Strong Female Characters

For a post about women in media, I made a first-pass list of strong female characters from movies and TV shows I remembered. Many are favorite characters from favorite shows. Fictional people I spent quite a few hours with. Not friends — friendship is two-way — but folks I got to know.

The list had 42 entries despite being largely off the top of my head. As I said in the post, “I have no doubt that even a small bit of research would make the list much longer.” With that in mind, I copied the list from the post to this new page where I can expand it with a second pass and update it as other names occur to me.

I think anyone would see the women on this list as role models of strength, character, and femininity. (All three of those qualities manifest in myriad forms and styles.) The focus here is lead or co-lead film and TV roles with an emphasis on action or otherwise heroic types. Simply put, kickass women.

These are fictional characters played by real actors. (There is one notable exception.) Some, such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, are original to the role. Some, such as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, are adaptations of characters with a long history in print. (After this big list is a smaller one with notable characters, such as Nancy Drew, that are primarily literary. That list would be larger, but I’m restricting it to female characters by female authors.)

Here are some wonderful examples of how, yes, kickass fictional female characters are every bit as good as kickass fictional male characters.

  1. 1940 Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday)
  2. 1951 Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn, The African Queen)
  3. 1951-1957 Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy)
  4. 1957 Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn, Desk Set)
  5. 1961 Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
  6. 1961-1969 Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, The Avengers)
  7. 1964-1972 Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery, Bewitched)
  8. 1965-1970 Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon, Get Smart)
  9. 1966-1967 April Dancer (Stefanie Powers, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.)
  10. 1970-1977 Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore, own TV series)
  11. 1972-1983 Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit, M*A*S*H)
  12. 1976-1981 Various Angels (various performers, Charlie’s Angels)
  13. 1979 Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, Alien movies)
  14. 1980 Gloria Swenson (Gena Rowlands, Gloria)
  15. 1981 Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat)
  16. 1982-1988 Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless, Cagney & Lacey)
  17. 1982-1988 Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly, Cagney & Lacey)
  18. 1983-1987 Amanda King (Kate Jackson, Scarecrow and Mrs. King)
  19. 1984 Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, Terminator movies)
  20. 1985-1989 Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd, Moonlighting)
  21. 1986-1993 Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter, Designing Women)
  22. 1986-1993 Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts, Designing Women)
  23. 1986-1993 Charlene Frazier-Stillfield (Jean Smart, Designing Women)
  24. 1986-1993 Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke, Designing Women)
  25. 1987-1994 Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden, ST:TNG)
  26. 1987-1998 Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby, ST:TNG)
  27. 1988-1998 Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen, own TV series)
  28. 1989 Large Female Cast (various performers, Steel Magnolias)
  29. 1989 Maj. Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell anime)
  30. 1989-1990 K’Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson, ST:TNG)
  31. 1990 Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis, Blue Steel)
  32. 1990-1995 Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner, Northern Exposure)
  33. 1991 Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs)
  34. 1992 Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct)
  35. 1992 Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns)
  36. 1992 Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
  37. 1993-1999 Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor, ST:DS9)
  38. 1995 Xena (Lucy Lawless, Xena:Warrior Princess)
  39. 1995 Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock, The Net)
  40. 1995 Ellen “The Lady” (Sharon Stone, The Quick and the Dead)
  41. 1995 Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Nicole Kidman, To Die For)
  42. 1995 Rebecca Buck (Lori Petty, Tank Girl)
  43. 1995-1998 Cybill Sheridan (Cybill Shepherd, own TV series)
  44. 1995-2001 Capt. Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, ST:Voyager)
  45. 1996 Capt. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan, Courage Under Fire)
  46. 1996 Samantha Caine (Geena Davis, The Long Kiss Goodnight)
  47. 1996 Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Fargo)
  48. 1996 Vanessa Julia Lutz (Reese Witherspoon, Freeway)
  49. 1997+ Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars)
  50. 1997 Jackie Brown (Pam Grier, Jackie Brown)
  51. 1997 Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies)
  52. 1997 Leeloo (Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element)
  53. 1997 Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster, Contact)
  54. 1999 Gloria Swenson (Sharon Stone, Gloria)
  55. 1997-2003 Maya Gallo (Laura San Giacomo, Just Shoot Me!)
  56. 1998-2004 Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex in the City)
  57. 1998-2004 Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall, Sex in the City)
  58. 1998-2004 Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon, Sex in the City)
  59. 1998-2004 Charlotte York (Kristin Davis, Sex in the City)
  60. 1999-2003 Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black, Farscape)
  61. 1999-2003 Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, Matrix movies)
  62. 1999-2013 Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal, Futurama)
  63. 2001,2003 Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie, Tomb Raider movies)
  64. 2001 Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde)
  65. 2002 Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres, Firefly)
  66. 2002 Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite, Firefly)
  67. 2002 Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin, Firefly)
  68. 2002 River Tam (Summer Glau, Firefly)
  69. 2002-2017 Alice Abernathy (Milla Jovovich, Resident Evil movies)
  70. 2003 The Bride (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2)
  71. 2003+ Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld movies)
  72. 2003 Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, Monster)
  73. 2004 Patience Phillips (Halle Berry, Catwoman)
  74. 2004-2007 Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, own TV series)
  75. 2005 Æon Flux (Charlize Theron, Æon Flux)
  76. 2005 Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta)
  77. 2005 Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman, The Interpreter)
  78. 2005-2012 Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer)
  79. 2005-2012 Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds)
  80. 2005-2017 Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel, Bones)
  81. 2005-2014? Ziva David (Cote de Pablo, NCIS)
  82. 2008-2015 Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney, The Mentalist)
  83. 2009-2016 Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife)
  84. 2009-2016 Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, The Good Wife)
  85. 2009-2016 Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife)
  86. 2009-2016 Det. Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, Castle)
  87. 2009-present Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler, Archer)
  88. 2010 Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie, Salt)
  89. 2010-2016 Det. Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon, Rizzoli & Isles)
  90. 2010-2016 Dr. Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander, Rizzoli & Isles)
  91. 2010-2021 Natalia Romanov (Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow)
  92. 2011-2020 Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, Homeland)
  93. 2012-2018 Cmdr. Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell, Major Crimes)
  94. 2012-2019 Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu, Elementary)
  95. 2012-2019 Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep)
  96. 2013-present Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone, The Blacklist)
  97. 2014 Lucy Miller (Scarlett Johansson, Lucy)
  98. 2014-2018 Col. Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn, The Librarians)
  99. 2014-2019 Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni, Madam Secretary)
  100. 2014-2022 Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish)
  101. 2014-present Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi, Black-ish, Grown-ish)
  102. 2015-2016 Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter)
  103. 2015-2021 Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist, Supergirl TV series)
  104. 2015-2022 Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper, The Expanse)
  105. 2015-2022 Camina Drummer (Cara Gee, The Expanse)
  106. 2015-2022 Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie)
  107. 2015-2022 Frankie Bergstein (Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie)
  108. 2016-2018 Det. Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones, own TV series)
  109. 2016-2020 Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, The Good Place)
  110. 2016-present Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld)
  111. 2016-present Maeve Millay (Thandiwe Newton, Westworld)
  112. 2017 Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde)
  113. 2017,2020 Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, multiple films)
  114. 2017-2021 Samantha White (Logan Browning, Dear White People)
  115. 2020 Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron, The Old Guard)
  116. 2022 Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Easily more than doubled the original list’s length! And that’s still tapping into stuff I’ve seen myself. The intended takeaway here is twofold:

Firstly, there are and have been good strong central female roles. More to the point, audiences do not reject strong women; quite to the contrary, they generally love them as much as strong men. We love heroes!

Secondly, therefore it obviously isn’t the fact of strong female characters that’s a problem. Too many examples prove otherwise. It’s the character of the character (and the quality of the writing) that’s at issue.

Note how many of the fictional characters have their own Wiki page! And it’s interesting to note the actors who appear more than once. Some, such as Michelle Yeoh, Charlize Theron, Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Lucy Liu, Adrianne Palicki, and Angelina Jolie (to name a handful), are well-established action stars.

Pointedly not invited: live-action Mulan, Rey Skywalker from Star Wars, Belle and other standard Disney princesses, Troi and Dax from Star Trek. I don’t consider these role model roles. Mulan and Rey suffer from Unearned Awesomeness, Disney princesses are insipid and cloying, and Troi and Dax were just eye-candy (they didn’t read as professionals, the way Uhura, Crusher, Kira, or K’Ehleyr did.

§

There are some great literary fictional characters that aren’t strongly identified with a particular actor. In some cases, they’ve been adapted too many times to link to a specific one. In a few cases, no adaptations of note exist. With one exception, these are strong female characters written by female authors.

V.I. Warshawski could possibly go on the list above — there’s a movie adaptation with Kathline Turner. (Rizzoli & Isles is listed above.)

I included the Nancy Drew books, written by “Carolyn Keene” (a pseudonym for various male authors), because they present as being written by women but more because I was quite taken with Nancy Drew when I was growing up. I’ve never cared for Disney Princesses or Dorothy; it was always Nancy Drew and Supergirl.

Speaking of which, there are some important names that could be on the list except for the female author requirement. Key among them is Supergirl (and many others from comics, but Supergirl always was foremost in my heart). Beyond comics, lots of novels have strong female leads but are written by men. And vice versa.


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