Natalie Southwick
September 26, 2015 7:28 am

Last Sunday, Viola Davis made history by becoming the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Drama Series. The 50-year-old How to Get Away with Murder star underscored just how awesome she is with her moving acceptance speech, in which she celebrated writers and other actresses of color and insisted that “the only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity,” adding “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Fortunately for Viola, her current Murder role, in which she plays brilliant, charismatic (and complicated) defense lawyer Annalise Keating, is exactly the kind of complex, layered role that should be more common on the big and small screens. Though there’s still a long way to go until our TV screens are filled with Annalises rather than interchangeable Bachelor contestants, there are lots of other fictional women out there who have taught us a little bit more about what it means to be a woman (and how to get away with it).

Buffy Summers

Like many high schoolers, Buffy was sometimes emotionally distant, impulsive and too concerned with the opinions of others. But the Slayer was also loyal, resourceful and a pretty great fighter in every sense. Series creator Joss Whedon has said he was trying to subvert the stereotypical female horror victim, and in the process he created something entirely new: A strong, relatable woman who was just as complicated and intriguing as a real human being, albeit with slightly superhuman strength.

Hermione Granger

The books may be named for Harry, but many of us connected from the beginning to the “cleverest witch at Hogwarts.” Whether she was casting spell circles around her peers or getting annoyed at stupid fights between the boys, Hermione was always the voice of reason — and she was always right. By being so much more than a goody two-shoes, Hermione gave all of the smart girls out there hope that maybe one day our brains could help save the world, too.

Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen is a tangle of contradictions and uncontrolled teenage emotions. She’s stubborn, self-absorbed, naive and impetuous, but she’s also a natural leader, utterly fearless and uniquely charismatic. Sometimes it can feel like the hardest thing is just to survive one day at a time, and nobody has taught us more about survival than the Girl On Fire.

Dr. Cristina Yang

In the male-dominated world of medicine (and the melodrama-dominated world of Grey’s Anatomy), Cristina Yang was always a mark in the win column for the ladies. Intelligent, competitive, passionate, and a brilliant surgeon, Cristina showed us that it was possible to succeed in the most difficult of fields, and to outperform all of the boys, even if it sometimes (though not always) came at the cost of personal relationships.

Veronica Mars 

Veronica Mars was so much more than your typical high school outcast. From family instability to social isolation to sexual assault, Veronica dealt with many of the real-life issues that teens and women confront in their own lives. By taking on these heavy subjects — all while solving crime — Veronica gave us a flawed, but realistic, view of how to process and move through drastic change and trauma toward something positive.

Dr. Dana Scully

One of the most iconic women to appear in the last few decades of television, The X-Files‘ Dana Scully was a groundbreaking character in many ways. Like Buffy, Scully was created to go against stereotypes — in sci-fi shows and movies prior to X-Files, the “skeptic” role traditionally went to a man. Scully was living proof that a woman could be brilliant, successful at her job and maintain a functional working relationship with a male partner — all totally realistic, that minor thing about the aliens aside.

Letty Ortiz

Most of us will likely never drive more than 15 miles over the speed limit, but Letty Ortiz has so much more to offer than her need for speed. Throughout the Fast and Furious movies, she’s been an integral part of both the action and the “family.” Her diverse roles within the world of the movies — racer, mechanic, girlfriend, fighter, daredevil — show just how many different facets there can be to one woman. Oh, and she also proved once and for all that yes, women can drive.

Olivia Pope

Even if she hadn’t singlehandedly made it okay for us to drink goblets of wine alone while wrapped in fabulous sweaters, Olivia Pope would still be a model for women everywhere. She may not be the warmest person in the world, but she’s not here to make friends. She is here to show us that even the most high-performing women don’t have it all figured out when it comes to balancing their personal and professional lives — but if you have Olivia’s leadership, charisma and style, balance is hardly important.

Leslie Knope

Leslie is the ideal role model for any woman: She’s career-oriented, smart, positive, ambitious and the best friend in the world, even if she might sometimes rank waffles as more important than friendship.

Sophia Burset

Like many of the characters on Orange is the New Black, Sophia provides us with a window into some of the struggles faced by women in (and outside of) the criminal justice system: parenting a difficult teenager, navigating romantic relationships and finding her space in the world. That she does so while experiencing life as a trans black woman in prison — and managing to look amazing the whole time, might we add — is a testament to her personal strength and sense of self, which we could all stand to learn from.

Scout Finch

Though she hadn’t even gotten close to puberty in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch is a strikingly mature showcase of how to be honest and refrain from judgment of others, while asking tough, important questions about the world. Those of us that paid attention in class know that Atticus was never truly at the center of Mockingbird — the story belonged to Scout, who taught us about the necessity for empathy, the importance of staying true to oneself and just how silly it is to try to “act like a lady” when there are real issues that need solving.

Peggy Olson

Like Cristina Yang, Mad Men‘s Peggy was always a woman in a man’s world — and like Cristina, Peggy made that world her own. Rising from the secretary pool to copy chief and gaining recognition as one of the brightest ad minds in New York, Peggy showed us what women had to deal with to succeed in the mid-20th century — and in the process, she demonstrated what a winner looks like.

Ellen Ripley

The original badass, Ripley was the first leading female action hero, and she’s still considered one of Hollywood’s all-time great female protagonists. It’s impossible not to cheer her on as she confronts the Alien time and time again — and wins, every time, giving us a much-needed upgrade from the interchangeable white male action hero that for so long was the limit of cinematic creativity. Who ever said women can’t kick ass?

Mulan

One of Disney’s best female leads, Mulan is a far cry from the delicate princesses of decades ago. Her courage, devotion to her family and refusal to conform to society’s gender roles make her so much more compelling than a character who spends the majority of her life asleep, or locked passively in a tower. Even when she’s pretending to be a man, she’s still showing us the extent of what a motivated woman can do.

Robin Scherbatsky

Robin is the woman who says she doesn’t want kids — and actually doesn’t want kids. The fun friend you want to drink beer and watch sports with, Robin is also that rare fictional character that reminds us of the many real women who don’t need or want a partner or children to validate their existence, especially when there’s hockey and whiskey around. Rather than “learning her lesson” in the end, Robin showed us that it’s okay to know what you want and assert it, even if it’s not what society thinks you should do.

Mindy Lahiri

Mindy is smart, sassy, outgoing, confident and ferociously funny, with a serious appreciation for breakfast sandwiches. She’s also self-conscious about how she looks, sometimes worries too much about what others think and stresses about the future, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Mindy is all of us.

Elizabeth Bennett

We’re going old-school for a second here here. Lizzie Bennett was one of the original strong, independent women of fiction, showing us that it’s never wrong to speak your mind, be honest and stay true to your values, no matter how much it upsets your mother.

Imperator Furiosa 

The real star of Mad Max: Fury Road, my favorite movie of the summer (and maybe ever), Furiosa taught us that we don’t need two whole arms, hair or a makeup artist to be the most badass woman in the world. All we need is an invincible truck, a posse of Vitamin D-deprived models, some serious shooting skills and a little bit of gasoline.

[Images via ABC and Giphy]

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