We look to television in the hope of seeing ourselves reflected in the stories, and over the years TV shows have blessed us with some amazing female characters. Not all of the ladies on this list are necessarily role models, but they’re all badass, smart, sharp, and perhaps most importantly, complex.
40. Ann Marie, That Girl
Marlo Thomas’ Ann Marie, the star of That Girl, marked a new dawn for female characters in sitcoms. Ann was a feminist, a woman who made her own choices without a husband by her side. Audiences loved it. Thomas, who also produced the show, earned four Emmy nominations during the 1966-71 run.
39. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
People loved Veronica Mars – both the show and the title character – so much that they paid to have the story continued. The teen detective show starring Kristen Bell was canceled in 2007, but in 2013 show head Rob Thomas started a Kickstarter to get a movie version funded. Within 12 hours, $2 million had been raised – a staggering success. The whip-smart Veronica lived to fight another day.
38. Eve Polastri, Killing Eve
Sandra Oh played the Eve of Killing Eve, an MI6 agent chasing down Jodie Comer’s baddie Villanelle. Eve was on the side of the angels, but there were dark aspects to her as well. For her stunning performance Oh was nominated for an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Primetime Emmy Award, the first Asian actress ever to be selected as a nominee.
37. Rachel Green, Friends
Out of all the characters on Friends, it was probably Rachel who grew the most. She went from a spoiled rich girl to a woman with an impressive career – plus she had a child with Ross along the way. All that, and she was a fashion icon to boot. “The Rachel,” as it was dubbed, became an iconic haircut.
36. Annalise Keating, How To Get Away With Murder
The role of defense attorney Annalise Keating won Viola Davis a Primetime Emmy, and it was very well deserved. After the series finale in 2020, the New York Times published an article singing Keating’s praises as “an openly bisexual character whose struggles with alcoholism and childhood abuse, as well as her unscrupulous legal tactics (among other things), made her one of the most complicated black women in television history.”
35. Kara Danvers, Supergirl
Supergirl tended to always play second fiddle to Superman, but in 2015 she was gifted her own show. It starred Melissa Benoist as the title character, and it was packed full of girl power. In her civilian identity of Kara, Supergirl fought to get out of her super-cousin’s shadow before accepting her life as a woman of steel.
34. Rosa Diaz, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Rosa Diaz was a badass cop, but a new dimension was added to her character when she came out as bisexual. This was something her actress Stephanie Beatriz, herself bi, advocated for. Fans approved of the storyline, and the openly gay Captain Holt summed up its importance by telling Diaz, “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.”
33. Rainbow Johnson, Black-ish
Rainbow Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis-Ross, was the standout character on the sitcom Black-ish. She wasn’t just funny. She dealt with serious issues including racism and depression in her life. Rainbow eventually proved to be so popular that she got her own prequel show, Mixed-ish, co-created and executive produced by Ellis-Ross.
32. Daenerys Targaryen, Game Of Thrones
Audiences followed the rise of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys from unwilling bride to dragon queen. Alas, her ending left something to be desired in the eyes of many. Daenerys finished the series by massacring a city of people, and then being killed by her nephew-lover (don’t ask) Jon Snow. Countless Game Of Thrones fans were beyond livid.
31. Claire Underwood, House Of Cards
In House Of Cards, Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood became the first female president of the United States, although admittedly it was a long road to get there. In 2019 the magazine Forbes wrote of her, “She’s absolutely ruthless, she’s practiced and planned, she’s on a mission and letting nothing stand in her way. Murder aside, we could all do with being just a little bit more Claire Underwood.”
30. Jessica Huang, Fresh Off The Boat
Constance Wu played Jessica Huang in the critically acclaimed sitcom Fresh Off The Boat. She made the show hilarious, warm and well, fresh. The relationship between Wu and the show has been a rocky one though. She made some angry tweets when Fresh Off The Boat was renewed for a sixth season, disappointing fans of her character.
29. Iris West, The Flash
For The Flash, the creators decided to cast a black actress for Iris West, a character who’s traditionally a white redhead. “I went into it having the expectation that, obviously, people were gonna be upset by it,” actress Candice Patton told TV Guide magazine in 2020. But though there were trolls, the smart and beautiful Iris went on to be beloved.
28. Diana Prince, Wonder Woman
Lynda Carter’s ’70s take on Wonder Woman is still iconic despite other actresses having played the role since then. In 2005 Carter told the website Philstar.com, “I’m thrilled that Wonder Woman, and that character endures because every actor wants a role that has some positive affect and causes people to smile or have good memories.”
27. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica
In the original Battlestar Galactica show, Starbuck was a male character. For the reimagined series in 2003, she was a cocky and rebellious woman played by actress Katee Sackhoff and named Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. Fans loved her, and they were annoyed when Kara’s final ending proved to be incredibly ambiguous.
26. Lucy, I Love Lucy
Lucille Ball had to overcome many obstacles to get I Love Lucy on the air. First of all, she had to convince network executives that she wouldn’t do it without her husband, Desi Arnaz – producers thought American audiences wouldn’t accept an interracial marriage. But Ball persevered, and Lucy remains as iconic today as she ever was.
25. Sydney Bristow, Alias
Before she became a movie actress, not to mention Mrs. Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner played main character Sydney Bristow in J.J. Abrams’ hit show Alias. When it was cancelled after five seasons in 2005, Garner told Entertainment Weekly magazine, “I hope this show is included with all of the shows that have celebrated strong women.” It was.
24. Carrie Mathison, Homeland
Claire Danes played CIA agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland for eight seasons, and her performance was very much celebrated. Danes became only the second woman ever to win all of the main television acting awards for one performance. Carrie was also notable in that she had bipolar disorder, and while it affected her life, it was far from the only important thing about her.
23. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, Orange Is The New Black
Poor Taystee had a saddening storyline on Orange Is The New Black. Her best friend is accidentally killed, then another friend betrays her, then she’s sentenced to life in jail for a murder she didn’t commit… it’s a rollercoaster ride of terrible trauma. But she survives it all, and Danielle Brooks’ performance was much acclaimed.
22. Vanya Hargreeves, The Umbrella Academy
Ellen Page’s Vanya Hargreeves might be one of the most powerful women ever to appear on television. Her superpowers can – spoiler alert – actually destroy the entire world. Vanya’s attempts to deal with this, not to mention maintaining a relationship with another woman in ’60s America, make for fascinating viewing.
21. Dr. Mindy Lahari, The Mindy Project
Mindy Kaling played her namesake Dr. Mindy Lahari on The Mindy Project for six seasons. Kaling, who created the show, wanted to create a female character who wasn’t necessarily always great. In 2017 she told Variety magazine, “I really fell in love with the format where the main character was very flawed. It was something you had seen countless times on sitcoms with men, but you hadn’t seen with women.”
20. Julia Baker, Julia
The show Julia was groundbreaking in many ways. Before it came on the air, most black female characters were stuck playing maids or supporting characters at best. But Diahann Carroll’s Julia Baker defied all stereotypes as a successful working woman, a nurse, in 1968. Carroll passed away in 2019, but her legacy lives on.
19. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Willow was so much more than just Buffy’s sidekick. She was an immensely powerful witch, and also she was lesbian character in a television era that contained very few of them. Willow’s coming-out story had a massive impact, and actress Alyson Hannigan received many letters from young LGBT people who looked up to her character.
18. Eleanor Shellstrop, The Good Place
The concept of The Good Place was fairly simple: Kristen Bell’s selfish and unpleasant Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in heaven due to a mistake and must become better if she wants to stay. But after that the show grew to tackle serious ethical questions about redemption and morality, all anchored by Bell’s winning performance as Eleanor.
17. Callie Torres, Grey’s Anatomy
Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez, became a fan favorite on Grey’s Anatomy. She was fun and witty, and her relationship with Arizona Robbins was captivating. When Ramirez left the show in 2016, creator Shonda Rhimes released a statement saying, “Dr. Callie Torres came into our lives dancing it out in her underwear almost a decade ago, and I could not be happier or more proud of her journey.”
16. Max Guevara, Dark Angel
The role of Max Guevara in Dark Angel made Jessica Alba famous. The show, created by James Cameron, followed the adventures of teenage super-soldier Max in post-apocalyptic Seattle. In 2000 Alba did an interview with Closer magazine in which she said the appeal of Max was, “she’s not what the public categorizes as a typical teenager or a typical girl.”
15. Villanelle, Killing Eve
Villanelle was an antagonist like no one had ever seen before. She was a psychopathic assassin, true, but she was also fascinatingly weird and very stylish. Jodie Comer brought the book character to life on the small screen, and suddenly Villanelle gained a gang of fans absolutely dying to see what she’d do next.
14. Olivia Benson, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
The role of Olivia in Law & Order: SVU changed the life of actress Mariska Hargitay. Not only did it prepare her for being a mom, it led her to start the Joyful Heart Foundation. This organization helps the same people Olivia seeks to help in the show: victims of sexual abuse and assault. Thanks to Hargitay, Olivia’s badassery extends into real life.
13. Sansa Stark, Game Of Thrones
Of all the female characters on Game Of Thrones, Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark might have had to overcome the most obstacles. Her privileged life turned upside down when her father met a grisly end, and after that she had to survive manipulation, abuse, war, and torture. Yet in the end, she won her crown, and surely all would agree it was deserved.
12. Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Cop show Brooklyn Nine-Nine upended many tropes when it came to female characters. Melissa Fumero’s Amy Santiago was smart and competitive, and seemed at first to be the joyless straight man to Andy Samberg’s Jake. But she ended up being much more than that, and an incredibly funny character to boot.
11. Michonne, The Walking Dead
Danai Gurira’s Michonne was the most badass survivor on The Walking Dead. She sliced through zombies with her trademark katana and became a formidable warrior and leader. When Gurira and Michonne departed the show during its tenth season, fans were devastated. But the Walking Dead world is a big one, so there are plans for her to return.
10. The Thirteenth Doctor, Doctor Who
When Jodie Whittaker was cast as the 13th incarnation of the alien Doctor in the iconic British sci-fi Doctor Who, she was the first woman ever to play the role. There was enough backlash to make headlines, but the show continued on as normal. In a 2019 interview with magazine The Big Issue, Whittaker said, “The gender question is now going away. Hopefully it won’t make the news next time.”
9. Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy
Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey has been on television screens for a very impressive 16 seasons. There are fans who have grown up watching Meredith evolve as a person and a surgeon. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride – Pompeo has publicly complained about some storylines – but it’s still good to have her around.
8. Sophia Burset, Orange Is The New Black
Sophia Burset was a very important television character – a transgender woman played by a transgender woman, Laverne Cox. In 2013 Cox talked to the Buzzfeed website about breaking “the trans glass ceiling” with OINTB and said, “I don’t know of a trans character on television played by a trans person that has as much humanity as this character.”
7. Offred/June, The Handmaid’s Tale
Elisabeth Moss’ performance as Offred, a woman forced to give up her entire life and become a baby-making machine in a dystopian America, met with a lot of critical acclaim. Despite the story being so harrowing, Moss is determined to see it through to the end, even though there might not be a happy ending for the woman once known as June.
6. Santana Lopez, Glee
Many LGBT women saw themselves in Naya Rivera’s Santana on the hit show Glee. She was a character not often seen on TV, let alone seen in musical comedy-dramas: she was gay, Afro-Latinx, and extremely complicated. Sadly, Rivera herself died young in drowning accident, but she helped change the lives of many.
5. Olivia Pope, Scandal
Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, was a game-changer for black women on TV in America. Pope wasn’t a hero, she was an anti hero, a deeply flawed and complex woman. Her creator Shonda Rhimes explained it thusly to The New York Times newspaper in 2018, “Equality is getting to be as screwed up and as messed up as all of the other leads on television.”
4. Dana Scully, The X-Files
Dana Scully was such an influential character there’s actually something called “The Scully Effect” out there. This is the name given to the sudden rush of women who went to pursue careers in STEM fields after The X-Files became iconic. Actress Gillian Anderson too received letters from women saying they were expanding their education because of Scully.
3. Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess
Sure, the special effects weren’t great, but Xena was absolutely groundbreaking for its time. Lucy Lawless’ warrior princess played second fiddle to no man, and actually looked like she was physically capable of swordfighting as well. Not only were the gender dynamics a breath of a fresh air, the writers did as best as they could to present LGBT characters in the censorious ’90s.
2. Buffy Summers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Buffy The Vampire Slayer starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, a teenage girl tasked with, well, slaying vampires. She was so very, very relatable to teenage girls watching the show – most of the monsters were easily seen as metaphors about the pain of adolescence. The show became iconic, but none of it would have happened without Gellar’s lead performance.
1. Lieutenant Uhura, Star Trek
Uhura’s position as a black woman on television was so important that none other than Martin Luther King came in to convince actress Nichelle Nichols to continue with the show when she had the plan of going. He told her how vital Uhura was for African-Americans, so Nichols remained with Star Trek until it ended in 1969. That one character has left a tremendous legacy.