Even the strongest people need a boost of empowerment once in a while. Seeing a well-written woman lead television shows is not only empowering, but comforting. Turning on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in those moments when you’re feeling a little less-than-adequate just might be the inspiration you need. Regardless if she’s a real person or not, seeing leadership and incredible physical and emotional strength onscreen in someone you can relate to is important.
We know women’s stories are important and interesting, and Hollywood has a lot of catching up to do. That’s why when a good show with complex female characters comes out, it should be celebrated and treated as something special. These are our absolute favorites.
17. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When it comes to saving the world over and over, there’s only one girl who can do the job. At 16 years old, Buffy Summers found out that she was the slayer, meaning the only one who can stop the apocalypse time and time again. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. That’s a lot of responsibility for a teenager, and what’s even more empowering is watching Buffy discover how to be a good leader.
16. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Mary Tyler Moore was revolutionary in her role as Mary Richards, a thirty-something single woman who is focused on her career. When the show first aired in 1970, there weren’t many single careerwoman characters portrayed in television and movies. Women were mostly sidelined as love interests, wives, and mothers, moving out of the way for a man’s story to be told. It was rare to see a woman on her own, without a man. In fact, in the first episode, Mary dumps her boyfriend, gets her own apartment and makes a name for herself at a local news station. Badass!
Issa Rae is on fire right now. The actor, director, writer and producer gained attention with her Awkward Black Girl YouTube series. In 2013, she started working on Insecure, which premiered on HBO in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. The show stars Issa and Yvonne Orji as two twenty-something best friends who navigate relationships, careers, and experiences of modern black women. The show is incredibly diverse, from its creator, its content and its writers’ room. The result is a raw, real show that’s not controlled by white, cishet men.
Um, hi. Women can be superheroes too. After seeing movie after movie about male superheroes, it was so exciting when Supergirl was announced. The show is now in its third season and has paved the way for more women superheroes in television and movies, which has proven to be a good thing. The cast is primarily female and watching Kara (aka Supergirl) find her place, her powers, and her leadership is a journey any woman can relate to, even if she’s not from another planet. Now, we just want to see more women of color in superhero roles.
What’s best about GLOW is that it’s based on a true story. In the ‘80s, women had their own professional wrestling league – Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling – that became a huge success. GLOW tells the story of its beginning, with a diverse cast that includes Kia Stevens, who has been a professional wrestler since 2002. The show’s campy ‘80s setting is what makes it so fun, but it’s the relationships formed between the women that give it heart, especially between estranged best friends Ruth and Debbie.
12. Jessica Jones
What makes Jessica Jones so unique is that she’s the anti-superhero. The show isn’t your typical Captain America or Iron Man story. It’s not flashy or full of moral high ground. It’s about a woman just trying to get through each day, who also has super strength. You root for Jessica, but also feel sympathy for her tortured past. She does her best with what she’s got and the result is a struggle many women can relate to. What the show does best is portray mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, PTSD and domestic abuse with dignity and respect.
11. The Bold Type
For years, Freeform – previously Fox Family and ABC Family – was a place for adolescents to watch shows that spoke directly to them. The Bold Type takes that model to the next level by giving young women a show that’s diverse, empowering and real. Three friends work for Scarlet magazine, which is based on the experiences of former Cosmopolitan editor in chief. It lifts up female friendships while being one of the more accurate representations of modern journalism in television. Instead of sugarcoating a 20-something’s life for teen audiences, the themes are real, exciting and messy – just like how your 20s are supposed to be.
A little white lie never hurt anyone, right? Younger‘s premise starts with a little white lie that fuels the entire show. Broadway queen Sutton Foster stars as Liza Miller, a 40-year-old mother who’s recently divorced. Her ex-husband’s gambling addiction left her with little to support her daughter with, so she reinvents herself as a 26-year-old woman and takes a job at a publishing firm. Through her reinvention, she comes to terms with generational gaps and gender inequalities that happen at any age. Sutton, who is 42 in real life, pulls off looking like someone almost half her age to the point where you just sit, stare and wonder what her skincare regime is.
9. How to Get Away with Murder
Put this on your list immediately. The Shondaland drama stars Viola Davis, who was the first black woman to win a lead actress Emmy for her role as Annalise Keating. An attorney law professor at a top-tier university, Annalise is smart as hell, but also a flawed and complicated character, which is a testament to How to Get Away with Murder‘s writers. Annalise handpicks five of her students to intern at her law firm, not knowing what they are signed up for. I’m not going to say any more, because you should just watch it all unfold for yourself.
8. Marvel’s Agent Carter
We weren’t the only ones who mourned Agent Carter’s cancellation. Hayley Atwell immediately stole audiences’ hearts as Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America. She was tough when she needed to be, incredibly smart and skilled, but showed vulnerability when it mattered most. So, it was exciting when Peggy Carter was given her own show in 2015. Like her role in Captain America, Hayley portrayed Peggy with the same mix of leadership and empathy. No powers, just Peggy, which is what makes her character so special. The show lasted two seasons and was canceled in 2016, to the disappointment of many.
7. Jane the Virgin
We love Jane the Virgin because it gave us feminist powerhouse Gina Rodriguez. It also gave us a delightful show that mimics the telenovela style of television. Titular character Jane is (obviously) a virgin, but is accidentally artificially inseminated by a doctor. (Don’t ask questions, just go with it.) Predictably, Jane’s world is turned upside down as she meets the child’s biological father and faces ethical dilemmas regarding her pregnancy, current boyfriend and her unborn child. For her role as Jane, Gina famously won a Golden Globe award for best actress.
6. Crazy Ex-girlfriend
Rachel Bloom took a notably sexist phrase and turned it into something full of heart, humor and appropriate representation. On the series – which also includes delightful musical numbers – Rachel plays a woman named Rebecca who gives up a lucrative promotion to follow her teenage love across the country. Oh boy. But what Crazy Ex-girlfriend does best is take a ridiculous title and scenario and uses it as a platform to discuss mental health. Rebecca’s behavior could be dismissed as a sexist stereotype, but what unfolds is a woman who is struggling and deserves help, support, and treatment.
5. The Good Wife
For seven seasons, Julianna Margulies played Alicia Florrick, a woman whose world is rocked by her husband’s political scandal. Alicia has to return to the workforce while her husband serves time in prison. The show was inspired by multiple political scandals involving men, and the creators wanted to show the side of the wife who stands by her husband’s side throughout. When this happens, the wives are criticized for staying by their husbands’ sides. The Good Wife digs deep into the complexities of these events and the lengths Alicia will go to hold her family together.
4. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
What’s especially unique about the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way it portrays survivors. The show follows the title character after she’s freed from a Doomsday cult in Indiana. She and four other women were kidnapped and held hostage and while the premise may seem dark, it’s actually a light-hearted show. Unbreakable is a goofy comedy, but there is a real focus on how each woman copes with her past. The most powerful moments are when Kimmy realizes that what gives her happiness and hope may not be the same as the women in the bunker with her. Additionally, her friendship with Titus is genuine. He helps her navigate the world without looking down on her or using her fame in his favor.
3. Grace and Frankie
When you think about empowering, female-led roles, there are very few starring women past 40 years old. Grace and Frankie shows that women’s stories deserve to be told at any age. Hollywood legends Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin star in the title roles. Their husbands fall in love with each other and Grace and Frankie are forced to reconcile with what that means for them. The two – who weren’t the best of friends to begin with – start to look at their relationship in a different way when they move in with each other and become a support system.
2. Xena: Warrior Princess
It’s rare when warriors are portrayed by women. Only recently did Wonder Woman get a movie, despite being a pillar of the DC universe since 1941. That’s why Xena: Warrior Princess was so groundbreaking when it premiered in 1995. A spinoff of Hercules, Xena paved her own way, with Lucy Lawless in the starring role. Her life mission is to redeem herself for her past sins… kind of like Black Widow, but with more battle cries. Her leadership helps evolve her companion Gabrielle from farm girl to fellow warrior. Now that’s empowering.
If it comes from Shonda Rhimes, you know it’s going to be empowering, but also juicy as hell. Scandal is literally about covering up White House scandals, and the woman behind the cleanup is Olivia Pope, who owns PR firm Pope & Associates. This woman is the definition of badass, dealing with other people’s problems and her own at once while keeping a strong, professional presence. If you only have time to watch one show, turn on Scandal and go out into the world channeling your inner Olivia Pope.