Column: The impact of the ingénue


Photo credit: Graphic Illustration by Azel Al-Kadiri

When I visualize what Hermia looks like, I see the same princesses I grew up with, wishing I could become. As we examine Shakespeare through a 21st century lens, I think its important we give female characters the vibrance and intelligence they deserve. They are more than ingénues, and so are we.

By Azel Al-Kadiri, Columnist

When the clock strikes 3 p.m., you might grab your tennis racket from your locker, put on your basketball uniform, study in the library or simply get on the bus to go home. From the Archer Chess Team to the Speech and Debate Team, after-school life is endless. I, for one, sprint to the BlackBox Theatre with a script in my hand because for many of us high school students, it’s play season. 

This spring, the talented upper school ensemble will be putting on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a Shakespeare classic. Yet his writing has never felt so complex.  

Let’s break it down. For those who are not familiar, the play is a classic Shakespearean comedy that centers around four passionate Athenian lovers known as Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. The play explores their strange and entertaining experience being controlled by fairies in a magical forest, along with many other quirky subplots. It’s great fun, to say the least. 

I have the great pleasure of playing Hermia, one of the Athenian lovers. She is sweet, polite, well-behaved and kind. Her lines exude the same helplessness and fragility that is so common in the female character archetype. She is a young girl who craves to be protected and loved; Hermia is the blueprint for the fairytales and princesses that we all grew up with.

Fast forward to hundreds of years later, me, at my feminist and all-girls institution, am instructed to portray this defenseless young maiden. Where do I start?

In our first few rehearsals, I was inspired but also overwhelmed. Learning lines is tricky enough, let alone the timeless puzzle of words that is Shakespeare’s writing. I began to act and perform the way I assumed any Hermia would. My body language became youthful and I raised the octave of my voice. I almost started to whine. 

This didn’t last long. 

Immediately Tracy Poverstein, my theatre teacher, stopped me. She said, “Azel, don’t be the ingénue.” 

This called for a Google Search. “Ingénue refers to a naive girl or young woman. 

Huh? Isn’t that what she is?

I began to not only rethink Hermia’s identity, but I also started to rethink my own. Her character is a young, courageous woman in love, and I started by portraying her as weak and without substance. This, of course, couldn’t be less accurate. Hermia’s ability to love so deeply, and sacrifice her life, is what makes her so strong. 

Nevertheless, it is the dominating male figures in her life who remind Hermia that being in love is her greatest weakness and that she has to die because of it. 

Ms. Poverstein busted this myth. Yes, she is in love, but Hermia is also a humorous, interesting and intelligent person. My own internalized misogyny created a line between love and dignity. Hermia’s love interest is not her defining personality trait. She has a mind as well as a heart. 

The play was published in the year 1600, and I’d like to think we have come a long way in the behavioral expectations of women. However, in many ways, we haven’t.  

I can think of so many times in my life when I had to appear naive and less intelligent to avoid coming off as bossy or rude. My friends feel like they have to smile at people harassing them because they don’t want to seem ungrateful. I swallow my tongue when I disagree with someone because I don’t want to interfere or make them uncomfortable. With all of this in mind, I must pose the question: Ladies, have we become the ingénues of our own lives? 

It is possible that through many generations, women have adopted their own performances. Not on stage or with a script, but instead with voices and actions, adhering to this naive archetype. Like any actor, we are trained on how to communicate and articulate our desires, this concept has been practiced for a very long time. 

In today’s rehearsal, Hermia was neither naive nor frightened of the world around her. She was bright and exceptionally fearless. She also wasn’t afraid to show it. 

It’s time we stop acting like the ingénues who taught us that women are fragile, small and only exist to be saved by men. Let’s forget the lines and put the script down, once and for all.