Turn on the TV and start flipping through the channels. You’ll be hard-pressed to find shows portraying strong, independent women. Sure, women make up half (at least) of the characters, but very rarely do they take center-screen in lead roles that focus on their complexities beyond their love lives. Although shows like Sex and the City made it acceptable for women to be vocal about their sex lives (and love of Manolo Blahniks), few series have emphasized their career lives or relationships outside of romances.
The keyword is few: Back in 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show finally provided career women a TV doppelganger. Mary Richards worked in a predominately-male office, had a life outside of work and grappled with the same career decisions and dating issues most ladies face in their 20s and 30s. Most importantly, she broke from the typical TV female by not being married and, more importantly, not pining for a husband.
As important a change Mary caused in TV’s catalogue of female archetypes, it wasn’t able to change everything about how women are presented in sitcoms and dramas. To this day, men lead cop shows, one-dimensional wives nag their doof husbands and women are more often victims than lawyers.
And yet, like with anything, there are the golden exceptions. Here are ten of the best:
Skylar White, Breaking Bad (AMC)
“But, Kate!” you cry in tearful grief, “Breaking Bad is over in two weeks!” Sorry for taking the blue right out of your crystal meth, readers. Skylar White (Anna Gunn) is the wife of meth-dealing cancer patient Walter White. In the past five years, Walt’s activities become more devious and Skylar becomes a queen-pin committed to keeping her husband in the clear by laundering money, lying to her family and leaving nothing to chance. But where there’s a strong woman, there’s a mass of viewers who will slap the “Bitch” label on her. Gunn recently wrote a column for the New York Times about her character and reactions from viewers unhappy to see a wife be less than subordinate to her husband. It’s a must read for any fan of the series.
Mackenzie McHale, The Newsroom (HBO)
As executive producer of News Night, Mackenzie (Elizabeth Mortimer) holds a lot of power over her employees, even head produces and anchor — and ex-boyfriend — Will. Despite the relationship drama that flits around the office faster than breaking news, Mackenzie is rarely thrown by it. In fact, Will seems more affected by their past relationship than she does, and she keeps a cool head while putting together a news program that serves the viewers and exemplifies American journalistic values in a way that would make Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow proud.
Erin Reagan-Boyle, Blue Bloods (CBS)
As part of the Reagan family, Erin (Bridget Moynahan) didn’t shy away from the family business of catching bad guys. Instead of donning the blue like her brothers, she works as an assistant district attorney for New York. The position gives her more power than anyone else in the family (except for her father, the police commissioner), but also puts her at odds with her brothers when it comes to looking at evidence and going to court.
Michonne, The Walking Dead (AMC)
It’s hard not to be badass in a zombie-infested landscape, but rarely are those undead-slayers of the female persuasion. Second only to the crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon is Michonne (Danai Gurira) and her katana. Not only does she win “Best Random Zombie Kill” with that piano-wire move in season 3, but she also has the most mysterious — and hopefully rewarding — back-story that includes how she got the guts to lead two jawless, armless zombies around on chains.
Olivia Pope, Scandal (ABC)
Scandal has a few things going for it: first, it’s one of the few network programs created by a woman (Shonda Rhimes). Second, it has Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) as its main character. Formerly a communications specialist for the White House, Olivia leaves her position to start her own damage-control firm. By following her intuition, she leads her team in extinguishing PR disasters, all the while revealing that no one in the show is without their own potential scandals.
Daenarys Targaryen, Game of Thrones (HBO)
George R.R. Martin is one of the best modern authors of female characters, and the show based on his series A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t leave them in the Seven Kingdoms dust. Like Mad Men, there are so many examples of tough gals, but Daenarys (Emilia Clark) proves to be perhaps the most dynamic. Married and widowed in the first season, she moves on to be a driving political threat to her male counterparts, if not because of her leadership prowess then because of her knack for commanding dragons.
Peggy Olson, Mad Men (AMC)
As much as Mad Men revolves around Don Draper, it could be argued that the real focus of the story is on Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). The first episode of the series takes place on her first day as Draper’s secretary, and the seasons since have followed her climb up the ladder to join the men in the 1960s ad agency. Oftentimes she turns in better copy than her co-workers, and there’s no denying that as a woman, she can connect with the female consumer better than anyone.
Claire Underwood, House of Cards (Netflix)
Nine Primetime Emmy nominations have confirmed the idea that Netflix is in fact a TV producer — and that it turns out better shows than most real TV networks. Its first series, House of Cards, tells the story of Francis Underwood, a snubbed politician conniving his way to the top of the American government. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), is equally as devious. Hailed as a modern Lady MacBeth, her role in the story is not her husband’s servant but instead as valuable a conspirator as he while she balances her own professional opportunities with his success.
Sybil Crawley Branson, Downton Abbey (PBS)
The sobbing provoked by the mention of Breaking Bad’s limited shelf life was just drowned out by Downton Abbey fans’ wails. While she was on the show, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) provided the feminist foil to her marriage-obsessed sisters. To be fair, a woman’s opportunities were limited in 1920s England — but that doesn’t stop Sybil from attending suffrage rallies and marrying the family’s chauffeur out of love rather than waiting for a noble match to be made.
Kono Kalakaua, Hawaii Five-0 (CBS)
Kono (Grace Park) is a Hawaiian Island in the ocean of network TV macho cop shows. While the series is still headed by men — albeit very attractive ones — she proves herself to be just as tough (sometimes tougher) in the field. It’s not rare that Kono’s the one to take out the bad guy with a sniper rifle or win in hand-to-hand combat. She gets bonus cool points for her surfing skills.
These are just the established women of the small screen, however. The creators of American Horror Story: Coven recently announced that the third season of the show will have a feminist focus with emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship. Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black also promises some tough-loving women and has been extended for another season. As for network sitcoms, this writer has high hopes for the new Allison Janney show, Mom.
Did we miss any? Please leave us a note in the comments!
Kate Everson is a Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”