Let’s face it: sometimes, women in television get a bit of a bum rap when it comes to having some quality representation. Whether they’re just the girl-next-door romantic interest of the male lead (snooze) or the sultry villainess that uses her powers of seduction for evil (yawn), sometimes it can feel like there aren’t really that many female role models to look up to. Luckily, however, there’s actually a lot of them — and here, I’ve compiled a list of shows that pioneered using strong, smart, independent women as leads. Growing up, some of these women really shaped that way I thought about not only myself and the world around me, but what I imagined I could do with my life when I was older.
Star Trek Voyager
I reckon that this is one of the best iterations of Star Trek there has ever been. It introduced us to our first proper female Star Fleet captain, Kathryn Janeway, who is supported by a stellar crew of equally memorable and kick-ass humans and aliens alike, including the unforgettable borg Seven of Nine. Captain Janeway was the first leader that I saw on television who was not afraid to stand her ground, who looked at everything through a logical scientific lens and who wasn’t dependent on having a powerful husband/partner to fight for her. She was fair, wise and respected — even though she wasn’t always right — and nobody really made a big deal about taking orders from a woman; they treated her with the same authoritative respect as they would a man. Say what you will about the series in general, but Janeway is an icon.
Synopsis: Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) focuses on the 24th century adventures of Captain Kathryn Janeway aboard the U.S.S. Voyager. Smaller than either Kirk’s or Picard’s starships—its crew complement is only 150—Voyager is fast and powerful, and has the ability to land on a planet’s surface. It is one of the most technologically advanced vessels in Starfleet, utilizing computer circuitry that incorporates synthetic neural tissue. Ironically, Janeway’s inaugural mission aboard Voyager was to be her last in the Alpha quadrant. While attempting to capture the crew of a renegade Maquis vessel, both her ship and that of the Maquis were pulled into the distant Delta quadrant by powerful alien technology. Unfortunately, there would be no similar “express” route to take them home again. Stranded 70,000 light-years from Earth, Janeway convinced the Maquis to join her Starfleet crew and serve together during the long voyage back to Federation space.
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the longest running sci-fi series in network television’s history. FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully are an iconic duo who were the face of making science fiction not only accessible to the public, but popular as well. It’s here, I think, that we see that having a partnership of opposites can not only be compelling, but entertaining, too. Skeptical medical doctor/FBI agent Dana Scully is a powerhouse of knowledge and logical reasoning, the perfect complement to “believer” Fox Mulder. She bases her beliefs in scientific explanations with a sort of rigid skepticism that, in part, comes from her strict Catholic upbringing alongside her training as a doctor. She reminds me, in a way, of Kathryn Janeway — perhaps why I find the both of them to be excellent role models.
Synopsis: The series revolves around FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who investigate X-Files: marginalized, unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena. Mulder believes in the existence of aliens and the paranormal while Scully, a medical doctor and a skeptic, is assigned to make scientific analyses of Mulder’s discoveries to debunk his work and thus return him to mainstream cases. Early in the series, both agents become pawns in a larger conflict and come to trust only each other and a very few select people. The agents also discover an agenda of the government to keep the existence of extraterrestrial life a secret.
I’ve made it pretty clear in past videos and articles that Stargate SG-1 is one of my favourite TV programs of all time, and that’s in no small part because of the character of Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping). She is undoubtedly the brains behind the the SG-1 team (sorry, Daniel Jackson), and she backs up her incredible smarts with sound military fighting skills, earning her the well-founded respect of not only other alien races, but that of the Stargate Command as well. Something that I really enjoyed about SG-1 is that, although it’s an open secret that there’s a clearly non-platonic link between Carter and Jack O’Neill, her character didn’t revolve around her romantic interest in her commander, and neither did the rest of the plot. She wasn’t just decoration for the men in her team: she was the equal, and in some cases, their superior.
Synopsis: Stargate SG-1 the television series picks up where the blockbuster film Stargate left off. Colonel Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver) and his SG-1 team; Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Teal’c (Christopher Judge), and Capt. Samantha Carter, set out to explore the mysteries of the Stargate. Each mission through the gate takes the SG-1 team to new worlds in a seemingly boundless universe, meeting friends and foe alike, creating enemies, and protecting Earth — at all costs.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a common thread here between all the women I’ve listed so far: they’re all pretty “scientific” and logical characters. But if you’ve seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’ll know that this really isn’t the case with Buffy. She’s a mean, teen, fighting machine who doesn’t really care that much about what people think, who fights basically whoever she want and hooks up with whomever she pleases. She doesn’t play by the rules, and she doesn’t need to. I’ll admit that although I haven’t watched a lot of Buffy, she is still iconic in my books when it comes to a strong female lead who, again, isn’t just a pretty decoration for the male cast. Buffy also has a veritable tonne of other interesting female characters, but it’s fair to say that it’s Sarah Michelle Gellar who takes the cake.
Synopsis: The series narrative follows Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), the latest in a line of young women known as “Vampire Slayers”, or simply “Slayers.” In the story, Slayers are “called” (chosen by fate) to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. Like previous Slayers, Buffy is aided by a Watcher, who guides, teaches, and trains her. However, unlike her predecessors, Buffy surrounds herself with a circle of loyal friends who become known as the “Scooby Gang.”
Last, but not least, there’s Firefly, a series that will get any sci-fi geek complaining and campaigning endlessly on the internet, as this genius series was sadly cut short far too soon. We hadn’t seen anything like this before — a Western, set in space? It took the science fiction genre and turned it on its head, and introduced us to a bunch of very different yet equally kickass female characters. Zoe, Kaylee, Inara and River and even Saffron (I know, not technically a lead but still an important lady!) are all polar opposites of one another, but somehow they manage to capture a truly female essence that would have been missing from the show otherwise. Some are fighters, some are lovers and some are really good with a toolbox, but each one represents a type of personality and a type of femininity that previously hadn’t really been showcased on television. It proved that a woman could be an escort and still be worthy of respect, that a woman could be better mechanic than a man, that a woman could still be super fragile and still be kickass. It showed that you didn’t need to necessarily be a slave to society’s expectations of beauty and “what a woman can/should do,” but even if you did, that was fine too.
Synopsis: The series is set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship. The ensemble cast portrays the nine characters who live on Serenity. Joss Whedon pitched the show as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” The show explores the lives of a group of people who fought on the losing side of a civil war and others who now make a living on the fringe of society, as part of the pioneer culture of their star system.