Both television and film have recently benefitted from an increase in strong female characters and we have to say that it’s about time! Sure, there are some incredibly strong female characters further back in cinematic history, but there has been a significant deficit for far too long. To be clear, we aren’t saying that character portrayal is perfect now, but it’s getting better, so we’ve created this list to celebrate some of the strongest female characters to appear on TV or film. Women are no longer portrayed just as pretty faces that launch a thousand ships; no, they’re badass heroines sinking those ships (sometimes with the help of dragons – Daenerys, we’re looking at you)!
Part of us wanted to include classics, like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind, but we decided to focus primarily upon modern entries, which seems more in line with the point of this article regarding the contemporary battle for gender equality that our battling heroines represent. So take a moment, set aside that Virginia Woolf novel (but not for long because anything from the Bloomsbury Group is worth reading!) and join us as we celebrate 15 of the strongest female characters to recently feature on television and in film.
15. Cersei Lannister – Game of Thrones
This is probably going to be a controversial article with some people (although it really shouldn’t be!) so we figured we’d start off with a controversial entry at number 15: Cersei Lannister. Cersei is not exactly the most likeable character in the Game of Thrones universe. In fact, she’s usually one of the most despised characters on the show. But likeability and strength are by no means synonymous and regardless of what you think about Cersei, you have to admit that she is one powerful woman. Spoiler warnings for season 6 of Game of Thrones: Cersei comes from a cutthroat family and with very little help she has managed to annihilate her enemies and rise to Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, all the while refusing to have her ambitions crushed by the deaths of all of her kids. Every single one of them. If that’s not an exceptional example of perseverance and strength, we don’t know what is.
14. Leslie Knope – Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope is not exactly like Cersei, but she is ambition-driven as well, even if she manages to maintain a lighthearted level of comedy throughout her rise to power. And she does it all while taming the seemingly untamable woodworking, meat-binging body of testosterone that is Ron Swanson. But what we truly love about Leslie Knope is that she’s often a great role model. She is ambitious and goes after her dreams. She doesn’t care that the arena of politics has been a traditionally male-dominated field. Instead, she works hard and forces her way to the top. Some may have even suggested that she’s Hillary Clinton’s true inspiration (not us, of course, because that would be silly). And the series finale of Parks and Recreation might just give Leslie everything she deserves, as the ambiguous closing scene lets the viewer decide if Leslie has become the President of the United States. We choose to believe that she has. Sorry, Hillary, you’ll have to settle for second.
13. Sarah Connor – Terminator 2
This entry isn’t based primarily upon her recent appearances, but we couldn’t help but add Sarah Connor to our list, particularly for her role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. You can argue she’s great in other things, such as Terminator Genisys when she is portrayed by Emilia Clarke, but for us, she doesn’t get any stronger than her role in T2. We love her new image in this sequel as Linda Hamilton portrays her as a merciless, muscled warrior. She lives in secrecy, off the grid, managing all the while to raise her young son. Oh, and she does another little thing for the world, which involves fighting evil robots from the future in order to save mankind from Skynet. Now sure, she has the muscled mass that is Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the robot T-800) on her side, but for much of the movie she doesn’t trust him (it?) and she easily holds her own against/with the Governator.
12. Tauriel – The Hobbit
You might not be as familiar with this name as you are with the rest on our list, but we bet you recognize Tauriel from the picture above as a character from The Hobbit trilogy (although only the second and third films). As with so many entries on lists like this, this particular choice may annoy J. R. R. Tolkien purists because Tauriel was created specifically for the movies and didn’t even feature in the books. But we like to see this move as an improvement because she was created specifically to add another female to the cast. And if that wasn’t good enough, she was given the role of head of the elven border guard. She even manages to save Kili’s life on multiple occasions, all while being pretty great with a bow. Finally, she also goes toe to toe with Bolg, the antagonistic orc from the third movie and manages to throw him off a cliff while sacrificing herself to the fall as well. Fighting an orc is tough enough for us, but be willing to sacrifice yourself in the process is another level of strength entirely.
11. Jessica Jones – Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones, played with exuding strength by Krysten Ritter, from the 2015 show of the same title, brings a completely different kind of strength to our list, which can be an upsetting one to talk about. Jones is a former superhero turned detective who is suffering PTSD as a result of her history as a victim of rape from the show’s antagonist, Kilgrave, who has powers of mind control. Jones already exhibits more strength than we can imagine from dealing with her background, but she manages to perform superheroine duties and rush to the aid of those who need her, notably overcoming her personal issues in the first episode by going to the aid of Hope, who is another victim of Kilgrave. Putting herself back in a position to be targeted by Kilgrave in order to attempt to save someone else from the same fate is taking strength and redefining its very definition.
10. Lagertha – Vikings
Lagertha, former wife of Ragnar Lothbrok on the popular Vikings series, rivals the legendary Viking king himself in strength and perseverance with her prowess both off and on the battlefield. To begin with, she is a renowned shield-maiden, which we have to admit is pretty cool, and certainly identifies her as a character that is not to be trifled with. Many characters learned that the hard way, like her second husband, Sigvard. He treats her harshly, eventually leading to attempted rape. Lagertha fends him off and threatens him, only for him to later attempt to sexually harass her in public by disrobing her at a group dinner. Now remember, we mentioned Lagertha is not one to take inappropriate treatment from anyone, which explains why her response is issued in true Viking manner as she stabs him in the eye before he is beheaded. On the battlefield, she is just as tough, and survives multiple Viking sieges that resulted in abundant casualties and would have seen us hiding cowardly beneath a pile of Viking shields and horned helmets (and yes, we know they didn’t really wear horned helmets).
9. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter
This entry might seem a little juvenile compared to some of the other characters on this list, but Hermione is a strong female character who uses intellect to help defeat he who shall not be named and essentially saves the world. While much of this article has focused on physical strength, let’s not forget that intellectual strength can be just as impressive, if not more so! Her knowledge of spells saves both Ron and Harry many times, including saving Ron from the Devil’s Snare and Harry from a renegade bludger during a violent match of Quidditch. And let’s not forget that Hermione is played by the wonderful Emma Watson, whose own strength is inspiring. This blend of actress and character is the perfect storm of female strength. Oh yeah, and Hermione punches Draco Malfoy in the face, which is just great. Although, maybe that’s a bad example because it would probably take more strength not to punch him…
8. Peggy Olson – Mad Men
Peggy Olson, star of the excellent Mad Men series, has a level of strength and determination that would have been required to succeed during the patriarchal 1960s in which the show is set. And to find such success at that time in the male-dominated advertising business is even more impressive. Her character growth over the show’s seven seasons is immense and we see her become a self-confident, creative mind capable of holding her own against, and even eclipsing, the talented Don Draper. Of particular interest is Peggy’s fate at the show’s conclusion that sees her find love with co-worker Stan, which caused some controversy as a result of concluding with such a strong, feminist character finding happiness with a man. Though what some may view as anti-feminist can actually be seen as a feminist strength, as this conclusion resolves something Peggy wanted throughout the show, which was to find a balance between success in her career and success in finding love (and what’s wrong with wanting to find love if that’s her preference?). She proves that she is able to have both, which is more than many of the show’s other characters can say for themselves.
7. Imperator Furiosa – Mad Max: Fury Road
Star of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa is as badass as they come. Just look at that picture above. She begins as a soldier for Immortan Joe and is the commander of a small group of warriors. Of course, the first operation we see her in runs into some difficulties of a violent nature, giving her further opportunity to demonstrate her battle prowess. This scene is arguably one of the most kinetic and action-packed moments in recent cinematic history. She can also hold her own in a battle against Tom Hardy, which we aren’t sure 5 of our strongest co-workers could even do. But where she truly shows her strength is in her decision to rebel against Joe’s oppression as she embarks upon a quest to free his group of forced female concubines. In the process, she manages to kill Joe, ending his violent dictatorship for good. And did we mention she manages to kill him while battling on fast-moving vehicles in the middle of a desert landscape?
6. Ellen Ripley – Alien
Ellen Ripley is the oldest entry on our list, but we couldn’t help adding this star of both Alien and Aliens because of her overall impact on cinematic history. Her appearance was a big turning point in film as Ripley challenged the predominant gender roles perpetuated by Hollywood at the time. She was the star of the films, the hero, not a secondary character nor a damsel in distress needing to be saved. And she did it all while battling horrifying aliens in an isolated spaceship adrift in outer space. In Alien, she is actually the only crewmember to survive the alien attacks and she eventually kills the alien by expelling it into space. In Aliens, she returns in an even more action-packed role, fighting not just one alien, but an entire planet of them, before killing the alien queen by, once again, ejecting it into space. Ripley demonstrated human frailty and fear during these films, but this only made her appear more realistic, and she was undoubtedly strong as the hero of both films, altering the movie landscape forever.
5. Dana Scully – The X-Files
There’s so much to say about Special Agent Dana Scully. Reception of the 6-episode resurgence of the show earlier this year was mixed, but there’s no underestimating the role her character is still playing on television today. How many shows have copied The X-Files’ formula of having a (probably male and female) partnership where one is quirky, often believing in seemingly unrealistic possibilities, while the other is more rational and grounded? Castle, Bones, Fringe, and so on. The list is long. But even without considering that influence, Scully is a strong female character. She’s serious, capable, works hard, and she can science her way out of almost any situation! And she did all of this after surviving an assumed alien-originated cancer. While many of the women on our list have been physically strong and impressive, Scully uses her brain and education to work from a position of strength. Science strength for the win!
4. Michonne – The Walking Dead
Next up, we have everyone’s favorite heroine from the extremely popular The Walking Dead. That show has a lot of great characters, like Rick, Daryl Dixon, Carol and Glenn, but if we had to choose just one of them to accompany us throughout a zombie apocalypse, it would be Michonne, hands down. Did we mention she hacks her way through episodes and episodes of zombie-killing gore with a katana? A katana! It doesn’t get much more badass than that. Her first appearance on the show involves a hooded Michonne marking her entrance with an all-too-easy looking zombie decapitation that saves Andrea’s life. From there, we’ve lost track of the amount of limbs and heads she’s hacked off of zombies, but we can assure you that the number is high. Another great moment is when she kills the Governor, which made us all cheer a little bit. And she’s not afraid to do other dirty work either, such as cutting off Tyreese’s arm after he’s bitten by a zombie. In some ways, doing that to someone you care about might take even more strength than chopping through a group of the undead.
3. Brienne of Tarth – Game of Thrones
We have finally cracked the top 3 on our list, and with it we’ve returned to the world of Game of Thrones. We considered putting Arya on here instead of Brienne, but while Arya’s quest for revenge is great, she’s not quite at the level of Brienne yet and often comes across as a bit unstable. Brienne, on the other hand, is rock solid. She is arguably the most honorable character in Westeros (her sword’s name is Oathkeeper!) and she’s one of few characters we’d fancy to come out victorious from a fight with the Mountain (even though we all know the Hound is probably going to earn that accomplishment).
But for all of her physical strength and prowess on the battlefield, what we truly admire about her is the strength she demonstrates in her fierce loyalty, which she has given to the likes of the Kingsguard, Renly Baratheon, Lady Stark, and eventually Sansa Stark. She even sticks to her vows at the sacrifice of her own desires, as demonstrated in her season 6 conversation with Jaime Lannister where she makes her intention clear to fight against him, despite her clear feelings, if their paths should ever cross on opposing sides of the battlefield. Brienne has the sort of inner strength and commitment that is usually reserved for martyrs (let’s just hope she doesn’t become one any time soon, as we want to see much more of her!).
2. Buffy Summers – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s titular protagonist kicked, punched and staked her way across our television screens throughout the 90s. Sure, she was a high school cheerleader trying to fit into her school and find a “normal” teenage life, but she always managed to defeat the “big bad” accompanied by a snappy one-liner in the process. And she does all of this while living immediately above the Hellmouth, which is a portal to Hell. That’s right. She lives directly on top of the door to Hell and has to deal with all the demonic destruction that goes along with your typical Hell-adjacent properties.
There are tons of times Buffy demonstrates her strength throughout the series, but a moment we particularly love is during the last season when she becomes the leader of a group of “potential slayers,” all female to keep in line with the nature of being the Chosen One, and leads them into battle against the final horde of vampires. She shares her power with them, resulting in what is presumably the final destruction of the Hellmouth. The final season may have had its problems, but our younger, 90s selves loved watching a group of tough women overcome all obstacles to save the world!
1. Daenerys Targaryen – Game of Thrones
Our final entry ushers in the third Game of Thrones character to make our list. That show is full of strong women! And for us, Daenerys is the strongest of them all. What we absolutely love about her character is that she’s one of the most incredible examples of character development in modern television. She starts off in a position of extreme subjugation to her brother Viserys, who forces her to strip naked in front of him as he prepares to force her into marriage to Khal Drogo, leader of a barbaric Dothraki khalasar.
From this upsetting beginning, she manages to turn her position of weakness into one of strength, winning Khal Drogo’s respect and setting the events leading to Viserys’s death into motion, becoming a Dothraki Khaleesi after Khal Drogo’s death, becoming the mother of the world’s last dragons, becoming the leader of the unsullied, and freeing and ruling many cities in Slaver’s Bay, such as Meereen. We don’t know if we have ever seen a character arc developed from such a lowly position to one so lofty, and for that we have awarded Daenerys with the top position on our list of the strongest characters on television and in film.