More often than not, woman characters are villainized in modern media. We don’t have to look much further than one of television’s biggest shows, “Breaking Bad,” which features a man (Walter White) and his foray into dealing drugs. Let me reiterate: the main character is a drug dealer. And yet his wife, Skyler White, receives vicious hate for trying to provide some sort of moral compass. It’s a pattern, too, that can be traced to many characters that are women on television shows.
If female characters show any sort of sadness, she is often labeled as weak, but if she shows too much determination or conviction, she is cold. If she shows courage and stand up for herself, she is labeled as a bitch. Many members of the audience there are only two types of women that are accepted—the just-right feminine character that tends to be quiet or cute or the fierce woman that kicks ass. If the storyline goes outside of that slim characterization, there is usually a good amount of backlash.
So I want to give homage to my top five underrated women characters in modern television shows. (Spoilers for the shows ahead.)
5. Cora Crawley from Downton Abbey
Although Cora receives less hate than other women on this list, when “Downton Abbey” first aired that certainly wasn’t the case. But I love her. She is a fierce protector of her children, while still expecting them to stand on their own feet and make intelligent choices. Cora raised three forward-thinking women: Mary, who wants to be her own woman; Edith, who is now regularly writing for a newspaper; and Sybil, who was very interested in political activism. She is also always thinking about treating the downstairs (also known as “servants”) well. She deals with adversity from other family members and still manages to remain elegant and keen. Kudos on your grace, my lady!
4. Joan Watson from Elementary
In “Elementary,” Joan Watson is the “gender-bent” version of John Watson, the famous sidekick to Sherlock Holmes. There was a number of questions about how this would pan out, but when all was said and done, Joan turned out to be amazing. Sherlock is still his genius self, but Joan keeps pace with him, matching his wit, and letting him know that despite his deductions she is just as brilliant as him. She also lets him know the misogynistic bullshit is just not cool. One such conversation Sherlock suggests she is upset due to her period but he has worked out her schedule and she responds “couching it as a scientific observation totally negates the misogyny.” Yes! We need to call people out on jokes like that. (Also, using the word “misogyny” in mainstream media is pretty great.)
3. Joan Holloway from Mad Men
Joan has been among the most loved characters in the 1960s “Mad Men” series, but I have seen her popularity dwindle in the past year. Joan has always been an ambitious woman that takes control of her life as she sees fit. Even though Joan is known as the person to keep the entire office afloat, she was looked down on in the show for having been 32 and not married. (Interestingly, a stereotype that persists today.) When she does marry, it turns out that he’s not a great man, so she files for divorce after they’ve had a son. Rather than letting that define her, however, she swoops in to grab an opportunity that will make her financially independent and more than likely usher him out of her life for good (or mostly). Joan bargains to get a good deal of money and a piece of the partnership at the ad agency where she works — something unheard of in that time. Some may argue it was tactless of her to use her body to get what she wanted, but really, Joan saw an opportunity and grabbed it. She took control of her life and ensured the security of her son’s life. How can we be angry with that?
2. Martha Jones from Doctor Who
Martha Jones was ushered in after the Doctor had his heart broken by his former love, Rose — and subsequently developed some feelings of her own. She had a crush on the man who was a bit egotistical, humorous, sassy, and charismatic. (Who could blame her?) But there was little hope for a requited romance. In spite of her own feelings, Martha was a fantastic companion, taking care of the Doctor in a number of situations, some of which put her in extreme danger (arguably more so than his other companions). And yet, when the doctor’s love, Rose, finally came back, there was no jealousy in Martha. She could have been bitter, or angry, or resentful — but she wasn’t. Martha simply said, “Oh my god, he’s found you!” She was happy for them both. In the end, Martha is one of the only companions to leave the Doctor voluntarily. She knew when they’d both gotten all they could out of their friendship. Martha Jones is one of the most courageous characters in the entire series and deserves much more respect than she gets.
1. Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones
At the show’s start, Sansa is an 11-year-old that holds herself with poise. She dreams of a bigger life for herself, of someday becoming someone important. When she’s whisked away in a deal that would result in a marriage to Joffrey, the soon-to-be-king, she realizes it isn’t quite what she’d envisioned. But she uses intelligence to play the game as good as anyone else in King’s Landing! Sansa is extremely cunning and adept at dealing with adversity, especially after the family she’s now part of declares war against the family she was born into. The only reason Sansa Stark is not dead right now is because she knew how to get in favorably with Joffrey’s mother, Cersei, how to stroke the deranged King Joffrey’s ego, and how to show her value. She gets a great deal of hate due to her attitude, when her attitude has been what has saved her time after time. Sansa also loves lemon cakes, what’s not to love?! Ultimately, I put her at first because she’s still a child and likely has more haters than all the others on the list combined. But Sansa is the epitome of wit, intellect, grace, and courage.