The Character Who Made Me Love Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Amy Santiago, played by Melissa Fumero, has exploded many a pop-culture myth about smart, driven women being cold, humorless, and lonely.

Amy Santiago in 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'
Amy Santiago in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox / Brian C. Weed / Oleksandr Kostiuchenko / Mega Pixel / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

When I first met Amy Santiago, she was everything I never knew I wanted in a television character. I encountered the Cuban-American NYPD detective in early 2014, after Brooklyn Nine-Nine won two Golden Globes in its first season and landed on my radar. Initially, it seemed like a formulaic comedy about an immature cop, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), butting heads with a new captain, Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Jake’s fellow officer, rival, and love interest, Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), appeared to be the “straight woman” to his renegade cop. I thought I knew what their dynamic would be: that she was the rule follower who’d try to put him in line, and he was the rule flouter who’d outperform her anyway. But this is not where Michael Schur and Dan Goor’s comedy goes.

In its earliest moments, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does indeed establish Amy as competitive and goal-oriented. In the pilot, it’s revealed that she and Jake have an ongoing bet about who can apprehend the most criminals. Later, she tells Jake she wants their new boss to mentor her so she can eventually become a captain herself. When Jake goofs off at the scene of a robbery, Amy reprimands him. But after he reveals that he already solved the case, and cracks another joke, Amy reacts with a smile. With that smile, an amazing thing happened: Amy became lovable, too, subtly defying the idea that there’s something inherently unpleasant about an ambitious, brainy woman.

In the five seasons since, the Latina detective has flourished on the show, using her smarts to solve countless cases, going undercover in a women’s prison, and becoming the first of her peers to be promoted to sergeant. For five years, through my college graduation, first job, and the uncertainties of early adulthood, I have followed Amy and the rest of the precinct’s adventures. So, you can imagine my (short-lived) disappointment when Fox canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine last month—though NBC rescued the show the very next day. It turned out that, while the comedy didn’t have good enough Nielsen ratings for its original network, it did have uncommonly passionate fans (including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Guillermo del Toro, and Mark Hamill) who rallied on Twitter to keep it going. As Linda Holmes noted at NPR, the reversal itself was ultimately a business decision, but the outcry was a reminder of all the qualities that make the show so fiercely loved.

Indeed, there’s a lot to love about Brooklyn Nine-Nine: its diverse cast, its ability to organically tackle serious topics such as racial profiling via the sitcom format, and its absurd-silly brand of humor (in one Season 5 cold open, Jake has suspects sing the Backstreet Boys in a line-up). What stands out in a quieter way for me—and I’m sure for many other viewers—is that, in a genre where women are often circumscribed within limited roles, Brooklyn Nine-Nine fluidly embraces the many dimensions of its female characters. The motorcycle jacket­­–clad Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), easily the toughest member of the squad, also loves Nancy Meyers films, used to attend a ballet academy, and comes out as bisexual in Season 5. The precinct’s apparently narcissistic administrator, Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti)—who fascinates a group of psychologists in a Season 1 episode for her “complete overlap of ego and id”—saves the Nine-Nine from being shut down in Season 4 and becomes a devoted mother in Season 5. The unabashedly nerdy Amy Santiago, then, seems to be a natural product of a show that seeks to write women fully.

Comedy, of course, demands exaggeration, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine manages to play on Amy’s nerdiness without implicitly condemning that part of her personality. In a Season 2 gag, Holt tells Amy, “No offense, but you are something of a teacher’s pet,” to which Amy responds without missing a beat, “None taken. People love their pets.” The show defines Amy by qualities not often seen together in women onscreen: She loves rules but isn’t afraid to break them when they’re unjust, she chases perfection but can’t give up cigarettes, she is obsessed with crossword puzzles but thrives in a dangerous, physically demanding profession.

A lesser show would see Amy through the eyes of Gina, who jokes about wanting to She’s All That her colleague, transforming her into a more palatable version of femininity. Fortunately, Gina’s perspective is not Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s. The show makes a point of illustrating that Amy’s smartness doesn’t mean she’s an unappealing, solitary genius. In fact, Jake’s pursuit of Amy—and their subsequent relationship—is central to the comedy and, to its credit, the show doesn’t use his interest in her as lazy shorthand for her desirability. Jake and Amy’s relationship starts off as a playful rivalry, and then grows into one cemented by mutual respect.

As Joanna Robinson notes in Vanity Fair, the pair appreciates each other’s flaws, with Amy enjoying Jake’s “juvenile frat-boy humor” and Jake valuing her “obsessive need for organization.” Their connection allows the show to emphasize Amy’s vulnerability and Jake’s supportiveness. When Amy is nervous about an exam, Jake sets up a mock test for her. When she worries that her potential promotion will alter their relationship, he responds, “I mean, this is your dream, from before we were dating. And yeah, things might change a little, but for the better, right?” He tells her what she, and other brilliant women like her, sometimes need to hear: “Look, you can’t be afraid to be successful. You’re too good for that.”

Theirs is a dynamic not often seen on network TV, which has struggled with representing accomplished and intelligent women. In the 2007 book Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, the Miami University professor Sherrie A. Innes writes that film and TV typically depict smart women as “aberrations” and that “if brilliant women are not portrayed as outsiders, they vanish entirely.” Citing work in educational psychology, Innes argues that seeing negative social depictions of intelligent girls teaches girls that they should hide their academic ability in order to be accepted by others. Perhaps one reason that well-written, smart female characters in network comedies—like Amy Santiago, Rory from Gilmore Girls, and Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation—resonate so strongly is because audiences rarely get to see them.

A look at two of the most popular network sitcoms of the last decade offers a useful contrast to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Another Amy over at CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Amy Farrah Fowler, is a neurobiologist who fits the socially-awkward-smart-woman archetype despite having the potential to be a better developed character. Much of her arc revolves around being unlucky in love until she finds an even more socially awkward partner in the show’s lead, Sheldon Cooper. On the same series, Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz—a scientist who’s smarter and more financially successful than her husband, Howard—is usually reduced to the scary-bitch trope. Meanwhile, the resident smart kid on ABC’s Modern Family, Alex Dunphy, suffers a similar social penalty for being bookish: In one Season 2 episode, she asks, “So dumb guys go for dumb girls, and smart guys go for dumb girls? What do smart girls get?” The punch line, courtesy of her father, arrives: “Cats, mostly.” Since then, Alex’s love life has largely struggled to escape the realm of jokes. Season 9 has her crushing on her Caltech professor who falls for her sister Haley—the quintessential popular girl—at first sight.

Pop culture has long reinforced the idea that intelligence and desirability can’t easily coexist in a female character. When I was in middle school, I remember seeing a reality show called Beauty and the Geek, which paired attractive young women (dubbed “beauties”) with intelligent, awkward men (“geeks”) to compete for prizes—the very title, and premise, of the show implied the gendered distribution of these roles in society. In a recent episode, Brooklyn Nine-Nine allows Amy to break down this dichotomy while recognizing its cultural pervasiveness.

Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz (left) and Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago (center) in a Season 5 episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

Soon after she’s promoted to sergeant in Season 5, Amy finds herself juggling the dual demands of wedding-dress shopping and being a leader in the historically male world of law enforcement. Her attempts to hide the fact that she’s looking for a dress from her co-workers—shutting her laptop so Rosa doesn't see a boutique's website open and averting her gaze, later, when they walk past a bridal store—make for some light comedy. But then Rosa, in a sobering moment, asks Amy why she’s “being such a nutjob” about the whole process. So Amy tells her, “Because being a female sergeant is difficult. I have to work twice as hard to gain my officers’ respect and looking at girly dresses isn’t going to help.” In order to become a worthy leader, Amy feels she must abandon her “girly” side and become the type of emotionless female boss that people expect.

The arc, true to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s history of doing right by Amy, culminates in an action sequence that involves her chasing a perpetrator while still wearing a voluminous wedding dress that Rosa convinces her to try on during their break. (Amy apprehends him using her sash.) Afterward, when the gown sparks discussion at the precinct, Amy tries to get everyone to return to work and change the subject, but Rosa stops her: “No, we’re gonna talk about [dresses], because while wearing a wedding dress you leapt over a couch, sprinted down an alley, and jumped off a car to subdue the crap out of a perp like you were Wonder Woman.” And then she gives Amy the reassurance she needs: “You are an amazing cop and a great leader and you’ve proven that a billion times over.” Rosa’s words are enough to get Amy to admit she’d like a “prettier” gown after all, and to proclaim exactly what kind of dress she wants: “a mermaid cut with tulip—freakin’—sleeves.”

That Brooklyn Nine-Nine has created a successful woman who’s not there to be a killjoy is a rare achievement—that it has done so with a Cuban American character is rarer still. Perhaps this is why Amy is all the more relatable to viewers of color like myself. When it comes to Latinas in particular, television has relied on the oversexualized, feisty stereotype more often than not (Modern Family’s Gloria, for all Sofia Vergara’s comedic talents, comes to mind). But the landscape is slowly changing: In 2014, Jane the Virgin unveiled a Latina protagonist with Rory Gilmore–like traits, a year after Amy Santiago arrived. Speaking to Us Weekly a few years later, Fumero recalled how she and her co-star Beatriz couldn’t believe Brooklyn Nine-Nine had hired two Latinas. She credited the creators, Schur and Goor, for the decision: “For them, they were just like, ‘This is what Brooklyn looks like.’” Amy and Rosa are “not spicy and sassy” stereotypes, Fumero said, because Schur and Goor simply “wrote real human-being characters and then just gave the roles to two Latinas.”

When television imagines characters as real human beings, audiences often respond—as Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fans did most vocally during the show’s brief cancellation. The last episode of Season 5 embodied the humor, irreverence, and warmth that viewers would have mourned were it, in fact, the series finale. Near the end, Captain Holt officiates Amy and Jake’s wedding. “It has been a true pleasure,” he tells them, “to watch your distracting childish rivalry evolve into a distracting childish courtship and, now, into what I’m sure will be a distracting childish marriage.” That a responsible, “teacher’s pet” like Amy formed half of that “distracting childish courtship” is important. Sure, she’s an accomplished professional. She’s also, Holt acknowledges, a woman who indulges her immature side, who’s known—and loved—for the many different parts of herself.