We’re moving into a new age where the heroines of movies and TV shows do not have to be pictures of perfection inwardly and outwardly. Audiences are embracing flawed women on-screen, and writers, producers, studios, and TV networks are catching on to this notion. I noticed this trend slowly emerging in recent years, and now that there are social movements such as #TimesUp and #MeToo underway, I expect we will see even more of this.
Now when I say “flawed,” I’m not referring to female villains (though it is nice to see those too). I’m talking about real, imperfect women leading real, imperfect lives – which is what I want to see, and I believe a lot of other women (and men) like to see that as well. I think that we all relate to real, relatable heroines (and heroes) in movies and on TV because we are human beings, which automatically means we have flaws. Even the most “together” of us have things we deal with or struggle with behind the scenes that often only those very closest to us have even an inkling of.
In movies, we only have two hours or less to fall in love with the characters and go on a full-blown journey with them, which is why flawed movie protagonists often have some kind of traumatic back story or “reason” for their behavior or pain. By necessity, things are often simplified or abbreviated. In TV shows, we get to spend more time with a character so we can discover more layers and see more shades of them. That’s why I think we see some of the very best characters in TV shows. It’s just easier to develop a richly layered character – male or female – if you have more time to do so.
Here are some of my favorite complex TV heroines of current or recent shows:
June & Moira in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (portrayed by Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley)
Currently airing season 2
These two women aren’t flawed so much as they live in a deeply flawed dystopian society (that’s an understatement). Both women vacillate between moments of self-preservation and reckless courage. They both make sacrifices and have moments where they have to choose between being selfish or selfless. They struggle to maintain their sense of identity within a patriarchal society where they are seen as objects. But through it all, their will to survive and find meaning in life persists, and their deep female bond of friendship with each other can’t be severed.
Throughout the show, we also get to see June’s back story and some of the choices she made in life prior to the fall of civilization as she knows it. She wrestles with some of those past choices in her mind.
Yvonne Strahovski as the Commander’s wife Mrs. Waterford does a wonderful job portraying a woman who has lost her ability to feel empathy in this new, twisted world that she helped create. I’m curious to see if she will have any chance for redemption because so far she’s been pretty awful – even sadistic in moments – but there have been a few glimmers of feelings beneath the surface. Is that just her own narcissism, or does she occasionally feel empathy?
And Ann Dowd’s portrayal of Aunt Lydia is one of the most interesting elements of the show. Aunt Lydia is an abusive teacher at the Red Center where the Handmaids are indoctrinated with society’s new belief system (often through violence). She believes what she’s doing is truly wholesome and holy, which is what makes her character so fascinating. She loves the Handmaids and therefore must hurt the Handmaids. Yeah, okay, Aunt Lydia. Neither of these women fall into my category of “flawed females” that we love to love. No, they are straight-out villains, but their performances are so rich and complex that I thought they were worth a mention.
Carrie in Showtime’s Homeland (portrayed by Claire Danes)
The eighth and final season airs soon
Carrie sometimes struggles with her bipolar disorder, and she is often confrontational and occasionally reckless. But she’s also fearless, intelligent, and dedicated to her work as a CIA officer with a fierce devotion that is admirable.
Sarah in AMC’s The Killing (portrayed by Mireille Enos)
All four seasons available on Netflix
In the pursuit of justice, Sarah sometimes neglects her son (or even taking care of herself in the most basic of ways). But she truly loves her son and cares about the people involved in the murder cases that she relentlessly investigates as a homicide detective.
Olivia in ABC’s Scandal (portrayed by Kerry Washington)
The seventh and final season just aired
Olivia, the owner of crisis management firm in Washington D.C., is an expert at fixing other peoples’ scandals and repairing their reputations but she struggles with her own personal life… notably her complicated, passionate affair with the married President of the United States. Bellamy Young also shines as the First Lady, a strong woman who always has her eye on the end goal (at almost any cost).
Cora in USA Network’s The Sinner (portrayed by Jessica Biel)
Season 1 available on Amazon; Season 2 coming soon
In the opening episode of this limited series, Cora murders a man for seemingly no reason. The big question is, Why did she do it? As the series unfolds, we learn that Cora grew up in a bleak and deeply religious household full of guilt, judgment, illness, and the strictest of rules. And in Cora’s early twenties, she suffered extreme trauma that is central to the mysterious question of why? The character of Cora is complicated, and it’s fascinating to see the story behind the murder slowly unveil.
Christine in season 1 of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience (portrayed by Riley Keough)
Available on Starz On Demand and Amazon
Christine is a high-end escort who is emotionally distant and not afraid to live her life in a moral gray area. But she is also driven and cunning. Oh, and not afraid to live her life in a moral gray area.
In other words: Complex, flawed, interesting women.
I think it’s easier to find compelling, complicated females in TV than it is in movies, so I’m going to highlight three lesser-known movies with flawed heroines:
May and Shiva in Bleeding Heart (2015) – Written and directed by Diane Bell, this suspenseful, tense character drama premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is about a yoga instructor named May (Jessica Biel) who has always wanted to track down the sister she’s never known. At the outset of the movie, she has finally located her, a young woman named Shiva (Zosia Mamet). After May connects with her, she discovers that Shiva has a dangerous lifestyle with an abusive boyfriend. May commits herself to saving Shiva, at almost any cost.
The film includes powerful performances from both Biel and Mamet, with the latter shedding her good girl image from the TV show Girls to portray a troubled character. Biel also gives a very dramatic, intense performance as May, who might seem as though she is not nearly as outwardly flawed as Shiva. After all, May is a yoga instructor with a nice boyfriend. But she’s also the bleeding heart of this aptly titled film, and because of that bleeding heart, May ignores warning signs and is quick to shatter her own carefully constructed and controlled environment in order to create and protect the sisterhood she’s never had. Perhaps it’s one part honorable and one part reckless (with a dash of obliviousness), but it’s also understandable behavior from a woman who yearns for a family.
You can view the trailer for Bleeding Heart here.
All the females in Every Secret Thing (2014) – This crime drama/mystery follows a detective (Elizabeth Banks) as she tries to unravel a mystery surrounding a missing child and the prime suspects: two young women recently released from prison who, seven years ago, were put away for an infant’s death. Based on the novel by Lauran Lippman and directed by Amy Berg, this film has a strong cast that also includes Diane Lane and Dakota Fanning.
I love seeing Elizabeth Banks in dramatic roles. She’s received the most notice for her comedic or quirky roles in films such as Pitch Perfect and The Hunger Games series, but she is a fantastic dramatic actress. This story also features a strange mother/daughter relationship between Diane Lane’s character and her daughter (one of the accused) and constantly shifting perceptions as to who each person really, truly is at their core.
You can view the trailer for Every Secret Thing here.
Summer and her younger sister Trina in Last Seen in Idaho (2018) – Full disclosure: I wrote, produced, and starred in this movie, so I’m biased (actually, I’m probably extra critical of it for that reason). Directed by Eric Colley, this film follows Summer as she witnesses a crime being committed by her ex-boyfriend. Summer flees the scene and wrecks her car, later awakening from a coma to discover that she was “dead” for five minutes before the doctors brought her back. And that’s not all. Summer is now having shocking visions of her future murder, a murder that is surely tied in some mysterious way to the crime she witnessed. It’s a race against the clock as she tries to solve and prevent her own murder.
I enjoyed writing and playing Summer. She has a rough past with a minor rap sheet, but she’s since cleaned up her life and strives to be a good role model for her younger sister Trina (played by Alexis Monnie), who is an optimistic character who lacks street smarts. In this story, the checkered past comes back to haunt Summer. And when it does, she is more than ready to be the tough girl of yesterday in order to protect herself and her sister.
Last Seen in Idaho is more of a suspense/thriller than a character drama or character mystery like the previous two recommended movies, so it does spend less time delving into Summer’s deepest thoughts and despairs. Summer’s life goes haywire pretty quickly, and from that point on, it’s a suspenseful survival story with twists and turns. But underscoring all of that is Summer’s desire to be better than her past. And I think we can all relate to that in some way – the desire to be a better version of ourselves and rise above past regrets.
You can view the trailer for Last Seen in Idaho here.
The film is available on DVD and VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, Xbox, PlayStation, Vudu, and through local cable/satellite providers.
For more flawed heroines, check out these movies:
Nocturnal Animals (Amy Adams)
Wild (Reese Witherspoon)
Dark Places (Charlize Theron)
The Girl on the Train (Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, and Haley Bennett)
Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence)
Secret in their Eyes (Julia Roberts)
The Edge of Seventeen (Hailee Steinfeld)
Please share your favorite flawed heroines in the comments section!
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.