Female characters continue to prove they’re more than just one thing, despite complicated life circumstances and the labels others insist on placing on them. This year’s crop of lead actress Emmy nominees do it with aplomb, using preconceived notions to gain power or to tell comeback stories. Often underestimated, these characters reconcile how others see them with their true selves in order to tell complex and nuanced stories about an ongoing female experience.
From Jean Smart’s transition as a comedian who finally sheds the fire-starting ex-wife jokes in order to make a real difference on HBO Max’s “Hacks,” to Kate Winslet’s turn as a grieving detective separating the personal from the professional on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” to Elisabeth Moss embracing her post-Gilead anger in a tangible way on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” stories about women blowing past preconceptions and reclaiming their narratives are shining through.
It all starts with normalizing complex characters, according to “The Queen’s Gambit” star and lead limited series/TV movie actress nominee Anya Taylor-Joy. Her character Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy whom fellow competitors write off at first glance, was born without the rulebook of what women are supposed to want in an era when that rulebook was gospel. As a result, she doesn’t spend much time contemplating her gender, despite often being the only woman in the room.
“Right to the camera language and the way that she regarded herself, we afforded her the same opportunity that male characters get all the time without question,” Taylor-Joy says. “You never look at a complicated male character and go, ‘He’s such a complicated man.’ He’s just an individual.”
On HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” Cassie Bowden, portrayed by lead comedy actress nominee Kaley Cuoco, is an individual with past trauma who is placed in a surreal situation when she wakes up next to a dead one-night stand. As with many people in such a situation, she turns to alcohol to cope. As a result, others write her off as another female trope, “the hot mess.” But when you break it down, alcohol is what keeps her going as she solves the season-long mystery.
“That’s her survival. The alcohol is actually what keeps her normal,” Cuoco says. “She’s a high-functioning alcoholic — the times she was falling apart was when she didn’t have a drink. We can’t fight for a character who is just 24/7 going downhill, but the way we wrote her and the way we portrayed her, you still love her and realize that it’s OK to be a little bit broken.”
The problem with alcohol and other vices is that they work until they don’t. Taylor-Joy also tackles addiction in her show, and she points out that male characters who rely on vices to get through or to create are often revered and sometimes even glamorized.
“We have countless examples of tortured male geniuses who are addicts, and sometimes they exhibit bad behavior and treat their friends and their partners badly and we don’t question it,” she says. “Sometimes we even regard it as a good thing or as an enviable thing. Female characters with that have just been considered messes.”
On Hulu’s “Shrill,” Annie Easton, played by lead comedy actress nominee Aidy Bryant, doesn’t suffer from addiction, but she’s still a character who messes up and makes selfish decisions, despite how others expect her to act. Even though Annie decides early on to accept and love herself for who she is (a fat woman with something to say), that doesn’t mean her life is immediately perfect.
“Body positivity, even in its name, is misleading: ‘Love yourself, it’s just that easy,’” Bryant says. “Any person with a human body knows that it’s more complicated than that. She’s not perfect and also, she doesn’t even think she’s trying to be perfect. She’s just trying to get like a baseline acceptance of herself so that she can move on with her life.”
In the show’s third and final season, those feelings come to a crescendo when Annie realizes that she’s written off her blind date (Cameron Britton) simply because of his size, and that she has projected her own insecurities about how people define her onto what could potentially be a healthy relationship. She tells him as much when she runs into him later at a party, in a scene that was partially improvised.
“That was a cathartic experience because it was a really high-level introspection,” Bryant says. “She’s not just apologizing for being an asshole. She’s fessing up to how her own self-hatred projected itself onto the person who did nothing wrong. In many ways she did the thing that she most feared people would do to her. That realization is pretty massive, and it’s also a very sexy place for these two to start their relationship. It’s a major moment of vulnerability.”
These stories reflect the everyday female experience, in which women are just doing their best to be so many things at once, despite how society has pigeonholed them. They aren’t always liked for speaking their truth or having a vice or not conforming to diet culture, but they’re real.
“We do have a long way to go,” says Taylor-Joy. “There is an old guard that still has these preconceived notions of women as not being as good, or just second class. But I have a lot of hope for the future generations because the conversations have started, in politics and in art and in culture in general.”
“We’re seeing so many more shows and films that are female-driven with problematic women, women that have issues, women that aren’t 100% likable, and that’s OK,” adds Cuoco. “They can still tell the story, we can still learn from them. We all have our issues and bringing them to the screen is super important. Men have been able to get away with doing terrible things for a long time. So, I think it’s OK for women to be a little bit broken, but also be able to be fixed.”