Great TV characters, like great artists, aren't always appreciated in their time. And plenty of great women on television have had to fight a steep uphill battle to earn fans' respect — even if the men in their lives are literally doing crime. We've all seen it before: Complicated male protagonists get a vigorous defense, while complicated ladies get scorned.
It's time to give it up for the misunderstood killjoy wives. It's time to talk about the sci-fi ladies who blazed trails and the underrated comic forces on long-running sitcoms. Too many female characters have been failed by their shows or their fans. At best, they're ignored. At worst, they're hated, always for offenses as unique as they are: falling in love with the wrong person, choosing hard work over glamour, moving on, speaking up, staying quiet. Miranda Hobbes was too serious. Phoebe Buffay wasn't serious enough.
Audiences in 2019 are more attuned to these critiques than we were 20 years ago, or even five years ago. But even now, the most interesting ladies on television don't always get their due. To celebrate Women's History Month, TV Guide is kicking off a weeklong salute to TV's most underappreciated female characters. We've rounded up some of our favorite unsung heroes from the past few decades — whether they're actual heroes, morally ambiguous, or straight-up dirtbags, but really, really funny about it. Check out our coverage below, and be sure to check back throughout the week as we pay homage to more underrated women on television.
For all the progress Sex and the City made pushing boundaries when it came to portraying female sexuality on screen, it was still built within the confines of patriarchal restrictions and for an audience shaped by these norms. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) often came off like a warning of what happens when women try to "have it all." Since the series first aired, the stigma surrounding the independent, unapologetically smart woman on TV has since been greatly lessened — but it hasn't been erased. Now, Miranda Hobbes has become the poster girl for women who are pushing back against these oppressive expectations and helping to create room for more Mirandas in our midst.
At its best, the story of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) was about a woman grappling with her self-respect in the midst of an unbalanced, often unhealthy relationship. Female characters in her shoes are often painted as pushovers, but Martha pushed back. Outside her dynamic with the Doctor, she had nearly everything in her life handled: She was a medical student. She kept the peace in a lively but strained family. In crises, she was cool but never detached. Martha was bold, clever, curious, and empathetic, and none of that changed because she loved a man who didn't feel the same. She felt what she felt, and then she walked the planet for a year in order to save humanity from a fascist dictator. Martha Jones had things to do.
As the ex-wife of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Natalie Zea's Winona Hawkins never quite fit into the world of Justified. It wouldn't have been terribly surprising, then, if she had played a thankless role in the series, mattering only for how she reacted to the show's attractive, quick-witted gunslinging hero. Instead, Winona actually had agency in a world where women traditionally have struggled to gain footing — where they've been forced, with their backs up against a wall, to compromise who they are or give up pieces of themselves just to survive.
Plenty of terrible characters on Breaking Bad were somehow still regarded with fondness by the show's rapt audience, who savored every ounce of their savagery and clamored for more. At the same time, Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) was regarded as — and remains, to some — a malicious monster for getting in the way of her husband's illicit ambitions, even when her worst fears about his new profession proved true. Rather than give her the same kind of in-depth character analysis Walt inspired, fans widely considered Skyler a nag and a shrew who wouldn't just get out of the way and let her husband do what he thought was right.
The Gems are all superheroes, to be sure, but Steven Universe's unsung hero might be Steven's best friend, Connie Maheswaran (voiced by Grace Rolek), who has no magical abilities to speak of. She's an ordinary human girl — which is to say, she is extraordinary by definition; but in the company of Steven and his otherworldly Gem family, it might be tempting to view Connie as uninteresting or underpowered. But Connie is brave, smart, conscientious, and kind, and her growth throughout the series is arguably unparalleled by any other character, except perhaps Steven.
A cornerstone of Isabelle's (Emeraude Toubia) personality has always been that she accepts people for who they are, choosing to have faith in the best parts of them rather than the worst. To Isabelle, your choices — who they benefit and who they harm — are more important than any lineage or heritage you might have been born with. Considering that Shadowhuntersis built on themes of inclusivity and acceptance, there may be no character who better embodies the show's core message than Isabelle Lightwood.
From the get-go, it was obvious Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) was a grounding force in her roommate's life. But Sam's love triangle — and the first-season business of setting up the television world of Winchester — left us with little room to really get to know Joelle in the beginning. We just knew she had dope hair and some of the best one-liners, and she kept everyone on point. While Joelle definitely got more time in the spotlight in Season 2 than she did in the show's first offering, it still feels like she isn't getting the love she deserves. The truth is, she's the glue that keeps the entire group together.
A Tribute to The Vampire Diaries' Bonnie Bennett, A Fierce Witch Who Should Never Have Been Sidelined
Over the course of The Vampire Diaries' eight-season run, Bonnie's (Kat Graham) presence was defined by what she could do for everyone else rather than who she was as a person. And since so much of her story was tied to her magic, we often forget that Bonnie — on her own — was pretty damn dope. Smart, strong-willed, and sharp-tongued, Bonnie was someone you wanted to hang out with, and not just because of her powers. She was a sheer force of nature who refused to stay down no matter how many times she stumbled or faltered.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia uses Dee (Kaitlin Olson) — and the Gang's mistreatment of her — to do what the series does best: comment on the depravity of humanity by showing people at their absolute worst, and no member of the Gang is immune to their peers' offensive behavior or biases. That's why you'd be hard-pressed to find an episode of Sunny in which the rest of the Gang doesn't disparage Dee in ways that specifically play off her womanhood — attacking her appearance and ability to attract men (or lack thereof) — without ever singing her praises. Unfortunately, fans often discuss Dee the same way the Gang does, laughing at the latest pitiable action from the big bird without ever articulating just how fantastic Olson is at playing this character.
To borrow a few phrases from Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) was always regarded as "something of a question mark" to the rest of her friends, who thought she could "slip right out" of the group if she wanted. Even fans tended to regard her as a supporting character, rather than an integral part of the show's action. But looking back, Friends wouldn't have been much of a show at all without Phoebe's wisecracks and subtle wisdom. Sure, she had her quirks, and her songwriting skills left something to be desired, but throughout the show, Phoebe consistently displayed the kind of self-possession the others could never even dream of achieving.