Famous writer/director and self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon once said, in quoting a frequent query he gets in interviews: “‘So, why do you always write these strong women characters?’ ‘Because you're still asking me that question.’” He’s not wrong. Though television has come a long way in its portrayal of women, having heroic female protagonists take the lead is still just a possibility, not a given.
In an age of burgeoning superhero franchises and fantastical worlds of dragons and humanoids, we’re seeing more and more ladies take control and flex their muscles to defeat the forces of evil. However, this list is here to highlight those who faced emotional demons and came out the other side, or continue to fight. Their inner strength is accompanied by physical skill in many cases, but it’s what they deal with mentally that shows their true power. These were (arguably) the 15 Toughest Women on TV in 2016.
15 Alex Danvers - Supergirl
Kara Zor-El’s big sister played a vital part in Supergirl from the very beginning. After all, it was her plane that the Kryptonian ignited her powers to save, revealing herself to the world for the first time. And as Kara decided to pursue this new career path, Alex was there both to protect her and to guide her, teaching her the combat skills the elder Danvers sister had picked up during her DEO training. Alex has proven time and time again that she’ll do anything for her sister.
But this season, the focus on Alex was a bit different. We saw an extraordinarily intelligent and physically strong women begin to question herself emotionally when she met Detective Maggie Sawyer, a National City PD cop who enters Alex’s life to help the DEO. Maggie’s gaydar goes off when the two ladies meet, and over the next few episodes, Alex comes out to herself, her sister, her mother, and Maggie, who turns down her proposition of a date. The two are now together, but Alex’s difficult journey is far from over.
That being said, the lack of fanfare around a character discovering her sexuality has been refreshing, and the speedy acceptance demonstrates a show that’s caught up with today’s world. Let’s hope Alex continues to prosper without much struggle-- at least, emotionally speaking.
14 Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul hit AMC to great fanfare. The prequel follows Saul-- or Jimmy McGill, as he’s still known at this time-- as he tries to make his way in the world of law despite a history of scam artistry. But this entry obviously isn’t about Jimmy. It’s about his friend/girlfriend, Kim Wexler.
Kim has been working her way to the top of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, but faces a lot of challenges along the way. Her association with Jimmy makes her a target of the other McGill brother, and despite being a bad-ass lawyer in her own right, she was banished to the basement for merely helping out her friend. But she didn’t let this get her down, and in addition to the menial work she was sent down there to do, she ends up doing tons of research and scoring a multi-million dollar case… and they still don’t bring her back up.
Kim takes charge of her own life, plays the game in a “man’s world,” and doesn’t face the usual dilemmas regarding procreation that most small-screen women do.
13 Heather Dunbar - House of Cards
In a show about one man’s rise to the top and all of the fragile moving parts involved, many women have played important roles. There is, of course, Frank’s wife Claire: The two claim to be equal partners, striving for one goal. Last year’s season of House of Cards certainly challenged this notion. In the past there was also reporter Zoe (R.I.P.), and political foils such as congresswoman Jackie Sharp and former Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez. Yes, Frank and Claire have dealt with many fierce ladies attempting to topple their empire.
But the first half of season four featured one female politician who would stop at almost nothing to defeat the Underwoods. The previous season had Heather Dunbar as Frank’s main competition for the democratic presidential candidate. She fought a fair fight, for the most part -- until Doug tempted her with proof of Claire’s abortions to use to against her. Doug ended up switching back to the Underwoods' side, and though Heather continued to lead in the polls, she soon lost everything through almost no fault of her own, after Lucas tried to kill Frank and it was discovered that she had met with Lucas once before. Heather eventually disbanded her campaign, and had to throw her support behind the anti-hero who had worked to expose her. Still, she put up with a lot along the way.
12 Melissa Chartres - The Last Man on Earth
Despite the title of the show, The Last Man on Earth features more than one person, and quite a few women. Though the central focus was initially Will Forte’s character Phil “Tandy” Miller, the cast grew to include his now-wife Carol, best buddy Todd, and several others, some of whom we’ve lost along the way. One of the first season’s jokes was that Tandy met Carol, whom he presumed to be the last woman alive, and began a relationship with her prior to meeting Melissa, played by the more conventionally attractive January Jones. Though he initially tried to sleep with Melissa, Tandy falls for Carol, and the two are married and conceive a child together in the second season.
Melissa goes through her own strange arc. She dates Todd, later sharing him with Gail, another member of the group. She shows a proficiency for firearms, and doesn’t hesitate to do what needs to be done. However, season three begins with her shooting and killing Darrell (hilariously portrayed by Jones’ Mad Men co-star, Jon Hamm), after which she becomes mentally unstable. The show refuses to “diagnose” Melissa, allowing her to take steps forward and backward in order to realistically portray someone who hasn’t come to terms with what they’ve done. At present, Melissa is still struggling, and that’s OK: The “new Melissa” is both fun to watch and a fascinating look at a tough woman dealing with her mortality and mental health.
11 Xiomara "Xo" Villanueva - Jane the Virgin
It can’t be argued that the titular Jane isn't a strong woman. After all, how many of us can say we’re a virgin who has given birth? But Jane the Virgin depicts many ladies who have faced challenges over the course of the series. Most notably are the Villanueva women: three generations of fearless fighters with differing moral values but who share an unwavering love for one another.
Jane’s mother, Xo, had her daughter at 16, and has raised her with help from her own mother for 20-some years. Now that Jane is a married adult, Xo, who is considered the least responsible and more carefree Villanueva, has been working to focus on her own happiness. Her rekindled romance with Jane’s father, Rogelio, came to a sad end when she declared that she didn’t want to have any more children. While working to move on, Xo slept with another man, and became pregnant. The beginning of season three saw something that’s almost never done on television: Xo has an abortion, there is little to no fanfare, and she is happy with her decision.
The show only mentions the procedure in that it affects the relationship between Xo and her mother, who initially objects to it. Xo never misses a step in her quest to make something better of herself, and continues to be a powerful force of nature on the show.
10 Kimmy Schmidt - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The title says it all: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows our optimistic heroine after she and the other “Indiana Mole Women” are discovered having been kidnapped and trapped in an underground bunker for 15 years. Kimmy moves to New York City and tries to rejoin society as a naive 29 year-old with essentially no knowledge of today’s world. However, the first season sees her learning and adapting to big city adult life in the 2010s, with the help of her friends.
While the more humorous of Kimmy's issues are addressed in season one, season two takes a slightly deeper look. After her boyfriend Dong is deported, she meets a therapist, and begins to deal with her many problems. In addition to the obvious dark parts of her past, Kimmy goes to Florida to confront her mother, who she feels didn’t care that she went missing. It’s an eye-opening experience for both women, and Kimmy is able to come to terms with this while embracing her “true” family in NYC.
The show takes a light-hearted look at getting to know oneself while also bringing to light real struggles; some relatable and some very unique to Kimmy. Either way, this woman (and her friends) are certainly unbreakable.
9 Mindy Lahiri - The Mindy Project
There are many female doctors on television these days, but none quite like Mindy Lahiri. The Mindy Project, from The Office alum Mindy Kaling, has been a ground-breaking show in many ways. It’s a 30-minute comedy featuring an Indian-American OB/GYN at a top New York City medical practice, and instead of showcasing the usual “case of the week” or over-the-top dramatics of most medical programs, the focus is on Mindy and her relationships.
Though Mindy can be a bit grating in her celebrity-obsessed, self-involved ways, this is purposeful -- she’s meant to be a real (albeit very exaggerated) adult woman who makes difficult decisions amidst her daily dilemmas involving pastry and fashion choices. Last year saw Mindy begin her new life co-parenting with Danny after their breakup, take control of her finances, start dating again, and just generally work to balance her life while putting her son, Leo, first.
Though writing Mindy to have her boyfriend’s child was likely a controversial choice, Kaling is clearly trying to show “the new normal,” wherein women must deal with personal and professional struggles in very different ways than they once did, by working to put their own happiness before a nuclear family.
8 Sister Ingalls - Orange is the New Black
The number of strong women on Netflix’s acclaimed dramedy Orange is the New Black is staggering. After all, these are not just criminals; they’re tough, independent ladies who, yes, have made mistakes, but who are working to make the best of their present situations. From Daya deliberating over the future of her baby to Alex murdering a man in self-defense, season four was riddled with struggles for the inmates of Litchfield, so it was very hard to choose just one of them.
However, one oft-overlooked prisoner stands out. Sister Ingalls has maintained a low profile on the show, for the most part. She’s always been very kind to all of the women, not just those in her “family.”
In order to rescue her friend Sophia Burset from the SHU, Sister Ingalls gets herself thrown into solitary confinement as well. While there, she tries to lift Sophia’s spirits by sending her notes, and sneaks in a phone to take a photo of her friend, in order to prove how she is suffering without her hormones. Though she succeeds in getting Sophia released, Sister Ingalls is still in max at the end of the season, leaving her fate unknown until season five.
7 Maria Bamford - Lady Dynamite
There really aren’t any comedians out there quite like Maria Bamford. Self-deprecating, bizarre, and with extreme depths to her deadpan-style humor, Bamford may seem like the last comic who'd get her own show on Netflix. And yet we were given Lady Dynamite last year, a surrealist comedy that not only broaches the topic of mental illness, but shines a giant, unapologetic spotlight on it and everything that comes with it, in a refreshingly unique tone.
The fictional Maria Bamford (who has much in common with her real-life counterpart) is living in Los Angeles after suffering from a severe breakdown due to her bipolar disorder. We learn through flashbacks that she attempted suicide, went to live with her parents in Minnesota, and is now trying to resume her comedy career.
Maria’s path was far from direct, and so the audience is truly let into her head in order to see the nonlinear progression of her life. Maria’s struggles, while beyond the understanding of many, are still relatable in various ways, and by the end of the season it’s impossible not to admire the emotional strength and endurance of Ms. Bamford.
6 Maura Pfefferman - Transparent
Amazon’s 2014 hit Transparent has put a unique lens on the gray areas of sexuality and gender. It follows the Los Angeles-based Pfefferman family, the patriarch of which reveals herself to be a transgender woman at 68 to her three adult children, all of whom are wrapped up in their own lives and relationships. Maura, as their father has named herself, tries to reshape her life around her new self, moving into a West Hollywood apartment complex filled with like-minded individuals and attempting to express who she really is without fear of judgement or the lack of support from her offspring.
The first two seasons saw Maura dealing with a lot, both in flashbacks and the present, but nothing as difficult as what she went through in season three. We see the beginning of young Mort’s experiments with femininity, as well as her eventual acceptance around the time she met first met Shelly.
In 2016, Maura is settling into her life with a new girlfriend and somewhat healthier familial relationships when she decides it’s time for her to undergo gender confirmation surgery. Getting others on board with what she has already chosen for herself is hard enough, but the finale shows her learning that due to health issues, she can’t have the surgery-- and faces yet another test of the strength of character and determination she’s exhibited throughout the series.
5 Emily Gilmore - Gilmore Girls
For six incredible (and one lackluster) seasons, we followed Stars Hollow’s fast-talking mother-daughter duo through ups and downs, always coming back to what matters most: family. Lorelai desperately wanted to be independent of her own parents, but as Rory grew up, her mom came to realize that everyone needs people to lean on, and that it’s okay to ask for help.
Last year’s revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, saw more evolution in relationships, both romantic and otherwise, but no character went through quite as powerful a transformation as the matriarch of the family, Emily Gilmore. Following her husband Richard’s passing, Emily floundered. She tried to keep on the brave face she always had, then powered forward to completely revamp her life, before finally giving in to her emotions.
While all of the women in question experienced hardship and changes, Emily’s journey was truly profound and beautiful, and gave a realistic portrayal of the nonlinear path to moving on from a serious loss.
4 Misty Knight - Luke Cage
Netflix has been hitting it out of the park with its Marvel offerings, beginning with Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, and most recently, Luke Cage. The latest series moves from Hell’s Kitchen into Harlem, where escaped convict Carl Lucas has made his home working at a barbershop under the alias Luke Cage. We discover through flashbacks that our hero, sometimes referred to in the comics as Power Man, acquired his superhuman strength and impenetrable skin while serving time. While trying to hide his identity, Luke begins to work with (and against) the local police department-- specifically Detective Misty Knight.
Misty has her own power: She looks at a crime scene and is able to figure out exactly what happened. This comes in handy on numerous occasions, but Misty is a self-built heroine. She fights tirelessly to protect Harlem, even when her job makes this difficult.
She’s also a part of a moment in episode 10 that stands out in today’s diversity-lacking entertainment landscape: four women of color in positions of power (two cops, a lawyer, and a councilwoman) have a serious discussion about a legal situation, without a single man even in the background. In this scene, Misty manages to be both strong and compassionate, showing a range of character rarely seen in anyone on TV, let alone a black woman.
3 Maeve Millay - Westworld
An old-timey western doesn’t make for the most feminist landscape, nor does a sci-fi setting featuring humanoid women used primarily for sex. But as many discovered last year, Westworld is so much more than that. The HBO series premiered in October to almost immediate acclaim, showcasing a world in the not-so-distant future in which the wealthy can shell out dough to play make believe and live out their darkest fantasies-- as long as the “hosts” in question remain unaware of what’s really going on.
Maeve Millay, a madame at the saloon, had been experiencing strange flashbacks to another life in which she had a daughter. She soon learns what she is-- a doll, whose every memory and action has been programmed. Maeve refuses to accept this, and manipulates the men behind the scenes to increase her consciousness, allowing her to plan an escape from the facility. Though she succeeds, Maeve’s memory of her child is so strong that she is pulled back in order to try and save her, but along the way, we see the allegory of a woman realizing that with strength of will and character, she can overcome any obstacle.
2 Joyce Byers - Stranger Things
Few shows in 2016 received the attention and acclaim of Stranger Things, which hit Netflix in July. An allusion to the great 1980s sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg and the like, the Duffer Brothers captivated audiences with the tale of a small town that’s thrown into disarray by the disappearance of one little boy, and the events that quickly succeed it. The discovery of the Hawkins Laboratory and the upside-down world beneath them are just two of the pivotal moments that would never have happened if it weren’t for one woman: Joyce Byers.
After her son, Will, goes missing, those around her push Joyce to embrace the most logical conclusions: his father took him, he ran away, he drowned. But Joyce refuses to accept this, following her gut and the clues she finds, even when what is presumably Will’s body is discovered in the quarry. Over time, fewer and fewer people call her crazy, and with the help of police chief Hopper and Will’s friends, her theories are proven correct.
Joyce never faltered, never gave up, and despite her intense grief and everyone else’s doubts, she pushed through until Will was safe. It’s the kind of true female strength that TV is often lacking.
1 All of the Women - Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones, everyone’s favorite epic medieval drama, is known for many things: Mystical beings, blood and violence galore, and plenty of nudity and sex. But the show has become less about how the men treat the women poorly, and more about how those women stand up for themselves. While there are many more notable female heroines, here are just a few of those who showed their emotional strength in season six.
Sansa Stark has been married off to various abusive men over the years, but after Ramsey repeatedly rapes her, she feeds him to the his dogs (quite literally). She’s also developed the ability to see through people’s bullshit and lie to survive.
Her sister, Arya Stark, was trained by multiple amazing fighters to be an assassin. She’s smart, tough, and has a lot of perseverance for revenge.
Despite being incredibly young, Lady Lyanna Mormont rose to the challenge of being a leader. She’s incredible adept for her age, loyal, and knows the importance of a woman beyond her beauty.
Daenerys Targaryen, the Dragon Queen, has always been a very tough leader, and there are countless examples of her strength.
Margaery Tyrell got herself engaged to a dense Lannister, was captured and held prisoner, but even during her attempted brainwashing she keeps her emotions in check.
And Brienne of Tarth, the only female knight we know of, doesn’t waver while being repeatedly tested, unwavering loyalty.
Which other tough women stood out to you this past year? Let us know in the comments!