Women on Screen in 2016: A Top 10 List

Oh, 2016.  You really didn’t have much going for you besides not being 2017.  2016 may have been a total shitstorm in so many ways, but one good thing that came out of this terrible year was all the amazing women that graced our TV and movie screens.  I watch a lot of “girl power” TV and movies (yesterday my suggested Netflix categories included “TV Comedies Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” “TV Dramas Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” “Independent Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead,” AND “20th Century Period Pieces Featuring a Strong Female Lead”), but in 2016, a pleasant hobby became a necessary form of self-care.  As I watched my country reaffirm its commitment to misogyny and toxic masculinity, I found some solace in the strong, intelligent, remarkable, complex women on my screen.  As 2017 shapes up to be an even worse nightmare than 2016, you can expect more of my thoughts on great female characters in TV and movies.  But for now, here’s my year in review of characters I particularly loved in 2016.  This list is pretty limited because, well, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t watch in 2016.  I didn’t see a lot of movies in theaters in 2016.  I have yet to see Moana.  Barb from Stranger Things isn’t on this list because I’ve been told that Stranger Things is too scary for me to watch.  I’m also not allowed to watch Game of Thrones.  My Amazon Prime student subscription expired before I got a chance to watch season 3 of Transparent.  I haven’t been watching InsecureSupergirl, or Black-ish long enough to get attached to any of the characters.  But of the things I did watch last year, here, in no particular order, are my top 10 female characters of 2016:

Jane Villanueva- Jane the Virgin

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If you’re not watching Jane the Virgin, I have one question for you: Do you hate joy?  A telenovela parody about a 23-year-old virgin who accidentally gets artificially inseminated and decides to go through with the pregnancy and keep the baby doesn’t seem like it would be one of the most feminist shows on television, but surprisingly, it totally is.  Jane is simultaneously standard Strong Female Character and breaking all the rules of the Strong Female Character.  She’s smart, independent, ambitious, and feisty, but she’s also kind, warm, sensitive, family-oriented, and a devoted mother, because guess what, entertainment industry?  Women can be a whole bunch of different things all at the same time!  And guess what patriarchy?  Soft and feminine is strong!  I really cannot say enough good things about this show and Jane’s character in particular, but I’ll just say that I sincerely hope Jane Villanueva is the future of the Strong Female Character, and if 2017 brings more Strong Female Characters like her, I will be a happy girl.


Mrs. Hudson- Sherlock

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Mrs. Hudson is the best part of Sherlock, and I will fight anyone who disagrees with that statement.  Seriously, who doesn’t love a warm, gracious, grandmotherly little old lady who turns out to be a total badass?  I have many complaints about Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s treatment of women in Sherlock (and my best friend, Kelly, has heard all of them many times), but one thing they absolutely did right was taking a very minor, one dimensional character of the nondescript old landlady and turning her into this very proper, very British old lady who has quite the criminal past and apparently loves weed.  Without Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock says at one point, England would fall.  And so would the show, and so would I, probably.


Queen Elizabeth II- The Crown

Image result for the crownEven my radical progressive, monarchy-doubting heart was no match for Claire Foy’s portrayal of young Queen Elizabeth.  Part of me feels guilty about loving The Crown, an exorbitantly expensive Netflix original series that offers a sympathetic portrayal of monarchy, British colonialism, and some of the most privileged people in the entire world, but another part of me is loving watching a bunch of powerful old white men take orders from a young woman.  Claire Foy’s Lilibet is a picture of stoicism, poise, and grace, just like so many other portrayals of English queens before hers.  But there’s something that sets this queen apart, and it’s my favorite thing about The Crown‘s version of Queen Elizabeth–she’s allowed to be young.  Elizabeth became Queen of England at the age of 25.  Twenty-five!  To me, that’s just mind-boggling.  You never think about the Queen being 25 and being young and in love and being, in some respects, a typical 25-year-old, but The Crown does, and that’s what makes this show and this portrayal of Queen Elizabeth such a joy to watch.


Elizabeth Jennings- The Americans

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Aside from the lack of lesbians, The Americans has just about everything I could want in a TV show: great stories, compelling characters, humor, intrigue, love, espionage, a chance to use my Russian skills…and Elizabeth Jennings.  Elizabeth Jennings is the greatest thing about an already great show.  Elizabeth is like, the perfect response to all those dark, flawed, iconoclastic male antiheroes that have dominated television over the past several years.  She’s the ultimate antiheroine.  She’s cold, calculating, merciless, manipulative, and moody, and oh, yeah, she’s a Russian spy who kills people.  In an election cycle full of sexist men discussing Hillary Clinton’s “likability,” Elizabeth Jennings was exactly what I needed.  Is Elizabeth likable?  Of course not; she’s a Russian spy who kills people!  Does she give a shit?  Of course not; she’s a Russian spy who kills people!


Denise- Master of None

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I didn’t actually love Master of None, but oh, boy, did I love Denise!  Played by scene-stealing, suit-wearing lesbian extraordinaire Lena Waithe, Denise’s character could easily have been a disaster.  I mean, she’s black, gay, female, and in a “best friend” role, which is basically a recipe for stereotypes and disappointment.  But instead, Aziz Ansari and the rest of the writers and directors of Master of None made the excellent decision to give Waithe significant input on Denise’s lines and story arcs, resulting in one of the realest, wisest, funniest, and all-around best queer female characters I’ve ever seen.  Also, bonus points to Denise for being a lesbian on television who doesn’t die.

Note: I realize that Master of None actually came out on Netflix in late 2015, but I didn’t watch it until 2016, and it got nominated for Emmys in 2016, so I decided to include Denise on this list.


Julia Ogden- Murdoch Mysteries

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Murdoch Mysteries is the best show you’ve never seen unless you’re my Aunt Miriam.  And Julia Ogden is the best character on the show.  For those of you depriving yourselves of the wonder of Murdoch Mysteries (for crying out loud, it’s on Netflix, you guys!), the show follows William Murdoch, a brilliant, socially awkward, Sherlock Holmes-type police detective in late 19th/early 20th century Toronto.  Dr. Julia Ogden is the Toronto constabulary’s witty, charming, genius, extremely feminist pathologist with a passion for science and knowledge.  Okay, first of all, can we just take a second to appreciate the fact that it’s 1895 and she has a medical degree and a successful career?  But wait; that’s only the beginning of Julia’s groundbreaking feminist badassery.  She promotes acceptance of homosexuality, fights against the system to hire a black woman as her assistant, gets arrested while participating in a pro-birth control campaign, and talks openly and honestly about having had an abortion in 18-fucking-96!  Seriously, Julia is the best, and if you’re looking for a great show with awesome feminist characters to give you life and keep you going in 2017, look no further than Murdoch Mysteries and Julia Ogden.


Jillian Holtzmann- Ghostbusters

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Anyone who knows me at all knows that Kate McKinnon is and always will be the undisputed (human) queen of my heart (I had to specify human because let’s be real, my dog reigns supreme in my heart.  Sorry, Kate.).  Let me just say, though, that even if I weren’t a little bit madly in love with Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters would still be a great movie, and Holtzmann would still be on this list.  Kate McKinnon describes her Ghostbusters character as a “glorious weirdo,” and that’s exactly what she is.  As someone who has sometimes struggled to accept–let alone celebrate–my own glorious weirdness, it really warmed my heart to watch a Strong Female Character embrace her weirdness with such joy, passion, and complete lack of giving a single fuck about what anyone else thinks.  In addition to being a glorious weirdo, Holtzmann is a super-genius mad scientist, a brave, badass fighter of ghosts, and a member of the coolest lady-squad that’s ever existed.  Damn.  Also, no matter what the producers or anyone else says, Holtzmann is absolutely, 100% gay.

And seriously, look at that picture and just try not to be ridiculously attracted to Kate McKinnon.


The Dowager Countess- Downton Abbey

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Oh, Maggie Smith.  Maggie Smith could read Hop on Pop and deserve an Oscar for it.  Logically, I should hate the Dowager Countess.  She’s a conservative aristocrat who judges people based on class and opposes progress, women’s rights, and equality.  She’s about as feminist as Phyllis Schlafly, and yet, there’s something about this stubborn, acerbic, side-eyeing old gal that I just can’t get enough of.  Maybe it’s the devastating one-liners.  Maybe it’s the flawless facial expressions.  Maybe it’s the fact that she’s played by Maggie Smith.  Whatever it is, the Dowager Countess will always have a place in my heart, if not in my radical feminist political consciousness.


Luisa Alver- Jane the Virgin

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Did I mention that Jane the Virgin is the best show ever?  Because it is.  So great, in fact, that it shows up on this list twice.  It sometimes seems like Jane the Virgin isn’t quite sure what to do with Luisa, the lovably eccentric gynecologist who accidentally inseminates Jane/recovering alcoholic sister of the father of Jane’s baby/lesbian with the absolute worst taste in women.  And that’s a shame, because, as you can see, she’s quite the character.  She’s kind of the anti-Jane: a total hot mess who simultaneously can’t do anything right and can do no wrong.  She’s right up there with Jillian Holtzmann in the “glorious weirdo” hall of fame.  Sure, she accidentally artificially inseminated Jane and had a torrid affair with a murderous crime lord, but there’s just something so pure and innocent and lovable about her.  And on top of all that, she’s a lesbian character on a show that’s chock-full of danger and murder and plot twists, and she still hasn’t died!


Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan- Hidden Figures

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I’ve already written one blog post about my love of Hidden Figures and its three protagonists.  Still, I can’t make a list of the best female characters of 2016 without including these kickass ladies.  Geniuses?  Check.  Inspiring?  Check.  Courageous barrier breakers?  Check.  Feminist as hell?  Check.  Plucky women who know their own worth and stand up for themselves?  Check.  Deeply human, complex female characters who are allowed to enjoy life to the fullest, lose their shit from time to time, and experience a full range of emotions?  Check, check, and check.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this movie is seriously amazing.

Honorable mentions: Max (Black Sails), Diane Nguyen (Bojack Horseman), Judy Hopps (Zootopia), Sophia, Poussey, and Red (Orange is the New Black), Alba and Xiomara Villanueva (Jane the Virgin), literally every other character Kate McKinnon played in 2016, and the rest of the Ghostbusters.


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