It is similar to WOLF OF WALL STREET in tone, but with much crazier and darker scenarios. Jeannie is an ivy leaguer who wants her own pod, the ideal husband, and one perfect daughter.
In the first season she keeps her private life incredibly private. She is actually engaged and her coworkers have no idea she is even seeing anyone. It is jarring to watch, especially considering how completely in her element Jeannie is at work. She is the definition of a girl being “one of the guys” while still definitely being a girl. Jeannie looked like a rock star at the beginning, crushing it in the male dominated field, and even pushing away the advances of Marty. The end of Season One is somewhat disappointing as the depth of Jeannie’s secrets unfold. She is sleeping with the head of the company, known as “The Rainmaker” as he promises her that he will promote her. It is sad to watch, knowing now that this seemingly strong, intelligent young woman is just as naive and insecure as the women with whom she refuses to surround herself.
As the series progresses, Jeannie rises up in the ranks. She uses what happened with the Rainmaker to sue the company alongside her female coworkers, moves on to run her own pod at the company, and ultimately joins Marty in a new venture: Kaan & Associates. From there, Jeannie’s ambition gets the best of her. Jeannie provides information to the feds that puts Marty in jail and leaves Jeannie running the company. When Marty returns, he is out for Jeannie’s blood.
HOUSE OF LIES is a much darker show than the worlds of our two previous characters. Jeannie’s daily situations are much more realistic than those of Annie, who lives for paintball wars and a surplus of frisbees. For Jeannie, the stakes are grounded and real, so her humor often comes from misogyny to fit in with her male co-workers, and making any other female employees feel inferior instead of supported. Jeannie is quick-witted and snarky. It is her shield in a world that is quick to tear her down even when she is the smartest person in the room. She has spent her career fighting for equality in the workplace and against the sexual advances of her coworkers. In spite of this, the most caring and (closest thing to an) honest relationship Jeannie has is with her coworker when she is finally able to break out of the ingenue role and act Marty’s equal. Unfortunately, Jeannie’s betrayal and Marty’s return means that Jeannie is back in the ingenue seat while attempting to make Marty forgive her and looking for a job outside of Kaan & Associates.
WRITING THE NEW INGENUE
What each of these shows does remarkably well is present us with a common television trope — the ingenue — but display it in a new way without reinventing the wheel. Each of these women is young, still learning, and occasionally misguided by love. None of these characters, however, exists solely as a greek chorus with the potential for the protagonist to take them to bed. For each of these intelligent and ambitious women, the trope is where the humor of their character begins.
As writers, it can often seem daunting to create new, dynamic characters from scratch without visiting traits we have already seen. What these three shows and characters prove (as well as many others) is that these common archetypes are not the enemy. The tropes are not there to box you in, they are there to help get you started. It is your job to twist them, and with audiences craving more complex females, the trope becomes the beginning of your opportunity to create something as new and fresh as each of these ladies.
Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.