In what some may call a new golden age of television, programs keep getting more and more progressive. TV has been consistently pushing boundaries of all types, representing a multitude of world-views and ideologies. Nowadays, we inhale programs that deal with complex concepts of the future, including end of world scenarios and dystopias; programs that recall or reimagine the brutality of the past; and programs that criticize the now. Out of all this what we end up with is an infinite line up of interesting characters, both male and female.
Women have especially benefitted from the modern age of TV, getting to take on a number of roles and portrayals that might have been considered taboo or ground-breaking in the past. This is not to say there hasn’t been early examples of strong TV women; some of the most notable female characters from the 1990s and early 2000s include Buffy and Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Dana Scully (The X-Files), and Max (Dark Angel). However, there had always been the sense that these characters were exceptional because they were not the norm. In hindsight, we might even say these characters set a new precedent upon which our female characters are now set. Today, we regularly portray female warriors, apocalypse survivors, crime lords, and superheroes. It’s an exciting time to be a woman on TV. Here are 15 of the most powerful women currently on air.
Super-strength, super-speed, the ability to fly, laser eyes – this girl has it all. Granted, her superpowers are actually just completely ordinary Kryptonian abilities, but it’s really what she does with them that make her a superhero. She’s saving lives, fighting crime, and even helping families assemble Ikea furniture. What’s not to love? Where Kara falls a little flat is outside of her superhero persona. She’s a little insecure, timid, and embodies a far more traditional feminine identity wherein her agency is very clearly reduced. Her decision-making process involves extensive conversations with other people; mainly the men in her life and two women who are arguably more powerful than her on a daily basis, her big-shot boss and special ops sister. It would be nice to see Kara gain some confidence and let that powerful superhero image become a stronger part of who she is. For now, she seems to be at odds with how to remain the good girl next door, while also saving the world.
14. Melinda May (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Melinda may not be a superhero, or even an official comic book character, but she has been cemented as a Marvel universe badass in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Melinda is not just a trained agent, but a top-gun referred to anecdotally as The Calvary. Initially she is presented as being rather cold with the demeanour of an assassin. As the series unravels, though, we get far more insight into Melinda, and why she may come off as hostile. Her character is made far more three-dimensional which has to be appreciated. Her dedication to the clause and her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. is admirable, as is her deep and complicated love for her ex-husband and mother. She stands by the people who matter to her, and isn’t afraid to call them out when they step out of line. Melinda always seeks to do what is right, and never backs down from a challenge. She is exactly the type of hero you would want to have your back.
13. Olivia Pope (Scandal)
Scandal is a political drama, rather than an apocalypse-fantasy-horror-action series that demands strong female characters. Still, it has one. Olivia Pope is a powerhouse crisis manager who runs a firm of counsellors who specialize in covering up political scandals – otherwise known as her Gladiators. The analogy likens the world of politics to an ancient empire laden with violence, and the crisis managers as the frontline warriors, protecting the empire’s great leaders. And at the head of these strongholds, is Olivia Pope, in a fashionable pant-suit and high heels. She is not a political leader by any means, but her role is represented as even more significant as she is charged with keeping the political atmosphere as it should be. She storms through the white house, is respected by all the players, and loved by the president (with whom she is sleeping). Olivia is a picturesque career woman who never lets her guard down, and NEVER drops the ball. In this sensational drama, she is essentially the glue keeping America together.
12. Raimy Sullivan (Frequency)
In Frequency, Raimy has no superpowers; she is a detective fighting for justice through all the red tape and bureaucracy, and she seems to be doing a pretty good job of it. However, enacting justice becomes a much bigger and personal task when she discovers that she can talk to the past using her father’s old radio. The voice on the other end is her father’s, in the 1990s, just before he was killed in an undercover mission. Despite its sci-fi premise of time parallels, the show feels very grounded in reality, playing to crime-drama serial-killer themes that abound in other cop dramas. What’s different is not only that it is a cop drama that is female-led, but this female has the power to effect actual change by working with her father to catch a serial killer who exists across both timelines. The mission is especially personal for Raimy, as she tries to save the lives of her loved ones, but it’s also heroic on a much larger scale.
11. Indra (The 100)
Although The 100 claims the Grounders are made up of a coalition of 12 clans (13 including the recent addition of Skaikru), very few of them have actual roles in the narrative. The most predominate is Trikru, with which Skaikru allied early on. Only a handful of Trikru Grounders became main characters, but chief among them has been Indra. A warrior through and through, Indra has a hard demeanor and an exterior that seems tough to break through. And yet, she has formed strong friendships within Skaikru that make her an admirable heroine. A close friend of Lincoln, Indra had little choice but to warm up to Octavia, with whom he fell in love. Eventually, Indra even took her under her wing as a sort of protégé. Although she remains loyal to Trikru, she is always there when Skaikru needs her. Which is great, because she is a stellar fighter with a quick mind, and a quick reflex.
10. Maggie Rhee (The Walking Dead)
Surviving in The Walking Dead is probably the best way to judge a character’s strength. It’s no wonder Maggie and Glenn always made a great team – both seemed to have what it takes to go the distance. Neither enjoyed violence, but they never shied away from it at the expense of their own safety, or of the safety of those they loved. Maggie has always been admirable, and it’s something the series began to push once she arrived at Alexandria. There, she immediately started being groomed to be a leader and soon enough she was negotiating deals at Hilltop. After her devastating loss this season, it would have been easy for Maggie to fall apart. But instead, she’s done the opposite; and we see a strong authority brewing in her that may very well lead to a takeover of Hilltop. Fans of the comic books have long expected things to turn out this way, so it’s nice to see it coming to fruition.
9. Fish Mooney (Gotham)
Even as a Gotham villainess, it’s difficult not to credit Fish Mooney for her ability to lead, strategize, and follow through. These characteristics are what allow her to keep so many under her thumb while running a well-established crime ring. In season one, she practically owns Gotham, and although we may objectively dislike her (since we are pushed to side with our protagonist, Detective Gordon), we can’t help but love her too. Her presence is electrifying, from her bold style to her eerily demanding tone and demeanor. Everything about her stands out, but the truest testament to her power is seen when she is put in a life-threatening situation. Without her goonies to rely on, Fish pulls herself up by the bootstraps, and organizes a group of fellow captives to execute a grand escape. She is simply a born leader and, as we’ve now seen, that is not something that is so easy to kill off.
8. Tulip (Preacher)
Tulip gets an outstanding introduction on the show Preacher. In a span of just a few minutes, we get the sense that Tulip is a fully-formed character with many layers of womanhood. First, we see Tulip exit the shower with only a towel on her head. Her bare female body suggests the presence of her sexuality. What is particularly striking in the scene, though, is the lack of sexualisation – there is no lover with her and there is no obvious camera-work such as a slow tilt up to signal the audience to objectify her. Immediately following this we see her in an action-packed fight scene in which she ultimately bites a man’s ear off and kills him. This scene suggests her strength. Finally, she realizes two children have witnessed the murder. In a soft voice she assures them he was a bad man. Her interaction with the kids suggests a maternal aspect to her. Tulip is the best of everything, and an unstoppable force.
7. Clarke Griffin (The 100)
The 100 offers a really great cast of strong female characters, many of whom find themselves in some kind of leadership role at one point or another. The loss of Lexa was a huge controversy, not only because of the unfortunate and ill-conceived re-hashing of the “bury your gays” trope, but because she held the most powerful role in the show. However, we would be remiss if we did not give credit to Clarke’s own leadership role. Of all the female characters, Clarke is the only one who consistently steps up to make the most difficult decisions, always making the greater good her main priority. This doesn’t mean she hasn’t made mistakes – Clarke is by no means perfect – but she’s always willing to try. She does not let her own emotions get in the way, nor does she let her affections for loved ones cloud her judgement. Her utilitarian attitude can be cringe-worthy at times, and has made her some enemies, but it’s also kept a lot of people alive.
6. Brienne of Tarth (Game Of Thrones)
Of all the strong and empowered women on Game of Thrones, Brienne is the only one who truly subverts gender norms. Though masculinized to some degree by way of her physical size and strength, it’s important to point out being a woman is very much a part of Brienne’s identity. She often has to defend the fact that she is a woman in what is traditionally thought of as a man’s role; but once she pulls out the sword, people need little more convincing of her competence. Brienne is an incredibly loyal Knight, prioritizing her duty to protect the Starks above all else. She even gained the respect of Jaime Lannister in an unexpectedly warm journey as she escorted him back to King’s Landing. The audience also got to gain a better understanding of who Brienne is, and how strong she is – not just physically, but emotionally. Brienne’s greatest strength, though, is her willingness to never let other people’s opinions hold her back from accomplishing her goals.
5. Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones took on the difficult task of portraying a female lead who is dealing with trauma as a result of physical, sexual, and mental violence. This always has the potential to fall into the trap of perpetuating the victimization by over-representing it. While the show can be accused of this at times, portraying Jessica as being damaged to her very core, it also provides her with super-strength and a character arc that allows her some serious progress. When Jessica accepts a job to find a missing teenage girl, she is forced to face her own past, and is given the opportunity to save a girl from the same fate. Although it quickly becomes more complicated than that, Jessica is able to channel all of her rage and depression into stopping the man who has caused it. She gets to face her victimizer, stand up to him, and even learn more about him. It’s difficult, and emotional, and cathartic. Most importantly, it makes her stronger.
4. Michonne (The Walking Dead)
The Walking Dead is inherently about strong people. The characters are all survivors in their own right, and all bring to the table different skills and traits that dictate their usefulness. What makes Michonne special is her backstory, and her character’s evolution. When we first meet Michonne she has been surviving on her own for a long while. We learn that pre-apocalypse, she had been married with a son, and wound up being the only one to survive an initial walker attack. Her anger towards the men in her life (a husband and close friend) for being unable to protect themselves, her, or her son, made her resentful. But as she initiates into Rick’s group, her heart slowly warms again. We get to see a new side of Michonne, one that is thoughtful, kind, and loving. The iconic image of her with her sword serves to remind us that she is always a survivor.
3. Lagertha (Vikings)
The portrayal of Lagertha on Vikings is striking from the very beginning. When Lagertha and her daughter are left home alone, an invader breaks in and attempts to rape her. Fortunately, he had greatly underestimated her, and she drives a sword through him, saving herself and daughter from his disgusting intended act of violence. From then on, it becomes clear that Lagertha isn’t just a capable fighter, but a respected warrior who regularly fights alongside her husband and other men. Though there are instances in which she is boxed into a more traditional representation of wife (wishing her husband would not sleep with other women, and that he would take her on raids more often), all in all her status is one of strength. She is a mother, wife, and shieldmaiden, which is a lot to balance; but she does it with finesse and pride. Even though it’s complicated, Lagertha and Ragnar’s relationship is often shown as being based on mutual respect, which is admirable for a historical epic.
2. Cersei Lannister (Game Of Thrones)
Whether you hate her, love her, or love to hate her, Cersei of Game of Thrones is an undeniable force of sheer power. Unable to fully assert herself on the throne, Cersei has calculated every move since childhood to ensure she remains as close to the throne as a woman can get, thus ensuring the status and power of the Lannister name. Her methods may not be admirable (actually, they are often condemnable), but they get the job done. Arguably, things are not looking great for Cersei at the moment. She has lost all of her children, her relationship with her brother is strained, and her name has been stained by the recent shaming to which she was subjected. Despite what looked like a downward spiral in the most recent season, Cersei doesn’t seem to have given up just yet. This might be the end of the Lannister matriarch, but we’re betting she’ll go down swinging – that is, if she goes down at all.
1. Daenerys Targaryen (Game Of Thrones)
Game of Thrones is all about vying for the crown and all of its bloodthirsty competitors. But perhaps none are as organized, strategic, and fierce as Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons. After a difficult and dehumanizing childhood, hidden away under the thumb of her brother, Daenerys has spent the last six seasons becoming a seasoned leader who fights for justice. What really sets her apart from others after the seven kingdoms, is her focus on what kind of Queen she will be. It’s not just about sitting on the throne; it’s about ruling in a fair and just way according to her thoughtful set of principles and morals. For years she has been gaining followers and building an army based on her message freedom. She has created an image of herself that is one of a Mother Goddess, urging people to put their faith in the idea that she will protect them and take care of them. And she’s gunning straight for the throne.
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