The Most Badass Women of Television History
Emboldened. Inspiring. Complex. Intelligent. Barrier-breaking. Straight-up badass. These are just some of the adjectives you might use to describe a certain swathe of seriously cool females of the small screen. These queens—television and advertising execs, small-town politicians, vampire slayers, mothers, lawyers, and actual queens—are the types of dynamic characters women everywhere should feel pretty damned proud of. To celebrate an age of increasing empowerment and the protagonists who inspire us, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the most badass women in television history to date. Girl gang, assemble!
The last living descendant in a line of born rulers, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), lovingly referred to as Khaleesi by her thousands of willful followers, rules with power tempered by compassion. Flanked by her trio of dragons—the first the Seven Kingdoms have seen in generations—and an army of slaves-turned-fighters she freed from servitude, this Mother of Dragons is poised for the type of board-resetting power play Game of Thrones is known for.
Killer quotable: “All men must die. But we are not men.”
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has come quite a long way since her first day at Sterling Cooper. Mad Men first introduced us to the now–copy chief as the timid typist there to schedule Don Draper’s lunch meetings. Over the course of seven seasons, however, she has grown into one of the most complex and empowered characters of the show. She is clever, curious, and has work ethic to kill. And did you catch her entrance on last week’s episode? Boss. Status.
Killer quotable: “I am the person you need to impress right now.”
Criminal defense attorney and law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is intelligent and downright fierce. When it comes to her work and personal life, Keating tends to hover in the moral gray area, which makes her character all the more fascinating, complex, and exciting.
Killer quotable: “You’ll only have yourself to blame if it ends badly.”
Yes, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a vampire slayer. But even when she’s off-duty, she’s pretty badass. Physically and emotionally strong, Summers is a take-no-prisoners protector of those she loves.
Killer quotable: “Strong is fighting. It’s hard and it’s painful and it’s every day. It’s what we have to do, and we can do it together, but if you’re too much of a coward for that, then burn.”
The matriarch of the Cosby household, Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) is also a pillar of immense strength, confidence, and professional prowess. She is a partner at her law firm, works a suit like nobody’s business, and continually puts the men of the house in their place.
Killer quotable: “I am not serving Dr. Huxtable, okay? That's the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. Now I'm going to bring him a cup of coffee, just like he did this morning, and that, young man, is what marriage is made of: give and take, fifty-fifty.”
Homeland’s Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) brilliance is absolutely undeniable. And though she is prone to rash decisions and fluctuating emotions due to mental illness, Carrie will stop at nothing to achieve her goals and see a mission through.
Killer quotable: “I missed something once before. I won’t—I can’t let that happen again.”
Creator and head writer of The Girlie Show, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon proves you can still be figuring it out alongside being a full-on boss. Hilarious, super smart, and absolutely unapologetic, Liz Lemon comes up against lots of patriarchal B.S. and proves that being human is an asset to being successful.
Killer quotable: “Trying on jeans is my favorite thing! Maybe later I can get a Pap smear from an old male doctor.”
Whip-smart and ever skeptical, Special Agent Dana Skully (Gillian Anderson) is more than a loyal, capable partner to Mulder. She’s practically the reason he makes it through nine seasons. Scully’s commitment to logic and a well-padded suit jacket are legendary. It’s no wonder the series is coming back.
Killer quotable: “Why do you always have to drive? Because you’re the guy? Because you’re the big macho man?”
Serving as something of a foil to Peggy’s path to success is Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), with her all-knowing smirks, street savvy, and feminine mystique. Joan recognizes the power of her physical assets and at times is not afraid to wield them to her betterment. What’s more, Joan proves herself to have incredible business acumen, working her way up to partner at the male-dominated agency.
Killer quotable: “These men. Constantly building them up, and for what? Dinner and jewelry? Who cares?”
The sitcom Julia saw Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll), an African American woman, starring for the first time in a role other than a mammie or a maid. A college-educated, widowed young mother and nurse, Julia was a strong and opinionated character. Though the series did not engage critically with the struggles of the Civil Rights era and was often criticized for its whitewashed depiction of African American struggle, Julia’s mere presence on the screen and strength of character were groundbreaking at the time.
Killer quotable: “It's up to you and me and all of us to help teach her and other prejudiced people how wrong they are.”
We wonder: Is any fictional character more driven—more dedicated—than Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) of Pawnee, Indiana? We’re hard-pressed to think of someone quite like her. The ultimate cheerleader of friends and good causes, the person you absolutely want on your team, Knope is a veritable force of possibility to be reckoned with.
Killer quotable: “You know my code: Hos before bros, uteruses before duderuses, ovaries before brovaries.”
Played by Kerry Washington, political fixer extraordinaire Olivia Pope embodies high power and overachievement. Alongside the president of the United States and a whole cast of strong characters, Pope continues to call the shots with precision and strength. It’s important to note that she’s also a complicated, flawed character, prone to questionable decisions when it comes to love. Despite these weaknesses, she remains strong, confident, and reliably well dressed.
Killer quotable: “Whatever happens, we do not give up. It is my name on that door, and I do not give up.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show first premiered in 1970 right smack in the middle of the women’s lib movement. Professional environs were still largely dominated by men. Enter: Mary Richards, single, 30, and an ambitious and charming associate producer at a television station. She is arguably the first televised icon of feminism.
Killer quotable: “I just wanted you to know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me, and I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. And not my family. And last night I thought, what is a family, anyway? Thank you for being my family.”
Transparent brings topics of gender, sexuality, and identity to the forefront as biological father–of-three Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) struggles with the task of telling her rather self-involved adult children about her real identity as the transgendered Maura. Maura is at alternating turns incredibly strong and touchingly vulnerable, and the performance is significant and important for obvious reasons.
Killer quotable: “I'm just a person. And you're just a person. And here we are. And baby, you need to get in the whirlpool, or you need to get out of it."
News anchor, investigative journalist, recovering alcoholic, and single mother Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) embodies the toughness of a woman carving her way in a world dominated by men. Brown is utterly fearless, in both personal and professional pursuits.
Killer quotable: “And why do you guys need a movement in the first place? Tired of getting higher pay for the same jobs?”
Before Lucille Ball took the reins as the simultaneously goofy and scheming Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, you would have had a hard time finding a female in such a prominent comedic role. Yes, Lucy’s huge popularity quietly asserted that comedy was gender neutral. Constantly subverting Ricky’s dominance over her, Lucy was also the first woman to appear pregnant on television (this, during a time when married couples were often depicted as sleeping in separate beds).
Killer quotable: “Well, I’m not going to settle on just any old thing.”
After being publicly humiliated by her cheating politician husband’s sex scandal, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) rises from the ashes like a resilient phoenix. Made stronger by the betrayal, Florrick thrives in the workplace, pursues a more fulfilling love interest, and continues to be a strong mother to her two children.
Killer quotable: “I’m gonna try something I may regret, but at least I’m gonna try it.”
First introduced in 1966, Chief Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) is intelligent, powerful, and heroic—and an equal among men. Her role as lieutenant on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, and her rise through the ranks to become a commander, fits into Star Trek’s long-term trope relating to a better future world for all.
Killer quotable: “I am not afraid.”
A distant relative to the Crawleys of Downton, Isobel arrives to the estate when her son is discovered to be next in line to inherit the family’s riches. A skilled nurse and an advocate for the ordinary and the careworn, Isobel is independent, big-hearted, and extremely intelligent. Despite her comfortable financial state, she commits herself to service and is unafraid to push back against the most outdated principles of lords and ladies.
Killer quotable: “Hard. But not impossible.”
As a spy, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is practically superhuman—a skilled spy, a deception artist, a trained martial arts master, and multilingual. But as a human, her life is fraught with personal and professional hardship, all of which put her to task and ultimately prove her to be tough as nails.
Killer quotable: “You know that if I wanted to hurt you, I could.”
Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) is without question the perfect counterbalance and partner to coach Eric Taylor, but she’s also a passionate, independent career woman with an unparalleled moral compass. Mrs. T is supportive, empowered, principled, intuitive, and big-hearted. Together, she and her husband are nothing short of a dream team.
Killer quotable: “The big deal is that it's part of my job to make sure that you don't grow up stupid. It's bad for the world.”
Who else would you add to this list? We're sure we missed some! Tell us in the comments.