To close out Women’s History Month this year, we asked Rotten Tomatoes staff members and Tomatometer critics to tell us who they think the most fearless female characters on TV are. Below are more than 50 women from the annals of television history who stood out as particularly inspiring for their bravery in the face of challenges big and small.
The oldest show on our list, I Love Lucy, which started airing in 1951, starred Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, who brought humor to every struggle — even if they were often self-made.
Our list also pays homage to young heroines like Midge Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Betty Suarez (Ugly Betty) and fresh characters like Eve Polastri (Killing Eve) and Issa (Insecure) in some of the newest shows on TV and streaming.
Have a look at a few of our favorite fearless females on TV, then head to the comments to tell us which female characters inspire you.
Yes, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo infamously slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy, but the depiction of an interracial marriage on TV (the very first) was radical enough. And that wasn’t all: Ricky played straight man to Lucy’s irrepressible and mischievous spirit, as she bounced off the edges of the television set with wild schemes and even wilder facial expressions and comic timing. The show may have been in black-and-white, but Lucy brought the color.
Writer and producer Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek TV series was responsible for numerous firsts, but Nichols’ position as one of the first black woman in a leading role on TV inspired a generation. Nichols told Rotten Tomatoes she feels “honored” to have been a part of a visionary show and about that time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “ordered” her not to quit the series.
Mary Richards was a smart, sassy, independent, modern professional who young women in 1970 looked up to and saw as a friend and sister, as well as a model for future career women. Headlining her own series, Moore was admirable in her own right, after having enjoyed fame as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The creation of psychologist William Marston, Amazon princess Wonder Woman (a.k.a. Diana Prince) was given the seal of approval by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, also a psychologist and her husband’s collaborator. Patriotic, loving, and strong, Wonder Woman leaped from comic books, where she started in 1941, to television screens in 1975, serving as a unique TV option for young girls more accustomed to seeing Batman and Superman portrayed in live action.
No-nonsense mom Clair Huxtable was a lawyer and the rock of her family. She represented a black middle-class too often overlooked in early television, entering the living rooms of people of every race as a model of both motherhood and career woman. Her fearlessness manifested itself in her unapologetic confidence as a professional and co-head of the household.
If you want an indication of the cultural potency that Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), Dorothy Sbornak (Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (Betty White), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) enjoy to this day, just turn on your TV: seemingly at any time of day, on a number of cable channels, you will find the four women sat there in their wicker-heavy living room or noshing in their kitchen, swapping zingers about money, Reagan-era politics, or life in St. Olaf. While all four women are tropes, the genius of the show – and the incredible performances at its center – was that all had depth and tenacity, and their bond was of a kind that all viewers, regardless of gender, wanted with their own pals and confidants.
Springfield’s pointy-haired do-gooder and moral center of TV’s longest-running primetime show, Lisa Simpson has been through it all over her 30 years on our screens (and eight years of life): She’s launched her own Malibu Stacy rival; become president of the United States; maintained her staunch vegetarianism while living in a home of people who refuse to “make friends with salad”; and fended off the persistent advances of Milhouse. She is TV’s ultimate feminist icon.
From the start of their association, FBI agent Dana Scully was most often playing her A-game while it seemed her partner, Fox Mulder, was still sifting through the sandbox. Sure, there really were aliens in that sandbox, but Dr. Scully’s scientific approach proved the truth that was out there, however out-there that truth was. With or without her agency-issued sidearm, Scully was as potentially lethal as she was wicked smart.
Seriously, who even remembers TV’s Hercules? (OK, we kinda do – but mostly because the Kevin Sorbo–starring ’90s show was where we first met Lucy Lawless’s Xena ahead of the character getting her own spin-off that ran for six seasons from 1995 to 2001.) We love Xena for her ferociousness, her can-do and do-good spirit, her “Ayiyiyiyiyi” battle cry, and her many-college-theses–launching companionship with sidekick Gabrielle.
Buffy Summers saved the world. A lot. Her fearlessness was never just about slaying vampires and demons, though — it was also about being willing to sacrifice herself and her own happiness for her friends, her family, and the greater good. In addition to being a strong fighter and learning to become a great leader, the iconic character remained entirely relatable throughout the long-running series.
In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit, led by a fierce woman who is singlemindedly focused on bringing perpetrators to justice. Olivia Benson is so inspirational that her crusade for victims has spilled over into Mariska Hargitay’s real life: The actress is a leading activist dedicated to ending the rape-kit backlog and has helped fight for sexual assault survivors with her Joyful Heart Foundation, now 15 years into its mission to change society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Super-spy Sydney Bristow had a wig collection to die for and the world’s coolest job at Credit Dauphine, which was not actually a boring bank but the front for what Sydney thought was the CIA. But once she learned the truth — that she was not working for a black-ops CIA division but actually part of an alliance working against the U.S. government — she became even more badass as a double agent trying to take down the bad guys and also figure out what the hell a Renaissance inventor named Milo Rambaldi had to do with it all.
In war, the survivors are not always the winners of the battle, and the story of Firefly is the story of some of those losers. Zoe, a former corporal in the Independent Army, travels through space as the second-in-command to Captain Mal Reynolds of the Serenity. Whether battling cannibalistic human Reavers or having Mal’s back in smuggling negotiations with the unsavory elements in areas outside of the Alliance’s reach, Zoe proves herself again and again as a warrior to be reckoned with — if you dare.
Some corners winged when they found out that “Starbuck” of Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of the 1978 sci-fi series would be a woman. But Katee Sackhoff left no question about her abilities as the hard-drinking, mercurial fighter pilot. Her female costars — Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin, Grace Park as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii/Number Eight/Sharon “Athena” Agathon, Tricia Helfer as Number Six, and, later, Lucy Lawless as D’Anna Biers/Number Three — also left and indelible mark on the face of sci-fi. The series, in fact, takes top spot in our list of the 100 Best Science Fiction Series of All Time.
Inside, the petite blonde private investigator — along with her pitbull sidekick Backup — is a gooey marshmallow. On the outside, however, she’s a tough-talking, sarcastic student eager to solve any cases her rich high school (and then college) classmates send her way, from missing mascots to murder.
Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is the “dark and twisty” heroine of our dreams. Since the show’s 2005 inception, we’ve seen Meredith grow from an uneasy surgical intern to a self-assured, award-winning leader in her field — and watched Pompeo become one of the highest-paid actors on TV to boot. Grey’s also launched Sandra Oh into the spotlight through her character Cristina Yang, a tough-as-nails heart surgeon whose ambition knows no bounds. The duo quickly became one of TV’s most lasting friendships, and even coined the iconic phrase “you’re my person.” Their mentor, Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), fiercely modeled tough-as-nails leadership as well as feminine strength and vulnerability. Then there’s Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary), Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone), Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), and not to mention Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen) — basically, Grey Sloan Memorial is chock full of tough women who save lives on a daily basis. What’s more fearless than that?
After America Ferrera joined the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but before she taught you How to Train Your Dragon or charmed us into an impulse buy in her Superstore, she was fearless Ugly Betty, a bright but style-challenged woman who starts her career in the unlikely role as a personal assistant at a high-fashion magazine. Based on a Colombian telenovela, the four-season series presented an intelligent underdog paddling for her life in shark-infested workplace waters. Besides her smarts, Betty Suarez’s superpower was her tenacity.
You get the sense there’s not a whole lot of distance between 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and the woman who created and plays her, Tina Fey – especially if you’ve read the latter’s bestselling autobiography, Bossypants. And either woman would qualify for this list. Like Fey once did, Lemon works as a head writer on a major network sketch comedy show, juggling deadlines, egos, and a personal life that’s far less glamorous and much more relatable than what we usually see in glossier, NYC-set comedies. She fearlessly deals with the likes of overbearing boss Jack Donaghy, as well as her series’ impossible lead stars, and shows while you may not be able to “have it all” – Career! Kids! Love! Fulfillment! – you can do good work, forge strong friendships, and keep us cracking up as you try.
In the sexist world of Mad Men, AMC’s ’50s-set ad-industry drama, Peggy and Joan were beacons of female ambition. Peggy was observant and cunning, while Joan was brash and unapologetic. The characters were flawed and made bad decisions, but would rise from the ashes of their self-immolation to reach again for the brass ring so often denied to them. Their stubborn refusal to stop their respective career climbs in the face of adversity became a most admirable shared quality.
Who can slice through mobile meat sacks with the greatest of ease? These women! Who watches friends and family die, but still returns to the fight? These warriors! Who fights zombie hordes week-after-week seemingly without breaking a sweat? The women of The Walking Dead. Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and Carol (Melissa McBride) are just three of the female characters who’ve proven their zombie-whacking prowess on the AMC horror series over its nine-season run. It must feel good to be so badass…
Though it looks like Shameless will continue on (and on… and on) without Rossum’s Fiona Gallagher, there’s no denying from anyone who’s ever watched the series that she was the heart and soul of both the Gallagher family and the series. And though her final season seemed hellbent to bring her down a peg or two — not that she was ever on easy street, as this is Shameless — nothing could change that fact.
Think what you will about the inclusion of Cersei (Lena Headey) on our list — the woman has mad survival skills, as do the rest of Game of Thrones‘ still-standing (for now) female characters: Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). Let’s not forget the B-team of Missandei, Meera, Yara, Ellaria, and little Lyanna Mormont. And we’ll pour one out for Catelyn, Ygritte, Margaery, Osha, Myrcella, Shireen, Ros, Leaf, Irri, Talisa, Tyene, Obara, Nymeria, Septa Mordane…
Nobody’s perfect, and Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison certainly suffers from her share of inner demons — not to mention bipolar disorder — but that doesn’t stop her from being one of the most consistently effective intelligence agents in TV history… and a mother. Carrie regularly goes above and beyond what’s asked of her, frequently putting herself directly in harm’s way, to make sure her team gets what it needs. Is it a little reckless sometimes? Sure, but without risk, you don’t get the kinds of results she delivers, and you don’t get the kinds of results she delivers unless “she” is Carrie Mathison.
Political operative and sometime puppetmaster Olivia Pope captivated audiences as the head of her own Washington, D.C., crisis management firm for seven seasons. The Shonda Rhimes series gave Pope a complicated love life with fictional U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant III as her heart’s commander in chief and a non-stop, harrowing career path. Washington presented a character made up of equal parts resolve and grace, giving young women everywhere a role model despite her occasional missteps.
Spouting sharp one-liners from the mind of Armando Iannucci (Google the dildo croissant line immediately) and imbued with incomparable fierceness by gazillion-time Emmy winner Louis-Dreyfus, Selina Meyer is one of the most terrifying politicians on TV. (Seriously, if it were between Meyer and that guy who got the boot from that Netflix series, we’d put our money on the former.) Yet for all the nastiness she can exude and the colossal mishaps that set her back, it’s easy to miss the point being made in this show: Meyer is rarely the cause of her failures. She’s surrounded by buffoons, mostly men, and is — as fearlessly as ferociously — trying to clean up the messes they create and get to where she knows she belongs.
Yes, being a Russian spy is a pretty big crime — but does it compare to the felony of not giving Russell a Golden Globe or Emmy for her portrayal of The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings? Like, not even once over the course of six years in which the show was Certified Fresh for every season and during which time critics were lauding her work as one half of the clandestine “all-American” couple that was secretly squirrelling away secrets for the USSR and occasionally brutally killing Americans who got in their way? Elizabeth Jennings is the ultimate anti-hero (sorry Walter, Tony, Don): a woman doing very bad things for what she perceives to be very good reasons – the well-being of her country and the protection of her family.
Wright’s Claire Underwood may not be the sweetest woman on this list, but she makes a strong case as one of the most fearless. After all, few people — man or woman — would thrive under the kind of pressure she’s faced as the wife of Frank Underwood, and fewer still would have the nerve to leave Frank behind and re-emerge from the rubble of their relationship to become the most powerful person in the world. She’s ambitious, but she’s got the spine to achieve her lofty goals.
Being a single mother tends to make you fearless, but imagine raising a precocious child while you try to get to the bottom of an international conspiracy. Maslany finally earned a well-deserved Emmy in 2016 for portraying not only Sarah Manning, but also every single one of Sarah’s Leda clones — including Alison, Cosima, Helena, Rachel, MK, Beth, Katja, Jennifer, Krystal, and more — who band together and use their unique talents to solve a mind-bending mystery. Her multi-layered performance is every bit as fearless as the Clone Club.
Diaz is an enigma. She loves leather jackets, motorcycles, archery, and Nancy Meyers movies (to the point that she will call you an “idiot” if you confuse Meyers for Nora Ephron). She’s also perhaps the one Brooklyn Nine-Nine character whose stories mostly always work no matter what pairing she’s put into. Oh, and she’s a bisexual icon. Diaz is, simply put, dope.
Yas queens! Twentysomething BFFs Ilana and Abbi are the true embodiment of the millennial hustle: Though they graduated from college into the less-than-supportive gig economy, the duo will stop at nothing to achieve their dreams in New York City.
Time-traveling wife Claire not only has to contend with the mind-blowing fact that she’s slipped 200 years through time from the 1940s to the relatively barbaric 1740s, but also that her husband’s doppelganger in that time is a twisted rapist. (In fact, the Starz series based on Diana Gabaldon’s book series has gotten some flack for its sexual assault plotlines.) But Claire endures, and endures, and endures — through violent attacks and the tragic deaths of loved ones. Nevertheless, she persisted.
High-powered lawyer and professor Annalise Keating delivers legendary monologues on a weekly basis while unapologetically defending herself against personal and professional attackers; defending her students like a mother lion; defending her clients like their lives depend on it — because they do — and in doing so, shines a light on real-world inequalities within the criminal justice system and educational institutions.
There are three generations of fearless Villanueva women on Jane the Virgin. Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is a writer, teacher, and a mom. Jane is often chided by friends and foes for being persistent, but that’s not a negative quality. She isn’t willing to sacrifice her high standards and falls in love fearlessly. Jane’s passion makes her who she is, and we love her for it. Then there’s Alba (Ivonne Coll), Jane’s abuela, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela with her husband before her daughter Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) was born. Xiomara, Jane’s mother, lives in absolute contrast to her religious upbringing — she does what (and who) she wants, when she wants, and she’s a cancer survivor to boot.
In a franchise that has talking raccoons, hammer-wielding gods, and several varieties of green people, it’s hard for any regular human to stand out. But through resolve and determination in the face of some big comic-book events, Agent Peggy Carter made her mark. Atwell navigates the character through the 1940s, when it was uncommon to have women in the military at her capacity, juggling professional issues with Carter’s personal life, and creating a robust, complete portrait of a fighter in strange times.
Oh, yes, she did. She may back off every now and again if it suits her purposes, but Empire matriarch Cookie Lyon does not back down. And though not every move she makes is admirable, her ferocity and spirit should be taught in schools.
If you only know Wu from her role as Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, you are missing out. For five seasons, she has been delivering one of the most TV’s most hilarious and unsung comedic performances as Huang family matriarch Jessica, whose high standards for her kids, husband, and neighbors (poor Honey) drive most of the laughs and heart of the show.
The 15 years Kimmy spent in an underground bunker maybe made her a little oblivious to the real-world dangers she should be afraid of, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify the fact that she approaches every new task, every impending adventure, with the kind of brazen gusto appropriate for someone whose life essentially skipped from age 14 to 29. Plus, we could all learn a little something from Kimmy’s unflappable can-do attitude.
Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein are two of the funniest and toughest female characters on television. Not only did they start their lives over completely when their husbands left them (for each other), but they forged an incredible friendship in the process. And then? They started their own business selling vibrators geared toward older women. Together, the two polar opposites are unstoppable and an absolute joy to watch.
As Supergirl, Kara Danvers can fall into a lot of the same traps that people criticize her cousin Superman for. She sees a lot of things — if not everything — in black and white and often can’t see how her privilege makes her struggles as an alien minuscule to a lot of others’ struggles as an alien. (And on a more human level, she refuses to tell her best friend — a Luthor — the truth about her identity while having no problem telling others she’s known for far less time.) But like her cousin, Supergirl is a beacon of hope (and wholesome badassery), and Kara Danvers is no slouch either. She loves musicals, donuts, and seeing Oliver Queen get cut down to size.
In an entertainment world soaked through with male anti-heroes, Ritter’s turn as powerful, but flawed and often-reluctant do-gooder Jessica feels fresh and needed. This is no Disney princess. She’s the ass-kicking, alcoholic BFF you never knew you wanted, and she’s on Netflix for at least one more season.
The 2010s have seen a number of reassessments of major 1990s tabloid figures; those who found themselves splashed across the front of the Enquirer in the morning and the butt of so many punchlines late at night are now being shown in a new light. Lorena Bobbit? Try laughing now that you know the real story. Wanna talk about that “blue dress”? Try watching a recent interview with Monica Lewinsky, campaigning against bullying these days, first. Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial, was for a long time known as the woman who let OJ go — and the woman with that hair. Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and Paulson’s portrayal of Clark in the limited series showed us the story behind the headlines, one about a talented lawyer working her ass off as her own department as savage media outlets worked to bring her down. (We will never forget the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode.) Clark is now, rightfully, enjoying a career renaissance.
Though the WGN America series unfortunately only got two seasons, it made the most of them, especially in its second season and especially when it came to the women of Underground. While we’re all eagerly awaiting Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in the Birds of Prey feature film, her work as runaway house slave–turned–beacon of hope Rosalee should never be forgotten. The second season also introduced Hinds as Harriet Tubman, giving one of the best (and criminally under-praised) performances of 2017 — to the point where an entire episode (“Minty”) was “simply” Tubman giving a speech to a crowd.
Who can stop a truck with her bare hands and down a full box of Eggos for breakfast? This mystery girl, who first caught our attention — and that of three Hawkins boys — when she appeared on our screens in Netflix’s Stranger Things in 2016. As she’s settled into Hawkins life, “El” (played in a star-making performance by British actress Brown) has proven herself the town’s most resourceful defender against the dangers of the Upside Down. And dammit if we don’t cry every time she even looks at Hopper.
Sure, they’re killer robots, but should we hold that against them? Each achieved a moment of transcendence in which they broke the binds of servitude. As metaphors go, robots busting up a slavery ring makes for excellent TV and some stellar female anti-heroes — or are they heroes? We’re still figuring it out.
As a Los Angeles thirtysomething navigating personal and professional relationships alongside her BFFs, Rae portrays an everyday (yet sadly rare) kind of fearlessness: The kind required to confront your own decisions, good and bad, and move forward from them.
The three women of the Alvarez/Riera clan all bring a different brand of fearlessness to the table. Machado’s Penelope, a veteran who, in the show’s third and final season, successfully studies to become nurse practitioner, is a fighter who’ll do anything to keep her family strong. Gomez’s Elena bravely came out of the closet in the show’s first season, and showed similar tenacity for two more seasons thereafter. And Lydia – an incomparable and scene-stealing Moreno – laced her Cuban fabulousness with plenty of wisdom and heart. The three will be missed.
Addressing downer issues like divorce and glass ceilings with comedy sometimes may be the only way to address them, and Midge Maisel is making a career of it. Midge charges head-first into her problems with aplomb, and though her obsession with the circumference of her thighs may be disturbing, that she’s so hilarious while wielding the measuring tape allows her a pass for such quirks. The series has won eight Emmy awards so far, including Outstanding Comedy Series, multiple awards for series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for star Brosnahan providing ample validation for the series itself, as well as its chipper, outspoken, and, most importantly, funny lead character.
After the U.S. government was overthrown by a theocratic dictatorship, June lost her husband and daughter trying to escape to Canada and was forced into sex slavery as a “handmaid,” a forced pregnancy surrogate assigned to a rich and powerful family affected by a worldwide infertility plague. But although she was stripped of her identity and forced to go by “Offred” (or “of Fred” as the handmaid of Commander Fred Waterford), she never lost her will to live. She discovered her daughter was still alive and will stop at nothing to save her, her newborn daughter by the commander’s chauffeur, and the rest of the women oppressed under the totalitarian regime.
Samantha navigates racism and discrimination at a predominantly white Ivy League college. A college radio DJ, she has a platform that both elevates her message and often exacerbates her problems dealing with social injustice and bias, while also juggling her social and academic lives — all of which she does fearlessly, even when fear is her biggest challenge of all.
Since its start in the 1960s, the Star Trek franchise has grown both in size and in socio-political philosophy. Part of that growth hit streaming service CBS All Access in 2018 with season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery, which focuses on the struggles of a female crew member of its starship with male captains playing a supporting role to her main storyline. Martin-Green’s Burnham is the thread connecting an otherwise ensemble cast that features Yeoh as both earnest, upstanding Captain Georgiou and her indomitable alt-universe counterpart, Emperor Georgiou.
TV’s most recent and most glorious odd couple has got to be the whack-job assassin central to BBC America’s Killing Eve, Villanelle, and Eve, the dutiful MI5 security officer chasing her. Created by Fleabag genius Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the series’ first season is Certified Fresh at 96%, and season 2, due April 7, looks on track to repeat that stellar Tomatometer performance. What makes these two characters so fearless? Their cat-and-mouse game for one, but also that they keep switching off in the cat and mouse roles, keeping audiences both engaged and appreciative.
Netflix’s iteration of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is decidedly much darker than the ’90s kid-TV version. Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina is powerful — and not just because of her witchy abilities. This teenage witch looks death and darkness in the eye, and always trusts her intuition. There’s absolutely no quiver in her voice when she confronts a swarm of threatening witches at the start of the series. Sabrina refuses to give up her powers or sign her name away to the Dark Lord (i.e., the devil). She’s not about to let the underworld’s patriarchy control or undermine her.
The story of Doctor Who — a time-traveling extraterrestrial lifeform who acts as a sort of space-time cop, battling intergalactic and alternate-universe threats and occasionally regenerating — took what is arguably its most profound turn yet with its 13th doctor. For the first time since the iconic British sci-fi series began airing in 1963, the Doctor regenerated as a woman. Whittaker took on more than just a staple of British pop culture when she agreed to play the role, but also its rabid fan base (for both good and bad). So hats off to the Doctor and her new adventures, as well as the brave woman who accepted the gig.
Don’t see your favorite fearless female on our list? Tell us all about it in the comments!