Are We Witnessing the Death of Hollywood's Ingenue Trope?
Millie Bobbie Brown — don't call her a "starlet."
After #OscarsSoWhite dominated the conversation around the 2016 Academy Awards, the Sony hack exposed that Jennifer Lawrence was being paid less than her male co-stars, and a USC study revealed an “epidemic of invisibility” and an “inclusion crisis” in the film and TV industries, diversity has become the name of the game in Hollywood. The response hasn’t been immediate or comprehensive, but diversity-focused writing and directing fellowships, calls for minority voices and an industrywide emphasis on giving a platform to silenced voices represent progress. As does finally laying to rest one of the most outdated and sexist stock characters: the ingenue.
Defined as an “artless, innocent or inexperienced girl or young woman,” the ingenue trope has been around as long as we’ve been telling stories. She's dependent on the men around her, naive, eager to marry and, perhaps most important, beautiful. But the label's sexist undertones didn't prevent it from becoming the norm in works of fiction; as more and more ingenues began appearing onscreen, the role extended offscreen and actresses found themselves being cast in that role even after the director yelled “cut.”
In many ways, the modern starlet — a diminutive term for which there is no male counterpart — can be credited to Woody Allen, a man who himself has been long plagued by accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse; it was Allen’s ongoing work with female muses in movies such as Annie Hall, Zelig and Match Point that helped bring the ingenue offscreen. As the entertainment industry began to use the term to describe lead actresses Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone, both on- and offscreen, these leads enjoyed powerful rises to fame. But critical acclaim garnered in this way comes at the cost of being typecast for a singular role and public persona — and it has lasting consequences. "[Naming] new young actresses as 'ingenues' and 'it girls' only reinforces the damaging media narrative that women’s value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality, rather than in their artistic ability and capacity to lead," Jennifer Siebel Newsom, maker of the documentary Miss Representation and founder of nonprofit the Representation Project, says via email.
It’s a powerful label that Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film L.A., says via email, "implies that young women don't have a voice and that their role is to help move the story of the male character forward." Yet it continues to define many to the very end: Despite acting through 2013, Debbie Reynolds was remembered as a “wholesome ingenue in 1950s films” in the headline of her New York Times obituary in December 2016. Other actresses who have been labeled ingenues — including Farrow, Keaton, Johansson and Stone as well as others like Tuesday Weld, Jane Birkin, Audrey Hepburn and Liv Tyler — have similarly struggled to grow out of this typecast, imposed by an industry known for putting a premium on age and beauty.
But with Hollywood’s lack of diversity exposed, a new generation of young actresses is poised to change the entertainment industry for good — and ensure that the ingenue stereotype dies out. Pushing back against restrictions traditionally placed on young female entertainers by the people and platforms that support them, actresses such as Maddie Ziegler, Rowan Blanchard, Amandla Stenberg, Emily Robinson, Isabella Gomez and Millie Bobby Brown represent a new era of feminism à la Emma Watson. (ICYMI, Watson seamlessly transitioned from Harry Potter series child star to representing HeForShe before the UN.)
This new generation of young women hasn't been shy about speaking their minds and truths — whether it’s Brown asserting that shaving her head to play Eleven in Stranger Things was no big deal or Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, running down racism in an online viral video titled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows.”
The need for strong female role models has never been more urgent. "At a time when the national discourse in our country is extremely divisive, bigoted and sexist, these young women are showing up as leaders for the next generation," Newsom says. "By supporting these newer actresses and by continuing to challenge these limiting stereotypes in the media, we can build a future where women are valued for their whole humanity."
Film and TV director Rosemary Rodriguez says via email, "It's crucial for women of all ages to have role models that reflect their hopes and dreams, not the hopes and dreams, and fantasies, of men." How do we do that? Rodriguez, like this new generation of young stars, understands that change must come from within: "We need to get out of the boxes we've created in our own minds so that we can get out of the box that society has put us in. We need to tell stories about and provide parts for women who want to elevate other women in this world. It's time."
It appears that the current problems in Hollywood have created space for the new generation of young actresses to do just that: to take matters into their own hands. By speaking up and crafting a voice beyond designers along the step-and-repeat, these young women are demanding better roles, more respect and, perhaps most important, to be included in Hollywood conversations. Because there's nobody better to help shape the future than the young women who will be leading us toward it. Here are six we're keeping our eye on.
Best known for: Blanchard played lead character Riley Matthews in Disney Channel series Girl Meets World and is an outspoken feminist activist for HeForShe. She also appears in the 2018 adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.
Badass quote: “On a red carpet, the only thing I'm often asked is, 'Who are you wearing?' And my co-stars, my friends who are older, even much older, really accomplished actresses who I admire — it's the same story. For a guy, the first question is, 'What drew you to this project?' And it's like, come on! I want to wear cool clothes. I love fashion. We all do. But we shouldn't be taken less seriously because we're in dresses. You can be a kick a-s-s feminist — sorry, I know it's not technically a swear but still! — but you can contribute to the fight against objectification and be wearing your favorite designer. At the end of the day, it's about equality.” (In an interview with Elle).
Best known for: Stenberg played Rue in The Hunger Games, was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album and is an advocate for the Black Girl Magic movement.
Badass quote: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.” (In the viral video “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows”).
Best known for: Robinson played a young Rose in Transparent and plays Tracy in the 2017 film Behold My Heart, alongside Marisa Tomei and Timothy Olyphant.
Badass quote: "Virgin Territory [Robinson's 2016 short film] came out of this frustration in not seeing enough layered depictions of girls that I could identify with. I call it a 'queer coming-of-age story from a female’s perspective.' I know my friends and I have all these conversations about the ambiguity that comes with girlhood. I wanted something that was sex-positive and wasn’t pushy but talks openly about things that my friends and I do talk about and think about. I wanted something that represented us and how we act or think versus how people tell girls and young women they should act/think." (In an interview with Talk Nerdy With Us).
Millie Bobby Brown
Best known for: Brown plays Eleven in the instant-hit throwback sci-fi Netflix show Stranger Things.
Badass quote: “I wasn’t worried about my hair at all. I don’t care what I look like; it’s how people think of me. And I do care how people think of me. I want people to say, ‘Oh, she’s nice,’ rather than, ‘Oh, she’s so pretty.’ Yes, it’s hard for anybody to go through something like that, but it’s harder for someone to go through a disease like alopecia or cancer, losing their hair without any choice.” (In an interview with W Magazine).
Best known for: Gomez plays Elena Alvarez, a queer character, in Netflix’s revival of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time.
Badass quote: "Her story is so current. It’s about something that’s going on right now, and her sexuality is so important right now and it’s a struggle that so many people deal with. I think that’s why her story is so central. They trusted me so much with this role. She’s important in today’s age.” (On her character, Elena, in an interview with Vulture).
Known for: Ziegler was the star of Lifetime’s reality TV series Dance Moms; danced in multiple Sia music videos and accompanied the artist on tour; was a judge on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation; and recently became a New York Times best-selling author. She stars in new film The Book of Henry alongside Naomi Watts and Jacob Tremblay.
Badass quote: “People still do consider teenagers to be moody and bratty, but I think that there are teens that are actually changing the world. Look at Zendaya; she’s amazing! There are a lot of teens that are really making a difference and I think that adults need to take us more seriously.” (In an interview with Hunger)
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