Happily, there seems to be an increasing amount of kick ass women on TV, in movies and in books – but I can’t help noticing that, too often, these tend to be conventionally attractive and (relatively) young. So I thought I would celebrate those women who manage to be, in their own way, smart and formidable, without necessarily looking like they could spend their spare time modelling for Vogue. (Note, I’m not saying any of these women aren’t attractive – I think they are – just that they don’t fit the young, thin and pretty stereotype).
Burn Notice: Madeline Westen (Sharon Gless)
Already a feminist icon thanks to her turn in the groundbreaking police show Cagney and Lacey, Gless proves that age hasn’t dimmed her kick ass credentials in this enjoyably lightweight caper show. While her character may not get to play with weapons and the explosives like the rest of the gang, as burned spy Michael’s chain-smoking, impossible-to-faze mother Maddie, Gless proves that you don’t need to have a gun to be tough, and she also gives the show some much needed heart. Whether standing up to FBI enforcers, interrogating bad guys or keeping her own errant son in line, Gless is a force to be reckoned with.
NCIS: LA: Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt)
I must admit that Oscar winner Hunt’s character in this otherwise slick and superficial show is what inspired this piece, because there are few actors as unconventional as Hunt (she did, after all, win her Oscar for playing a man). I always have a soft spot for characters who are given incredible back stories that are presented with a knowing nod to the audience that says, yes, we know no one is really like that, but go with it and have a little fun (Leverage does this, to great effect, with both Elliott and Parker). Hetty is a LeCarre character in a Lee Child world: she may run this super modern, hi-tech team but her history is the dark corners of Cold War Europe. She’s a lethal mini-ninja who you cross at your peril, and the fact that all these strapping men are properly a bit scared of her is one of the joys of the show.
James Bond: M (Judi Dench)
Who would have thought, back in the day, that the ultimate Bond Girl would actually be his boss? But Judi Dench was such a great fit as M – easily surviving the transition between Bonds – that it’s hard to remember a time without her. Cool, ballsy and not afraid to stand up for what she believed, she was nonetheless given a realistic fallibility that made her feel like an actual person, not just another prop. It helps, of course, that Dench is a simply wonderful actress, easily projecting a steely persona that you can completely believe keeps the Secret Service in line.
Harry Potter: Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) and Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith)
Who knew Mrs Weasley was secretly so kick ass? One of the disappointments of the final cinematic instalment of the Harry Potter series was that Molly’s confrontation with Bellatrix was so brief, and lacked the real emotional punch it had in the book. Conversely, one of the delights was seeing Maggie Smith let rip: of course we knew all along that you shouldn’t mess with McGonagall, but it was fun to see her finally show her true, awesome colours.
Battlestar Galactica: Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell)
There’s so much to love in the BSG reboot it’s hard to keep track, but McDonnell’s performance as the schoolteacher turned president was a joy: morally and emotionally complex, flawed, romantic (whose heart didn’t break a little in her final scenes with Adama?) and always utterly compelling.
S Epatha Merkerson
So, who have I missed? I notice that one glaring flaw with this list is a woeful absence of women of colour. While there are plenty of non-white actresses playing strong female characters (Gina Torres as Zoe in Firefly, Danai Gurira as Michonne in the Walking Dead, Angela Bassett as Mace in Strange Days, Maggie Q and Michelle Yeoh in pretty much anything) but of course they are all conventionally attractive, relatively young women. (If you can think of any women I have missed, do let me know in the comments). The closest I could come is the wonderful S Epatha Merkerson, longstanding Law & Order character (and Emmy winner), but though I love her as an actress, the format of the show never seemed to give her a huge amount to work with, tied as it was to its focus-on-the-crime formula (I must admit, I’m not a regular viewer of the show, though…) Sadly, it still feels like too often, the roles for older women of colour seem limited to brief appearances as judges, district attorneys and the distraught, noble mothers of wayward men. I want to see more recognition that older, fatter, shorter, less conventionally attractive women of all colours can be, in their own way, fierce and fearsome, whether than means literally kicking ass, or simply being strong and interesting and, y’know, human. Get on that, TV and Hollywood, would you? We’re waiting.