Film/TV

#YaassKween: The rise of the female action series

Superheroes are fast crawling, flying, and smashing their way out of the woodwork and into television for the past decade or so. From series chronicling the teenage years of the boy who would become Superman to shows delving into Men Without Fear, scarlet speedsters and green-cloaked archers, television is seeing the resurgence of the superhero genre.

But let’s be honest: shows featuring superheroines, for the most part, have been few and far in between. With the emergence of shows like Agent Carter, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Supergirl, and more recently, Jessica Jones, however, it seems the dearth of female-led superhero shows is on its last gasps for breath.

With that in mind, we here at GIST have compiled a list of some of the heroic, not to mention iconic, women to ever take the television spotlight.

1. Emma Peel, The Avengers (1961)

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A fictional spy played by Diana Rigg in the British 1960s adventure television series The Avengers, Emma Peel was a groundbreaking character in television at the time: she is rarely bested in any fight and is capable of rescuing her partner, Secret Agent John Steed, whenever he is in trouble.

Emma is also a master of martial arts and a formidable fencer, not to mention a certified genius who specializes in chemistry and other sciences.

TRIVIA: The creation of the telepathic Marvel comics character Emma Frost, a main player in the X-Men titles, was inspired by an episode of The Avengers, in which Emma Peel, as “The Queen of Sin,” infiltrates an underground, hedonistic secret society, while dressed in what would become Frost’s most iconic costume: a corset, boots, and a collar.

2. Batgirl, Batman (1966)

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A character first created to act as a light-hearted foil to the seriousness of Batman’s character, Batgirl is depicted as the daughter of Gotham City police commissioner James Gordon, Barbara.

The character, a creation of writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, made her debut in Detective Comics #359, in a story entitled “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!”. As Batgirl, the character operates primarily in Gotham City, allying herself with Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, as well as other prominent heroes in the DC Universe.

Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig, also crossed over into the popular Batman television series alongside actors Adam West and Burt Ward. The character proved so popular with the mainstream audience that Craig eventually took on the character’s role in a public service announcement advocating equal pay for women.

3. Isis, The Secrets of Isis (1975)

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The first weekly, American, live-action television series with a female superhero lead character, The Secrets of Isis is produced by Filmation from 1975 to 1977 for CBS’s Saturday morning lineup.

The show revolved around Isis, the alter-ego of schoolteacher Andrea Thomas, who transforms into the Egyptian goddess when presented with crises mere mortals cannot resolve.

As it was focused on a younger audience, most of the program’s storylines involved Isis coming to the rescue of high school students who found themselves in danger due to unwise choices — a format that won many families over.

TRIVIA: The Secrets of Isis often “broke the fourth wall,” with Isis/Andrea winking at the camera or otherwise acknowledging the show’s audience, at pertinent moments in a story. In signature Filmation fashion, each episode featured an epilogue with Isis directly addressing the camera and imparting a lesson derived from the preceding events of that episode. Cool, huh?

4. Diana Prince, Wonder Woman (1977)

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The first American comicbook superheroine to not be a gender-swapped version of an already-existing male character, Wonder Woman — a creation of psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston — delved into the richly textured stories of Greek mythology, and at the same time, female empowerment.

The star of her own eponymous 1977 live-action series, Wonder Woman’s (Lynda Carter) depiction as a heroine fighting for justice, love, peace, and gender equality has led her to being widely considered a feminist icon. In short, she’s a #Kween.

TRIVIA: Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, will be taking to the skies again in the upcoming film Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice before starring in her own solo movie in 2017.

5. Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995)

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First making an appearance in the 1995–1999 television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys as an anti-hero alongside the titular hero before appearing in a TV show and subsequent comic book series, Xena was a Greek warrior out on a personal journey for redemption and peace after slaughtering innocents in a mad quest for vengeance.

Xena, who engages in her adventures with her trusty companion Gabrielle, has also become a lesbian and feminist icon, with the series also kickstarting the rise of the altfic (alternative fiction) genre.

TRIVIA: Xena has been described by many, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, as a trailblazer for a new generation of female action heroes such as Buffy, Max of Dark Angel, Sydney Bristow of Alias, and Beatrix Kiddo a.k.a. the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s cult film Kill Bill.

6. Buffy Summers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)

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Created to deliberately subvert the cliched trope surrounding women in the horror genre, Buffy Summers first appeared in the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer before appearing in the television series and subsequent comicbook of the same name.

Portrayed with aplomb by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy — described by Joss Whedon as “Barbie with a kung-fu grip” — has become an iconic character in her own right, especially in the field of feminist entertainment, showing that women can kick ass without having to, for lack of a better term, show their ass.

TRIVIA: Buffy has been credited as being the inspiration behind the positive portrayal of female characters in both TV and film, including The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen.

7. Max Guevara, Dark Angel (2000)

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A character in the cyberpunk, sci-fi series Dark Angel, Max Guevara followed a long line of strong female characters showcased and created by award-winning director James Cameron, including Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley.

Portrayed by Jessica Alba, Max is a transgenic super-soldier on the run from her creators, the nefarious Manticore, all the while trying to lead a normal life in post-apocalyptic Seattle, as well as find her other similarly-enhanced brothers and sisters.

TRIVIA: Largely a parable on the bad turns that military science and ruthless governance can take, as well as the importance of unity, Dark Angelenjoyed relative popularity during its time on the airwaves before being cancelled after its second season’s finale.

8. Sydney Bristow, Alias (2001)

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A double agent working for the CIA, Sydney Bristow, played in the series by actress Jennifer Garner, was a complicated character, to say the very least: she had a father who was a double agent, a mother who was a former member of the KGB and a quest to find artifacts that could possibly bring about catastrophe. Oh, and she also died and then woke up two years into the future.

A fan-favorite character, Sydney was a departure from the usual femme fatale characters in most espionage shows: while she was not above using her inherent sexuality to her advantage, she preferred using her intellect and martial arts trainings to fulfill her missions.

TRIVIA: In August 2003, the actual CIA enlisted Jennifer Garner to appear in a recruitment video, which was then shown at fairs and college campuses throughout the US. According to a CIA officer, the decision was made because Jennifer and the character of Sydney Bristow both reflect a lot of the qualities the agency is looking for in new career field officers.

9. Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress, Birds of Prey (2002)

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A short-lived superhero television series set in New Gotham, Birds of Prey centered around three women: Helena Kyle, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s daughter; Dinah Redmond, the daughter of the original Black Canary; and Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, as they battled villains sent by The Joker’s lover, Harleen Quinzel.

Birds of Prey was notable not just because of its forays into the rich histories of the Batman mythology, but also because of its predominantly female cast, and great character development. Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, notable too was the show’s concentration on non male-centered interaction, i.e. it passes the Bechdel Test. Woohoo.

TRIVIA: The series was cancelled in January 2003, with 11 episodes aired. The producers were, however, allowed to film the final two episodes of their 13-episode run, with the final episode retooled in order to close off the various storylines in the series — an unusual privilege for a cancelled series.

10. Claire Bennet, Heroes (2006)

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Played by actress Hayden Panettierre, Claire Bennet was one of Heroes‘ jewels. A cheerleader who simply would not die, Claire became the face of the Evos (evolved humans) not just within the show’s continuity, but also, in real life.

While the show, described by some as X-Men without the costumes, meandered from its initial high critical ratings and reviews (a fact that eventually caused its cancellation), Heroes remained a dynamic show that explored the question: what if superpowered humans lived among us?

TRIVIA: True to its comicbook inspirations, Heroes was filmed in a way that its stills would have the look and feel of a standard comicbook panel. The show also relied heavily on comicbook-esque illustrations, all of which were provided by iconic artists Tim Sale and Alex Maleev.

11. Black Canary, Arrow (2012)

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A companion to the green-cloaked vigilante Oliver Queen, Black Canary is an attorney who fights for people in need by day and a costumed vigilante by night.

Played in the series by Katie Cassidy, Black Canary, while not a super-powered being in the Arrow continuity, remains to be a no-nonsense character whose intellectual brilliance is complemented by her combat skills. Brains + brawn personified.

12. Melinda May, Daisy Johnson, Jemma Simmons, Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Although the S.H.I.E.L.D. team in the series is led by the beloved Phil Coulson, there’s no use denying that the spotlight has always been held by three, smart, powerful women: the formidable agent Melinda May, played by Ming-Na Wen, the Inhuman field agent Daisy “Quake” Johnson, played by Chloe Bennet, and the super-genius Jemma Simmons, played by Elizabeth Henstridge.

Perfectly embodying female empowerment, Melinda, Daisy, and Jemma’s triple act realistically personifies the show’s strength, heart, and brains, making the show not just enjoyable, but also accessible, even to non-fanboys.

TRIVIA: Among the three, only Daisy Johnson has a comicbook counterpart, Quake. Melinda May and Jemma Simmons are original characters created specifically for the television series.

13. Liv Moore, iZombie (2015)

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A benevolent zombie out to solve the deaths of murdered persons delivered to the morgue where she works, iZombie‘s intelligent, articulate and calculating Liv Moore is the furthest thing from cliched depictions of shambling zombies, itself a subversion of the usual characters given to women on television.

TRIVIA: Liv Moore’s name is a pun on the phrase “Live more”.

14. Peggy Carter, Agent Carter (2015)

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Though technically not a superhero, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is a notable character in her own right: a woman finding out how to survive and thrive in what is a predominantly male-oriented world. From busting Nazi butts to battling institutionalized sexism, Peggy is one hell of a #Kween. And she knows it.

15. Kara Zor-El, Supergirl (2015)

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No longer just Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El, played by former GLEE star Melissa Benoist, is flying high in this new live-action adaptation of the comicbook series, the first live action adaptation to air since the 1984 Helen Slater-starred film version.

A faithful, albeit modernized, adaptation of the comics, Supergirl sees the titular character, now working as an assistant to media maven Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), embracing the powers she previously kept hidden in order to become a hero much like her more famous cousin.

While generally a a family-friendly comicbook adaptation that ditches cynicism for heart, as described by Rotten Tomatoes, Supergirl still gets to touch upon issues surrounding women, feminism, and gender equality. Yayyy.

TRIVIA: Although chronologically older than Superman, Kara Zoe-El found herself trapped in a state of suspended animation for much of her journey to Earth, thus causing her to appear much younger than her actual age.

— MIKE REBUYAS

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