The Necessity of Literature's 'Flawed Woman'



Women’s presence in literature is the most prominent it has ever been. Not too long ago, talented women writers were forced to write under pseudonyms, and today, women writers are now able to dominate best-seller lists.

The women who exist within fiction itself have also accumulated growing importance. The protagonists, the secondary characters, and the prevailing portrayal of the fictional woman have been subject to what can only be described as a necessary change. While early traditional stories and fairy-tales were often guilty of producing the infamous ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype, the women written into more recent literature have evolved to match their non-fictional counterparts; and, thankfully, an increasing number of them now display traits and desires which stretch beyond a desperate need to be rescued by a handsome Prince.

Enter ‘the flawed woman’, a distinct and essential act of opposition to the pitifully two-dimensional ‘damsel in distress’. She can be a multitude of different things, and appears in many different forms. She can be messy. She can make mistakes. She can possess traits we might not traditionally recognise as feminine, and she can challenge this gender stereotype along the way. The flawed woman can be imperfect in a sweet, charming, comedic way, or she can be corrupt, immoral and loathsome; but she is always written in a way that is, even in the smallest manifestations; relatable. 

I, quite recently, was somewhat horrified when a friend returned a book I had lent her, devoid of the glowing review with which I had handed it over. The book, which was much loved on my part, was Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut novel Conversations with Friends, and my friend had professed in a simple but heart-shattering declaration that while she enjoyed the story, she simply did not like the protagonist, Frances.

As someone who had devoured the novel in a few days and who had gone on to sing its praises to more or less anyone who would listen, I took this remark almost as a personal attack. I had adored every word that had made up Frances’ creation, and had, at many points, found myself relating to her. When pressed on why she did not take to Frances in the same way that I quite obviously had; my friend stated that she found her to be inherently selfish, cruel and as a result, wholly unlikeable.  

After a quick scour of the various rates and reviews left by readers of the novel, I realised that my friend is not alone in her perception of Frances. Rooney’s characters, and her protagonists specifically, are often the reason for a damning condemnation of the novel. Readers describe Frances as ‘cold and self-indulgent,’ ‘capricious,’ and downright ‘horrible,’ and, despite my protestations; they are right. Frances does, in many incidences, effortlessly align herself with these descriptions. She continually makes choices that are almost solely for the benefit of herself, and often to the detriment of others. 

She makes decisions that are ruled by her emotions and her innate desires, and does so impulsively; with the type of headstrong yet naïve outlook that seems to be so frequently present in those who are intelligent without experience. She is all at once intellectually insightful and totally lacking in self-awareness. But that is what makes her so great. 

Because despite our best efforts, we, as real-life human beings, are intrinsically flawed. We are mutually imperfect, and every single one of us is capable of traits that are distinctly undesirable. The attraction of the flawed woman, therefore, is that she is one of us. She is not a glossy, creases ironed-out, perpetually perfect protagonist - smiling at the camera for her Photoshop-free headshot. She presents herself as the very parts of our own character which we recognise, but might not like, and she looks like someone you’d walk past on the street: running late again with a face half-done with make-up. 

The characterisation of this 'flawed woman' is also evident in much earlier literature, and often; in representations you might not expect. One such depiction is that of Daisy Buchanan. A creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Daisy has been endlessly discussed, and widely despised by both critics and readers alike since the novel’s first publication in 1925. She is, in some respects, a classic damsel. She submissively bends to the will of the men in her life, and is portrayed as both fragile and charming, ‘sad and lovely’.

But Daisy also makes the wrong choices. The object of Gatsby’s self-destructive desires; Daisy willingly accepts his affections before seemingly turning her back on him; choosing instead a route based on her own materialistic aspirations, and an undeniable desire for social prominence. As Daisy chooses between the ‘brute’ she is married to, and the man she allegedly so dearly loves; we, as readers, watch her make the wrong choice. She chooses the wrong man, for the wrong reasons. We judge her to be inordinately shallow, callous, and cowardly, writing her off as an unpleasant two-dimensional character. 

However, it is this very decision which makes Daisy so human. Daisy’s situation is the kind we worry about. The one we might play over and over again in our heads late at night, just in case we might one day have to face it. We imagine ourselves making the morally correct decision - a glowing beacon of ethical virtue; unwavering in the face of societal expectation and materialism. But, when this sort of decision worms its way into real, un-imaginary life; our halos have a tendency to slip; our decisions so very rarely ‘correct.’ 

Like Daisy, the vast majority of us are easily swayed by trivial and often selfish desires; and, as Daisy, in this incidence, makes the decision we all hope to god that we wouldn’t. We are reminded that we are equally capable of doing the same. Far from being the shallow, two-dimensional character we often describe her to be; Daisy represents a fickle and easily manipulated side to human nature - one that we ardently wish did not exist; and of this, she is poignantly self-aware. Professing early on in the novel that she believes ‘the best thing a girl can be in this world, [is] a beautiful little fool,’ Daisy exposes an acute disaffection towards her own intelligence; the intelligence by which she is able to recognise herself as flawed.  

It is also worth noting that ‘flawed’ can mean a multitude of different things. It can, in the incidences of Daisy and Frances, make these women somewhat unlikeable. It can depict attributes or behaviour that we might normally condemn, but not entirely abhor. But the flawed woman can also sit either side of this middle ground. Some, we might adore for the very traits that make her flawed; and some we might question if she has any redeeming features at all.  

There is also, of course, the arguable lighter side of the flawed woman. The more palatable end of the spectrum. The women we love for their flaws. For me, it is, and has always been, Holly Golightly. The protagonist of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly is utterly charming in the way she is so inherently useless. She continually makes mistakes, she is horribly bad with money; and her idea of coping with the anxiety she calls the ‘mean reds’, is hopping in a cab and going to Tiffany’s. Holly has so very little foresight and even less intention to plan the rest of her life, and we love her for it, because sometimes our flaws really are that small. Sometimes, they do not present as weighty, life-altering mistakes. They do not always make us immoral or unlikeable, and sometimes - quite the opposite. Sometimes it is as simple as always running late, or always forgetting to put the bins out. Most of the time, the value of our flaws is simply that they make us human. 

Despite our occasional protestation to the contrary - people are not simply one thing or another. We all possess the ability to be both good and bad, often at the same time. Your Ex might, in your mind, be the most deplorable human on the planet, but there is no doubt a multitude of others who believe the opposite.

The charm of the flawed woman is that she is capable of illustrating this duality. She is multi-faceted. Sometimes you might come across her and love her; and sometimes you despise her. She is continually capable of both. She, in all her imperfection, outgrows mere words on a page. And that’s fine, because humans are a complicated bunch, and every aspect of us deserves representation. The flawed woman might be great, and she might be terrible; but she is always a culmination of these flaws, and she is always sheer joy to read.