Fantasy · Sci-Fi · TV & Movies

Where to Find Strong Female Characters on TV

This week, I’m posting lists of my favorite stories that have female protagonists or POVs. Today I’m featuring TV shows. Leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if they’re nothing like these, and check back Friday for open discussion on strong female characters!

Alice miniseries cover
The one that looks like this.

Alice (the miniseries) – It does take kind of a turn and really becomes more about Hatter, with Alice as a Maguffin, but I still think she’s a great character and pulled it off in the end.

Birds of Prey – This show is rightly criticized for low production values, and the strange device of hanging itself on being a Batman show and yet taking pains to never show Batman. That aside, it’s a really good show with four awesome female characters: Oracle, Huntress (who I usually hate but adore here), a second-generation Black Canary, and Harley Quinn as the villain. The show didn’t have enough time to really blossom, but it does have a satisfying arc and creates a complete story at the end. Without that completed story I would’ve given it a 3.5/5, but with it, it’s a 5/5.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel – Buffy is an annoying little whiner, but she’s a cultural icon. I love the basic conceit of the show, that it’s about the cute little blonde girl in the horror movie — but the monsters are the ones who should be afraid of her. I’d also like to point out Cordelia Chase starts as a preppy, shallow bitch in Buffy, and by the end of Angel, she’s an amazing strong woman who makes bad choices as well as good ones, and owns her choices either way. The jerk-to-hero progression is rarely seen for women, and Cordy’s story is more compelling than Buffy’s own.

Castle – I haven’t watched this show in a while, but I remember being really impressed by the variety and humanity of the ladies, from cops to FBI agents to Castle’s theatrical mother and bookish daughter.

Doctor Who – Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, Romana, other awesome women. The feminism (or lack thereof) in the more recent shows is hotly debated, but at the least, you will find stories about women there: Amy Pond, River Song, Clara Oswald, Martha Jones, etc. For a self-identified feminist, you can’t do better than Classic Who’s Sarah Jane Smith!

Sarah Jane Smith
Actual dialogue.

Farscape – I have a love/hate relationship with this show. I love its strangeness, a quality that much televised sci-fi never achieves, but I dislike most of the central characters. Still, there are a wide variety of women, from warriors to priests to everything in between. (Zhaan is my favorite.)

Firefly – Assassin. Cloudcuckoolander. Wife. Warrior. Prostitute. Con artist. Engineer. I think it says something that a lot of the women are constructed of tropes, but a lot of the men on Firefly are too. Plus, Wash and Zoe are one of the few examples of a really great married couple.

Frankenstein, MD – A web show featuring a modern, female Frankenstein. Episodes are only around six minutes each, but I’m totally invested! Here’s the first episode:

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – A majority-female fantasy universe! I’ve always loved the way characters don’t conform to gender stereotypes, but that’s because there AREN’T those stereotypes in MLP. Ponies are individuals and all their talents are celebrated.

NCIS – This one may be a little controversial, it’s a crime procedural and there are a fair number of stereotypical characters in any given mystery. It’s the recurring characters I’m talking about. A lot of shows have a “type” for both men and women — They’re all basically the same, you know? In NCIS, the female characters are widely varied. I’m going to post more about this if and when I finish watching the series.

Orange is the New Black – I don’t watch this with other people around, so I haven’t seen much of it. I’ve seen enough to know this is the first time I’ve actually watched a show with a mostly-female cast, and most importantly, a female gaze. I never really knew what it would even feel like, but it’s a relief. OitNB has women of many ethnicities and backgrounds, including a trans woman played by a trans actress, and has bi and lesbian characters (although where I am, Piper is still saying she “used to be lesbian” and is straight now.) The reason I don’t watch it in public is because there’s a lot of realistic sex, creepy prison guards, general mature content, etc., so be warned.

Orphan Black – I’ve seen two episodes, and I want to see more. I can confidently say it’s a story about women of all kinds, and the writing is engrossing.

Star Trek/Star Trek: The Next Generation – Some of it seems sexist looking back (especially that first season of TNG), but in context, Star Trek was revolutionary, and there are still awesome self-possessed women on both these shows. (The only reason I don’t mention the other Trek shows is I’m not that familiar with them).

Vicar of Dibley – As a comedy offering for the list, this British comedy classic is a can’t-go-wrong choice. It’s about a lady vicar (played by Dawn French) in a weird little country town. Also this is where I recognized Peter Capaldi from when he got Doctor Who… The episode is “Songs of Praise” and it’s available on Netflix or Hulu Plus!

Young Peter Capaldi
Young Peter Capaldi and Dawn French

Waiting for God – Another britcom, this one about a mean old lady (Diana Trent, played by Stephanie Cole) in a retirement community. I wanna be Diana when I grow up. “Mean old lady” doesn’t really cut it as a description… She’s mean out of pure choice, because everyone expects her to be sweet and simpering just because she’s old. She’s smart and witty, never married, retired after a career as a photojournalist in crazy situations, and she’s an outspoken advocate for women of all ages. (Push through the first couple episodes, or just pick one at random from Netflix – the characterization changes drastically after the first few episodes.)

Wonder Woman – I’ve been catching episodes since they started airing on MeTV, and I love this show. My favorite thing is that Wonder Woman is great, but Diana Prince is just as strong a character. She’s capable and smart and formidable. In all the episodes I’ve seen, she’s been perfectly comfortable in that role, and everyone around her treats her with the same respect. The fact that she’s a woman is just that: a fact, not a huge deal they harp on all the time.

So, this concludes my list of recommendations. I hope you enjoyed it, and let me know if you decide to try any of the stories I mentioned. I’m considering doing similar lists for LGBT+ characters and characters of color, so let me know if you’d like to see that. Finally, don’t forget to weigh in on the Feminist Friday “Strong Female Characters” post tomorrow! Hope to see you there!

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11 thoughts on “Where to Find Strong Female Characters on TV

  1. Great list! I would also suggest ‘Bones’ which features a range of female characters with differing personalities- eg Tempe Brennan is logical and Scientific-minded and all about the evidence whilst Angela is a creative, sensual and sexual being. Oh, also Warehouse 13 which has a number of strong female characters in the main cast. It also is an interesting one to look at in terms of LGBT due to the portrayal of bisexual characters (HG Wells declares that many of her lovers were men) and the fantastic portrayal of gay agent Steve Jinks. The show tells us he’s gay and the characters discuss it but it’s not treated as a plot point, it’s just part of him.

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  2. Legend of Korra!! (although it’s only online now) Also, Once Upon a Time has a lot of female characters and most are really awesome considering they’re based on (Disney) fairy tales.

    Great list, I’ve been meaning to watch several of these.

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  3. Cool list. I’m glad to see Orphan Black on there. Tatiana Maslany is so amazing I always forget I’m watching the same person in all those roles.

    As for Doctor Who, I think they’ve done a great job of turning Clara Oswald into a multi-dimensional character this season, trying to balance her job and her love life with being a time traveler. She’s not even aware of her own bravery.

    I’ve never heard of Frankenstein MD. Is that a web show or do I not have the channel on my cable?

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    1. It took me a while to get on the Orphan Black train because the trailers were awful, but word of mouth got to me. 🙂 Agreed on Doctor Who. A little shaky there in last week’s episode, but overall a distinct improvement!

      Frankenstein MD is a web show from PBS, you can click through that video I embedded and it should take you to the playlist.

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      1. Thanks. I couldn’t watch the video because I’m at work (not that I play on the internet at work of course), so I took a chance on asking you and coming across as lazy or unobservant. I’m probably still those things, now that I think about it.

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