Dec 10, 2009

Top Five Female TV Characters

There's been some godawful depictions of women on television. Luckily there's been some awesome characters that help make up for it. This list is restricted to series I've seen; I've also ruled out BBC adaptations of classic novels - otherwise it would be nothing but Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice or Margaret Hale from North & South.

The Top Five Well-Rounded, Fleshed-Out, Properly Three-Dimensional Female Characters in Popular Television.

5. Tara Thornton, True Blood

I haven't even finished watching the first season of True Blood, but Tara has already impressed me enough to bump Buffy the Vampire Slayer off this list and grab the number five slot (including characters from two vampire-based series would be an indulgence). Played with bravura by Rutina Wesley, Tara is a loud-mouthed know-it-all whose brash persona hides a deeply sad individual. Neglected by her alcoholic mother, and carrying a torch for the undeserving Jason Stackhouse, Tara bluffs and argues her way through jobs and life, spurning drugs and potential relationships in favour of education and knowledge as her survival tool.

I'm just at the stage where Tara is about to undergo an exorcism to expel her own "demon". I like the fact that despite her certain knowledge that she's being scammed, she's unhappy enough to give it a try. It's a flaw of many females that we will give something ridiculous a considered trial, if we want so desperately to believe it will help us. How else do you explain the cosmetics industry?

4. Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess

It's the shameless pick for superhero character of choice. Xena: Warrior Princess is often ridiculed for its Sapphic overtones and high camp episodes - but regular viewers know the series had bold, often epic story arcs, played out by a ballsy yet charming cast. At its centre is Lucy Lawless, undeniably brilliant as the repentant warlord on a quest to undo the wrongs of her past. Not needing Hercules' immortal parentage, or Buffy's "supernatural" powers, Xena is all-woman killing machine, highly-trained, intense, focused, deadly and above all, wise. She struggles with being "good", and the glint of joy in Lawless' eyes during fight scenes shows how much she loves to be bad. Xena's reliance on a tight group of close friends demonstrates the importance social interaction plays in helping people make good choices.

Also, she kicks a lot of ass. And I wish I could kick a lot of ass. And I imagine there'd be a fair few females who would prefer to be avenging self-reliant warriors much more than "Save me!" Disney princesses.

3. Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes

It's hard to follow in the footsteps of John Simm, who gave such a marvellous performance as bewildered time-travelling policeman Sam Tyler in Life on Mars. Many were not impressed by the idea of Ashes to Ashes, particularly because while Philip Glenister would return as Gene Hunt (possibly the greatest character ever, period), Simm was too busy going off to play a different type of time-traveller. But they didn't give enough credit to the show's writers, and to the commitment and sparkle of Keeley Hawes as Detective Inspector Alex Drake. A police psychologist who wakes up in 1981 after being shot in the head, Drake holds her own as a woman in a police force still awakening to the idea of females in power. She's intelligent, competent and confident - and a dab hand at running in stiletto boots.

She's also batshit crazy, because she left her 12-year-old daughter Molly back in the future. Whereas Sam Tyler eventually lost his reason to "get back", Drake never does: a single mother, she has to find her way home. It colours everything she does, even as she settles into life in Thatcherite London. Her relationship with "The Gene Genie" is bursting with sexual tension, yet retains a charming innocence. She calls him "Guv" and tells him he's just a construct of her mind; he offers her grudging respect then calls her "Bols" and stamps her backside. She's the partner he didn't imagine having; but now can't do without.

2. Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galactica

If I didn't already have The World's Best Mum, I'd be hanging around Mary McDonnell's house, hoping she might adopt me. Uexpectedly appointed President of the Twelve Colonies after a Cylon nuclear attack almost obliterates the human race, Roslin turns out to be the Winston Churchill of the Fleet - the right leader at the right time, big-thinking and inspirational, yet prone to dark moods and fits of pique. It's easy to draw the parallel of the softly-spoken, often dreamy Roslin as the "mother" figure to the fleeing colonists, and the crater-faced Admiral Bill Adama as the "father". But make no mistake, Roslin's soul is iron, and it's her, not Adama, who takes a harder line against the Cylon enemy.

Weakened by a long-running battle with breast cancer, Roslin is nevertheless sustained by her duty to protect the colony and her growing affection for Adama. There should be a digital channel dedicated to their fireside-and-ambrosia chats - they're the most low-key parts of the series, but the most compelling.

1. Turanga Leela, Futurama

It takes the skill of animation to create the ultimate three-dimensional woman. Fry may be the heart of Futurama, and Bender Bending Rodriguez its boozy guts, but Leela is its head - mostly screwed on tight, but with the occasional bout of uncertainty. Growing up with one-eye in an orphanarium made her tough; but inside she's still gooey - she cries when she thinks her pet Nibbler has died, and longs to be "normal" enough to have restorative surgery to gain a second eye (blessedly, that episode ends with Leela realising she's fine as she is - a lesson more of us chicks could stand to learn).

She's got a chequered sexual history - not afraid of a one-night stand (hello, Zapp Brannigan), she still yearns for a great love, but overlooks adoration close to home. She's not distracted by her difficult upbringing, but is not averse to finding answers - and I defy anyone not to bawl when she discovers that she's not in fact an alien, but the daughter of two mutants who thought their one-eyed child was too special for a life hidden in the sewers.

Leela high-kicks, captains the spaceship, and saves the Planet Express crew's collective ass more times than you can count. She's resourceful, clever and strict, but also kind and fair. She's confident in her body and not obsessed with it. In a show that regularly and tongue-in-cheekedly takes the mickey out of women ("They're governed by their emotions!"), Leela nevertheless emerges triumphant - the uber Amazonian wonderbabe from the future.


  1. You bumped Buffy off this list for Tara? We can never speak again.

    Seriously, wait till the END of series 1 or maybe a little way through series 2. You will want to reach through the screen and slap her senseless. And I don't say that because of my intense hatred of women. Well, not JUST because.

    (Otherwise, good picks.)

  2. Like the inclusion of Laura Roslin, but Willow needed to be on the list. I think she was the only one of the Buffy cast that actually grew up.

  3. DiscoStu - I think part of my attraction to her is the fact she's screwed up and frustrating. After all, this is a not a list about being the best role models, but being great human characters. I'm intrigued by Tara's self-destructive streak.

    Happy to do a review once I get further into True Blood though. But it was thinking about what an interesting character she is that inspired me to put together this list, so I could hardly not include her. ;)

    Uamada - Eh, Willow might make a top 15. To be honest, I preferred Tara. ;)

  4. so did Willow. ha ha.
    seriously, though, nice inclusion of Turanga Leela. awesomeness embodied.
    the name came from one of Tom Baker's Doctor IV companions. how about another?
    Sarah-Jane Smith.
    didn't see that one coming, did ya?

  5. Hmm yes wait till the end of series 2 before you judge tara fully. And you have some serious Xena issues that need dealing with. But i submit that you have left off one of my favourite funny, tough and compassionate female characters, Zoe from Firefly. (which by the way shits all over both buffy and xena)

  6. I would never have thought Alex Drake would end up "On the list".. But I am sooooo pleased she did. Seems I am not he only "strong, intelligent woman in a politically incorrect time" sort of guy..

  7. I must say Zoe gets my vote as well.

  8. I can believe that Charlie's Angels didn't take up 3 of the top 5 spots.

  9. Alex Drake is so much more than a construct. She's a real live woman with good days and bad days but never a day lost for words. Simply the best and funniest female on the tube!

  10. Needs more Kima from The Wire or Pearlman from The Wire. Though I'm assuming the only reason you haven't included them is because you haven't seen The Wire .... to your eternal shame.

  11. Great post

    Interested to hear your thoughts on Tara from True Blood after you watch series 2. I thought she was a fantastic character in series 1 but i think the writers got some instruction to make her a bit less magnificent.

    Oh and ridiculed for its "Sapphic overtones" for me that was one of the pluses "I want to be a thespian!" I though you said something else....

    Also gotta put my hand up for Zoe from Firefly as well. She was the best example of a strong female character who wasn't just a male character with breasts.

  12. Naut, you have as many 80s tv issues as GC has Xena issues

  13. love the Xena and Laura Roslin picks-haven't really gotten the opportunity to see any of the other shows-maybe I'll have to look into it!
    my list would be:

    1)Xena (obviously, there will never be anyone better!)
    2)Kahlan from Legend of the Seeker
    3)Prue, Piper, Phoebe, & Paige from Charmed (I can't bring myself to just pick one lol)
    4)Kara Thrace/Starbuck from BSG
    5)Denise from Army Wives

  14. The Doctor - "My Sarah-Jane" *The Wah allows one manly tear to fall down his ruggedly masculine face*

    Sarah-Jane Smith for the win!

    Though Zoe from FireFly ranks pretty high as well

  15. Oh and the bit in BSG: series 4 episode 14 'Blood on the Scales' where Laura Roslyn says

    "No. Not now. Not ever. Do you hear me? I will use every cannon, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon I have down to my own eyeteeth to end you. I swear it! I'm coming for all of you!"

    I got chills when she said that.

  16. I think Zoe's my favourite

    "Kaylee: (pointing to a pink frilly dress) "Say, look at the fluffy one!"

    Zoe: "Too much foofaraw. If I'm going to wear a dress, I'd want something with some slink."

    Wash: "You want a slinky dress? I can buy you a slinky dress. Captain, can I have money for a slinky dress?"

    Jayne: "I'll chip in."

    Zoe: (to Jayne) "I can hurt you."

    and well read too

    Zoe: "You sanguine about the kind of reception we're apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Cap'n?"

    Mal: "Absolutely." (beat) "What's 'sanguine' mean?"

    Zoe: " 'Sanguine'. Hopeful. Plus -- point of interest -- it also means 'bloody'."

    Mal: "Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don't it?"

    and of course in flashback to the war
    Tracey: "Thanks. Didn't know you were there."

    Zoe: "That's sort of the point. Stealth, you may have heard of it."

    Tracey: "I don't think they covered that in basic."

    Zoe: "Well, at least they covered 'Dropping your weapon so you can eat beans and get yourself shot'."

    Tracey: "Yeah, I got a badge in that." (seriously) "Won't happen again."

    Zoe: "It does, I'm just gonna watch."

  17. I haven't seen a single full episode of any of these shows, thereby confirming their greatness. Bedes

  18. Yes agree totally, Gene Hunt is the best TV character ever.

    but you've missed Ziva from NCIS

  19. Lorelai Gilmore - The Gilmore Girls.

    Smart, funny, a bit of a drip when it comes to men, and tries her damndest to be a good Mum but as flawed as any of the rest of us. Has her triumphs, but some g'dawful shockers as well.

  20. Xena should be first, there will NEVER be anyone like her. I HATE Laura Roslin.

  21. I should also put up the Farscape girls.
    Zhaan, beautiful, serene, wise and florol.
    Chiana, Junior Miss Tuff Chick of the Universe
    Aeryn, beats up the "hero" in their first meeting, exceeds what she believes she can do, and is a hell of a soldier.

  22. Hey guys,

    Thanks for commenting!

    Alas, I have not seen Firefly. Well, half an ep here or there, but I've yet to sit down and go through it thoroughly. I saw the "Serenity" movie and was a bit "meh". It was like Buffy with space monsters.

    I will point out though that I very much enjoyed that actor - Gia Torres - when she played Cleopatra in Xena: Warrior Princess. ;)

    I've never watched "Gilmore Girls", but I do like "Ziva" from NCIS.

    Doctor Who is a hard one, because I haven't seen much old Who, and I seem to be quite alone in liking all of his companions in their own way in the new Who.

    I started watching Series 1 of the Wire, and I do intend to go back to it - I missed an ep here and there and it's one of those series you just need to be dedicated to.

    In the same vein, one day I'll get to Mad Men and The West Wing and Glee and everything else I'm missing...

  23. Xena: Warrior Princess Should Of Been Number One, The Warrior Babe Kicks Butt :)

  24. Cheryl West from Outrageous Fortune would be on my top 5 (played by Kiwi veteran actor Robyn Malcolm)

    (for anyone who doesn't know what i'm talking about-)

  25. As much as I love Xena...personally, I'd have chosen Gabrielle. I think that whilst the show was supposed to be focussed on Xena's quest for redemption, ultimately, I think that Gabrielle had a more significant transformation (plus, I just found her character more interesting). Even if she did have that stupid hippie phase. That being said though, I'm happy at least one of them made it to the top 5!

  26. haha I also choose Turanga Leela, Futurama, she is something, isn't she?? but I also love Xena the warrior, so sexy in that outfit!