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complex, brilliant and flawed: a snapshot of TV’s female characters

Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


The current
“golden age of television” has brought us a barrage of addictive series begging for a lengthy binge-watch. These shows are marked by their compelling plots and an increasing number of complex, flawed and brilliant female characters (hooray!). Here’s a snapshot of just a few.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) Mad Men
Peggy Olson is arguably, after Don Draper, Mad Mens most integral and well-developed character. Past seasons have mapped Peggy’s evolution in tandem with Don’s deepening existential crises ­– and she increasingly comes out on top. Peggy intrigues us because she oscillates between being relentless and fearless at work to haphazardly navigating a patchy personal life. She is the champion of smart, awkward girls everywhere: learning how to convey the worth of her intelligence and creativity in a world where women are largely valued for their pretty faces. It can be painful to watch Peggy be love-lorn and cynical, but it makes her growing success and confidence all the more sweet.

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) Mad Men
Joan’s indomitable presence as the office sex bomb is underscored by a subtle and relentless struggle to prove herself to be something more. Joan’s unapologetic ownership of her appearance and the way she presents herself is admirable, even back in the days when she thought they were mere tools to find herself a good husband. Her ascension up the ranks of Sterling Cooper & Partners was fraught with morality battles, but in typical Joan-style, she won out in the end. A character with a remarkable ability not to dwell on the past, Joan navigates motherhood, business and sexual politics with the same “I don’t have time for this” attitude that Mad Men viewers know and love.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) Game of Thrones
In the brutal and violent world of George R.R. Martin’s fictional Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen emerged from under the collective thumb of men who wished to control her to become a queen in her own right. Married off to warrior king Khal Drogo, she quickly learnt to navigate power through her sexuality and earning the love of her people. Now leading her own army, the Mother of Dragons faces the harsh reality of wielding real power in a world where political gain is at odds with her humanitarian values. Life was never meant to be easy.

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) Scandal
Olivia Pope is the enigmatic and highly intelligent lynch pin that holds together the drama that abounds in Scandal’s portrayal of American federal politics. Olivia heads Olivia Pope & Associates, a firm specialising in “crisis management”, saving lives and reputations. She is unshakeable in her work, and compelling because she is arrogant and abrasive, empathetic and courageous in equal measure. She dresses impeccably but has no clue about how to look after herself, surviving on a diet of popcorn and red wine (something that makes her more human perhaps). The best thing about Olivia Pope is that her background, relationships and gender simply fade in the face of her sheer amount of talent and charisma.

Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) The Mindy Project
Mindy is silly, but not stupid; she is a talented and ambitious doctor. She is narcissistic, but caring. She is girly, but not lady-like. Mindy unapologetically subverts romantic comedies through her shamelessly clueless admiration of all the genre strives to achieve for women. Mindy sounds annoying as hell on paper but is consistently witty and hilarious. Mindy is crude, loves sex and food, and is exceedingly comfortable with who she is despite a healthy penchant for self-deprecation. Mindy is the antithesis of the traditional rom-com leading lady, and in the process she nails being a dynamic, deluded and hilarious sitcom lead.

Red (Kate Mulgrew) Orange is the New Black
A whiz in the prison kitchen, Red’s recipe for being top dog is a healthy dose of fear with a dash of love and loyalty. This woman has others shaving her legs, so you know she’s doing something right. Red has a sharp mind for business and skilfully forges relationships for the benefit of her enterprising nature. She has the stomach for dirty dealings, but a well of compassion below the surface. Red is fiercely proud of her abilities and legacy and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Get on Red’s good side and she’ll be loyal to you forever (handy hint: just don’t knock her food).

Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) Downton Abbey
The quick-witted, outspoken matriarch of the aristocratic Crawley family has inspired many a meme for her cutting one-liners. For a period drama that surrounds the antiquated social values of Edwardian England, the action is largely centred on the Crawley women with their fleeting relationships but steadfast intellect and ambitions. None other captures unwavering self-belief like Violet Crawley. Elitist and snobby, yet incredibly self aware and loyal, the Dowager can be surprisingly contemporary when it counts – a quality that makes her the unofficial ruler of the Crawley roost (and not one to be crossed).

Who would you add to this list, and why? Tell us in the comments below!

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