Since the dawn of television, shows have given us striking depictions of flawed men, be they chemistry teachers who turn to the meth business because they have cancer or ad men who can’t stay faithful to their wives and assumed someone else’s identity during the war. These are the men who go down to the Bada Bing to take care of business while their wives cook dinner, or start a snow plow business while she drops the kids off at school. But we know this isn’t all women are capable of, and thankfully, some TV writers out there know that, too. We know they can become Vice President of the United States and gaze into the future and work as a defense attorney despite everyone hating her because her husband is in jail thanks to a high-profile sex scandal. It is important to have strong female characters in the media, because it gives good role models to young girls, and shows women that they don’t have to be what society tells them to be. And so, without further ado, here are fifteen strong female roles throughout the history of television that have shown women they can stand out, they can succeed despite challenges, and they can be whomever they want to be.
15. Rosa Diaz – A woman who won’t crack under pressure
Detective Rosa Diaz of the 99th Precinct of the NYPD isn’t just a strong woman – she’s a downright terrifying one. Even Terry Jeffords, played by Terry Crews, the closest thing in real life to the Incredible Hulk, is afraid of her. Everyone is, because she’s a badass. To say that she can handle herself in the face of danger would be an understatement. She’ll never crack under pressure, she hardly ever reveals anything about her personal life and when she does, it’s because she wants you to know. And she’s not just the toughest person (that’s right, person) on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she’s also extremely intelligent. Old conservative men would have you believe women like Rosa don’t exist because they’re intimidated by them, but they’re all too real and they’re amazing.
14. Carmela Soprano – A woman who stands up for herself
Carmela knows her husband frequently cheats on her. She knows he’s a dangerous man who kills people as a part of his job description. And still, she sleeps in his bed every night and cooks him breakfast every morning. On paper, Carmela does not sound all that strong, but it’s Edie Falco’s fierce performance that brings strength to the character. She’s not just standing by and turning a blind eye to what he does. She’s conflicted. On a near constant basis, she has to talk herself out of leaving, because she’s a loving and devoted mother to her two children and she’s from that bygone era where the nuclear family rules supreme. But Carmela always stands up for herself, always calls her husband out on his wrongdoings, and never bows down to the fears that he might violently snap at any moment. That takes serious courage.
13. Kimmy Schmidt – A woman who can’t be broken
Kimmy Schmidt isn’t just strong; she’s quite literally unbreakable. As the theme song goes, “females are strong as hell,” and that’s true. The guy who says that (later remixed, YouTube-style) is referring specifically to Kimmy and the other girls who were found trapped in a bunker after Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne convinced them the world had ended. Anyone who survives 15 years in a cult stuck in a bunker and comes out the other side with the enthusiastic sense of optimism that Kimmy has, most definitely is “strong as hell.” She’s resilient, fun-loving, and adorably naive, but she has a good heart and she won’t stand for any BS. She always does the right thing, she’s always looking to help people, and she won’t let anyone stand in her way. She’s incredible.
12. Sally Rogers – A woman who has it all
For a show from the sixties, the writing staff of The Dick Van Dyke Show sure knew how to write strong women. It’s the only show with two entries on this list, and there’s a good reason for that. Sally is a brilliant, intrepid woman. The running gag with her character is that she wants to settle down with a good husband who will appreciate her and yet she’s perpetually single. But do you know why that is? Because she’s so smart, talented, witty, and confident that she leaves men cowering and intimidated. She’s funny and she has money and a good job and she’s always quick with jibes all in good fun for the men she dates, and sadly, it hollows out their masculinity and sends them running for the hills. If the men could just be mature and see men and women as equals, she’d make a fantastic wife. See, the truth, really, is that Sally Rogers was single for the entire five-season run of the show because, frankly, no man is good enough for her.
11. Peggy Olson – A woman who can compete with the big dogs
Probably best known now for her role as Offred in the bleak but brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss made her name as another resilient woman in an oppressive man’s world. The advertising world of the 1960s was pretty much comprised of men in suave suits sitting around an office drinking bourbon and discussing marketing campaigns. In the beginning of Mad Men, Peggy arrives at the doorstep of this world and begins work as a lowly copywriter. Throughout the show, she earns the respect of the men around her and works her way up the ranks and, through her valour and hard work, she’s soon competing with the big dogs and playing on the same field as the men who have been granted a huge advantage over her. Hers is an inspiring journey.
10. Elaine Benes – A great representative for women
Seinfeld gets a little bit of flak for its problems with representation. It’s not much, because the flak gets lost in all the religious hailing of the show as the greatest sitcom ever made, which is true, but it does get some criticism for its lack of black characters, other minorities, only having one female in the main cast etc. However, I’d argue that in that one female, women get a great representative. Elaine wears her flaws on her sleeve and accepts who she is. She’s always loaded with the perfect insults to emasculate and demolish the men who take the majority of the screen time away from her. And that doesn’t come close to how she treats her boyfriends. She drives away the men that she dates with her sharp wit and her devil-may-care attitude. And she dates a lot of men. And while society tells her she should be ladylike and not be promiscuous, she says, “Screw that,” and lights a cigar. She doesn’t care, and neither should anyone else.
9. Raven Baxter – A woman who can tackle the issues
That’s So Raven changed the game. Aside from being hilarious and universally beloved, it was the first Disney Channel original series to feature a minority in the lead role, paving the way for three more since. And not only that, it was so popular that it made Disney scrap its 65-episode limit and give the show 100 episodes. It was just that popular. And it wasn’t just that; Raven wasn’t just a token black lead, and That’s So Raven wasn’t just a bubblegum Disney sitcom. It was a show that tackled the issues. Raven challenges racism when a woman refused to hire her on the basis that she was black. It wasn’t just race stuff, either. Raven challenged sexism when she wore her own dress for her own body type, and that’s the way it should be. Everybody’s beautiful, no matter what their dress size or body type. If ever there was a perfect role model for girls to follow, it’s Raven Baxter.
8. Buffy Summers – A real woman who happens to slay monsters
Buffy Summers kills vampires – need I say more? The whole reason Buffy was created in the first place was to have a strong female presence in the horror genre. See, Joss Whedon saw that females in horror films and TV shows were just frightened little girls cowering in the face of monsters, and he wanted to subvert the cliché of, as he puts it, “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror film.” Girls in horror movies were just screaming, having sex, and getting killed, and nothing else. So, Whedon created a girl who slaughters those monsters and leaves them being the ones who are terrified. And she’s not just that awesome girl who has sex with boys and slays vampires either. She’s not some male fantasy. She’s a real human being with real problems in her life. She has struggles with depression and she has a self-loathing problem and her relationships never work out. This isn’t just horror; this is drama.
7. Brienne of Tarth – A woman who can knock a man to dust
When you picture a tough warrior in medieval times, you probably see a man. That’s exactly the point. Brienne is not a man – nor is she a knight, as a consequence of not being a man – but she is strong and courageous, more so than any man. She’s extremely loyal, too. When she was first assigned to escort Jaime Lannister, she hated him, but she’d still give her life for him. And when she pledged allegiance to Catelyn Stark, that extended beyond her death, as Brienne sought out Sansa just so she could protect her on behalf of her fallen mother. And those two examples identify the gender politics of Game of Thrones exactly: women should stick together because men think nothing of them. The following quote, which Brienne says to Jaime Lannister, perfectly sums up her character: “All my life, men like you have sneered at me, and all my life, I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.” It’s the very men who mock her for thinking she can be a woman and be tough who she uses that toughness against. It’s beautifully ironic.
6. Dana Scully – An intimidating woman
Just like Clarice Starling, Special Agent Dana Scully had her work cut out for her getting her voice heard in the male-dominated FBI. She wades through a crowd of men, having aced every test and training exercise on her way in, to the department she’s been assigned to: working with some nut in the basement who’s looking for aliens. The men in charge knew she would make them all look bad if she was assigned to a more important department, and they couldn’t possibly have a woman doing that. And despite all of this and despite being assigned to investigate alien sightings, she still manages to prevail and do some damn fine investigating. Nothing intimidates men more than a woman like Dana Scully; smart, capable, and much better at their manly law enforcement jobs than they are.
5. Kima Greggs – A woman who is tough as nails
The strongest characters on The Wire are a gay woman of color and a gay man of color, so no wonder the old, conservative Emmy voters hardly bothered to even nominate arguably the greatest TV show ever made. Kima, like most strong women on TV, had to succeed in a man’s world. One of only two women to ever be a part of the Major Crimes Unit, Kima was forced to stand out by being tough as nails, recovering from a gunshot wound, putting the screws on suspects, and all the while struggling with staying committed to a relationship, drinking heavily, and raising a child – all problems usually reserved for the flawed men of television. Kima was there from the beginning to the very end, playing a huge part in every major investigation on the show, putting her life on the line in the name of justice.
4. Michonne – A woman you wouldn’t want to cross
You do not mess with Michonne. She has a katana, and she sure knows how to use it, so she will end you. But she’s exactly the kind of person you’d want to have around in the event of a zombie apocalypse. As long as you don’t cross her and you’re on her side, she is extremely loyal and honorable. She treats the kids of the group of survivors she found herself with (following a long spell as a lone wolf), like they’re her own kids; she would protect each and every one of them with her life. I don’t think she even registers walkers as a problem anymore, she so deftly rids her path of them with a swift slash of her blade. But she certainly does register anyone who tries to harm her surrogate family as a problem, a problem she deals with easily because she’s a strong, capable woman.
3. Laura Petrie – A progressive woman in the 60’s
The Dick Van Dyke Show’s depiction of marriage was ground-breaking and progressive, especially since it was made in the 1960s when a wife’s only purpose was to be pretty and serve her husband. But the wife of Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, Laura, played by the late, great Mary Tyler Moore, was different. She wasn’t there to serve Rob. She was a housewife who cooked dinner every night, but in terms of their relationship, she and Rob were equals. It wasn’t a situation of ‘Laura helps Rob out of a jam,’ it was ‘Laura and Rob versus the world,’ and it’s immeasurably more fun to watch. Laura and Rob didn’t have a clichéd sitcom marriage where the wife rolls her eyes at the husband’s antics; she had her own antics. She destroyed the ugly family heirloom and she got groomed by a pervy English teacher – and she stood up for herself. And she was hilarious!
2. Lisa Simpson – The first woman President one day?
Where to begin with Lisa Simpson? She’s a bold, intelligent, warm human being who never backs down from her principles, no matter what the cost. She stood by her vegetarianism when the whole town wanted to have a barbecue. She fought to get Whacking Day criminalized, even though the rest of Springfield loved the tradition of beating snakes to death with bats. It was Lisa, a valiant eight-year-old with a heart of gold, who could see how barbaric that was. She’s full of passion and a fierce liberal, and she won’t let anyone get in the way of her beliefs or try to convince her otherwise. Plus she’s a genius and she’s genuinely going to be the President of the United States one day. I mean, those same writers were right about Donald Trump, so you never know.
1. Leslie Knope – A woman of the people
Leslie Knope is a perfect role model for women, and her own role models are also perfect role models for women: Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Obama etc. She’s always striving to achieve more and she’s a rare government worker who actually wants to help people and solve their problems, no matter how petty. She encourages empowerment, and that has helped advancement in real-life feminism and gender equality. Leslie never lets anyone or anything get her down, or stand in the way of her ambitions, or deter her from doing the right thing. She always keeps her promises, no matter what the cost – even if it means picking up the town’s trash with April. And the great thing about Leslie is that she can enjoy breakfast food, disco music, and cute butts, and it doesn’t make us think any less of her nor does it take away a single ounce of her strength.