While watching Once Upon a Time the other day, I realized something, the first three actors billed on the show were women. When I tried to think of other shows that featured three women listed in starring roles before their male counterparts, I struggled. So I went to my friend, Glynis Neely (pop culture and feminist extraordinaire) for help.
Together we came up with a list of 20 television shows of past and present that featured women in starring roles. We felt all of these shows embody dynamic female characters, with incredible story lines and girl friends. These shows allow their female characters to do everything their male characters do, and always showcase a powerful female story.
1. Once Upon a Time
Crucial Characters: 28 year old Emma Swan, her mother Snow White, her enemy though eventually a begrudging ally and her son’s adoptive mother Regina, and her two friends Ruby and Belle.
Why The Show Is Great: Putting it simply, Once Upon a Time is all about girl power. Though the show retells classic fairy tales with new twists, they are almost always told through the female perspective. While Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin and Captain Hook are all key players throughout the past and present narratives, it’s the female character that truly dominates. Snow White and her daughter Emma, and the Evil Queen Regina are the real stars of the show. Even the supporting characters like Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, Belle, Ariel, Cinderella, Anna and Elsa, Blue Fairy, and Aurora and Mulan, have all had their respective story tales told through them, not their male counterparts. Besides Prince Charming, a classic fairy tale has never been retold on this show through a Prince’s perspective. Even the villains on the show are mostly female, a rare feat for televisions shows. The female characters on the show are also totally bad ass. The savior of StoryBrook and all fairy tales is Emma Swann, a 28-year-old who is tough, has abandonment issues, and an unlimited supply of leather jackets. Snow White, is a warrior princess who robs her prince the first time she meets him. Regina is a broken woman who wants to destroy everyone’s happiness because she was betrayed in the worst way possible, though she loves her son very much. In other news, though these tales are as old as time, they are thoroughly modern and thoroughly killin it. While all these girls have their respective princes, the show has taught us that though they are nice accessories, they aren’t necessarily needed, cause the girls have proven that they can rescue themselves.
Emma Swan: Regina, we’re not sure it’s after you.
Regina: Of course it’s after me. Ursula said it devours the heart with the darkest potential, and now that Gold’s gone, well who else could that be? I mean, is there a dwarf named Evily? It’s me!
2. The L Word
Crucial Characters: The show features on and off lesbian couple Bette Porter, director of an arts center, and Tina Kennard a development executive and their band of friends and family, including Bette’s straight sister Kit, a singer, Bette and Tina’s neighbor Jenny, a writer who discovers her sexuality throughout the series, their friends Shane, an androgynous hair-stylist, and Alice, a bi-sexual journalist. Also popping up throughout the series is Dana, an in the closet tennis star, Helena, a lesbian and director of the Peabody Foundation, Jodi, a gay sculptor and Tasha, a lesbian Captain in the National Guard.
Why The Show Is Great: Because before The L Word there were hardly any lesbians on television. Because for 6 seasons, it almost exclusively featured women in all starring roles. Because it provided a safe haven for LGBTQ characters for 6 years. Because it was created by 3 women and almost written and directed entirely by women. Because there were lesbian cafe turf wars. Because despite the affairs (Jenny) and the crying (Jenny) and the fights (Jenny) the girls were always there for each other. Putting it simply, The L Word ruled, even though Jenny existed.
Alice: We need like, rules of un-attraction.
3. True Blood
Crucial Characters: True Blood is all about telepathic waitress and part fairy Sookie Stackhouse, her best friend and eventual vampire Tara, her co-workers at Merlotte’s Bar Arlene and witch Holly, baby vampire Jessica, and bad ass vampire Pam.
Why The Show Is Great: True Blood was and always will be one of the craziest shows ever on television. Though the show was about vampires, it never abided by any rules or got pressured into stereotypes common to the vampire craze. The same can be said about their female characters. The very first episode challenged gender perceptions by having the tiny blonde waitress Sookie, rescuing the 140 something year old male vampire. For the next seven seasons it continued to do that for all their female characters. The friendship between Sookie and Tara was so strong that Tara jumped in the way of a bullet to save Sookie’s life. Though Sookie had many suitors in her life, it was Tara who saved her, and it was Sookie and Pam, who brought Tara back to life. Jessica found the love of her in Hoyt, but was too young to realize and ended up cheating on him with his best friend, causing them to break up and for Hoyt to leave. However for the next few seasons, Jessica did grow up and in the last few episodes of the series, she was finally ready for Hoyt when he did come back. It’s so rare that a tv series allows a characters that much personal growth over such a long time and it was incredible to watch her go through it. Finally, the coolest woman on the show, bi-sexual vampire Pam. She was never one to shy away from a fight or get her hands dirty, and always had a sarcastic answer to every question asked. Constantly tortured and abused by those trying to get at her boss Eric, she never once left his side or betrayed him. Not because he was the love of her life, but because of her unwavering loyalty. All of these women, simply put, were fang-tastic. (Sorry had to get the pun in at least once.)
Pam: I don’t know what it is about me that makes people think I want to hear their problems. Maybe I smile too much. Maybe I wear too much pink. But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to. And also know that I am not a hooker. That was a long, long time ago
Crucial Characters: The charmed ones. Sisters and witches Prue, Piper, Phoebe and Paige.
Why The Show Is Great: Charmed had powerful witches and contained supernatural elements like monsters, demons, werewolves, warlocks and magic, but it was never truly a supernatural show. It wasn’t a show about witches who happened to be sisters. It was, first and foremost, a show about three sisters who just happened to be witches. The majority of the show focused on the ever evolving relationship between the three sisters, from their professional to personal lives. We watched the sisters get excited when Phoebe got accepted to college. We saw them weep tears of joy when Piper got married to Leo. We felt their anguish and hurt when Prue passed away, and we experienced the thrill of discovering there was another sister they never knew they had, Paige. The sisters celebrated the most basic and every day events together, they just were also dealing with magic and saving the world on the side. It was the ordinary that made them extraordinary. No matter what happened, spells, time travel, jealousy, bad haircuts and way too many tummy shirts, the sisters always stood by each other and always fought for the power of good.
Piper: You’re the only Halliwell that actually likes earthquakes.
Prue: I don’t like them, but I don’t go running through the house naked screaming “run for your life” either.
Phoebe: Okay. That is such an exaggeration. I was wearing slippers.
5. Gilmore Girls
Crucial Characters: The Gilmore girls are 32 year old Lorelai Gilmore, who owns and operates an inn, her freakishly linked best friend and 16 year old daughter Rory, and her estranged mother Emily. The show also focuses on Lorelai’s best friend and business partner Sookie, and Rory’s best friend and music obsessed Lane and her enemy turned friend Paris. The show also featured their crazy town of Stars Hollow and their eccentric neighbor Miss Patty.
Why The Show Is Great: There are simply not enough words to describe my all time favorite tv series. Easily one of the most intelligently written shows of all time, Gilmore Girls made its characters witty, charming, caffeinated, opinionated, fast walkers and talkers, hard working, aggravating, head strong, lovable, and perfect. This show is entirely built upon the ever changing relationships in our lives, and it does so beautifully. For seven seasons we essentially watch Lorelai struggle with the relationships between her mother and her daughter, deal with the financial struggles of being a business owner and single parent, and trying to balance her social life of men and town events, with a cup of coffee, a pop culture quip and in heels no less. While the show constantly rotated men throughout Lorelai and Rory’s lives, they always made sure that the relationship between mother and daughter was of the utmost importance. Also side bonus points to the writers for creating one of the most real friendships portrayed on television, between Rory and Paris. They started out enemies in high school but grew to grudgingly respect each other in and out the classroom by the end of their high school career. They entered college together, and went to the most competitive school in the country, but never let their petty rivalry get in the way of their friendship. By the end of the seventh season, they truly were each other’s best friends, maybe more so than Rory’s childhood friend Lane. It was beautiful to watch and created some of the best moments on the show.
Rory: Do something to make me hate you!
Lorelai: Um, go Hitler?
6. Sex and the City
Crucial Characters: Sex Columnist Carrie, and her three best friends, business woman Samantha, art gallery owner Charlotte, and high power attorney Miranda.
Why The Show Is Great: Sex and the City may just be the most famous tv series of all time about female friendship. For six years these four women experienced everything together, and never once did their friendship falter. They started out as four single, yet successful in their career, women. By the end of the series we watched them evolve into getting engaged, married, divorced, pregnant, and move, but all with each other by their side. These women constantly made mistakes and bought too many expensive shoes, but for a generation of 30 something year olds, they were everything. Carrie and her crew are responsible for how so many women experience and view love, happiness, sex and friendship. They will forever be a staple in pop culture and our hearts, and honestly, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Miranda: What’s the big mystery? It’s my clitoris, not the sphinx.
Carrie: I think you just found the title of your autobiography.
Crucial Characters: When 16 year old Queen Mary of Scotland comes to France to marry her betrothed Francis, things aren’t quite the fairy tale she envisioned. Not everyone wants an alliance between Scotland and France and will do anything to keep Mary and Francis apart, including Mary’s cousin and greatest rival, Queen Elizabeth of England. By Mary’s side are her three ladies-in-waiting and friends Lola, Greer, and Kenna. Also reaking havoc at the court is the Princess Claude, and Mary’s constant enemy but sometimes ally Queen Catherine de Medici of France.
Why The Show Is Great: Despite the proverbial love triangle, this show is all about girl power. Reign was created by two women, Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie Sengupta and features an impressive roster of female writers and directors. 14 episodes were directed by women and even more astounding 32 episodes out 44 were written by women. There are even more females billed in the opening credits than men. In short, Reign is a show created by, written for and starring women and it’s incredibly empowering. In a world where we still haven’t had a female president, this show highlights three intelligent, sophisticated and daring Queens, all ruling their respective countries to the greatest of their abilities. They all make political blunders, they all have to figure out how to put their kingdom’s needs before their personal lives, and deal with the societal pressure of getting married and having children. These women may be from 1500s but they are solely modern and kudos to the writers for creating them like that.
Mary: Lay down your burdens, Mother, so I am no longer your worry. I promise you, I will let no one, not Elizabeth, not any usurper, take my country from me. Since I was a babe, I have been a Queen. Since a child, I have been alone on foreign soil. I know how to keep my life, my crown and I will.
Crucial Characters: The series follows, D.C. Political fixer and white hat Olivia Pope, her best friend and Press Secretary Abby, employee of Pope & Associates Quinn, as they fix the toughest scandals involving political giants. The show also focuses on First Lady Mellie Grant, and chairwoman of the RNC Elizabeth North.
Why The Show Is Great: This is a show that sets a female character smack dab in the center of one of the biggest boys club, D.C. politics. The best part is, Olivia Pope isn’t just existing in this world, she’s thriving. She’s the best political fixer in town and can handle any situation, and she knows it. It’s incredibly powerful to watch Olivia have complete command in any situation from her career to her love life. But she’s not the only incredible character on the show. Shonda Rhimes knows how to write incredible female characters. We have Abby, who rose from being the abuse victim of a horrible husband to becoming White House Press Secretary. Quinn, who in the first episode took a chance to completely change her life and work for Pope & Associates. In the course of the series, she has been tortured and abused but has never become broken. Mellie, the First Lady who has dealt with her husband’s affairs, the death of a child, her own affair, and a horrific rape. She has faltered, and she has fallen down, but she always rises up because she loves her family and power. Even Elizabeth North, chair of RNC, lies and cheats and gets caught up in Scandal, has a daughter she loves and would do anything for. These women are flawed, but that’s what makes them lovable and real. Because we all experience heartbreak and trauma, but it’s what we do in the aftermath that defines us. These women have shown us the way.
Abby: They also write about you. Every article that comes out about me has your name somewhere in it because apparently there’s this rule that in order to write about me they also have to report to the world that there’s a man who wants me. My work, my accomplishments, my awards, I stand at the most powerful podium in the world, but a story about me ain’t a story unless they report on the fact that I am the girlfriend of ‘D.C. fixer Leo Bergen’ like it validates me, gives me an identity, a definition. They can’t fathom the concept that my life doesn’t revolve around you. My life doesn’t revolve anywhere near you. It’s horrifying. ‘Property of Leo Bergen.’ Tell me, Leo, when they write about you do they report on your clothes? Do they write about your thighs? There is a difference. There is. So what happens to you happens to me, which is why I’m writing a letter of resignation. Are we done?
Crucial Characters: The series follows Joan, who has a promising law career but is willing to give it all up for love, and her ups and downs with her three best friends, her legal assistant Maya, he best friend from college Lynn, and childhood friend and real estate agent Toni.
Why The Show Is Great: This show is probably the least known show on my list, though for the life of me I cant’ understand why. It was originally coined ‘The African American Sex and the City‘ though it’s an incredibly unfair way to look at the show. Yes, it features 4 female friends as they navigate life together, but it is so much more than that. This powerhouse of a show aired for 8 seasons and an impressive 172 episodes, making it the longest running show on my list and longest running sitcom currently on television when it entered it’s 8th season in 2007. Though it was a hilarious show, and generally known for it’s more comedic episodes, the show was never afraid to get serious, and got dramatic in ways Sex and the City never could. Though best friends since childhood, Joan and Toni’s friendship comes to an end in the finale of season 6 after Joan fails to show up to Toni’s custody hearing. Maya’s marriage implodes after she cheats on her husband. Though they later reunite, they eventually have a miscarriage. Though these moments are sad and heartbreaking, it grounded the show in ways Sex and the City never could. And even though it was tragic that Joan and Toni’s friendship ended, it taught us a valuable lesson. Sometimes, things need to end. Not all friendships are meant to last and the best thing to do for both is to just walk away. And it’s okay.
Joan Clayton: My mother always said, “When love runs out on you, God sends you love’s equivalent… or better.”
Toni Childs: I thought she said, “When you run out of love’s lubricant, use butter.”
Joan Clayton: What?
Toni Childs: What? Your momma does mumble. And we both know she’s a freak.
10. The Good Wife
Crucial Characters: When Alicia Florrick‘s State Attorney husband gets caught in a very public political and cheating scandal, she must pick up the pieces and support her family by getting back into the career she gave up years ago to become a housewife, high power lawyer. At her new law firm she must deal with senior partner Diane Lockhart and Kalinda Sharma, the firm’s private investigator. She also must cope with raising her daughter Grace, along with her helpful but meddling mother-in-law Jackie.
Why The Show Is Great: It’s one thing for a television series to showcase a female lawyer, it’s another thing entirely to create a series that focuses on three important, intelligent and talented women who work at a law firm. Though these women are often in competition with each other, they never actually become rivals. At times they aren’t always friends, yet they never stop mentoring or working together, putting their client’s needs above theirs. The show also does a fantastic job of balancing all of their romantic lives with their work lives. While all three women have unique and diverse partners, especially Kalinda who is one of the very few bisexual characters currently on television, they never become that character’s major plot-line. The show also depicts growing up in the middle of parents fighting and separating through the eyes of Alicia’s daughter Grace. For good measure the show adds a sometimes humorous sometimes emotionally charged subplot of Alicia dealing with her mother-in-law because who doesn’t have a mother-in-law story?
Diane: When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.
Now head over to Glynis’s blog for her list which features The Golden Girls, Orphan Black and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Check it out here.
As always thanks for reading and sound off in the comments section below.