As We Lose 'Lost' and 'Ugly Betty', TV's 22 Best-Ever Female Characters

Playing through
Image by ewen and donabel via Flickr

As “Lost” is about to start its final season February 2, I’m going to miss Kate, its feisty and ferocious character who’s dominated many of the show’s story lines. I’ve loved her complexity and ferociousness and, as a fellow Canadian, loved the fact she’s not one more scrawny Hollywood blond, but a graduate in international relations from the University of British Columbia, happier in real life changing the oil on big rigs than modeling, both jobs she did to pay her college tuition.

Here are some of the women I’ve loved, laughed at and cried with over the years.

Here’s a site listing 30 more, and another with their top 10. Interestingly, a survey of 2,378 on-line readers found that 70.7 percent of respondents tartly replied they don’t look to TV for role models, just entertainment.

My picks:

C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney, on The West Wing the Aaron Sorkin drama that ran from 1999 to 2006. Tall, gangly, smart as hell, C.J. was a great mix of tough and tender, funny as hell in her role as director of White House communications.

Mary Richards, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran on CBS from 1970 to 1977, a major first with a woman who wasn’t married or desperate to marry. At the time, Mary was a role model, all eager excitement about having a career and living on her own in the big city.

Lucy Ricardo, the star of “I Love Lucy”, played by Lucille Ball. She and her husband, Desi Arnaz, formed a production company, Desilu Productions, responsible for many of the hit television series of the 1960s and 1970s.

Christina Yang, played by Canadian actress Sandra Oh, on ABC’s hit Grey’s Anatomy. How many women characters anywhere get to be this stubborn, driven and so frequently emotionally tone-deaf? If you’ve ever met a successful surgeon, you’ll know there’s some truth in her portrayal. And Chandra Wilson, playing Dr. Bailey, whose marriage blows up thanks to her devotion to her career; many ambitious women can identify with her struggles to juggle family and work.

Cagney & Lacey, played by Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless, 1982-1988, in the cop drama series of the same name. Every cop show — every iteration of Law & Order — owes a debt of thanks to this show, the first TV drama to star two women.

Betty Suarez, played by America Ferrara, on Ugly Betty. A TV star who isn’t rail-thin? That’s news in itself. Betty’s work ethic could light a continent. So could her heart. Are you as persuaded as someone I know she’s going to end up marrying Daniel?

Dana Scully of The X-Files, played by Gillian Anderson, 1993-2002. Who didn’t want to be Scully, all cool rationality in the face of her partner Fox Mulder’s obsessiveness?

The women of ABC’s hit drama “Lost”: Kate, played by Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly, Junyin Kim as Sun,  and Juliet, the cool, blond doctor, played by Elizabeth Mitchell.

Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh, aka The Closer, played by Kyra Sedgwick.

Patty Hewes, Damages, played by Glenn Close, on the FX cable channel.

Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen. TV’s first single mom by choice. How many television characters have ever provoked a Vice-Presidential response?

Stacey London, playing herself, in TLC’s reality show for the fashion-challenged What Not To Wear. Sue me, I love this show. As someone who finds shopping overwhelming and often just annoying, I enjoy watching her help women look their best.

The women of NBC’s hospital-based drama ER, which ran from September 1994 to April 2009: Linda Cardellini as Samantha Taggart, Alex Kingston as the widowed Dr. Corday, Nurse Abby Lockhart — prickly and determined to become, as she did, a physician.

Detective Jane Tennison in the British series Prime Suspect, played by Helen Mirren for 15 years. Chain-smoking, driven, compelling.

Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks, 1999-2000, a short-lived but well-loved drama/comedy about life in high school. The role was played by Linda Cardellini, who later showed up as Samantha Taggart in ER, yet another prickly, complicated woman, a rare species on television at any time.

Lt. Uhura, played by Michelle Nichols, in the original 1960s Star Trek. Nyotu Uhura was the ship’s communications officer, a smart, professional black woman as a central character on a network television show, NBC, at a time when racial segregation still existed. The original show first aired in 1966 and only ran for three seasons and is the television show with the most spin-offs ever. Live long and prosper!

Who gets your vote?

73 thoughts on “As We Lose 'Lost' and 'Ugly Betty', TV's 22 Best-Ever Female Characters

  1. Caitlin Kelly

    Lewis, I never watched Twin Peaks, but I know it was considered amazing.

    Jody, Claire was a cool character. I miss that show and enjoy seeing Lauren Ambrose as she plays Broadway occasionally. I never saw Deadwood.

  2. datajunkie

    Lesser known Trek fact: Uhura was actually 2nd in command on the pilot, and they decided that was too “edgy” and demoted her to comm officer. Unfortunate, but still a considerable risk at the time, I guess.

  3. Caitlin Kelly


    The whole idea of including a smart, strong black woman was radical and scary enough at the time. Apparently, if you look at much of current primetime TV (except Grey’s, with several powerful black women leads), it still is.

  4. Jen Doll

    I second you on Dr. Bailey and I, too, love Stacey London. Big, big vote for Veronica Mars, the most awesome girl detective ever, played by Kristen Bell.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    This is fun as I’m hearing about some characters I’d never seen or heard of. When and where did Veronica Mars appear? Better than Scully? No…

  6. A couple of double-duty dames: 1. the late Nancy Marchand, who was Mrs. Pynchon, the aristocratic newspaper owner on Lou Grant, and Tony Soprano’s hilariously toxic mother, Livia, and 2. Julianna Margulies, the good wife of The Good Wife and Nurse Whatsername on ER. Also, how about the quirky Louise Lasser of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman?

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Lewis, I wonder how many Kay Grahams ended up in film and on television as aristo newspaper owners. I actually liked the young redhead — Billie? — on that show and started my newspaper career right around then, absurdly inspired by that show.

  8. Brian Donovan

    Bea Arthur in the Golden Girls, for sure. And how about Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore in the Gilmore Girls – possibly the coolest, hottest, funniest Mom ever written for TV?

  9. OMG, no Buffy? no Willow? For people of a certain generation, Buffy is the epitome of hip, cool Grrl power!

    If we’re going Old Skool, I think Bea Arthur’s Maude is a better choice than her Golden Girls character. And what about Jean Stappleton’s Edith Bunker, her portrayl of sexual assault was powerful and groundbreaking.

    As a boy from the South, I’d also cast a vote for Dixie Carter’s character Julia Sugarbaker in Designing Women. I still remember the speech she made about a Southern accent not equaling stupidity, “We’ve rebuilt since the War. We now having these things called universities.”

    Sharon Gless’s P-FLAG Mom on Queer As Folk, also rocked. And while we’re in a homo vein, Megan Mullauy’s Karen on Will & Grace was, if not very profound, certainly hillarious and unforgetable. Ditto that for Jennifer French and Joanne Lumley on AbFab.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    Emma Peel, yes!

    Bradley, Edith typically seemed so…put upon; I must have missed the episode you mention.

    I never saw Buffy, but know she was wildly popular.

  11. Brian Donovan

    Oh, I second the vote for Willow on BTVS. Also, how about Amy Ryan on The Wire? Or the droll and emasculating Prunella Scales on Fawlty Towers?

    I can’t stop listing!

  12. sethblink

    Good list, but I’d have to add:

    For comedies — Alice Kramden (Audrey Meadows) in The Honeymooners, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) from Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, Elaine Bennis (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) in Seinfeld, Marie Barone (Doris Roberts) in Everybody Loves Raymond and Karen Walker (Megan Mullaly) on Will and Grace. Up and coming is Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) in my new favorite comedy, Modern Family.

    On the drama side, I think most of the best characters are still out there. Of the recently departed, the only one you missed was Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) of the Sopranos. But on current shows, there’s Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) on Mad Men, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter) on Dexter and Chloe O’Brien (Mary Jane Rajskub) on 24.

  13. gemcat

    My votes go to Debra Morgan, Dexter’s sister on “Dexter” (played by Jennifer Carpenter) and Audrey Horne, a character on “Twin Peaks” Played by Sherilynn Fenn). Audrey was a role model for my shadow side. Who can forget the insertion and release of the pencil into the full styrofoam cup of hot coffee, or the cherry stem incident at “One Eyed Jacks” brothel? As for Debra Morgan, I find her combination of strength and vulnerability interesting.

  14. Jen Doll

    Caitlin, Veronica Mars ran from 2004-2007 on UPN and the CW, which may have been why you missed it! You can Netflix the series…Veronica is pretty badass.

  15. suzjazz

    My favorite TV women are:

    Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg on the 60s show The Avengers. Emma Peel made it possible for other self-assured, smart, martial-arts trained women on spy/adventure series. Rigg also played a Bond girl)

    Ziva David (played by Cote de Pablo on NCIS) She was made possible by Emma Peel. Unflappable, beautiful, well-trained, smart, funny and intimidating to men who would demean her.

    Dr. Temperance Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel on the series Bones) It’s true, she may have Asperger’s Syndrome and is therefore socially awkward, doesn’t understand humor, and takes figurative expressions literally, but she is brilliant and courageous–she figures out how to escape from being buried in a car underground with her scientist co-worker.

    Xena, Warrior Princess (played by Lucy Lawless)
    OK, the show ripped off the Greek myths, and Xena is a Diana (Artemis) like character who has no need of men, is beautiful, fearless, brave, and a good shot with a bow and arrow.

    I also love the show Ugly Betty and I am sorry to see it canceled. I am more of an admirer of the way the cast works as an ensemble and the witty dialog than the Betty character herself–she’s a little bit TOO good and needs to loosen up a little. I would not be surprised if she marries Daniel since she already is in the role of a wife to him: even though she is no longer his assistant, she is still getting him out of trouble when she isn’t getting him coffee and bagels. She’ll be the perfect obsequious wife to a man who is not very bright.

  16. gemcat

    Here are some more great characters: The ill-fated Adrianna on “Sopranos”, Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco) on “Nurse Jackie”, and the droll and funny British doctor on “Nurse Jackie”.

  17. Definitely the collective Golden Girls. They made being past middle age actually look kind of fun. And Samantha Jones on Sex & the City. She showed that a woman of a certain age could still do it — and take it — like a man!

  18. Steve McNally

    Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs in “The Wire” –

    Frances Conroy as Ruth Fisher in “Six Feet Under” (she was warbly at first but grew stronger for her family and herself as she needed to)

    And if you’re giving it to Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks (agreed), Clair Danes’ Angela Chase on “My So Called Life” should get a nod for keeping it realistic for a prime-time teen

  19. Caitlin Kelly

    Jeremy, I thought about Samantha – I liked her confidence, for sure.

    Steve, I also liked Ruth Fisher, but felt others were stronger. I have blogged recently about Sonja Sohn (who nows runs a group for inner city youth in Baltimore), as I liked The Wire a lot and she was one of the cool females in a male-heavy cast.

    1. Steve McNally

      heh – my “smile” 😉 got cut off from my “tsk, tsk” –

      i hear you about keeping the list manageable – and look at the conversation you’ve kindled –

  20. Caitlin Kelly

    Imagine if I’d really included the 1960s, 70s or even 1980s.

    The explosion of cable has made it better, I imagine, by offering, potentially, more roles for more women — but I still see few women characters on network TV I find appealing or very interesting.

  21. monicahaynes

    I’d like to add Florida Evans of “Good Times” played by Esther Rolle and Julia, the single-mom nurse played by Diahann Carrol. Both were groundbreaking TV. You could go on ad infinitum with this list. The African American woman stand out for me because growing up there weren’t a whole heck of a lot of them and sadly, there still aren’t. If you can name one African American actress who is currently starring in her own scripted TV show (not late night like Mo’Nique or what Wanda Sykes is doing), I’ll come mop your floor.

    1. Yes! Julia (played by Diahann Carroll) was a sister who was working as a nurse and taking care of her business as a mom. I thought she was more positive a role model than Dr. Corday (I love ER and Dr. Corday, don’t get me wrong). She’s up there with Nichelle Nichols portrayal of Lt. Uhura.

  22. Caitlin Kelly

    Monica, what about the character of Dr. Bailey, who is black, on Grey’s Anayo
    y? I believe the show’s producer, Shonda Rhimes, is also black. I can think of few such popular series — maybe since the Cosby show — starring so many African Americans as that one.

    1. monicahaynes

      Well, this is the thing, Grey’s is an ensemble show, Dr. Bailey is wonderful character but she’s not the star. I was talking about starring in a show. Of course, there are a number of shows where African Americans get to be part of the ensemble cast, but not the star.

      If they have maybe I’ve missed them. If someone can give me a list of recent shows that have starred specifically African American women, I’d appreciate it. There was “Hawthorne” with Jada Pinkett Smith. Not very good but still, I guess it was something. There are also the Tyler Perry comedies, but the writing is horrible and I can’t watch those. Anybody got anything else?

      1. rockyinlaw

        You’re right. There haven’t been more than a handful of such shows or stars, but two come to mind right away: “Girlfriends” starring Tracee Ellis Ross (Diana’s daughter); and “Half and Half” starring Rachel True and Essence Atkins. I think they were/are good shows. I certainly enjoyed them, though they might not be as iconic as Maude or Cagney and Lacey.

        I had to search my brain for more, but with the help of Wiki, how’s this:”A Different World” starring Jasmine Guy and Lisa Bonet; and “That’s So Raven” starring Raven-Symoné. Also, in “Boston Public” Marla Hendricks played by Loretta Devine was certainly a memorable character. And though the mom on “Everybody Hates Chris” may not be particularly memorable, she is one of the stars.

  23. suzjazz

    I love Dr. Bailey on Grey’s. She is the most believable character on the show. I also love Christina Yang (but probably just because Sandra Oh plays her, and Sandra is great in everything!)
    Sonja Sohn of The Wire was great too–I can’t believe I didn’t think of her right away. She should have had her own series.

  24. Caitlin Kelly

    suzjazz, I love how bitchy Bailey and Yang get to be. Just like real women! I find Meredith’s character, in contrast, whiny and tedious.

  25. russwellen

    List is way too PC. Commenters thinking a little more outside the box. My current fave: Cindy on “Jimmy Neutron.” No, really.

  26. rockyinlaw

    Lacey (Tyne Daly), Rhoda, Murphy Brown, Xena, Lorelai Gilmore, Ann Romano (one day at a time), Mary Hartman (beyond funny). PLUS Diane (Cheers/Shelly Long), Ruth Buzzi as Gladys and Lily Tomlin as Ernestine (Laugh In)

    1. rockyinlaw

      Ah, but you must agree, not iconic. Her Ernestine was the epitome of the disfunctional service employee. And Ruth Buzzi’s little old lady — well, being an old lady myself, trust me, perfection!

  27. desider

    No Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) from Moonlighting? Seldom has TV gotten so surreal, and despite his later successes, Bruce Willis never looked so good.

  28. zergbane

    I am floored that Elaine Benes didn’t make the top 22. The most successful show in the last 20 years, and though not a likable character per se, a memorable one. She was the dominant personality of the four, never taking a backseat to any of them.

  29. suzjazz

    Isn’t “Jimmy Neutron” a cartoon series?
    Hey, if we’re including cartoon characters, Daria wins it hands down. Honorable mention to her friend Jane Lane.

  30. suzjazz

    OK, I’ll try this again:
    Isn’t “Jimmy Neutron” a cartoon show? Hey, if we’re including cartoon characters, Daria wins hands down, with honorable mention to her friend Jane Lane.

  31. Mike Harvkey

    Did anyone give a shout out to Laura Roslin, BG’s FEMALE pres? As played by the wonderful Mary McDonnell, Roslin was tough and sweet and interesting and sexy all at the same time. It’s not that often we see a smart, sexy fifty-something woman on TV.

  32. Colin Horgan

    66 comments and not one vote for Elaine Benes of Seinfeld lore? Come on, people. Funny, sexy, jaded, intelligent, and no more superficial than her male counterparts…

  33. suzjazz

    Yes, Elaine from Seinfeld should make the list.
    Also Wanda Sykes from Curb Your Enthusiasm (her own show is great but she isn’t playing a character on it; I love her character on Curb giving Larry a well-deserved tongue lashing.)

    Re Renaissance number: doesn’t that have to do with the Golden Ratio? (off topic, sorry)

  34. pilliontopost

    CJ! Totally agree. My favourite thing about how she was written was that she was allowed to laugh. Silly but true.

    I’m with those who shouted out for Laura Roslin (BSG) and I’d add Athena/Sharon Agathon. Erica Evans in V (played by Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost) is looking like she’s going to be awesome, but I’ve only seen the first four eps. I always loved Zoe in Firefly (no disrespect to the other Firefly characters, male or female, but she was my favourite).

    Less sci-fi, slightly: Ellie Bartowski on Chuck. She might not be as action hero as some characters, but I love her and I love that she doesn’t have to be.

  35. Caitlin Kelly

    ptp, I can’t get too excited about V. I’ve watched a few episodes and…not for me. Need to find some more cool, fun women to watch who are real people (even on TV),not space aliens!

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