The Top 25 Female Characters Who Kick Ass on Television – Part One

By January 27, 2016

Women kick ass. They’ve done it in books, in movies, and have really come into their own on television. And I don’t just mean those who physically take out bad guys week after week. Women are fighting the good fight on all fronts: as lawyers, doctors, journalists, students, teachers, mothers, politicians, scientists, and so many other things. With one of my personal favorites, Agent Peggy Carter, played by the luminous Hayley Atwell, making her triumphant return to the small screen in season two of Marvel’s Agent Carter last week, I decided to make a list of the Top 25 Women Who Kick Ass in Television.

It turned out to be a harder task that I anticipated (as always seems to happen with these lists). So I made a few decisions to make it at least a little easier. Just about everyone on the list is a main character (with a couple of exceptions from large ensemble shows). I’ve also largely limited myself to the “good guys,” with a few anti-heroes thrown into the mix.

So with all of that, I’ll start the list with a few honorable mentions who just missed out:

LIZ LEMON (Tina Fey) – 30 Rock (’06 – ’13)

NIKITA (Peta Wilson, Maggie Q) – La Femme Nikita/Nikita (’97 – ’01, ’10 – ’13)

MURPHY BROWN (Candice Bergen) – Murphy Brown (’88 – ’98)

ELLEN (Ellen Degeneres) – The Ellen Show (’01 – ’02)

ALLY MCBEAL (Calista Flockhart) – Ally McBeal (’97 – ’02)

And without further ado, here are my rankings for #’s 25 through 16.

xena-warrior-princess-armor-125. XENA (Lucy Lawless) – Xena: Warrior Princess (’95 – ’01)

What started off as a spinoff of Kevin Sorbo’s equally campy Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, turned into a cult classic with some pretty serious underlying feminist themes. But who am I kidding, this is all about Lucy Lawless kicking some mythological ass (I should also give a shout out to her sidekick, Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor, who had an at times rocky, but also rather moving, evolution though six seasons of the series).

dr-quinn-medicine24. DR. MICHAELA QUINN (Jane Seymour) – Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman (’93 – ’98)

I have to admit my Mom and I were addicted to this series in the mid-90s. Though she may now be more well known for selling jewelry, Seymour was a Bond Girl in Live and Let Die, and starred in a number famous television mini-series (like War and Remembrance, East of Eden) before taking on the role of an iconic frontier doctor for six seasons (plus a couple of movies). The show had an amazingly eclectic cast, but Seymour shone as a fish out of water (IE an east coast woman working as a doctor in the male dominated town of Colorado Springs in 1867).

Star Trek23. KATHRYN JANEWAY (Kate Mulgrew) – Star Trek: Voyager (’95 – ’01)

She’s the only woman to ever captain The Enterprise. ‘Nuff said.

Good Wife22. ALICIA FLORRICK (Julianne Margulies) – The Good Wife (’09 – present)

There have been a number of pretty decent female lawyers portrayed on television, but Margulies has had the most interesting material to work with over seven seasons (and still going), as a middle aged woman forging a new path by rejoining the work force after being the perfect politician’s wife to her cheating husband. Yeah, it gets soapy at times, but the show never stays too lowbrow, and it’s hard to argue that the creators don’t love exhibiting multiple strong female characters alongside Florrick : there’s Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda, and a number of recurring female guest stars.

Bones21. DR. TEMPERANCE BRENNAN (Emily Deschanel) – Bones (’05 – present)

Early on, the premise of the series wasn’t great, as it seemed to be saying that if a woman is a genius, then she doesn’t understand how to be “human.” Luckily, the character arc of forensic anthropologist, Dr. Brennan, played with both humor and emotion by the very talented Emily Deschanel (Zoey’s older sister), has delivered a much more layered and interesting character over the years.

Fringe20. OLIVIA DUNHAM (Anna Torv) – Fringe (’08 – ’13)

In many ways modeled on another female FBI agent who investigated the seemingly unexplainable (look for that person higher on this list), Olivia Dunham ultimately brought something new and highly watchable to the table. Torv’s performance of both Olivia and the lovingly nicknamed “Fauxlivia,” from an alternate universe, was the emotional highlight of the show. She was down to earth and tough but also very human and relatable.  She also wore the correct (ie: practical) shoes during her investigations (one of my pet peeves: female agents, detectives, doctors, etc who wear highly inappropriate outfits to do their jobs on TV).

gilmore girls19. LORELAI GILMORE (Lauren Graham) – The Gilmore Girls (’00 – ’07)

As I’ve said before, “kicking ass” isn’t just about physical prowess. I’m proud to include doctors and lawyers on this list, as well as few characters like Lorelei Gilmore, who is a single Mom trying to make life better both for her daughter and herself.  Graham is hugely compelling in the role, and you have to admire how she used her wit and banter to take down even the toughest of foes.

Scandal18. OLIVIA POPE (Kerry Washington) – Scandal (’12 – present)

Now there’s no denying that this show is VERY soapy, but you certainly can’t say that Olivia Pope hasn’t earned the nickname “Gladiator.” Along with Viola Davis as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in Empire, Washington is proving that strong black woman can command both the screen and ratings…pay attention network executives.

Game of Thrones17. DAENERYS TARGARYEN (Emilia Clark) – Game of Thrones (’11 – present)

I promised myself I would only allow two characters from Game of Thrones to appear on this list (I know I’m going to get some heat for the ones I left off…) and I struggled a bit with whether or not to include Dany…but at the end of the day, her season 3 arc is the stuff of legend as she leads an army with the greatest of intentions: to not only take back her kingdom (hopefully…some day…soon…) but to eliminate slavery from the world. Plus, “dracarys,” right??!!

Jessica Jones16. JESSICA JONES (Krysten Rytter) – Jessica Jones (’15 – present)

There is still a lively debate going on as to which is better: Netflix’s Daredevil or Jessica Jones (personally I think you can like them both equally, just for different reasons). It’s a great argument to have, though, given how well received Daredevil was, and the main reason it’s happening is because Jessica Jones is one of the most complicated and fascinating characters ever to come from a comic book. Ritter just nails the mix of torment and grit needed to tell her story and fans are already salivating to see what comes next for her.

Well that’s my list so far. Please chime in with some of your choices and be sure to check back here for the second half of the list tomorrow!

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Rachel Cushing
Rachel is a television editor by day and either a Jedi knight, vampire slayer, or elvish warrior by night. In between she makes time for movies, movies, and more movies (plus a few books, television shows, and then…more movies). When she’s supposed to be sleeping, she writes about movies as well, both here on and on her own blog. Tweet her @RachelJCushing
  • David Johnson

    Want to see the whole list before I comment, & I see a lot of people so far that could go to include some not on yet! 🙂