Joss Whedon has earned a reputation for writing and creating strong, complicated female characters — in fact, he has been honored multiple times for it (check out his Equality Now thank you speech). While it’s true that Whedon has a tendency to write women who are inclined to be physically gifted fighters, his female characters don’t merely throw the smack down, check their hair, and move on. In the Whedonverse, women tend to be much more well-rounded than that.
Considering that every one of Whedon’s projects prominently feature women who aren’t just strong physically, but who are complicated characters written with the same attention to detail as their male counterparts, we decided to compile a list of the most interesting, iconic, and layered female characters in the Whedonverse. One note of import: we didn’t include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. solely because it’s much more a product of Maurissa Tancharoen and her husband, Joss’s brother Jed Whedon, than it is Joss, who only directed the pilot episode. Had we included S.H.I.E.L.D., Agents Melinda May and Jemma Simmons would have definitely made this list. That said, here are The 15 Best Female Characters In The Whedonverse:
15 Drucilla - Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel
Her twisted relationship with Spike was the epitome of dysfunctional and terrifying, but when we first met the Sid and Nancy-like vampires, we couldn’t help but be entertained — and we were often more entertained by the female than the male in that relationship. With fingernails capable of slitting throats, (see: “Becoming, Part One.” Poor Kendra), Dru also has psychic abilities, including hypnosis and straight up mind trickery, making her the perfect antagonist for both Buffy and Angel.
But it’s when her backstory is revealed in a scattered series of flashbacks that viewers learn why Dru is the way she is — and we cannot help but feel sorry for her. Turns out, Drusilla was the epitome of a good Catholic girl who was considering joining a nunnery until the soulless Angelus killed her family, her priest, and pretty much her entire convent. Angel saw an unblemished purity in her, and made it his mission to torment and destroy her, eventually driving her over the edge. She turned to the dark side after Angel made her a vampire, but whether she was good or evil, she was always entertaining, and she always looked out for herself (like when she broke up with Spike because she sensed he was simply not evil enough. Good looking out, Dru).
14 Penny - Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
She’s only onscreen for 10-15 minutes in Whedon's hugely successful web musical, but, as played by the inimitable Felicia Day, a favorite actress of Joss the Boss, Penny is hard to forget. With her endless optimism, kind soul, and earnest charm, she wins the hearts of both Nathan Fillion’s good guy with a huge ego, Captain Hammer, and Neil Patrick Harris’s crooning baddie, Dr. Horrible, who just loves watching her launder her garments. But the thing is — the audience can totally see what they both see in her.
She volunteers for a homeless shelter, displays a keen sense of self-awareness on every occasion, and spouts witticisms with such effortless ease that viewers everywhere wish they had someone like Penny to talk to when they’re bored to death in the laundromat. Spoiler alert: she’s even considerate in death, asking Dr. Horrible: “Are you all right?” even though SHE’S the one who’s dying after accidentally being impaled from debris via his death ray. On top of all of this, Day’s singing voice is easily the best in the entire three-part web series, so we thought she deserved a mention here.
13 Sierra/Priya - Dollhouse
In many ways, Dollhouse was a vehicle Whedon used to examine several issues women and young girls face, and Dichen Lachman’s Priya was a character who went up against it all. Before Westworld's robots were used and abused in multiple abhorrent ways, there was Priya, AKA Sierra, an Australian free spirit who sold her art on LA beaches before she became one of the series’ “dolls.” Said dolls were mind-swiped and brainwashed into doing and later forgetting all kinds of horrible things — things that were usually sexual or sadistic in nature.
Lachman, who also played Daisy’s terrifying and conniving mom on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., gives a brave and understated performance as Priya, who often had to make excruciating yet unheralded sacrifices — like choosing to remember her rapist, super sleaze Nolan, because forgetting him and what he did to her also meant that she’d forget her true love Victor/Anthony (Enver Gjokaj). And speaking of Victor, their unforced connection is one of the sweetest relationships in the entire Whedonsphere.
12 Echo/Caroline - Dollhouse
As the number one doll in the Dollhouse, Echo is special not only because she is the most requested, but also because she’s the only doll there who both retains and uses every personality she is imprinted with. Her self-awareness makes her stand out, and her struggle to overcome her programming and programmers while also trying to save humankind makes for great television. Also great television? The little nods to Dushku’s role as Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of Echo’s best assignments sent her to a hotel room where, clad in dominatrix gear, she threatened to potentially blackmail Alexis Denisof’s Senator Daniel Perrin (Denisof played Faith’s former handler Wesley. Role reversals are fun).
Echo was endearing because ultimately, she just wanted to help — and whether it was feeding hungry people or creating an actual Safe Haven, she did just that. The role was a great one for Dushku, whose deadpan sense of humor and physical awesomeness were often used at the same time, like when she saved the morally compromised Adelle from sure death: “Come on, Adelle, move your ass. We can hug it out later.” Good, solid advice coming from a good, solid character.
11 Faith - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Yes, you’re seeing double. Sort of. Eliza Dushku is the only actress to feature in multiple entries on this list. Her slayer Faith is nothing like the character she played on Dollhouse, and because both characters had multiple sides to them that were believable and extremely effective, we thought she deserved double entries.
Faith was complicated, to say the least. She was with the good guys initially, serving as harmless competition to fellow slayer Buffy. But when she crossed the line and killed a human in the heat of battle and showed little remorse, she definitely had a dalliance with the dark side, including a fantastic father/daughter dynamic with the evil Mayor Richard Wilkins, who was bent on destroying Sunnydale. Their banter alone was one of the better parts of season three. She makes everything right in the end, though, and her journey leads her back to fighting by Buffy’s side in the series’ final battle. We doubt Buffy would have been the same without her.
10 Glory - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Did anybody order an apocalypse? One of Buffy’s most fearsome and formidable foes also happens to live up to her name — she is glorious beyond measure. Glorificus, a God who was banished from her original hellish dimension and has been contained for 20+ years in the form of a human male named Ben, becomes too powerful for Ben to hold and becomes Buffy’s primary season five antagonist.
Taking the shape and form of a snotty, curly haired woman, Glory doesn’t mess around, and like the long line of Buffy villains before her, she’s both hilarious and terrifying. When she pushes Buffy up against a pillar and throws punches, she takes chunks of cement out with every swing that lands. Glory’s mission is to find the Key that will help her return to the hell dimension she calls home. Turns out, the Key has also taken human form — as Buffy’s kid sister Dawn. Season five’s battle between Buffy and Glory is a series high point, and her delicious zingers alone make her worthy of inclusion on this list. To hear her tell it: “I’m the victim here. I don’t even want to be here. And I don’t mean this room, or city, or state or planet, I’m talking about the whole mortal coil now, you know? It’s disgusting — the food, the clothes, the people. I could crap a better existence than this.” Maybe. But not a better villain.
9 Tara Maclay - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Tara (Amber Benson) first came into our lives in season four’s classic “Hush.” She and Willow bond when everyone is rendered unable to speak. Their bond blossoms further over witchcraft, turns into love, and their love story became another series high point. Tara was arguably one of the show’s most relatable characters, often serving as the voice of reason for the Scooby Gang. She wasn’t gifted with any major powers — she was average in that capacity — but her kindness was off the charts, and she was brave and self-reliant after losing her mother at 17.
But she wasn’t perfect, and we love that about her too. When we meet her father and snippy cousin Beth (played by a before-she-was-famous Amy Adams), she cast a spell on the Scoobies to keep them from finding out her family secret — that she may have inherited a demonic gene or two (she didn’t). Tara’s reactions always felt organic and real, and even though we only got a few seasons with her, we grew to love her.
8 Adelle DeWitt - Dollhouse
Adelle herself is more complicated than most relationships, and her moral compass is all over the place. Sure, she runs LA’s Dollhouse, a terrible organization that rents human beings out to privileged scary people, but she really tries to look out for her dolls. We were never sure until the end of the series where her loyalties truly lie, which made Ms. DeWitt the show’s most intriguing and complex female character.
Adelle very often had to make decisions that were more lose-lose than win-win, and the audience was never with her or against her for too long. Regardless of whether or not we agreed with her, we were always entertained by her. This was partly because she had a wicked sense of humor, which we saw come out randomly and frequently -- like when she was observing an obnoxious serial killer in a coma: “I rather like him this way,” or when she literally grabbed her boss by the you-know-whats in season two’s “My Left Hand,” asserting her dominance over his). But our favorite Adelle layer was the surprising maternal one, in which her tender, motherly side emerged while comforting Topher, who went crazy after inadvertently helping build Skynet 2.0. Her genuine concern for him still gives us all the feels.
7 Anya Jenkins - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Anya, the awkward, clueless, hilarious, immortal vengeance demon (or justice demon, if you prefer) didn’t always exist in human form. For millennia, she granted ominous wishes to women who were cheated on, or who were wronged somehow. Fellow vengeance demon Halfrek called revenge on men Anya’s “little raison d’étre,” but that’s definitely too dismissive. Our Anyanka is quite complicated and fabulous, thank you very much! Watching her struggle with the complexities of humanity revealed the complexities of her character. Sure, she was prone to bone-headedness at times — like when she turned to Spike after being let down by her fiancée, Xander — but we weren’t even that angry at her because we understood why she did it.
Emma Caulfield’s performance as Anya was a hoot, and it endeared us immediately to a person who had literally spent most of her life hurting people. But for many fans of the show, she was impossible not to love. Take the scene in which Anya simultaneously tries to understand human pain and grief while actually realizing both in “The Body,” or watch the scene in the series finale where Andrew calls out her love for humans (“Stop it! I don’t love them and I’ll kill you if you tell anybody!”). We love you too, Anya.
6 Cordelia Chase - Buffy/Angel
When we first met Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), she was a spoiled, judgmental brat who worked more against Buffy than with her. But Cordy is one character in the Whedonverse who evolved and changed drastically — and watching her go from petty cheerleader to vision-having hero was wholly satisfying. After her father was jailed for “making a little mistake on his taxes” for twelve consecutive years, Cordy struggled without the safety net of her family’s wealth, and she matured a great deal as a character.
After graduating high school, she moved to LA and was a struggling actress prior to stumbling across Angel. Ever the go-getter, she helped him start and build his own business, and when a kiss from the doomed Doyle left her with the ability to see others’ plights, she embraced her visions and went into full on hero-mode. Cordy also had an unexpected and kinda sweet relationship with Angel – we’d even go as far to suggest that it rivaled the Angel/Buffy romance because it was more mature and less dramatic. Regardless of her romances, the evolution of Cordelia was one of the Buffyverse’s most pleasant surprises.
5 River Tam - Firefly/Serenity
After growing bored with a graduate physics program at the age of 14, the beyond brilliant River Tam (Summer Glau) entered The Academy, which she and her family thought was a school for accelerated and abnormally talented kids. It wasn’t. The Academy was a secret government facility where River was experimented on by people who were trying to create the ultimate assassin. One of the experiments conducted on her involved the removal of her amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the ways we process emotions. She managed to escape The Academy with the help of her brother, and when Captain Mal allows them to take refuge aboard his spaceship, Serenity, we’re never quite sure how dangerous she could be to those that surround her due to the trauma she endured.
This potential danger leaves an air of mystery surrounding her, and it also increases the tension in every scene she’s in, because River is capable of killing anyone on the ship at any given time. She’s also a socially awkward teenage genius, so she’s prone to the occasional teenaged temper tantrum. Oh, and did we mention that she has psychic gifts, too? It’s a lot, to be sure, but Glau nails every facet of her character’s many personality quirks, and she created a truly memorable character. As her brother Simon put it: “River was more than gifted. She was a gift.” Yes, she was. To audiences everywhere.
4 Fred Burkle - Angel
Things were going fine for Winifred Burkle (Amy Acker), physics grad student and overall science nerd, until she was banished to Plyea, a demonic dimension where she was forced into slavery for five years. Rescued and brought back to Earth by Angel, Fred’s social skills suffered immensely in the five years she was captive, resulting in some very interesting perspectives — while glancing through a fashion magazine, for example, she ponders aloud: “Why do girls wanna look like that? I spent years in a cave starving. What’s their excuse?”
Her candor was both hilarious and refreshing, and we loved all her idiosyncratic tendencies, like that time she tried to make enchiladas out of tree bark. Her relationship with Wesley was also a slow moving, sweet surprise that added to the depth of the show — and don’t even talk to us about their final scenes together. Those final moments alone are why this is our favorite Amy Acker-Joss Whedon pairing (though certainly not the only one).
3 Zoe Washburne - Firefly/Serenity
They don’t make them tougher than this in the Whedonverse, that’s for certain. Zoe Washburne totes an 1892 Winchester and lets the dudes know they don’t intimidate her by looking cooly at them and saying things like: “you’ll scare the women.” Played by the stellar Gina Torres, Zoe is a loyal, fierce, soldier, as well as a witty better half to one of the best couples in the Whedonverse, Zoe and Wash.
We love Zoe for a billion reasons, chief among which is because watching her feels like watching a fully realized person with zero pretense who also happens to frequently and unapologetically kick butt. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, and she doesn’t get weepy or sentimental. And yet, we see a softness to her, particularly in her scenes with Wash. The couple may not have had the happy ending fans wanted in Serenity, but in the comics, Zoe is pregnant with and eventually gives birth to Wash’s daughter Emma, so we seek solace in that, as well as in the fact that when she lost Wash, she didn’t lose herself, but instead, inspired others with her strength.
2 Buffy Summers - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Sarah Michelle Gellar couldn’t have picked a better career-defining role. Her California girl who was chosen to save the world from scads of other-worldly beings could have easily been a laughing stock. Instead, Gellar’s stellar comedic timing, tongue in cheek delivery, and ability to nail the series’ top moments made her the perfect actress for this role. Buffy’s greatness was not just in her Slaying capabilities, but in her flaws – she didn’t always know exactly what she should do in every situation, and she could rarely ever do it all herself.
Like a superhero, she struggled with the responsibilities that came with her abilities, and her character also dealt with many things people everywhere can identify with, from being jilted by her lover to losing her mother while she was still in college. Buffy was a hero who accepted her greatness while also accepting the fact that she needed help from others, knowing full well she couldn’t save the world alone. The sheer iconic-ness of the role puts her just above the benevolent Ms. Washburne on this list, though she just misses out on our top spot.
1 Willow Rosenberg - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Some may question why we chose to place a sidekick in the top slot. It wasn’t an easy decision. But when considering the myriad ways in which Willow developed and changed, we couldn’t think of a more complex, well-rounded, or iconic female character in the entire Whedonverse. Willow was a great friend, stalwart and loyal, and she spoke loudly to the inner (and outer) geek in all of us. Her coming out story and subsequent relationship with Tara was revolutionary television at the time, and yet these were just tiny factions of who Willow was.
Willow wasn’t just there to spout witticisms like Xander was – she played a major role in every season of the show, from bringing Buffy back to life to ending the season six antagonists all by herself. And speaking of that whole save-the-world / end-the-world thing-y she had going on — Willow is one of the rare supporting characters who helped the hero save the world (multiple times) — but she also almost ended Buffy and the world itself when she lost it after Tara’s death. Has there ever been a more horrific and stomach-turning moment than when Willow looked at Warren, spoke two lazy words (“bored now”), and then skinned him alive with her mind? That moment alone makes her one of the most formidable forces — male or female — in the entire Whedonverse.
Who did we miss? Which female characters would you say is the greatest in the Whedonverse? Let us know in the comments!