Neal Mug

Jeff Neal

In the early days of television, women had very specific roles.

Housewives. Mothers. Grandmothers. Heroines who had to be saved.

Then Diana Rigg came along in the early 1960s — and she blew the conventional female TV role out of the water.

Rigg starred as Emma Peel, a British spy and martial arts expert in the long-running show, "The Avengers." That's not to be confused with the Marvel Comics thing — Emma Peel was much cooler.

In her famous black leather catsuit, Rigg, as Emma Peel, became a worldwide feminist role model and is considered an icon of British popular culture — not to mention an overnight sex symbol of both British and American television.

Although Rigg starred in just 51 episodes of the series, she is still fondly remembered as the first kick-butt female to ever appear on the small screen.

Emma Peel was highly intelligent during an era in which female characters were not often portrayed as college-educated.

And she was anything but a damsel-in-distress. Emma would often save her male sidekick, John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee), which was unheard of at the time.

Diana Rigg died last week at the age of 82 after a bout with cancer.

If you're too young to remember watching "The Avengers", you may have caught Rigg as the delicious scene-stealing Lady Olenna Tyrell in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

Rigg's death and her groundbreaking performances immediately made me think of other strong female TV characters I have enjoyed over the years.

So here's a little list I came up with, in honor of Diana Rigg:

OLD SCHOOL GROUNDBREAKERS

Once Emma Peel hit the airwaves, quite a few strong female characters who could kick your butt and take names followed:

• Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. She was only in the "Batman" series for a season, but she was an incredible addition. Librarian Barbara Gordon was very much the traditional meek TV heroine — until she donned the purple batsuit and tore out after villains on her motorcycle. She was a delight.

• While we're on "Batman", we can't forget Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the same series. Julie had a thing for Adam West's Batman, but was mean as a snake and a purrrfect super villain.

• Eartha Kitt portrayed Catwoman for "Batman's" second season when Newmar wasn't available and was a sensational groundbreaker in her own right — it was very rare for a Black woman to have such a sought-after television role in 1967.

• Lynda Carter as "Wonder Woman". There may be a new silver screen Wonder Woman, but for kids who grew up in the 70s, Lynda Carter is still our choice.

• Lindsay Wagner as "The Bionic Woman." ABC capitalized on the popularity of "The Six Million Dollar Man" with Wagner starring as Jamie Sommers, who used her superhuman strength to whip all kinds of bad guys.

• Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith hit the small screen as "Charlie's Angels" in 1976. The three crime-fighting ladies became 1970s icons. Who didn't have that Farrah poster on their wall?

MODERN ERA SUPERCHICKS

• Sara Michelle-Gellar as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Buffy Sommers and her "Scooby Gang" were cult phenoms at the turn of the century. Buffy is my all-time favorite on this list — the show was endearing, dramatic, romantic and funny. And Buffy was deadly with that stake to the heart.

• Ivana Milicevic as Carrie Hopewell in "Banshee." If you've never seen "Banshee" on Cinemax, you're missing a great series. Chock full of amazing characters, well-written stories and loads of violence, this is a classic. Milicevic's Carrie Hopewell is simply incredible — the daughter of a Russian crime lord turned suburban soccer mom, who has to revert to her violent ways. She can kick your teeth in and she never misses with her beloved Springfield 9mm.

• Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning in "Orphan Black." Maslany has the toughest job of any actor mentioned in this column — she plays nine different characters. You see, Sarah Manning discovers she's a clone — and the story unfolds as she and her sisters work to discover their roots. Although Sarah doesn't know how to handle a gun as the story begins, she learns very quickly. And becomes very deadly.

• Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher in Showtime's "Shameless". Fiona is the most layered character on the list. She's not a superhero — she's stuck in the south side of Chicago (as Jim Croce would say, the baddest part of town), trying to put out fires started by her alcoholic father, while raising her brothers and sisters the best she can. She's certainly flawed — but her strength holds her family together. For nearly a decade it was Rossum — and not William Macy as Frank Gallagher — who was the heart and soul of the series.

• Louisville native Jennifer Carpenter as Debra Morgan in "Dexter". If you're a fan of the Showtime series about the friendly serial killer, you have to love Carpenter's portrayal of Dexter's foul-mouthed sister, who is a MIami detective. She steals the show in many an episode.

• Kerri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans". Actually, we never learn Jennings' real name — she's actually a deep-undercover Russian KGB spy living as an American in the 1980s Cold War era with her husband and two kids. If you haven't watched "the Americans", put it on your list — it's easily one of the best shows of the last decade.

• The women of "Game of Thrones".  Yes, Diana Rigg was one of them — but she certainly had a load of company. Strong women characters dominated the show. From Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who grew from a little girl into a heroic warrior; to her sister Sansa (Sophie Turner), who grows from a preteen to a woman who suffers many indignities before emerging as the leader of her people; to Lady Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a fierce soldier who is maligned — and underestimated — because she is a woman in armor. These are just a few characters that make this show one of the best ever in my opinion.

I know I've left out a bunch of memorable characters. And, yes, I know I watch way too much TV.

Nevertheless, I hope you enjoyed my short list of fierce female characters.

Thank you Diana Rigg for leading the way.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.

Recommended for you