There are many who consider this a golden age of television. The writing on TV shows (especially dramas) is far better than the majority of feature films. As a result many actors and actresses who would never have considered starring in a television series ten years ago are flocking to current TV fare. And, scripted television today features some of the strongest and most complex female characters ever written for the small screen (another incentive to actresses). What follows is not a top ten list of the best female role models on television, but a list (not limited to any specific number) of complex, nuanced actresses who in many ways embody female empowerment.
As for my criteria I decided to focus solely on shows that currently air (or just finished their final season as is the case with Friday Night Lights). I’ve seen lists with shows a decade old and long off the air. If any strong female is the criteria then you have to go back to the sixties to come up with a comprehensive list. It’s not like strong female characters is a 2000+ invention.
I’ve also steered clear of sitcoms, mainly because I watch so few. That’s not to say there weren’t strong female characters on sitcoms (Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper and Bea Arthur to name just a few). But current sitcoms with few exceptions bore me to tears. This list is obviously subjective based on TV shows I watch. I’ve tried to watch “Mad Men” but it hasn’t caught my interest.
And, finally, this list is by no means all inclusive. It’s a listing of strong female characters, but there are many others not mentioned (after I finished the list I thought of another two I could have easily added). It’s not like I spend all my waking hours watching TV (not to mention the hundreds of cable stations now airing original programming which haven’t yet caught my eye).
So, in no particular order here are female characters who I find are (for the most part) role models for today’s youth (or if villains are just plain fun to watch because they are incredibly well-drawn).
Connie Britton as “Tami Taylor” on Friday Night Lights (there are a number of other well-drawn strong female characters on the show, as well). Tami Taylor has the difficult task of balancing family and career. She has to balance support of her husband with her own career ambitions. No easy task and Britton does a wonderful job of showing just how difficult it is to stand by your husband while attempting to pursue her own career goals. Kudos, too, to Kyle Chandler as Eric Taylor for his agonizing portrayal in deciding his wife needed her opportunity to fulfill her career ambitions though it meant uncertainty for him (and, of course to the writers for writing these two wonderful characters).
Marge Martindale as “Mags Bennett” on Justified. A wonderfully nuanced performance as take-no-prisoners head of her Kentucky crime family. Mags combines a code of honor that allows her to deal with longtime enemies with a bond to her family (highly flawed males) even when one of her sons betrays her orders.
Julianna Margulies as “Alicia Florrick” on The Good Wife. Strong-willed she doesn’t just stand by her unfaithful husband. If she’s going to take him back it will be on her terms. And, if I were a lawyer I wouldn’t want to battle her in court.
Christine Baranski as “Diane Lockhart” on The Good Wife. Who says there aren’t quality parts for actresses over forty years old? Maybe not as many roles as those over forty would like but there are some juicy parts. Baransky as Diane Lockhark is just as cutthroat as her male counterparts especially when her partnership in her law firm was in jeopardy.
Kyra Sedgewick as “Dep. Chief Brenda Lee Johnson” on The Closer. Always a step ahead of her prey she’s a complex character making a name for herself in a man’s world.
Mary McDonnell as “Captain Sharon Raydor”, also on The Closer. Raydor’s character does not yet have the depth of McDonnell’s portrayal as President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica but she’s no longer the one-dimensional foil for Sedgewick’s Johnson as when she first joined the show in a recurring role. While Brenda Lee Johnson won their opening salvos when the two butt heads now they do so as equals; both strong women.
Cote de Pablo as “Ziva David” on NCIS. A former Mossad operative David can not only kick ass with the best of them but brings a wicked sense of humor to her role putting her on equal footing with her male counterparts. She also shows a rare vulnerability lacking in some strong-willed female characters.
Pauley Perrette as “Abby Sciuto” on NCIS. Sciuto is more known for her brains than brawn, but on at least two occasions when attacked she not only held her own but prevailed. She’s most definitely the heart of the NCIS team. She shows a rare sense of individualism in a government agency known for its conformity.
Gabrielle Anwar as “Fiona Glenanne” on Burn Notice. A weapons expert her first impulse is to shoot first and ask questions later. Still, Fiona is a sucker for those in trouble who can’t fend for themselves and Michael Westen’s conscience on Burn Notice.
Sharon Gless as “Madeline Westen” on Burn Notice. Gless first showed her strength as a woman on the eighties show Cagney & Lacey. Now in her sixties she portrays another strong woman as Michael Westen’s mother. Abused by her husband in early seasons she had a rocky relationship with her oldest son who kept from her he was a spy. Over the past two years Madeline, now aware of her son’s past, has taken on dangerous assignments. While tough as nails she also shows her vulnerability. A complete woman.
Linda Hunt as “Hetty Lange” on NCIS LA. While Hetty’s backstory has been slow to unfold she is a woman to be reckoned with. Nobody keeps secrets from her and the rest of her team respects, idolizes, even fears her . . . for good reason. Tough as she can be, however, she is a mother hen to those she commands, holding their safety more closely than her own. [Honorable mention to Daniela Ruah as "Kensi Blye" who fits the Ziva David, Fiona Glenanne mold on NCIS LA.]
Jaime Murray as “H.G. Wells” on Warehouse 13. Warehouse 13 sports a number of strong female characters (Joanne Kelly as “Myka Bering” and Allison Scagliotti as “Claudia Donovan”) but it comes as a delight that H.G. Wells is a female, not a male (on the show her husband received the kudos she so richly deserved). Murray’s character has a decidely dark side. In the same episode, on a recurring role, she’s a hero and a villain.
Katey Sagal as “Gemma” on Sons of Anarchy. Someone must have known something when they cast “Peggy Bundy” from Married . . . With Children as mother of a bicycle gang. Too often actors are typecast and either don’t stray from what they’ve done or aren’t offered challenging parts. Gemma couldn’t be more different from Bundy. Tough, violent, and uncompromising she holds her family and gang together by her inner strength.
Maggie Q as “Nikita” on Nikita. Not only does she kick ass but in later episodes Nikita shows a vulnerability that brings depth to the character. She’s a worthy successor to Peta Wilson who introduced the character on television (which followed a theatrical film).
Emilia Clarke as “Daenerys Targaryen” on Game of Thrones. Married off by her brother to a rival tribe leader, Daenerys herself takes over leadership when her husband is killed. In the final scene of Season One we see a young woman who’s a power to be reckoned with.
Glenn Close as “Patty Hewes” on Damages. Close chose well on her first television starring role as the dangerous, tenacious, treacherous yet lonely Patty Hewes. A villain in many ways she fights against those with power and for the underdog. Yes, she plies her trade with no ethics but some cases need a lawyer with few principles.
[Honorable mention to Piper Perabo as "Annie Walker" on Covert Affairs and Anna Paquin as "Sookie Sackhouse" on True Blood]
Feel free to add to this list. I know I’m missing some.