One of the great developments in the last 15 years or so, is that female characters have been given center stage on TV shows. Not only are they the lead character in many instances, but they are playing the role of hero. It isn’t so much that it is fun to watch an attractive female deliver a crescent kick to the face of some thug (although it is pretty sweet), it is about there actually being a place in the entertainment world where women are presented as empowered. In my non TV experience I have met many a women was confident and self possessed, yet there has been a historical under representation of those women. One of the fun things about TV is that when that empowerment finally showed up, it showed up exaggerated in fun butt kicking ways. Although it isn’t just through the ability to cause physical violence that these women are on this list, their strength can come through in terms of personality. Their wit is just as deadly a weapon. Since I’ve already posted about some cool guys, I am delighted to have plenty of great options to discuss when it comes to leading women.
10. Max Guevera – Jessica Alba – Dark Angel
Essentially created in a lab by a dystopian future US military operation on the Pacific Northwest, Max was designed to be awesome. Very much in the model of a super-hero, she had faster reflexes, added strength, acrobatic ability, and some feline DNA. All those things qualify her for this discussion, but over the two years that Dark Angel aired Max seemed to grow as a character. I think this was in large part due to Alba growing as an actress, as she was fairly new to it when getting cast in the lead role of the series. Sure Max was designed to kick butt and did all sorts of cool motorcycle stunts, but the character became about being a leader in a community. I always wonder if the series could have gotten really good if it had stayed on the air.
9. Kara Thrace – Katee Sackhoff – Battlestar Galactica
If it weren’t for the movie star looks, gender almost doesn’t come into play with Kara Thrace. She was a fighter jock through and through, and in many ways one that was far more aggressive than her male counterparts. Willing to mix it up with anyone, including superior officers, Thrace had the spirit of a fighter through and through. At points during the series, weird things happened with the character and destiny that don’t easily fit with her gritty pilot archetype, so I’m placing that to the back of mind. Instead of think of her heavy drinking, excessive cursing, cigar chomping, and punching anything that moved and it makes me happy.
8. Veronica Mars – Kristen Bell – Veronica Mars
Small in stature, Veronica didn’t fight her battles with fists or crescent kicks. She outwitted. Which isn’t to say she wasn’t above playing dirty or the metaphorical cheap shot. She truly believed in the concept of revenge, and bringing her enemies to her knees. Hardened by the death of a friend and being outcast from the society she had once been a part, Mars had a stomach doing the tough things which was well beyond her years. Not only was it fun to watch smarts win, but she was about as clever with a quip as any TV character I can think of. Fortunately we’ll get to see this character reprised on the big screen.
7. Kima Greggs – Sonja Sohn – The Wire
In some alternative universe I could see The Wire being a cop show in which the female lead struggled for acceptance and respect in a male dominated profession. Kind of like what the American version of Prime Suspect was about. Nope. In this show the female cop, despite being small in stature, is afforded the deserved respect of being on of the toughest members of the force. Alpha males like McNulty have zero problem partnering up with her and treating as an equal. Her performance as a cop doesn’t ever waiver from tough and competent either. No, The Wire is not a show about empowering its female character. It is a show where she is already empowered and everyone is cool with that.
6. Carrie Mathison – Claire Daines – Homeland
I have yet to watch the second season of Homeland, which reports suggest devolves into an awkward romance involving Carrie. All I know is that in the first season she is pretty amazing. Despite having some crippling mental health issues it was Carrie who was able to see what nobody else could. She fought through her illness, the disbelief of others, and even her own personal feelings to trust her gut about Brody being a sleeper agent. While Homeland ultimately is a very silly show, it was Daines performance that brought this character to life that really grounded the show in some sense of reality.
5. Aeryn Sun – Claudia Black – Farscape
The first time I watched Farscape i initially was not a fan of Aeryn. Claudia Black isn’t the typical leading lady and I was unsure that she could ever have chemistry with the rest of the cast. Whoops. What I saw as a lack of chemistry was a deliberate effort to show a character transforming from an aloof conformist uncomfortable with emotion to the heart of the show. Aeryn never stops being tough from the first scene to the last, but her journey of incorporating empathy over the years while remaining formidable was remarkable. Whenever the show wanted to do something serious they turned to their best dramatic character/actress and the goods were delivered.
4. Sarah Walker – Yvonne Strahovski – Chuck
This is another example of a character who grew from an emotionless killer to something far more. While I don’t think Sarah Walker’s change was as dramatic as Aeryn’s, I just enjoy the character slightly enough more to give her the edge here. Part of the reason the journey wasn’t as complete is that Strahovski had an immediate chemistry with Zach Levi (Chuck) that the writers couldn’t ignore and they started humanizing her rather quickly. I just love this performance all the way around. Strahovski could play sexy (with the greatest of ease), emotional, and humor (the few times she was given the chance). Most importantly she could be frighteningly fearsome when they needed her to be. Several episodes were built around her being an unstoppable juggernaut, and despite looking like a model, I never questioned Sarah Walker’s ability to decimate her foes.
3. Olivia Dunham – Anna Torv – Fringe
Hey, it is my third Australian actress in a row, something is in the water over there. I find Olivia to be one of the more complex characters ever presented on TV. I wasn’t that excited about her early on either. It seemed like the Fringe writers were figuring out what the show was and who their lead character might turn into. As the first season progressed we learned that she was more important to the world than just being an FBI agent. As more seasons passed Olivia connected with her past and frequently did the heroic thing. It is hard to point to this defining scene or that, because the work Torv did was so subtle. Things really got interesting when the alternate world was introduced and Torv was splitting time between playing different Olivia’s who often pretending to be the other version. Complex, as I mentioned before.
2. Sydney Bristow – Jennifer Garner – Alias
Alias is a good show, but not one of my favorites by any means. Any issues I have with it have nothing to do with Sydney Bristow. She is a version of Sarah Walker that is far more serious. Instead of getting to laugh when another character makes a joke, this was mostly a deadly serious show where awful things happened to the main character. Through her suffering she kicked butt in a variety of different costumes and wigs. Garner brought just the right amount of good natured pleasantness to go along with the determined and deadly attitude. The character gets major bonus points for spending the early episodes having to compartmentalize her grad school life, with her day job as a spy, and topped things off with moonlighting as a double agent. The character kept you with her despite having to play different things to different people constantly.
1. Buffy Summers – Sarah Michelle Gellar – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
One of the main thing that sets Buffy apart is that many of these other characters may not have existed without her. Buffy was the first time that TV saw a female lead who wasn’t just the hero, but also had a complex personal life. Sorry Lynda Carter. You may have had an invisible plane and a lasso, but there weren’t that many episodes that dealt with your character’s messed up sex life. Buffy kicked butt and had funny one liners like many male characters have had. Yet she didn’t lose her femininity at any point. In fact the most interesting part of the show (for someone who has watched it on an endless loop) was the competing interests of Buffy the teenage girl and Buffy the isolated hero who would inevitably die young. That dichotomy really brought the character to another stratosphere and philosophically is far more rich to ponder than a character like Tony Soprano (who way more people tend to discuss). I have yet to find a show that has half as much to say about what it is like to be an empowered, young woman. I doubt I will.