(Photo by Fox, AMC, HBO,BBC America, Syfy)
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 Regina King’s Sister Night in Watchmen and the women of The Mandalorian played by Ming-Na Wen, Katee Sackhoff, and Rosario Dawson 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.
(Photo by CBS. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by Paramount. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by CBS. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by CBS. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by NBC. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by NBC)
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.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Courtesy Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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. She was as potentially lethal as she was wicked smart.
(Photo by Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Courtesy: Everett Collection)
To be a Buffy fan 2021 is to be conflicted – under close examination, through a modern lens, it’s been hard in recent years not to see that the series’ often inspiring feminist messages and its game-changing positioning of the victim/damsel as ass-kicking vamp-hunting hero lived alongside problematic relationships with race (not a single significant character of color until the final season), LGBTQ issues (see its use of the dead lesbian trope), and even the feminism for which it’s been long hailed (Buffy kicks ass, sure, but is also hugely dependent on the not-great men around her emotionally). And then there were the recent accusations from Charisma Carpenter (who played popular girl Cordelia Chase, who ultimately evolves into a hero in her own right) – backed up by several cast members – that the show’s creator and one-time geek hero, Joss Whedon, was an emotionally abusive orchestrator of a toxic environment on Buffy and spin-off Angel. And yet: For decades now, the women of the Buffyverse – Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar), powerful witch and former timid nerd Willow (Alyson Hannigan), reformed demon Anya (Emma Caulfield Ford), good-hearted Tara (Amber Benson), younger sister finding her voice Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), and Cordelia – have been sources of inspiration for their intelligence, bravery, growth, and yes… ability to kick ass. That they’re lately inspiring conversation about the complicated relationship we sometimes find ourselves in with our pop-culture heroes, with the actors leaning into the conversation and largely coming out in support of Carpenter, shows a different kind of heroism equally worth applauding.
(Photo by NBC)
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.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by SCI-FI. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by Warner Bros. Television. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by ABC)
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?
(Photo by ABC)
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.
(Photo by NBC)
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.
(Photo by AMC)
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.
(Photo by Victoria Will/AMC)
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…
(Photo by Showtime)
Though Shameless managed to continue for a bit 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 show. 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.
(Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)
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…
(Photo by Showtime)
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.
(Photo by ABC)
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.
(Photo by Lacey Terrell / HBO)
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.
(Photo by James Minchin/FX)
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.
(Photo by Netflix)
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.
(Photo by BBCA)
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.
(Photo by FOX)
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.
(Photo by Matthew Peyton / Comedy Central)
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.
(Photo by Starz)
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.
(Photo by ABC)
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.
(Photo by The CW)
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.
(Photo by ABC)
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.
(Photo by Fox)
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.
(Photo by ABC)
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.
(Photo by Eric Liebowitz / Netflix)
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.
(Photo by Netflix)
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.
(Photo by The CW Network)
As Supergirl, Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) 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. 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.
Meanwhile, her adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) led an entire government organization for two years, but pivoted out of that when her priorities changed. Now, she’s on the edge of becoming a superhero in her own right (something the show should’ve done sooner). Then again, it also introduced Nia Nal (Nicole Maines) and told her story of becoming Dreamer, the first out trans superhero on television. Like Kara, both Alex and Nia Nal are beacons of hope (in their own particular ways) and fearless to boot; in fact, both were featured in season 4 episodes about that very topic.
(Photo by Netflix)
In an entertainment world soaked through with male anti-heroes, Ritter’s turn as powerful, but flawed and often-reluctant do-gooder Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) feels fresh and needed. This is no Disney princess. She’s the ass-kicking, alcoholic BFF you never knew you wanted — and for her Jessica Jones BFF, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), she is the one person willing to do everything to save her. Even if it meant putting Trish behind bars.
They are just two examples of the women who braved and sometimes conquered the New York of Marvel’s Netflix shows. Misty Knight (Simone Missick) was the best cop on the force and an even better force for justice when she had to leave the NYPD behind in Luke Cage and The Defenders. Elektra (Elodie Yung) brought the town under her heel for one shining moment in Daredevil, and while we never got to see much of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) wielding mystical energies in Iron Fist and The Defenders, her final, full-power appearance still leaves us hoping we’ll see her and her sword return to another part of the Marvel Universe.
(Photo by FX. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
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.
(Photo by WGN America)
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.
(Photo by Netflix)
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.
(Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO)
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.
(Photo by HBO)
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.
(Photo by Amazon Prime Video)
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.
(Photo by Take Five/Hulu)
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.
(Photo by Adam Rose/Netflix)
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.
(Photo by CBS All Access)
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.
(Photo by BBC America)
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.
(Photo by Jeff Weddell/Netflix)
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.
(Photo by Colin Hutton / © BBC)
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.
(Photo by © 2020 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.)
The Mandalorian brought three amazing women into its second season. Although we met Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) in the first season, we really only saw her brilliance in a battle and her sense of honor recently – and after watching her take out some Imperials, we definitely want her in our squad. Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff), meanwhile, made such an impact that we’re ready to follow her into flames to liberate Mandalore … even if her claim to the throne is currently shaky. And while Ahsoka Tano was already a fan favorite from animated Star Wars shows, her first live action appearance (in the form of Rosario Dawson) revealed a seasoned Force-user whose stories we will follow religiously.
(Photo by The CW)
Whether saving all of reality, throwing a bachelorette party across time, or finding their purpose in life, the women of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow are the key reason to watch the show. Each of their journeys allowed them to be, at various times, broken, zany, ill-prepared, tactical geniuses, and heroic. Not that it always happened in that order or leads them to the same end state. Charlie (Maisie Richardson-Sellars) found her peace and left the team. Zari 1.0 (Tala Ashe) accepted the world she came from no longer exists and stepped aside so Zari 2.0 (also Ashe) could become the hero she was meant to be. Meanwhile, Sara (Caity Lotz) and Ava (Jes Macallan), opposites in almost every respect, found cooperation and love with each other. Also, they ended up leading the team!
(Photo by The CW)
Although Ryan has only been on the job a few months, she’s already shaking up our perceptions of a Caped Crusader. We’ll be honest, we were worried when we first heard she would be “from the streets,” but that perspective proved to be more illuminating in terms of story and indicative of what happens when someone approaches superhero-ing with empathy regarding to reasons behind most crime – even if she still needs to fight the truly corrupt. Also, her life experiences gave her such an unexpected confidence in the suit that it now seems like she was always meant to wear it.
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By virtue of seeing them to the end of the S.H.I.E.L.D. story, one of the most striking elements of Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) as characters is the way they became better by knowing each other. When we met them, Daisy – then called Skye – was youthful chaos while May was the absolute model of precision. At the same time, though, both had closed off great aspects of themselves for reasons revealed over the course of the program’s first four years. By the time they ended up 90 years in their own future, they were equals in terms of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and by the time the series ended, equals as women and adoptive family. Their journey to become more open and confident (in ways others than you might expect) may not have been the program’s main story, but it is one of its most rewarding.
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First and foremost, Wynonna is the hot mess you want in your corner. Always passionate and protective of those she loves, she is also, somehow, the same woman who walked back into Purgatory a few years back to raise literal hell. When the chips are down, she’ll get good and drunk before gathering herself and finding the courage to fight against the darkness. She’ll also be surprisingly funny in the midst of that doubt spiral. But that mixture of irreverence, irresponsibility, and, ultimately, perseverance is why we want her on our side and why we’ll always fight for her.
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By the end of Arrow’s run, Star City was filled with women any superhero team would love to add to their roster. Whether quick with the quips like Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), great in fight like Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Dinah Drake (Juliana Harkavy), or born for the job like Mia Smoak-Queen (Katherine McNamara), each was a full-fledged hero whether or not they wore costumes or if their costumes varied wildly in different realities. And considering how dreadful some of the realities they visited could be, they are also all remarkably well self-possessed. Yes, even Felicity. It took a certain strength to raise a daughter far from friends knowing she will become the Green Arrow one day. It also took equal amounts of gumption and vulnerability for Laurel – a villain from a different Earth – to put her past behind her and grow into someone Dinah could forgive for killing one of the few people she ever loved. And though we never got to see the full story, we imagine Mia had a special fortitude to put up with Laurel and Dinah when they moved to her time in 2040.
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In the most recent seasons of The Flash, Iris, Caitlin, and Killer Frost have all gone on journeys underscoring a certain fearlessness among them. For Iris, it was building her own newspaper, actually staffing it, and going after a story so big, its effects are still being felt. Caitlin’s journey saw her not just accepting her powers came with a different, wilder personality, but that Killer Frost had the right to be her own person even if they share the same body. Frost, meanwhile, took the opportunity Caitlin gave her to learn how to be a whole person with vulnerabilities, responsibilities, and even tact (well, sometimes).
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For the Hargreeve sisters, overcoming fear was the only way to become better people and better siblings during their time away from the 21st century. In Allison’s case, it took the form of joining the 1960s Civil Rights movement without allowing her reality manipulation powers to do most of the work. Vanya’s faced a different challenge: forgiving Allison for convincing her she had no powers when they were children. Of course, losing her memory when she first arrived in 1961 and finding a caring, non-Hargreeve family might’ve helped. Nevertheless, for Allison to reach a point where she could help Vanya and for Vanya to reach a point where she would not just accept it, but smile about it is the greatest show of strength either has made to date.
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Whether moving to a new town in Nebraska, learning how to fly, or convincing people that being better is worthwhile, Courtney’s courage is wrapped up in a surprisingly sunny optimism for a teenager who supposedly grew up on Southern California. Nevertheless, it makes her a compelling lead as it proves to be infectious among the friends she makes and the viewers at home. And if you recall how hard it was to get club in high school off the ground – or for that club to make the simplest decision – Courtney’s ability to resurrect the Justice Society of America with an handful of outcast teens is a superpower in its own right.
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Anissa is fearless in her causes, whether she supports them as herself, the superhero known as Thunder, or the street vigilante and sometimes freedom fighter called Blackbird. Living with one superhero persona is hard enough – just ask her sister Jennifer – but two requires a special sort of fortitude just to recall who each identity has met and how many people know the secret about both, one, or neither. And that’s on top of caring for her girlfriend, who until very recently was in a coma. Nevertheless, Anissa gives a lot to what she believes in. Jennifer, meanwhile, took a longer road to accepting her powers and the desire to use them for the common good as Lightning. It’s still not easy, what with her mother asking about the SAT and a dubious social media presence, but at least she has a sense of purpose now. Contrast this with just a few years ago, when her fondest wish was just to be “normal.” That may just be the natural arc of a teenager, but it is still nonetheless heroic.
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Vicious when necessary and as fierce in her passion as protecting her clan, Vikings’ lead matriarch set the standard for female warriors in Michael Hirst’s six-season saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and his savage brood, based on the true story of the 9th-century Danish king. By the time she said goodbye to the series in the last season, she was worshiped as a goddess by her people — and TV fans everywhere.
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Series creators J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman conjured a late 2000s answer to The X-Files heroine Dana Scully, who Fox lost after nine seasons on TV in 2001. (She would later return for a two-season revival.) Dunham was the FBI muscle of the Fringe universe, however; leaving the scientific side of the search for whatever truth was out there mainly to her somewhat untrustworthy consulting partner Dr. Walter Bishop and his son Peter.
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Why on Earth would Sarah Connor trust a Terminator? She wouldn’t, which is one reason Cameron Philips doesn’t reveal her true nature until absolutely necessary to save teenage John Connor’s life. When his killer mom and the 2027-era Terminator team up, John’s smothered in a protective cocoon of fearless women.
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Each of this space opera’s principal female leads kicks major ass in her own way: Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), an equal partner in ownership and operation of the Rocinante and brilliant engineer with a heart of gold; Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the foul-mouthed planet leader who mops the floor with condescending politicians; Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), the former Mars Marine Corps. Gunnery Sergeant who now uses her very particular set of skills to help save the solar system; and Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), the Belter captain and former security chief who later makes a living as a space pirate.
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She’s a teenage assassin with major daddy issues. When they cooked up Hanna in the lab, they broke the mold – sort of. In this Amazon Prime Video adaptation of the feature film, we come to find out that Hanna isn’t alone; she was part of a legion of designer killers raised from birth. With special training from her father, however, she may be the deadliest.
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Amidst the magical creatures of Netflix’s The Witcher, Ciri and Yennefer reign. In season 1, young Ciri was just learning about her deadly powers, while Yennefer journeyed from physically disabled farm girl to one of the realm’s most powerful sorceresses.
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Angela works for the Tulsa police force as Sister Night in a world in which law enforcement officers don masks to hide their identities from racist extremists responsible for an attack on police. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 DC Comics series serves as the inspiration for Damon Lindelof’s HBO show set 34 years after the events of the comic series in the Watchmen alternate reality.
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Battling monsters, racists, and dark magic, Leti holds her own in the mystical world developed by Misha Green for HBO. The horror series is an adaptation of the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff set in the 1950s about the mysteries of the town where writer H. P. Lovecraft set his stories.
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Chess prodigy Beth Harmon ignores the mores of 1950s and ’60s America and pursues her passion for chess as she grows from a precocious child to a striking young woman. Along the way, she becomes a chess champion and travels the world.
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FX’s limited series Mrs. America, about the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and the Phyllis Schlafly-led campaign block it, was teeming with strong women – some who used their powers for good, and a couple who, shall we say, did not. But among a raft of inspirational characters and the rich performances that brought them to life (Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug among them), it was Uzo Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm – the first African American Congresswoman and the first Black major party candidate to run for President – who stood out. The series, and Aduba’s embodiment of the determined and unbowed politician, brought Chisholm’s achievements once more into the public eye, sparking a renewed interest that might have just nudged forward the announcement of upcoming biopic Shirley, which will star Oscar winner Regina King.
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It might have been Agatha all along, but it was Wanda and Monica who gave viewers two very different types of compelling heroes to root for in Disney+’s first MCU series, WandaVision. With Wanda (Olsen), well, it was complicated: While her grief – and some skillful manipulation from outside forces – turned her into a psychological terrorist of sorts, holding an entire New Jersey town hostage under her mind-control powers, she ultimately overcame herself and her enemies, discovering and embracing new levels of power and making an ultimate sacrifice for good. (Did she take enough responsibility for the terror she unleashed? We will leave that to the dozens of think pieces asking that question across the Internet right now.) For Monica, the S.W.O.R.D. agent following in her mother’s footsteps who was always a step ahead of her superiors in working out the Hex and its implications, it’s less complicated. An unambiguous hero imbued with new powers at the series’ end – and an exciting path forward via the upcoming Captain Marvel 2 – the only real question was whether Monica was robbed of her moment to truly shine in her MCU debut.
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At the center of two of the most compelling and complicated legal dramas of the last few decades are two of the most compelling and complicated TV characters to ever pass the bar. Both start their respective series, CBS’s The Good Wife and its Paramount+ spin-off The Good Fight, at low points: Wife’s Alicia Florrick (Margulies) at the side of her husband as he confesses to adultery during a packed press conference; in Fight’s first episode, Diane Lockhart (Baranski) has lost her fortune in a scheme and her hopes for the future (Trump has just been elected). Watching as they fight their way back, rebuilding their careers and their lives, is a bumpy, thrilling, and inspiring ride – one punctuated by plenty of whiskey (for Diane) and generous glasses of red (for Alicia).
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The title of this article says “fearless” – not “good.” Nor “decent.” Nor “exhibiting behavior we recommend you emulate.” And so it is that these two exemplary antiheroes and sometime murderers join the ranks of the Golden Girls and Wonder Woman, celebrated – or at least cautiously admired – for their ruthlessness in taking care of business in male-dominated criminal worlds. Wendy Byrde’s (Linney) journey from go-along-with-it wife of embezzler Marty (Jason Bateman) to deal-making leader of the family business is a brutal delight to witness. Meanwhile, scene-stealing Garner made Ruth Langmore – foul-mouthed, calculating, but ultimately caring leader of the rough-and-tumble Langmore clan – a formidable favorite from day one.
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She’s been the head of an FBI unit and a criminal profiler. She knows how to keep her own history as under wraps as possible. She has dealt with subordinates calling her “sir” because they don’t like answering to a woman. She’s faked her own death. She can banter with a criminal mastermind played by James Spader. She can crack a case in under an hour. In short, do not mess with Elizabeth Keen.
An astrophysicist and member of the U.S. Air Force who eventually rises up the ranks to colonel, Samantha Carter has the perfect LinkedIn resume to get the attention of anyone putting together an elite team of officers to venture into space in search of alien life. A Gulf War veteran who is daring but pragmatic, she is also protective of her team and definitely someone you want on your side when exploring the unknown.
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Dogged with no time for makeup and blowouts, Sarah Linden does not like letting cases go unsolved – particularly when the victims are women and even if they affect her own mental health. She will obsess over crime files and — probably rightly so — question everyone else’s police work until she finds out, say, how a 17-year-old girl came to slowly drown while trapped in the trunk of a politician’s car or how to stop a serial killer who is preying on young runaways.
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A no-nonsense small-town cop who has seen way too much hardship in her life (her daughter killed herself; her sister is a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict), Sergeant Catherine Cawood is not to be trifled with. Not by a punk kid loitering in broad daylight. Not by the idiot criminals planning a kidnapping. And certainly not by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man who raped and impregnated her daughter.
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It’s the Wild West and women have to band together – particularly in a small New Mexico town like this Netflix miniseries set in an 1880s town where a mining accident claimed most of the men. The characters include Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes, who is smart enough to know a bad deal from some greasy businessmen when she hears it, and Michelle Dockery’s Alice, a struggling single mom who is boss of her ranch. But the show is primarily remembered for its final episode. That’s when, sick of all the lies and bloodshed, the female characters and join forces, lock, and load inside the town’s hotel.
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The first female cyborg, Jamie Sommers could run fast and hear everything. She was also a pretty decent spy when she wasn’t busy teaching middle school. Sometimes, this included stopping a doomsday device. Others, it could mean fighting female robots or tracking down a bionic dog. She also makes time to find love and foster relationships outside of work.
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It’s not every girl who gets to spend her childhood frolicking around Oxford and going on other adventures with her sidekick (or dæmon) pine marten before things get really weird. The quick-thinking (and silver-tongued) Lyra saves children from kidnappers, her father from prison and learns that maybe you shouldn’t trust adults. And that’s all before she crosses a portal to another world and finds all-new ways that she has to protect herself and learn who to trust.
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The women of Litchfield Penitentiary may be locked up, but they are not silenced. Over the course of the Netflix dramedy’s seven seasons, we saw characters like Danielle Brooks’ Taystee Jefferson, who negotiated with authorities after a riot and set up an educational system for inmates that would also honor Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington, an inmate the system let down. There were also characters like Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, who fought discrimination and emerged from the prison as a prospering member of society, and Kate Mulgrew’s “Red” Reznikov, who might have had trouble on the outside but rose to power once incarcerated. And then there was Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman, who finally learned that she was no better than any of these people just because she came from privilege.
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Emily Dickinson was more than a recluse who kept her poetry mostly hidden from the world during her lifetime – and, in Hailee Steinfeld’s embodiment of her in the eponymous Apple TV+ series, one gets to see a modern take on what the writer’s life was like. Here, there’s twerking, romance with her sister-in-law, carriage rides with Death (Wiz Khalifa) and a natural inclination to fight her mother’s expectations that she marry a proper young man.
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The category is … fearless! Introducing the eclectic group of performers who make up FX’s series about the New York City underground ball scene in the 1980s and ‘90s. Chief among them: Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, who is creative (and also scrappy) enough to pull together her own “house” (or support group) where she can “mother” (or mentor) “children” with overlooked potential like Angel (Indya Moore) – or one of her rivals, the imposing and persevering Elektra Wintour (Dominique Jackson).
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Being so good at your job that you inspire a literary character is impressive enough, but Kate Beckett did it all while chaperoning Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), a man-child author who shadowed her at work to draw inspiration for his latest literary heroine, Nikki Heat. Even better: Once the dynamic with her charge sparked, she was able to learn from his unique perspective as well. (Then, of course, they fell in love. A tale as old as time.)
(Photo by ABC/Jack Rowand)
Fairy tale princesses were typically portrayed as damsels in distress — but not the versions from ABC’s storybook drama that ran from 2011 to 2018. No, the women of Once Upon a Time — including Lana Parrilla as Regina/The Evil Queen, Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White, Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, Emilie De Ravin as Belle, Rebecca Mader as The Wicked Witch — took on their traditional fairy tale roles, both good and evil, and turned those stereotypes around. Fun fact: OUAT was the first-ever Disney property to portray Snow White with a sword in hand. That’s pretty fearless.
Listen, things could’ve worked out pretty terribly for English teenager Alyssa, considering her partner in crime was a psychopath who wanted to kill her. But it was Alyssa who stepped up when she and James were in danger, and it was Alyssa who had the tenacity to keep going against impossible odds. Plus, she was darkly funny throughout their whole adventure.
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Not only are these two fiercely independent women used to taking care of themselves, but they’re also totally beyond buying into society’s internalized patriarchal values regarding sex and female pleasure. They know what they want and they know how to get it — but that hard outer shell can sometimes encase a gooey, vulnerable center.
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It takes more than courage to escape a sheltered life like Esther’s, having been born and raised into an insular Orthodox Jewish community in New York City. Despite the fact that she didn’t know any other way of life, she knew it wasn’t for her — and she risked everything to pursue the life she wanted.
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Not only did Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen solve a sexual assault case ignored by the male detectives who originally investigated it, they managed to bring justice to women across multiple states who had no closure surrounding their own traumatic assaults — and they’re both based on real-life people. Talk about fearless.
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At first glance, Sarah Walker is a sweet, stunning girl-next-door type. That dazzling smile belies the fact that she’s also a blonde bombshell CIA agent with fierce fighting skills, serious smarts, and at least a half dozen aliases she can slip into at any moment.
(Photo by Jack Zeman / FOX)
As written, Athena Grant is a smart, badass LAPD Sergeant who is very good at her job. But thanks to the award-winning actor who plays her, she’s also kind, understanding, and layered. That means she helps save victims of earthquakes, highway collapses, serial bombings, human trafficking and much, much more, then goes home and finds time to be a kind, loving, understanding mom as well.
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The characters of It’s Always Sunny can be ruthlessly mean — including (and sometimes especially) Sweet Dee, who can give just as good as she gets (and she takes a lot of crap from her coworkers at Paddy’s Pub). Ultimately, even if Dee doesn’t do the right thing in any given situation, she holds her own and shows viewers what the right thing actually is.
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After watching any season of Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology series it’s clear why he continues to work with the same troupe of actors year after year: they’re amazing. Whether up against villains real or imagined or embodying evil in some way, shape or form, the women of American Horror Story — Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, Taissa Farmiga, Adina Porter, Billie Lourd and more — crush it every time.
Don’t see your favorite fearless female on our list? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Contributors: Erik Amaya, Jean Bentley, Jacqueline Coley, Debbie Day, Whitney Friedlander, Ryan Fujitani, LaToya Furguson, Sophie-Marie Prime, Joel Meares, Allison Shoemaker, Ashley Bissette Sumerel, Alex Vo
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For decades, the might of various superheroes has led to good-natured discussions and drag-out fights in comic book shops and playgrounds all over the country. Often, those conversations get muddled as the strength of a character, like Batman, gets wrapped up in his martial arts prowess or other skills. True strength often gets lost in the fun of building scenarios in which Venom fights Superman.
But the notion of super-strength becomes more compelling as television can finally dramatize the ability in interesting and fairly inexpensive ways. As Luke Cage executive producer and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told Rotten Tomatoes recently, titular star Luke Cage (Mike Colter) can easily pick up a Volkswagen. It is a point referenced throughout the show’s second season whenever anyone mentions Luke’s strength. Since the classic Volkswagen Beetle weighs roughly 1,800 lbs. – the newer models weigh in closer to 3,000 lbs. – it gives us a good measure to compare his strength to some of television other super-strength heroes.
While Luke might be the strongest man in Harlem, is he the strongest of the strong?
Thanks to the image of the Volkswagen and an early episode in the second season in which ESPN watches Luke train, we know exactly how strong he can be. Besides being told he can pick up car, viewers see him toss a 400 lbs. tractor tire as though it were a standard basketball. Heavy steel doors present him with little challenge, and he seems to take a special pleasure in ripping doors off of cars to use as an impromptu discus or shield for his non-bulletproof allies. All of which reveals a sort of strength that is impressive while still feeling relatively grounded. His comic book counterpart is said to be able to lift as much as 50,000 lbs, making the TV Luke far weaker, but definitely strong enough in the context of the show.
Also, it should be noted his strength is an upgrade from where he started in the first seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. As referenced early in the second season, he received an added boost of strength, speed and durability after Claire (Rosario Dawson) and Dr. Burstein (Michael Kostroff) used the technique which first gave him powers to revive him late in the first season.
(Photo by Universal Television/courtesy Everett Collection)
While in theory, the Incredible Hulk is capable of infinite strength, the late 1970s CBS television series could only take that strength so far. He could burst through brick walls, bend steel with his green hands and, quite infamously, throw a grizzly bear (around 600 lbs.) across a lake. He also had a habit of lifting and overturning Buick Skylarks, a popular model of cars in film and television at the time, weighing in at 3,000 lbs.
Oddly enough, that makes the Ferrigno version of the Hulk roughly as strong as Luke. Granted, demonstrations of the Hulk’s strength were limited by the show’s budget. The Hulk was also known to push farming equipment around and leap from four-story buildings. Those feats could push him into a higher tier of strength, but the tendency to get mad and throw around Skylarks keeps him in the relatively contained tier of Luke Cage.
The current Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe definitely reaches closer to the infinite potential of his comic book counterpart, talking on giant wolf Fenris and other impressive creatures in Thor: Ragnarok. But as seen in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos proved a formidable foe. Perhaps in the next Avengers film, Hulk will prove he is the strongest by far.
As the keeper of the Spirit Totem, Amaya Jiwe has access to a great variety of abilities beyond those seen on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. She can derive enhanced senses, endurance, and speed in addition to creating energy shields and projections of animals capable of interacting with the world. It would be the most powerful object in the Arrowverse if not for the fact it can only call on the spirit of one animal at a time.
With that in mind, Amaya’s tendency to call on the spirit of the gorilla seems like a good way to measure her potential strength. A gorilla can lift 10 times its body weight – around 4,000 lbs. with some estimates going as high as 4,600 lbs. Presumably, the gorilla spirit is the ideal of gorilla fitness, giving Amaya an impressive amount of power to take on the likes of Grodd. The totem bearer can also call upon the spirit of other strong animals like lions, bears, and rhinos. The latter may make Vixen an incredibly powerful hero, provided she was willing to cause that level of destruction.
Jessica Jones still appears to be stronger than Luke, even with the boost to his lifting ability. Granted, she uses that strength in purely practical ways with the big feats of strength — like moving cars out of her way — used more as jokes. Nonetheless, she has no problem throwing sedans around (3,000-4,000 lbs.).
But the key difference between them appears on leg day. It is key to Jessica’s abilities as she uses that strength to hurtle herself up buildings. That feat certainly requires a lot of power. Luke’s jumping strength, as seen in the season 2 training scene, makes him better than any living Olympic long jumper, but nowhere near what Jessica can accomplish.
The comic book Jessica – who can straight up fly – is said to have an “unrevealed” upper limit to her strength, potentially making her one of the strongest super-powered beings in the Marvel Universe. Her Marvel Cinematic Universe equivalent could be capable of such feats of strength. Provided, of course, she had the necessary motivation to, say, pick up a building.
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The 1970s Spider-Man show ran for two short seasons on CBS and did its best to recreate Peter Parker’s myriad abilities on a tight TV budget. His webbing always looked like rope and scenes of him clinging to the side of buildings always looks a little too comical for comfort. But the show was dedicated to being as faithful as it could in its first season.
And one of the key abilities of Spider-Man is his radioactive spider-inherited strength. Traditionally, he has “the proportionate strength of a spider,” which can lift anywhere from 2 to 120 times its bodyweight depending on species. For Peter, this roughly translates to 20,000 lbs., depending on the needs of the plot. Not that the show could ever dramatize this upper limit. In fact, the second season pulled back even further on his abilities in hopes of courting an older audience.
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Diana has always had the strength of the gods on her side. She could hold back the tide of war, bust through walls, bend guns, and tow vehicles with her lasso. Like the other 1970s TV shows mentioned, dramatizing her powers to their fullest was beyond the technical prowess and budgets of the day. It was also beyond the writers at times, who played employed the “as strong as the plot needs her to be” rule for her strength.
Even her comic book counterpart’s strength varies with each story, so we will assume the ’70s Wonder Woman was roughly on par with ’70s Spider-Man in terms of strength. Her current DC Extended Universe film manifestation, as played by Gal Gadot, gets far closer to the godly ideal, making her one of the mightiest superheroes around.
(Photo by Shane Harvey/Katie Yu/The CW)
As a Daxamite, Mon-El has the comparative strength of a fairly fit Kryptonian. Traditionally, the character is said to have the same strength as Superman; of course, Superman once had the ability to push planets out of their orbits, making the notion of strength a ridiculous concept.
Since the 1980s, Superman’s powers decreased considerably, leaving him strong enough to keep a space shuttle (165,000 lbs) in the air (with an assist from his flight ability), but not so strong that he can lift a mountain from its roots. Over the course of various television shows, he has proved strong enough to help a rocket complete its trajectory (as seen in the first episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). In theory, Mon-El would be capable of this sort of strength if given the challenge. Although, this past of season of Supergirl saw him do little else but be the prince of indecision.
But as Clark (Hoechlin) admitted in the season 2 finale of Supergirl, Kara Danvers (Benoist) is the strongest of the television superheroes. To prove it, we have a moment from the season 1 finale in which she lifted the crashed space station Fort Rozz off the Earth and into a trajectory away from the solar system. It nearly killed her, but she was successful.
Now, Fort Rozz is fictional and therefore hard to quantify, but our own real-life International Space Station is said to weigh (under Earth’s gravity) 450 tons – 900,000 lbs – and it is only a fraction of the size of Fort Rozz. If Supergirl can move something in the 100s of tons, she is definitely in a class by herself; in fact, that sort of power makes some of the developments in more recent episodes quite alarming. Maybe Worldkiller Reign (Odette Annable) really had the strength to shatter the Earth all along.
Nonetheless, Supergirl stands above all other TV superheroes for sheer strength. Of course, how she applies that power makes all the difference in the world. And seeing as she tends to empathize with her opponents, it is doubtful we will see her move anything that massive any time soon.