Not Your Average Heroines: TV’s Top 9 Warrior Women

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With The Hunger Games a box office hit and the highly anticipated second season of Game of Thrones only a week away, it’s a good time to be a fan of powerful female characters. There are plenty of strong women on television (though, it feels important to add, still far fewer than strong men), and a list of female badasses on television would be surprisingly long. But who are the true women warriors of television, the survivors and soldiers? Who can you imagine hefting a sword or shouldering a crossbow, going into battle, and coming out the other side? For your consideration:

**Author’s note: I wanted this to be a top 10, but couldn’t come up with a 10th that I felt equated to the others. Get on this, TV writers!

Runners Up: Sydney Bristow (Alias), Susan Ivanova (B5), Victoria Barkley (The Big Valley), Echo (Dollhouse), Turanga Leela (Futurama), Pepper Anderson (Police Woman). These tough, badass women didn’t quite fit the category, being either too removed from combat or not exemplifying the warrior personality/mindset. Also, women from Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, Nikita, Sons of Anarchy, and Wonder Woman may belong on this list, but they weren’t eligible, as the author hasn’t caught up with these series yet.

9. Danaerys Targaryen: Game of Thrones is filled with powerful, deadly women, but none match the determination and will of Danaerys. Transformed from a powerless pawn in her brother’s power play to a bold Dothraki Khaleesi (Queen), she embraces the customs of her adopted people and rebuilds herself over and over again, becoming stronger each time. She does little fighting herself (keep an eye out for Brienne of Tarth in season two for a more traditional warrior), but when she enters the fray, her foes rarely live to regret it.

Preferred weapon: Dragons

8. Aeryn Sun: Bred into service as a Peacekeeper officer (Farscape’s SpaceMilitary), Aeryn was trained from childhood to be a strong, capable soldier and pilot. After being branded as irreversibly contaminated, she was forced to become a fugitive. Though her time aboard Moya softens her from the sharp instrument she began as, it also makes her stronger, more flexible, more creative, and more determined. The autonomy and purpose she found in her post-Peacekeeper existence changed Aeryn from a mindless killer to a fierce warrior.

Preferred weapon: Pulse pistol or rifle

7. Buffy Summers: Buffy the Vampire Slayer had more than its fair share of warrior women. We met at least six Slayers over the course of the series, each of whom was incredibly fierce, not to mention a certain Dark Phoenix/White Goddess who’s worth a mention. Buffy may start out a bit quippier than, say, Kendra, but by season 7 she’s a hardened warrior leading troops into battle, armed only with her wits, strength, and badass scythe.

Preferred weapon: Stake and hand-to-hand combat

6. Kira Nerys: Star Trek may be known for its groundbreaking representation of racial equality, but it’s not until Deep Space Nine that we get a main female character in a leadership role. Major Kira is a badass- a freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending who you ask) from the age of 12, she spent her life fighting against the Cardassian occupation of her homeworld until they withdrew not long before the start of the series. She’s an officer in the Bajoran Militia, Sisko’s number two on the station, highly intelligent and competent, and unceasingly loyal.

Preferred weapon: Phaser

5. Zoë Washburne: Firefly’s clan of brigands have more than their fair share of fighters, but the most deadly, the toughest, and the most unflinching of the lot is Zoë. A hardened veteran, she is a survivor, able to push on when those around her crumble; she doesn’t question her mission or pause to consider moral implications, once she’s committed to a course of action. Zoe acts decisively whenever those she loves are in danger and, perhaps more than anything, she persists, moving forward with unflinching nerve in the face of unwinnable odds.

Preferred weapon: Mare’s Leg (custom Winchester 1892 rifle)

4. Ziva David: Not all of TV’s warrior women are on genre series. Introduced on NCIS as an agent of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) and a veteran of the Israeli army, Ziva is currently an agent for NCIS. Highly trained and skilled in both hand-to-hand combat and firearms, Ziva is a deadly opponent (who claims to have killed a man with a credit card). She remains cold, calm, and methodical when in combat and is utterly committed to her friends and her job, going so far as to kill her half-brother Ari when he tried to kill series lead Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Preferred weapon: Sig Sauer M11(P228) (standard issue NCIS handgun)

3. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace: One of the most controversial moves the Battlestar Galactica remake made was making fan-favorite character Starbuck a woman. In doing so, they created one of the strongest, most flawed, and most interesting women in television history. More than the cocky fighter jock the character originated as, this Starbuck is a tough survivor of an apocalypse and an occupation, has taken on and defeated Cylons in hand-to-hand combat, and won countless battles as a pilot, soldier, and strategist.

Preferred weapon: Viper. During the occupation, flatware.

2. Leela: Doctor Who has had plenty of interesting, fun female leads, but none have managed to top the ferocity of Leela of the Sevateem (though both Amy Pond and River Song have come close). Unlike some of her more screamy successors, she wore animal skins, carried a knife, and responded to threats with swift, often brutal action. Her initial response to conflict was to try to kill it, no matter what “it” was. Tagging along with the Doctor may have tempered her a bit, and we won’t even discuss her unfortunate exit, but throughout her run, Leela remained one of the strongest and most capable Companions to travel in the TARDIS.

Preferred weapon: Knife, Janis thorns.

1. Xena and Gabrielle: It’s right there in the title- Xena: Warrior Princess. Campy, at times silly, at times dramatic, and a lot of fun, Xena broke ground in TV, offering up strong, intelligent, self-reliant protagonists who got into trouble and fought (and occasionally talked) their way out of it. Yes, Xena’s a badass, a warrior trained by the Gods, but Gabrielle’s journey from meek tagalong to empowered fighter (and Xena’s equal) is just as interesting, if not more so.

Preferred weapon: Sword, chakram (Xena), Staff, later sword and daggers (Gabrielle)

Who’s your favorite TV warrior woman? Who did I forget? Who do you think would come out on top of a TV heroine Hunger Games? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

 

47 Comments
  1. bianconiglio says

    Awwwwwwwwwww so controversial and because of that so beautiful!
    Starbuck RULEZ!

  2. Steve says

    Zoe Saldana in Columbiana. Warrior assassin in a really hot woman.

    There is no question of the warrior in that character.

  3. Anonymous says

    great that xena and gabrielle got the number 1 spot there’s no equal.

  4. Charlie Williams says

    While one person did mention Linda Hamilton of the TERMINATOR movies being replaced as Sarah Connor for CHRONICLES, no one mentiond her for her run as Catherine on BEAUTY & THE BEAST. While at times, yes, she did need Vincent’s help, after she was attacked and nearly killed in the series pilot before being rescued and taken to Father to save her life, she returned to the Surface and trained hard with a sensei to become a capapble fighter, so as not to be victimized again, and in many episodes she not only fought off the bad guys, but it was she who had to rescue Vincent (Ron Perlman). If the author never saw this popular 80s series, Kate Kulzick, thge author, should check it out. Oh, and one minor correction on Gabrielle: those were not daggers Gabby carried in her boots, but SAIAS (or sais), an Okinawan martial arts weapon which has a dagger-like shape (the upturned crossguards were designed to catch the blade of a Samurai’s katana (sword)), but the shaft has no edge or sharp point and is either round or octagonal in shape and is used more like a steel version of a baton in combat than a dagger. In general, Gabby preferred less lethal, but effective, weapons, than Xena.

  5. Cherie says

    I agree with you about Captain Janeway, but I would have added B’Lonna Torres to the list. She was probably the fiercest person in the cast, male or female

  6. BYOBrain says

    Peta Wilson from ‘La Femme Nikita’ should be on this list!! She could take a good portion of these women out, covertly, which makes her even deadlier. Please consider adding her to the this list. It would make the list even better, to show there are actually more deserving women than you might’ve thought who still have huge cult followings.

  7. Erin says

    I think that your number ten was Max from Dark Angel, she was one bad ass chick.

  8. Scott Cooper says

    Also wouldn’t mind having Piper Halliwell on my side either.

  9. Kate Kulzick says

    Jen- I love me some Avengers! Definitely a fun show. And I’m also a Kat fan- I think a lot of fans are overly harsh on her.

    Scott- I’ve actually seen all of Torchwood. I’m mixed on the first two seasons, but I’m with you on CoE. I think it’s among the best sci-fi on TV in the past 20 years. I was *really* hoping it’d get a Best Miniseries Emmy nomination that year, but of course, no dice.

  10. Scott Cooper says

    Is Miracle Day the only Torchwood you’ve seen? I think they’re all great, but Children of Earth was one of the best SciFi stories I’ve ever seen!

  11. Celeste Widman says

    Oh! HAPPY BIRTHDAY LUCY LAWLESS!!!! Today is her Birthday!
    She in now way looks 44!!! NO WAY!!!

  12. Jen Tucker says

    Great list. Love how you combined Xena & Gab. :) You really should check out the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I’m a huge Linda Hamilton fan, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel when they cast Lena Heady in the role, but she did an amazing job. Glad to see Turanga Leela get the Honarable Mention. Even more happy to see Leela from Doctor Who at #2! Great call there! I’m not a big fan of Starbuck. She was always too out of control for me to have any respect for her. She was either drunk or mental most of the time. The way she pined after Lee make me want to shake her. Cat was my favorite from that show. I agree with some of the other posts that you should check out the old Avengers series with Emma Peel. I think you’ll like it.

  13. Kate Kulzick says

    Again, thanks for your comments, everyone! Great to see people’s reactions.

    Nick- Good call! Rousseau is quite the badass and definitely fierce. Plus, with all her traps and such in the jungle, she definitely has some warrior in her.

    Tim- As I mention in the article, I haven’t seen Wonder Woman, though I’m sure she’s great.

    Jerie and MJ- Sam is definitely one tough woman, and probably the most badass scientist on TV history. I think of her as a scientist first and a fighter second, though, which is why I kept her off the list, but she’s certainly in the discussion of strong women on TV.

    Celeste and Robyn- Nice! I intentionally left off Mrs. Emma Peel, as I think of spy as a different category from warrior, but these older shows are definitely have a weak spot in my TV lexicon. Can’t believe I forgot Sheena! Thanks.

    Amanda- Capt. Janeway is definitely a strong woman and leader and, as I’m sure others have said, probably the most Kirk-like of the newer captains. She doesn’t work for this list, for me, but she’s pretty great.

    Scott- Good pick! I wasn’t a fan of Miracle Day, but seeing Gwen kick ass while holding her baby (with those adorable earmuffs) was definitely one of the highlights for me.

    John- Thanks! And one of the things I love about getting comments on lists like these are the shows people recommend to me. Looking forward to catching up with some of these. But which should I watch first- TtSCC or Dark Angel?

  14. John Dennett says

    All you people shouting out for The Bride (Kill Bill) and Ripley (Aliens) should remember that this is a TV list not a movie list.

    I definitely have to agree that Max from Dark Angel should be on there but I can understand if they haven’t seen it. Same with T:TSCC. The writer has clearly missed some great shows.

  15. […] TV’s Top 9 Warrior Women… Buffy at number 7. […]

  16. Twinkley says

    Thanks for this Kate, enjoyed this article after being linked to it through Whedonesque, so BIG Buffy and Zoe fan. However, after having seen BSG for the first time ever this year (and absolutely loving it) I have to say Kara Thrace is frakkin’ awesome!

  17. Scott Cooper says

    Two word – Gwen Cooper! Embodies every quality you could possible want in a female warrior.

  18. MJ says

    I would like to 12th SAMANTHA FREAKIN’ CARTER, and The Bride too!

  19. maxq nz (@maxqnz) says

    “I’m not sure how Susan Ivanova, a bona-fide member of a military organisation with a rank of Commander and 2IC of a major command doesn’t qualify as a warrior?”

    AMEN! Ivanova was a warrior through and through. To see her as a “runner-up” was kinda bizarre.

  20. Anonymous says

    Good list, but agree with some of the commentors. Where’s Kahlan Amnell from Legend of the Seeker? Or Sam Carter? or Myka Bering from Warehouse 13? Or Jo Lupo from Eureka? Sarah Connor?

  21. Robyn says

    Mrs Emma Peal.

  22. Amanda Black says

    I have to agree with your #1’s and I also agree that Xena and Gabby share the title. No one beats them, NO ONE!! But I do think that Captain Katherine Janeway should have been considered. Perhaps as a #2. She fought her way through the delta quadrant for seven years leading a crew of 150. She has such a commanding presence and her morals are beyond reproach! Also 7 of 9, tertiary adjunct of unimatix 01. Come on! She’s part borg and she can kill in seconds. Resistance if futile!!

  23. Celeste Widman says

    Going waaay back in TV History, don’t forget the TV Women Warrior forerunners, which are Honey West, Agent April Dancer-The Girl From U.N.C.L.E and Emma Peel-The Avengers.
    These Women Warriors really kicked but in the 60’s. Other mentions are Sheena Queen Of The Jungle, Cinnamon Carter-Mission Impossible, et al.

  24. doug aga says

    HOW COULD YOU FORGET LT. RIPLEY?

  25. Jerie Wills says

    How can Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1 not even be mentioned?!?! She kicked the ass of every bad guy in the galaxy for over 10 years – and outsmarted them too. As much as I love Xena/Gab and Aeryn Sun, Sam is my favorite warrior woman of all time.

  26. B obbi says

    Buffy is Number Seven?
    Number Seven???
    Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is only Number Seven?!?!?!

    She’s got to be either #1 or #2.
    Xena’s the only one who might possiblly beat her for the title.

    And to get your list up to ten women, why not separate Xena and Gabrielle?

    1. Robyn says

      Because even in death, Xena will never leave Gabrielle.

  27. tim says

    Where’s our Wonder Woman dagnabit.

  28. Nick says

    Danielle Rousseau from Lost! Spent 16 years on a crazy island with monsters and Others and plane crashes and managed not only to survive but build traps, give birth and look badass with a rifle!

  29. Sarah says

    Props for including Aeryn Sun! Amazing character on one of the best sci-fi shows ever made.

  30. lovexena says

    Kate, you missed out by writing off XWP. There is no perfect feminist series to be found on tv but xena gets as close as any. Women are objectified in most media, but get past the outifts (admittedly jarring at times) and there are more complex female characters – more female characters than in many other shows generally, no overshadowing of the relationship between the two leads, no guys getting in the way of that central relationship, some incredible storytelling with two women at the centre – always, no rescuing of xena by guys, no sexual violence, a bisexual – openly sexual – woman.. Seriously, give it a go. Once you get past the shock of the bad special fx of the time and the initial wooden performances it’s an absolute gem. Season 3 is just fabulous.

  31. Heidi says

    Some great characters here, but River Tam could take them all on at once. And River would win.

    Also Faith, who turns out awesome in the end, IMO.

  32. Michelle says

    Buffy is #7?!?!?!?! Are you kidding me? So wrong.

  33. Kate Kulzick says

    Thanks for all your comments, guys!

    Keith: You totally should. It’s a lot of fun!

    Keith: Haven’t seen Dark Angel- I’ll have to check it out!

    Dan: lol, re:Stargate. Glad to hear I pass muster.

    Trav: As I mention in my intro, I haven’t seen Wonder Woman. Without having seen the show, I don’t feel qualified to make a judgement on the character, so she’s not on the list.

    kekkonen: Blane also mentions Max in the comments- I haven’t seen Dark Angel, but it looks like I should. As for Sydney, she’s definitely a badass, but her initial approach to conflict is deception, not violence. She talks her way out. That makes her a rogue, not warrior, to my DnD-loving heart.

    Charles: I’m a big fan of the Avengers. It made my 10 Great Date Night Shows list (http://popoptiq.wpengine.com/10-great-date-night-shows/). But, as with Sydney Bristow, I didn’t include Mrs. Emma Peel as I feel “spy” is a different category than “warrior”. She’s certainly fantastic though.

    Jack: Re:Emma Peel, see my Charles reply. Re:Sarah Connor, as I mention in the intro, I haven’t seen T:tSCC, so she wasn’t eligible for the list. Also, Kill Bill is a movie, this is a TV list. As for River, she’s more of a berserker than a warrior to me.

    Steve: I considered Mac, actually, but decided she didn’t see enough combat during the series to qualify. Same with Susan Ivanova- she was mostly in a command position. For Sarah, I consider “spy” a different category than “warrior”. I haven’t gotten around to “Legend of the Seeker”, but I hear it’s a lot of fun- thanks for the suggestion!

    Kate: I absolutely hear you on the sexualization of Xena and Gabrielle. I guess for me the overall tone of the show and its groundbreaking role in the evolution of women’s roles on TV balanced that out.

  34. Kate says

    Xena always loses points for me because she and Gabrielle were so tarted up and sexualized to keep the male interest. I like that the other women on this list don’t fall into that camp, but it would definitely keep her from being number one for me. And I guess I found the show too silly to take seriously.

  35. Steve says

    Colonel Sarah Mckenzie (JAG), she’s not just a lawyer, she’s also a Marine.
    Sarah Walker (Chuck), super spy and assassin.
    Kahlan Amnell and Cara Mason (Legend of the Seeker), warrior women with supernatural powers.

    I’m not sure how Susan Ivanova, a bona-fide member of a military organisation with a rank of Commander and 2IC of a major command doesn’t qualify as a warrior?

  36. Jack Deth says

    This list needs some work.

    Drop the chick from ‘Game of Thrones’ and replace her with Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Emma Peel.

    Where’s Sarah Conner?

    Where’s the Bride from ‘Kill Bill’?

    Where’s River Tam?

    Like I said. More work.

  37. Charles Ellis says

    Kate, what’s wrong with you? You mean you NEVER heard of “The Avengers”? Emma Peel could kick ass with the best of them!!!! Ditto her American counterpart private eye Honey West played by Anne Francis. Both ladies knew martial arts before it became commonplace for TV heronies- and this was in the 1960s!

  38. Fairportfan says

    Louise Jameson said Leela got a lot of fan mail from kids – and a lot from dads, too. “…but when you wear a leather bikini and come on right after football, I guess you should expect that.”

  39. ak says

    kill bill

  40. kekkonen says

    not enough for top 10? sydney bristow and max guevara for excample would beat the shit out of most of those.

  41. Trav says

    Someone from NCIS is on the list as one of TV’s greatest warrior women but no Wonder Woman?

    This list has no credibility.

  42. Dan Heaton says

    Kate, I’m a big fan of a lot of these characters. Starbuck was one of my favorites on BSG, and it’s great to see Aeryn Sun and Zoe on this list. You can’t go wrong with Xena and Gabrielle either, especially since they came before a lot of the others on the list. I won’t even make the expected Stargate arguments here, as I think both Sam Carter and Teyla wouldn’t be able to kick anyone off this list. Nice job.

  43. Beverly says

    “During the occupation, flatware.” YES. I’m almost done re-watching BSG, and I kinda hate what they did with Starbuck at the end, but her ass kickery in the first couple of seasons is still awesome.

  44. Blane Mather says

    I meant Max Guevera.

  45. Blane Mather says

    I encourage you to consider Jessica Alba’s character Max Angel. Guevera from Dark Angel.

    Also, Farscape is now available on Netflix. (FYI)

  46. Keith Viverette says

    I’ve been thinking about buying the Farscape series on dvd.

    I’ve never seen it.

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