Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
At 17 years old, Veronica Mars has endured more trauma by her junior year of high school than most people have to deal with in a lifetime: her best friend, Lily, is mysteriously murdered, her sheriff father is disgraced after accusing Lily’s father of the crime, she’s raped, and her alcoholic mother disappears. Thankfully, Veronica is also a brilliant and cynical detective-in-training, systematically untangling each and every one of her own complex mysteries while outsmarting her town’s stupid, corrupt new sheriff and solving those of her peers (for a price, naturally).
Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
There’s no denying that Veronica Mars was the successor to Buffy Summers — another beautiful, blonde, formerly popular teenage ass-kicker with a lot of baggage. Of course, Buffy’s powers went beyond investigative prowess to encompass the sort of superhuman strength required for a night job making vampires go poof. Over the course of the series’ seven seasons, its heroine grew from reluctant monster-killer to empowered leader of a slayer army. (In fact, her story isn’t over. Joss Whedon has created a somewhat uneven series of comic books that pick up where the series finale left off; we’re now technically in the midst of Season 9.) Also, Buffy is the only character on this list who saved the world. A lot.
Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones
There was no single character arc in Season 1 of Game of Thrones that was more satisfying to watch than Daenerys Targaryen’s. Initially a pawn in her brother’s scheme to regain the throne, she came into her own after an arranged marriage to Dothraki leader Khal Drogo that made her a queen and, judging by the couple’s frequent bedroom scenes, fulfilled all her sexual needs. Midway through the season, Daenerys was eating horse hearts, delivering fiery speeches, and watching her brother die a gory, gilded death. She’s had a few major setbacks since then, but considering that this is a woman who’s part dragon — who also happens to have three dragon babies of her very own — we’re pretty sure she’ll be OK.
Murphy Brown, Murphy Brown
She may not solve crimes, kill vampires, or lead nomadic armies, but Murphy Brown did manage to piss off Dan Quayle, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. A recovering alcoholic with a quick temper, Murphy is one of TV’s prickliest leading ladies, and her attitude isn’t even what makes her such a badass. She’s also a brave, principled, and well-respected news reporter who chose to become a single mother despite the prejudice (and real-world backlash) she knew was in store.
Sun-Hwa Kwon, Lost
Perhaps Kate Austen is the obvious choice for this list — she was Lost’s dangerous fugitive and the lady most likely to run around the island with the boys and their weapons. But in the end, it was initially timid Sun who proved the steeliest. The daughter of a powerful Korean businessman, she fell in love with a poor fisherman’s son and watched her father turn him into a hardened criminal. On the brink of leaving Jin before ultimately deciding to board the doomed Oceanic Airlines flight along with him, she sticks close by her him during their early days on the island. Soon, however, we discover that Sun is a bit more complicated than we realized. Fairly early on, we find out that she speaks English — and from there, it only takes a few seasons of physical and psychological torture for her to become a gun-wielding mother with a score to settle.
Robin Scherbatsky, How I Met Your Mother
Apparently, when you raise your little girl as though she’s a little boy, the result looks something like Robin Scherbatsky. A TV reporter (like Murphy Brown!) who’s worked her way up from puff pieces to hard news, she’s determined to focus on her career, repeatedly declaring her lack of interest in marriage and family. It gets more complicated from there, but even through disappointment and heartbreak, Robin remains one tough lady.
Leela, Doctor Who
The first thing you need to know about Leela, the Fourth Doctor’s late-’70s companion, is that she was named after the Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled. In case that’s insufficient proof of her ferociousness, Leela is also a highly intelligent tribal warrior who’s got a way with knives. It’s kind of too bad that she prematurely departed the series after falling in love (i.e., after the actress who played the part, Louise Jameson, decided to leave the show), but we’re sure she was just as fearsome on her adopted planet, Gallifrey, as she was by the Doctor’s side.
Peggy Olson, Mad Men
On the most recent episode of Mad Men, Peggy asks her new colleague Dawn, “Do you think I act like a man?” In this rare moment of vulnerability, we become aware of what she’s had to sacrifice — not only her personal life, but her sense of herself as a woman — for professional success. Although she doesn’t hold all the power at Sterling Cooper Draper Price yet, she’s a smart and self-possessed copywriter who has everything to gain from the nascent second-wave feminist movement. We predict that, of all the characters on Mad Men, she’ll be doing the best 20 years down the road.
Zoë Washburne, Firefly
Joss Whedon is famous for his powerful female characters, so you’d better believe that it was actually hard work to pare down his appearances on this list to two. Buffy was the obvious pick, but Zoë Washburne shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Second in command on the Serenity, this military lifer is cool, logical, and — most importantly — lethal. Plus, in a typically Whedonesque flourish, Zoë’s dangerous lifestyle doesn’t keep her from maintaining a committed relationship.
Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Mary Richards is an unmarried woman with a career. This doesn’t seem like a big deal in 2012, but when The Mary Tyler Moore show premiered over four decades ago, she was the first TV protagonist of her kind. In a show whose run coincided with the height of the feminist movement, Mary interviewed to be a secretary at WJM-TV and wound up with an Associate Producer gig. Not only was she the Peggy Olson of news, but she paved the way for the Murphy Browns and Robin Scherbatskys who followed.
Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica
In the original 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica, Lieutentant Starbuck was a man. But in the 21st-century reboot, the arrogant, excitable ace starfighter pilot is Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, a resourceful military woman with a dark past and a drinking problem to match. Hardly the most emotionally sound lady on this list, she makes up for her self-destructive tendencies through sheer, selfless bravery.
C.J. Cregg, The West Wing
Loosely based on Clinton administration press secretary Dee Dee Myers, C.J. Cregg is President Josiah Bartlett’s tough but fair public face. Coming out of the cutthroat private sector, where she raked in cash at a PR firm, C.J. consistently puts her personal life on hold for her high-powered job — and she’s rewarded for it. In Season 6 of The West Wing, she’s promoted to White House Chief of Staff, a position which no woman has ever held in real life.
Æon Flux, Æon Flux
Never mind the crappy film version, which was a total waste of Charlize Theron — we’re talking about the original TV series, which debuted on MTV’s Liquid Television in 1991. Æon Flux is a secret agent/assassin from the dystopian future, with a talent for tumbling and revolutionary anarchist undertones. Sure, she’s always dying, but at least she looks awesome doing it.
Sydney Bristow, Alias
Speaking of looking awesome, Sydney Bristow — a character who JJ Abrams once described as “Felicity as a spy” — had us convinced that the best part of working for the CIA was the amazing closet of costumes and wigs that came along with the gig. The not so fun stuff: having to deal with the deaths your fiancé and your best friend, finding out that your mother was a former KGB spy, or discovering that you’re actually employed by an international terrorist group. There was also that whole two-year period when Sydney was kidnapped, brainwashed into believing that she was a woman named Julia Thorne, and did some really bad things. We’d say that it takes an extremely strong person to deal with all of the above without going absolutely nuts, wouldn’t you?
Maude Findlay, Maude
Played by the one and only Bea Arthur, Maude Findlay was yet another ’70s pioneer. She first appeared on All in the Family, as Edith’s liberal cousin and vocal critic of her marriage to Archie. When she got her own show, Maude blossomed into an outspoken feminist who scuffled with her more traditional husband, Walter, and became a mouthpiece for groundbreaking depictions of abortion, mental illness, and other hot-button issues. By the time the show ended, after six seasons, she was a congresswoman.