Most Empowered: Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones
She’s quickly progressed from well-bred, wide-eyed chattel to loyal wife of Khal Drogo to fearsome, occasionally ruthless leader of her equestrian-minded warrior people. Along the way Khaleesi has shown her courage by eating a raw horse heart (!) and walking into her husband’s funeral pyre to hatch a trio of dragons. How do you say “bad-ass” in Dothraki?
Most Empowered: Bernadette, The Big Bang Theory
Her husband Howard might be the astronaut, but Bernadette is the center of the Wolowitzes’ newly married universe – and for good reason. The microbiologist has a Ph.D., a high-paying pharmaceutical company job and a voice that impels her husband to action. She cuts him slack when he needs it (urging him to take his ill-timed space flight), cuts him down when he needs it (a $500 action figure of yourself Howard? Really?) and is unafraid to ask for (or take) what she wants – isn’t that right, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty Penny?
Most Empowered: Michonne, The Walking Dead
Where most survivors of the zombie apocalypse need guns or arrows to fend off hordes of walkers, Michonne needs only her katana. She’s a woman of few words, she’s a dispenser of swift justice, she took out the Governor’s eye and she pioneered the use of zombies as pack mules/decoys. (Just hack off their arms and lower jaw, put ’em on leashes, and voila!)
Most Empowered: Emily Thorne, Revenge
Despite a childhood that was destroyed by her father being falsely convicted of terrorism and a youth spent mostly in juvie, the former Amanda Clarke has taken back her power. Living incognito as Emily Thorne, she’s systematically dismantling the lives of her enemies, while protecting the innocent and (occasionally) flashing her impressive combat skills along the way.
Most Empowered: Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
This über-feminist, who often straddles the very thin line between loving her hubby and swooning over Vice President Joe Biden (!), might well be the most empowered — and empowering — woman on TV today. With lofty goals to make her beloved Pawnee, IN — and someday even the world — a better place, Knope is unflagging her beliefs, even when the odds (and popular opinion, and even people in her inner circle…) are telling her something can’t be done.
Most Empowered: Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife
While the name of CBS’ acclaimed drama hints at Alicia’s past as the conflicted wife of a disgraced politician, she’s proven to be a complex and fierce character who can’t be easily labeled. Her formidable courtroom skills have propelled Alicia to a partnership at Lockhart-Gardner, she’s equally hard-charging when it comes to protecting the interests of her children and the people she loves, and she’s avoided simply settling when it comes to matters of romantic and sexual fulfillment.
Most Empowered: Ava Crowder, Justified
At first glance this Southern gal may appear to be nothing more than the soft-spoken finacee of a blue-collar criminal. But dig a bit deeper and it’s clear this tough-as-nails lady is actually an equal partner in the questionable family biz, helping call the shots and holding her own opposite the skeevy men she often encounters. This once-abused beauty has successfully rebounded from years of torment and is now living — and loving — on her own terms.
Most Empowered: Rocky, The New Normal
Unwilling to settle for a life as tell-it-like-it-is assistant to TV producer Bryan, Rocky has taken her destiny into her own hands, fighting to get promoted to the role of tough, budget-conscious producer on the high-school drama Sing and becoming a single foster mother when she realized her rapidly advancing career wasn’t the sole key to her personal fulfillment.
Most Empowered: Jill ‘Mouse’ Chen, The Carrie Diaries
Her nickname might suggest that she’s some combination of weak, meek and tragique, but in just half a season this loveable high-schooler has dumped her sweet boyfriend to better focus on her grades (and her goal of getting into Harvard), studied with equal aplomb to become a master of her sexual domain and even defeated her hot-jock academic rival in a Rubik’s Cube showdown.
Most Empowered: Britta Perry, Community
Her peers have coined a term — using just her name — that means “to screw things up royally.” We, however, prefer to believe that to “britta” something actually means to be a stalwart supporter of your friends and indefatigable when it comes to making your dreams — in this case, “therapizing” — a reality.
Most Empowered: Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans
She’s so devoted to Mother Russia that she’d rather die than spill her secrets as a KGB operative who’s living deep, deep undercover along with her Russian hubby in suburban D.C. in the 1980s. But Elizabeth’s not merely a Communist automaton: She’s found occasional romantic fulfillment outside her arranged marriage, she’ll unblinkingly gun down a potential turncoat in broad daylight, and she’ll beat the living daylights out of her own handler if she thinks her children have been put in harm’s way. She’s got more layers than an onion — and we’re not even through with Season 1!
Most Empowered: Santana Lopez, Glee
The recent college dropout and NYC transplant is still trying to find her way in the world — but she does it on her own terms, and she relentlessly (and hilariously) calls out fakers, schemers and folks with dubious intentions. She may not be the easiest friend in the world, but she’s definitely one of the most loyal and inspirational.
Most Empowered: Olivia Pope, Scandal
She’s a fixer, a woman in love, a white hat, a gladiator in (very pricey) suits. With equal finesse, she can make your problems fade into your past or consume your present. She doesn’t judge, doesn’t talk, doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t cede one inch of ground she’s not ready to give. And though her gut has gotten her into some rough spots, particularly in matters of the heart, she still trusts it – and herself – above all.
Most Empowered: Regina Mills, Once Upon a Time
She’s the Evil Queen: What’s more intimidating than that title? Okay, she also transported nearly the entire fairytale realm to a cursed Storybrooke existence. If that’s not taking control of your own future (and everyone else’s), then we don’t know what is.
Most Empowered: Nikita, Nikita
She kicks major butt day in and day out. She fights for truth, justice and the little guy (or gal) above all else. And she repeatedly sacrifices her own happiness to save the lives of those she loves most. Need we say more?
Least Empowered: Marnie Michaels and Hannah Horvath, Girls
Oh, let’s see: Marnie got locked in a cage of blaring televisions by artist Booth Jonathan (then, upon release, had sex with him while he insisted she stare into the face of a creepy doll). Plus after losing her gallery job and turning to hostess work to pay the rent, she decided to get back together with ex-boyfriend Charlie — mainly/subconsciously because he’d come into money. Hannah, meanwhile, scored an e-book deal, but failed to complete her pages and fell to pieces when her daddy wouldn’t bail her out. As a result, she returned to the arms of the creepy dude who previously used her for degrading sex and whose stalker vibes once prompted her to call 911.
Least Empowered: Karen Cartwright, Smash
Karen broke up with controlling/cheating fiancé Dev only to become obsessed with churlish, immature songwriter Jimmy — even dropping out of the lead role in a major Broadway musical for the chance to workshop his unfinished debut. And whenever he’s insulted and maligned her for choosing her own career path over his, she’s somehow wound up being the one who apologizes!
Least Empowered: Emma Hill, The Following
She may have called every single shot (and stab, and slice) that took place at the farmhouse, but let’s not forget: The Babysitter Formerly Known as Denise has killed, maimed and renounced her own life in the name of blind devotion to a man who’s made it clear that she’s nice and all, but he’s never going to choose her over his ex-wife.
Least Empowered: Catherine Giudici, The Bachelor
Whether or not she participated in ABC’s reality dating franchise “for the right reasons,” the evidence is plentiful in proving Catherine is an enemy to her own humanity: Not only did she agree to Sean’s marriage proposal only hours after he’d broken off his affair with Lindsay (and less than a week after he’d embarked on overnight dates with Lindsay and AsheLee), but she then agreed to let ABC turn her nuptials into a televised spectacle. Let’s hope she’s having fun once again putting her relationship on hold while her muscular blonde block of cheese participates in the new season of Dancing With the Stars.
Least Empowered: Haley Dunphy, Modern Family
Don’t get us wrong: Haley is as hilarious as any member of her clan, but after getting kicked out of college for drunkenly resisting arrest, she started dating a much older denim designer just to get her parents’ attention. Perhaps it’s time to take notes from her brainy younger sister Alex and start figuring out a viable path to the future?
Least Empowered: Ashley Davenport, Revenge
It’s pathetic enough that Ashley has slept with both Daniel Grayson and his dad Conrad in the hopes of bolstering her position as the family’s spokeswoman/resident party planner, but the short-hemline-loving Brit even managed to alienate Emily, her sole female ally, and get unwittingly used as a sexual pawn in an elaborate scheme to blackmail a nasty Grayson Global investor. Perhaps a vow of celibacy — or at least a move out of the Hamptons — would give her a boost outta that gutter she’s dug for herself?
Least Empowered: Peggy Kenter, Nashville
Poor, pitiful Peggy committed bank fraud to get closer to her unrequited crush Teddy, attempted suicide when their shady relationship hit the papers during his mayoral campaign, then swooped in and bedded him when his relationship with Rayna hit the skids. To paraphrase one of the show’s greatest hits, she’s got the wrong song comin’ through her speakers — and how!
Least Empowered: Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones
She may be a victim of the sexist mindset of her times, but Sansa hasn’t done much of anything to defy her role as a human leverage in a battle of dueling kingdoms. Heck, she was too much of a scaredy cat to take up Baelish’s offer to escape Joffrey’s sadistic clutches. Where’s badass little sis Arya when you need her?
Least Empowered: Omarosa Manigault, Celebrity Apprentice
The reality TV barnacle’s seemingly endless quest to score airtime by painting herself as a villain and perpetuating “angry black woman” stereotypes has crossed the border from infuriating to simply depressing. Three episodes in to the current season of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, she’s instigated arguments, not bothered to show up for tasks, and wept in the boardroom (without actually shedding any visible tears). At this point, we’re hoping she scores a high-paying job in the Trump organization — one that will keep her off our TV screens for good!
Most/Least Empowered: Spencer, Aria, Hanna and Emily (aka The Liars), Pretty Little Liars
The Case for Most Empowered: These ladies — who, lest we forget, are still high schoolers! — have proven time and time again that they can take what life — or a mysterious ‘A’nonymous figure — throws at them. It’s never pretty, but so long as they stand strong and rely on the solid friendship that bonds them, they’ll always prevail. To quote the seminal 2006 classic High School Musical, they’re all in this together. That said…
The Case for Least Empowered: These lovely Liars seldom-if-ever do anything to help their cause. Sure, they try their darnedest to uncover their tormentor’s identity and one-up him or her (or them), but said assailant is always three steps ahead and seemingly untouchable. While you or I might finally, after years of unrelenting anguish, seek help from an adult or other capable being, these four are reluctant to call A’s bluff, thus leaving them utterly and completely powerless.
Who would make your list of TV’s Most Empowered Female Characters? Who’d we miss from our Least Empowered roster? Sound off in the comments!