’ve always had a thing for Blair Waldorf. The sometimes antagonist of the CW’s teen soap Gossip Girl always seemed like exactly the kind of girl I would want to be if I had access to her wealth and freedom. She was cutting, sarcastic and usually downright mean, but she was also self-possessed, Machiavellian and clever; a kind of alt-world Slytherin-sorted Hermione Granger. Over Gossip Girl’s six seasons, Blair blossomed into a young woman with a clearly defined sense of self, a razor sharp focus on what she wanted and an unwavering determination to get it. I just generally liked to forget that what she wanted was usually the social destruction of some other poor girl who happened to stand in her way.
Despite her well-documented flaws, Blair always seemed preferable next to her best friend and nemesis Serena Van der Woodsen. Tall, blonde, and a black hole of male attention, Serena was always positioned as the innocent damsel to Blair’s conniving villainess. It was a dichotomy that never sat well with me, perhaps because I could more easily identify with Blair’s desire to escape Serena’s shadow than Serena’s desire to be the girl that all the boys dreamed of. Blair stood out to me not necessarily because she was a villain, but because she existed in direct contrast to Serena. She wasn’t evil, Serena was just kinder.
When I came to terms with my fondness for Blair, it occured to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d sided with the devilish vamp over the perky ingénue. Whether it’s Glee‘s Santana Lopez or 90210‘s Naomi Clark, the “bitchy” bad girls have always been my favorites. I resented the easy dichotomy female characters were often sorted into and preferring the villainess felt like a bit of teenage rebellion. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that I was picking up on the coded ideas about women that were being presented and roundly rejecting the narrative that a good woman is, first and foremost, helpless.
Stories are built on tropes, and tropes about women are built on binaries. Whether it’s the Madonna or the Whore, the Maiden or the Crone, or the Ingénue or the Vamp, as women we are often forced to pick an all-encompassing identity from a short-list of pre-prescribed options that rarely represent the fullness and complexity of who we are as people, and that’s never more apparent than it is on television. This kind of shorthand is used to communicate larger cultural ideas about women, and frees filmmakers and storytellers from having to develop more complex characters. This isn’t a new complaint; women in Hollywood have been begging for more nuanced and representative roles for years, and with increasing fervor — in many cases, they’re finally just writing roles for themselves. It’s pretty clear that these discrete binaries no longer serve the diverse ways we want to represent women on screen.
The ingénue was originally imagined as a female filmic stock character who is beautiful, kind, naive and pure. Her innocence makes her vulnerable to conniving men who wish her ill, and she is often the main focus of romantic affection. Conversely, the vamp is mysterious and seductive; she uses her feminine wiles to mislead and waylay men to her own advantage. Rather than welcoming male attention and traditional ideas about love and marriage like the virtuous ingénue, the nefarious vamp manipulates men’s advances for her own gain, is promiscuous and abandons hearth and home. She is a villain because she rejects the life that requires a man.
Today those tropes have morphed into your romantic comedy heroines and your blunt bobbed working women. One is afforded sympathy, sentiment and the benefit of the doubt, while the other is stuck making hard decisions about difficult situations and being punished for reacting out of self-preservation. The vamp might be a “difficult woman,” but she’s busy getting things done, while the ingénue is waiting to be saved. The ingénue is a perpetual victim, and the world (and the story) revolves around her. The vamp, meanwhile, is forced to take care of herself.
Think of Edie Britt and Susan Delfino of Desperate Housewives, or Katherine Pierce and Elena Gilbert of The Vampire Diaries, or Regina Mills and Emma Swan of Once Upon A Time, or even Kalinda Sharma and Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife. In each of these examples, the ingénue is almost uniformly perceived as innocent, kind or otherwise wholesome, while the vamp’s adversarial relationship to men is a central and significant part of her character. The ingénues are given their happy endings while the vamps are eventually felled by their deceitful nature or promiscuity. It’s an easy way for filmmakers to demonstrate which women they believe are worthy of an audience’s sympathy.
Additionally, the racial implications of the way ingénues and vamps are cast and costumed are easily identifiable — and it’s always easy to see where on the spectrum black girls were meant to land. Ingénues are nearly always blonde with bouncy tresses and wear light-colored clothing that is breezy and romantic. Vamps are largely brunette with severe hairstyles and darker-colored clothing that reads as somehow foreboding. Think, Elle Woods and Vivian Kensington from Legally Blonde, Peyton Sawyer and Brooke Davis from One Tree Hill, or Emily Thorne and Victoria Grayson from Revenge. While all these women are white, the deployment of the light and dark dichotomy aligns darkness with villainy and lightness with virtue. As a black woman, it means that, metaphorically, I am always on the wrong side of the story.
As we move toward stories that allow women to be more than one thing, the ingénue/vamp dichotomy has broken down significantly, but shades of these reductive tropes remain. These storytelling constructs give us an easy way to identify where our sympathies should lie, but they don’t allow for the possibility that every woman is a little compromised under patriarchy, and most are striving to be their best selves despite it. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I’ll always prefer to be the cunning vamp than the ingénue in need of rescue.
Cate Young is a freelance writer and pop culture critic in Trinidad and Tobago, and the creator of BattyMamzelle; a feminist pop culture blog where she writes about film, television, music and critical commentary on media representation.