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Last week, when film icon Debbie Reynolds died at 84, her New York Times obituary headline dubbed her a “Wholesome Ingénue in 1950s Films.” Quickly, lookups for the etymologically French term soared, according to Merriam- Webster.
As those curious readers likely found, the Times was being slightly redundant in its description of the one-time starlet. The term “ingénue” itself ― which usually describes a wide-eyed, innocent young woman, a stage or film role depicting such a young woman, or an actress typecast as playing these roles ― denotes wholesomeness, sexual purity and naiveté, and sweetness.
When Reynolds broke into Hollywood as a teenager, she starred as girl-next-door sweethearts opposite the male matinée idols of the day in films like “Singing in the Rain” and “Bundle of Joy.” She filled a classic role at the time, guileless lead or foil to the femme fatale. Judy Garland, Joan Leslie, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly ― the bright-eyed young innocent has been a relative constant in the film industry, as established before in opera and musical theater.
In the years since Reynolds umbrella-danced with Gene Kelly, it seems American readers have forgotten about the ingénue. (Or maybe they just wanted a quick dictionary refresher.) The French word was introduced into the English vocabulary in the mid-19th century, possibly by William Makepeace Thackeray’s massive novel about a classic femme fatale who poses, when convenient, as an ingénue, Vanity Fair. Though pronounced in the French manner, the word shares its roots with “disingenuous,” a not-uncommon English term for a calculated, dissembling quality, and “ingenuous,” a less-common word for a naive, frank quality.
Entertainment writers haven’t given up on the word; it still shows up in profiles and reviews aplenty these days. But the definition has become diffuse and slippery. Vampy sexpot Megan Fox is an ingénue. Accomplished 31-year-old actress Lupita Nyong’o, upon her breakout performance after 10 years of hard, patient work, is an ingénue. Sexed-up schoolgirl Britney Spears is an ingénue. Famously surly Kristen Stewart, whose celebrity romance with Robert Pattinson was ended by a fling with an older, married director, is an ingénue. An ingénue is fresh-faced and gorgeous, but we rarely pay much mind to the connotations of innocence ― the very same LA Times article that called Fox an ingénue also dubbed her a “screen siren” and a “femme fatale,” traditionally the photo negative of an ingénue.
Not that we should be troubled by the decline of the “ingénue,” which likely has less to do with our generation’s illiteracy than with the blurring of the once-clear Madonna/whore dichotomy. If a woman can be perceived as good and wholesome despite sexual experience, the vamp vs. ingénue conflict collapses in on itself ― and these days, even most rom-com heroines know their way around a partner’s sexy bits. Depictions of women on-screen, and coverage of women in the spotlight, have progressed enough to celebrate women who speak their minds, take care of themselves, and have experience in the ways of the world. Reynolds’ own daughter, Carrie Fisher, was most famous for her role as a beautiful princess, but a space rebel warrior princess.
The ingénue isn’t just a throwback to old-school feminine values, but a reminder of something still more sinister: the racism bound up in those restrictive gender roles. While white women were expected to carefully guard their fragile virtues, presenting a pure and feminine package to their future husbands, women of color ― especially black women ― were generally treated as sexually knowing and available from a young age, regardless of their actual experience.
“Because the ingénue is implicitly white, she represents a model of respectability that is harder to achieve for girls of color,” musicologist Alexandra Apolloni argues. “As scholars, including Patricia Hill Collins, Kyra Gaunt, Beverly Skeggs, and others have argued, the sexual maturity of girls of color is assumed.”
Non-white stars were not ingénues, though they might be divas or vamps, like Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Even today, any white starlet will find it easier to be viewed as a vulnerable ingénue than a woman of color, who is more likely to be presumed sexually predatory or brassy if she doesn’t carefully craft a flawless image. No degree of acting out precludes a white woman from the label ― Miley Cyrus can gyrate against a man onstage in pasties and later be dubbed one ― but for a black woman to attract that appellation, she must be as dewy, classically beautiful, demure and unimpeachable in reputation as Lupita Nyong’o. No one is calling Nicki Minaj an ingénue.
Ingénue, as a concept and a word, has lost its power because the constructs it upheld have been vigorously undermined for decades. But the fact that it lingers at all, not just in obituaries of film stars like Reynolds ― who played numerous other roles throughout the rest of her career, anyway ― suggests that its problematic power hasn’t vanished. Perhaps we can forgive a woman, nowadays, for being sexually experienced, but the idea of a fresh, virginal girl still bears an aura of desirability that an unpracticed boy does not.
By labeling young female performers “ingénues,” we’re revealing that we associate their ability to conform to an archetype of traditional white femininity, as well as their youth and relative inexperience (real or perceived), with their star power, which we certainly still do. Two years ago, Russell Crowe rather nastily commented that older actresses should give up on expecting “play the ingénue” ― neither acknowledging the dearth of roles for women over 35 nor the heightened status granted to it girls and ingénues compared to more mature women in the spotlight.
The ingénue hasn’t gone extinct yet, despite the term’s relative rarity in 21st-century America. The concept lingers in early Taylor Swift songs about pining over a boy who prefers another, sexier girl; and in Woody Allen movies in which a bright-eyed young woman is shown the way of things by an older gentleman. The decline of the ingénue reveals only positive developments for women in and around Hollywood: That they’ve inhabited more complex roles, that they’ve been allowed to sympathetically portray sexual maturity, that women of color have fought to be viewed as innocents, and that women have made progress in being viewed as people, not as two-dimensional Madonnas or whores.
That the word, with its vaguely kittenish allure, still floats around gossip and style columns ― well, that just reveals how far we still have to go.
Follow Claire on Twitter: @claireefallon