“Because You’re Still Asking That Question” – Television’s Five Best Female Characters

Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.

To be perfectly honest, as much as I love Joss Whedon, I’ve never really liked his answer to that question. Now, in fairness, if you watch the video (and you should, because Whedon is awesome and literally nothing bad will happen to your day from watching him speak), the context is that Whedon is continually and obnoxiously asked this question, and so this response is sort of his final straw after many, many attempts at being more nuanced. But it’s this line that everyone remembers, and it’s never really sat all that well with me. I mean, it’s a fine answer, and it definitely speaks to something very problematic at the way we treat women in fiction, but what bothers me is the way that it ultimately politicizes female characters in a way that’s not particularly productive.

Look, Whedon’s female characters are awesome (more on that in a bit). But so are his male characters, and his ambiguously gendered demon characters, and his genderfluid brainwashed characters. Whedon doesn’t write Strong Female Characters; he writes strong characters, and some of them happen to be female.

Am I quibbling with semantics? Obviously, but it’s an important distinction. Because the problem with calling them Strong Female Characters is all those capital letters – in other words, how are they supposed to just be characters, parts of a story, if the entire future of feminism is riding on whether they rescue the male lead or he rescues them? I know that a lot of people who are much smarter than me have gotten into this in much more detail, but to vastly oversimplify, if we want interesting, complicated, compelling female characters, we’re gonna have to let them fail. Or, put another way, we’re going to have to let them not be strong.

Because not to rag on Whedon (oof, the very thought pains), but you know who’s a strong female character? Natasha Romanov from The Avengers, and she’s boring as watching someone paint grass on a wall. She checks off all the boxes – physically imposing, doesn’t take shit from no man, psychologically manipulates the villains – but holy cliche I was falling asleep just typing that out. I mean, there’s a reason the best scene in the movie was the morally ambiguous duo of Iron Man and Loki snarking at each other, and that’s not something a Strong Female Character gets to do.

No, don’t give me a strong female character; give me a good character, and make her female. Like…

Starbuck – Battlestar Galactica

You know the one reason (and, believe me, it’s hard to choose) Kara Thrace is one of my favorite female characters of all time? Because when she punched her love interest in the face, he didn’t even hesitate before punching her back, and that, my friends, is what feminism looks like.

Kara Thrace is arrogant, abrasive, and quick to anger; she’s made some mistakes in her past which come only from her own weaknesses. But the thing is, she earns that arrogance by being the absolute best at what she does; she makes up for her abrasiveness with a wicked sharp sense of humor and a smile that lights up a room. She takes responsibility for her actions and is more than ready to show respect to those she believes deserves it. Obviously, we don’t mention the massive character derailment of the last few seasons, because those seasons didn’t happen, but Starbuck is the kind of character who commands the attention of any room she walks into.

Fiona Glenanne – Burn Notice

Oh, we’re gonna have some contention over this one. Mostly, that’s because Burn Notice is not a very good show (she declares, having watched six seasons of it in the space of one very regrettable week last summer), but it’s also because Fiona does tend to fall into the “Stop Having Fun Guy” role, especially in the later seasons, which, again, we don’t talk about (it’s a bit of a theme in this post). Regrettably, she does often act as the obnoxious love interest to our hero, impeding him from being a no-regrets superspy.

But. But. There is nothing that is quite so much fun as the combination of Fiona and C-4, and she brings a wonderful sort of insane pumpernickel fuckery to the role. Fiona’s a diving-feet-first badass, and I like that she’s allowed to have a softer side, even when the show might not present that in such a good light. The best part about Fiona is that you implicitly trust her as a character, and that’s a quality female characters don’t get very often. What I mean by that is…well, take another less-than-excellent show I inhaled last summer (I’m seriously losing so much street cred with this post). In White Collar, when Neal Caffrey is in a pickle, you know that he will figure some way out of it, some crazy, unexpected, borderline suicidal but inevitably successful solution. You don’t get that with – jeez, just pick a love interest from that show, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, with most female characters, there’s always the potential that they’ll need to be a damsel in distress in order to prove how awesome the male character is. With Fiona, putting her in danger is never used to boost up Michael; rather, it’s only ever used to demonstrate just how dire the situation is. If Fiona couldn’t handle it, it’s time to bring out the big guns (which you can usually find stored somewhere in Fiona’s apartment).

Olivia Dunham – Fringe

So here’s the thing about Olivia Dunham. They did literally everything they could to her that you do to a female character you want to derail. They gave her an evil love interest, a history of abuse, magical powers – seriously, if there’s a character trait you can think of that works to reduce a female character to a mystical pixie dream girl, Olivia probably got it. But good lord can that woman rock a gunfight, and she continues that theme of competence I’ve sort of been developing as something I love about these characters. But what’s awesome about Olivia is that she is fairly often put in distress, and it doesn’t screw with her character at all. I mean, okay, the bad guys in this universe should probably have learned to stop leaving convenient sharp things where they have Olivia tied up, but she’s frequently put in situations where she’s confused or without resources or downright wrong. But – and I’m willing to ascribe a lot of this to Anna Torv’s acting – Olivia needs to not be a robot. It’s the vulnerability that makes the badassery so much more compelling.

Also, she takes the “Do I want to be best friends with this character?” test and turns it into a chocolate chip pancake. Like, dude, I want so badly to just find a bar and sit in it with her.

Abbie Mills – Sleepy Hollow

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Sleepy Hollow is insane. Like scribbling on the walls in your own blood insane. Like skydiving from space insane. Like rooting for the Mets insane (repeating the same thing and expecting different results…I’m sorry, guys, it’s not going to happen). I might argue that it’s the kind of show that sounds better when you describe it than is the experience of watching it, but when I’m telling people about it, I usually have them won over by the time I get to “Headless Horseman in a redcoat uniform with a machine gun.”

But we’re here to talk about Abbie, and how much I love her, which is quite a lot. To be fair, when it comes to this show, my critical faculties are still slightly impaired from the shock of having this much diversity on a primetime network program (of the 8 characters who could be considered “main,” only two of them are white, and they’re a Revolutionary War-era witch and her husband, so I’m not sure how much that counts). But you know…I really like Abbie. I like that she’s smart, doesn’t take shit, makes bad decisions and owns up to them. I like that at least as much time is given to her relationship with her sister as to her relationship with the male protagonist. (Excuse me for a moment. HOLY ADORABLENESS I KIND OF WANT TO JUST SCREAM AT HER AND ICHABOD TO MAKE OUT ALREADY BUT ALSO I KIND OF LIKE THEM AS PLATONIC BECAUSE THERE ARE SO FEW STRONG PLATONIC RELATIONSHIPS ON TELEVISION AND IT WOULD BE NICE TO SEE IT RECOGNIZED THAT THAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP IS MEANINGFUL AND COMPELLING BUT SERIOUSLY IF WE HARNESSED THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN THOSE TWO WE COULD POWER NEW YORK FOR THE NEXT CENTURY SO I’M SUPER CONFLICTED ABOUT THIS AND  I HAVEN’T BEEN THIS ANNOYED BY A COUPLE SINCE PETER AND OLIVIA.) Look, it would be very easy for this show to make Abbie the one who knows  all about the modern stuff, and Ichabod the one who knows all about the mystical stuff, and that would quite frankly be terrible, since there’s no allure for the audience in someone who knows how to work a microwave. So by making Abbie realistically competent (there we go again; it’s almost like I like seeing characters who are good at stuff), we keep her interesting but still flawed.

Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Obviously, it was always going to come back to Buffy. It’s such a simple idea – what if the blonde cheerleader who dies in the first scene of the horror movie was the hero? And what if that hero was kind of arrogant, and occasionally selfish, and annoyingly self-righteous, and really, really bad at picking boyfriends? There have literally been books written about how great Buffy was for feminism (it’s not too hard to argue that every character on this list is living in her shadow), but the great thing about Buffy is that that’s sort of beside the point. She’s fun and smart and caring and protective, but only to the point of reality, and the reason her vulnerability never impedes her ass-kicking is because she makes the constant, continuous decision to not let it. I just…look, here is, in one word, why I love Buffy:

Angelus: No weapons…no friends…no hope. Take away all that and what’s left?
(Buffy catches a goddamn sword between her motherfucking hands.)
Buffy: Me.
“Becoming, Part 2”

And, well, that’s really it, ladies and gentlemen. Buffy doesn’t speak for every female character, but that’s because she doesn’t have to, because she’s good enough to stand on her own. Buffy is this awesome jumble of quirks and foibles and characteristics, and the fact that one of those characteristics is female is no more important than any of the other ones. And that’s why it’s always going to come back to Buffy, because the very existence of this character proves that Whedon didn’t really mean what he said. Buffy doesn’t exist because of some patronizing social justice obligation; she exists because he wanted to tell this particular story, and Buffy was the character best suited to do it. So, yes, give me strong female characters, but more importantly, give me strong characters, and make them female.


134 responses to ““Because You’re Still Asking That Question” – Television’s Five Best Female Characters

  1. These are great! A personal favorite of mine is Beckett from the TV show Castle. It looks like you put a lot of work into compiling this list, thank you for sharing it with us!
    -Awkward Girl

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I have to say, writing these fictitious people (male or female) is hard enough, but you have to be a very gifted writer to turn that idea into a fully formed and convincing personality.


  3. I love this – especially your point that Joss Whedon doesn’t write strong female characters, he writes strong characters! And this: “Because when she punched her love interest in the face, he didn’t even hesitate before punching her back, and that, my friends, is what feminism looks like.” So true and often unrealized.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I do like all of these characters (and I so loved FRINGE-a show that didn’t catch on with many people). I think I would also add to the list of TV women.

    Kate (LOST) A female who did lots of wrong but had a good heart. And she did it all without magic or any special powers.

    Martha Jones (Doctor Who) A doctor who not only spent a year on her own “saving” the Doctor, but left him when SHE decided the time was right.

    Dr. Joan Watson (Elementary) When has Lucy Liu not been a strong, smart, and totally kick-ass?

    Carol Hathaway, R.N. (E.R.) The TV personality I would most likely be besties with.

    Amy Farah Fowler (Big Bang Theory) Because smart is sexy even if it does wear grandma clothes.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I think Martha really grew and came into her own (even though she did have a total crush on Ten, she realized it for what it was–just a crush). I mean, I could’ve said River Song, who is really great too, but River has “powers” from the TARDIS that do help her to be stronger and more equal with the Doctor.

        And let’s not forget Sarah Jane Smith!

        Liked by 2 people

    • I was happy to see that Olivia Dunham made your list. I love Audrey Parker in Haven. All the women were strong characters in Firefly…but that’s Joss Whedon. 🙂 I will have to watch start watching Sleepy Hollow. Your description of Abbie intrigued me. Great post!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Some fantastic female characters here !

    I would love to hang with Olivia, too. She is so awesome. I also love that most of the time, when all the bad things are happening to her, she ends up saving herself or making the attempt to, rather than waiting for someone else to save her.

    And Abbie is delightful in many ways (and I too love the adorableness that is Icabbie), even if I haven’t managed to fall in love with the show.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m glad Abbie Mills and Buffy are on that list, they’re among my favorite characters as well. Just one question: what do you think of Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Olivia Pope from Scandal?


  7. Pingback: “Because You’re Still Asking That Question” – Television’s Five Best Female Characters | Coretan Daku·

  8. From this list I’ve only ever watched Sleepy Hollow, mostly because I live near the real Sleepy Hollow (yes, it’s a real place!) and recently visited Washington Irving’s house (the original author) who is from the same area as Sleepy Hollow. I am on the fence about Abbie, she seems cool and I want to like her though I’m not sure Nicole Beharie has quite figured out how to play her. It’s definitely a better show to describe than watch, but I will keep watching mostly because I like seeing them take huge creative licenses such as inserting a psychiatric hospital where this is none and seeing fleeting panoramic views of the Hudson River and Tappan Zee Bridge. Oh and Tom Mison, of course.

    I think my faves are Sydney Bristow from Alias, Kate Beckett from Castle, and Cersei, Daenerys, and Arya on Game of Thrones.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love the original Star Trek stories and I particularly like Nichelle Nichols. An African-American and a woman going where no woman had gone before. But if you count up the number of times she said ‘Captain, I’m frightened’ you will get it that good as the scripts were, they were a product of their time. I think things have improved. Even Nichelle toughened up in one of the Star Trek movies. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh goodness I forgot all about the women of Star Trek! How remiss! Lt. Nyota Uhura was always a favorite role model and also was Commander Deanna Troi.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen much Star Trek (I know! I need to do something about that!) but from what I have seen, I think Nichols works best as an example of progressivism on a meta level – really impressive for the time, but something that, looked at totally objectively, isn’t that positive.


  10. Good list and I am sure there are others. There are some with a mean edgy persona. But women are drama and comedy, enigma and puzzles, they are not made of sugar and spice and everything nice, they have sage and pepper and a twinge of orange.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The list started out good, but I hate Abbie Mills. She’s charmless and unlikable. She speaks like she’s reading cue cards. And when Cordelia moved over to Angel her character arc surpassed that of Buffy’s, at least in my opinion.


    • Fair enough…I think Nicole Beharie is still easing into the character, but I really like what they’ve done with her so far. I think Cordelia’s arc on Angel was pretty great, but I definitely don’t think it’s something you need to choose, and I’m still pretty irritated about what happened to Cordy during season 4.


  12. Thankyou for this because in the last ten years I have noticed more & more media characters who are obviously female because of there looks and shape holding a gun and threatening arrest or worse or acting like the sort of man nobody wants to live next to, work for or even meet. I don’t watch it I must admit but what you write explains to me it is still getting worse. That female characters have to be violent or capable of extreme violence to compete, where is the audience that asked for this?
    Are women in the States saying I want a Slayer for a heroine, and I am sorry but you cannot make up for arrogance, abrasiveness & anger with wit. Feminism is being female, not trying to be as big a lunatic or moronic as a man.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh my gosh! That post was a fun and intelligent read. You’re definitely an evocative personality. I didn’t even know half of the characters you mentioned, but your enthusiasm is contagious. Loved the part about the best friend test and the chocolate chip pancake.


  14. Great post! I too love your reminding us that Whedon writes strong characters FIRST… some happen t be of the female persuasion, very nice and very right. I am also intrigued by Sleepy Hollow and Abbie Mills. I haven’t seen the show…yet, but what you’ve written about it makes me want to see it in the next few minutes!


  15. Fiona was by far my favourite, she was great in Burn Notice, especially that scene in Ireland where she joined the gun, in season 7.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I love this post. I think the strong character-strong female character is a pretty overdone conversation, to be honest, but I love your take on it. Also, Starbuck would win in a fight. Against.. well anybody. Awesome character awesomely played.

    Now to add my two cents- I think the biggest hurdle female characters have to overcome is being written for the male members of the audience. What I mean by that is, they’re almost exclusively written to be intimidating but not emasculating, and almost exclusively in context of their “love interest”. You even mentioned this a number of times, presumably inadvertently, in your post. Olivia/Peter, Abbie/Ichabod, Starbuck/whichever male is pursuing Starbuck in that episode: all women portrayed in context of their relationship; as a male, I want to see a woman written without that “defining” context. Let’s see female characters (outside of perhaps Game of Thrones) who are capable of having personalities without love interests. (As an example from GoT, SPOILERS!! Catelyn deepens significantly in the novels AFTER the events of the first book)

    Anyway, great post, love the list!


  17. Reblogged this on thatstorygirl and commented:
    A great Post and pretty much pinpointing why good stories are GOOD – because they start with character, not flashes and bangs. And here are two of my all time favourite characters, heroes to me both of them – Kara “Starbuck” Thrace from Battlestar Galactica (which I’m in the middle of another re-watch of) and of course Buffy Anne Summers. I’ll be putting a post about Buffy on soon after Lent (I have a couple of other posts that will come first), but this post here is an intro to the Slayer, the woman with real Girl Power. Great Piece of Writing.


  18. strong female characters?
    how many are based on good-looks..?
    how many are a mans version of a strong female character?
    you yanks really are


  19. I haven’t seen all of these shows, but you make a great argument for each one, so I’ll buy it as the quintessential list 🙂 The geek in me is a tad bit upset that there is no Princess Leia, but like I said, that’s the Star Wars uber nerd talking. I agree with you on the Strong Female Character label as well (as a sports writer, coaches and players are always labeled something, why can’t they all just be athletes?) however, NetFlix would be highly disappointed if they had to delete “Movies with a Strong Female Lead” from my queue 🙂
    Great piece, I’m following along for more!


  20. Well done! More suggestions if you want to write another similar piece: Sons of Anarchy’s Katey Sagal, Justified’s Joelle Carter, Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler (or Rashida Jones).

    Liked by 1 person

  21. These are all great female characters (great characters, period). What irks me, though, is that “strong” so often seems to be applied only to female characters who physically kick butt (yes, they often mentally and emotionally kick butt, too, but the physical is ALWAYS a component). When I think of a strong/great character, either male or female, I think of a character who is broad, nuanced, capable of growth.

    If you want to see strong female characters who don’t tote weapons, fight, solve crime or save the world, look no further than Six Feet Under. Ruth is an impeccably well-developed and rich character, with flaws and needs and the kind of strength and resilience that has nothing to do with her physical appearance or powers. Claire, too, becomes a strong character by the end of the series.

    Also, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon is a strong character who probably couldn’t win a fight with a fifth grader (sorry, but it’s true). Yes, she’s neurotic, but she owns that, and she works with it, she doesn’t let it best her. She’s talented, smart, funny, resourceful and thriving in a male-dominated industry. She makes her mistakes, takes her licks and does everything from jury duty to marriage on her terms.


  22. Love this post. Though I would have to argue that perhaps that was Whedon’s point when he stated, “because you’re still asking me that question.” His point seems to be the same as yours. There is no need for the question to be asked as his characters are strong whether they are male or female.


  23. Mad Men isn’t an easy show to get through just because its so serious, but Peggy Olson is brilliant. Obsessed by power and ambition, incredibly talented, but at the same time fickle and unpredictable, incredibly aware of her femininity and the place that puts her in the eyes of society, but always determined to rise above that place. Not that you needed another character to add to your very long list, haha.


  24. I agree with your comments in almost every respect, but as regards Josh’s speech, I think you might have missed the point that he wasn’t just writing strong women characters but was a little pissed that the fact that he was writing them was the interviewers focus, because like you he thinks it shouldn’t be a question – a strong character is a strong character, irregardless of race, gender or sexual/species orientation.


  25. Sorry, just read my comment and I should have said “I hope your readers get the point” rather than “I think you might have missed the point.”


  26. Well said. I’m drawn to shows that are character-driven and the best ones have characters that seem like actual people (even if they’re aliens). They have good qualities, and some not-so-good ones, sometimes they make the right call and other times they’ll have you pulling your hair out and yelling “YOU IDIOT!!!” at the screen. And sometimes they’re women.
    I haven’t seen any of the shows listed here, so I’ll just have to take your word on the characters you chose (though as far as Buffy goes, I have no trouble believing Joss Whedon could come up with an awesome female character). I would like to post my top 5 from my own TV experience though:
    1. Ziva David (NCIS)
    2. Aeryn Sun (Farscape)
    3. Samantha Carter (Stargate: SG-1)
    4. Kate Beckett (Castle)
    5. River Song (Doctor Who)


  27. My favorite females are Kenna and Mary from Reign Hanna from pretty little liars tv series and Dany from games of thrones I admire all these woman for their compassion towards other and the wisdom they show in they ways they use their compassion.


  28. Fiona, Starbuck, and Buffy were all great choices. Burn Notice, Battlestar Galactica, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were three excellent shows that displayed a high level of originality.


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