My TV heroines: From Kat Slater to Catherine Tate's Nan - Ellen E Jones salutes the small-screen women who made her who she is


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The Independent Culture

I'd like to tell you that my role models growing up were suffragists such as Emmeline Pankhurst or scientists such as Marie Curie, but the truth is, they were all TV characters.

Through Carman Sandiego, April out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jet from Gladiators, I was able to vicariously live out a thousand alternate adult lives, before eventually settling on this one.

The trouble is, as your TV tastes become mature, interesting, three-dimensional female characters are harder to come by.

This is the oft-overlooked failing of our "Golden Age of Television"; in the quality dramas that regularly make critics' top-10 lists – The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sherlock – female characters are secondary or absent.

But they haven't disappeared entirely. In sitcom reruns, on streaming sites and in supporting roles, TV still has many women worthy of admiration. Here are some enduring favourites...

Machiavelli's Princess

Claire Underwood from 'House of Cards'

The first season of Netflix's hit political drama House of Cards, the amoral manoeuverings of Washington DC's Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) left us aghast. In the second season, it became obvious that Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright) was the truly ruthless one. An icy blonde, with an icy heart to match, Mrs Underwood has inspired several online debates regarding her feminist credentials. The point is moot. Watching a master strategist at work is thrilling for its own sake.

See also Cersei Lannister from 'Game of Thrones', Red from 'Orange is the New Black'

The Tart With a Heart 2.0

Kat Slater from 'EastEnders'

When Kat (Jessie Wallace) first arrived on Albert Square in 2000, what drew me to her was purely aesthetic. The leopardprint leggings, the daytime cleavage and the Argos-catalogue jewellery, all spoke to my teenage heart of pure sophistication. The "Happy Slapper", as I like to call Kat's TV tribe, was born. Traditionally, promiscuous female characters come complete with tedious emotional baggage and cease their slagging when rescued by true love. The Happy Slapper is more evolved; she just knows how to have a good time.

See also Samantha Jones from 'Sex and the City', Ilana Glazer from 'Broad City'


The Tough Woman

Jet from 'Gladiators'

Tough women are everywhere on TV these days, tracking down serial killers in Law & Order and browbeating politicians on Newsnight, but it takes a special kind of tough to take on a fitness instructor from Chelmsford armed with a giant cotton bud. You have to be tenacious, you have to be in peak physical condition and you have to never take yourself too seriously. In the early 1990s, it was Jet who best exemplified these virtues. Brainy as well as brawny, Jet, aka Diane Youdale, is now working as a psychotherapist in Surrey. So that's nice.

See also Catherine Cawood from 'Happy Valley', Fiona Gallagher from 'Shameless'

The Nice Nerd

Shoshanna Shapiro from 'Girls'

If it weren't for Shoshanna, the other smug, privileged, disastrously un-selfaware girls of Girls would be unwatchable. Shoshanna is the best of them, but because she's a Nice Nerd, for the first two seasons, she allowed herself to be dismissed as a naive girly-girl whose interests include hair accessories, Sex and the City and Starbucks. It was only in season three's now famous "Beach House" episode, that everyone, including the viewer, realised their mistake. Underestimate the Nice Nerd at your peril.

See also Willow Rosenberg from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', Lisa from 'The Simpsons', Mindy Lahiri from 'The Mindy Project'

The Latter-Day Elizabeth Bennett

Monica Gellar from 'Friends'

In a time before those "Which TV Character are You?" quizzes conquered Facebook, if you were, like, totally a "Monica", you didn't need an algorithm to tell you. Rachel from the 1990's sitcom Friends was the one with the dream hair and Phoebe was amusingly ditzy, but Monica (Courtney Cox) made a virtue of some less telegenic qualities: dependability, excellent organisational skills and good common sense. She was TV's answer to a Jane Austen heroine.

See also Peggy Olson from 'Mad Men', Miranda Hobbes from 'Sex and the City', CJ Cregg from 'The West Wing'

Woman Without a Filter

Violet 'Vod' Nordstrom from 'Fresh Meat'

Everyone agrees that Vod, Zawe Ashton's growling, bovver-boot-wearing student-sage is the coolest character on television – but what gives her this Fonz-like edge? Like her fellow oddballs with (metaphorical) balls, Saga from The Bridge and Ling from Ally McBeal, Vod is constitutionally incapable of caring what others think. She doesn't give a monkey's. Thus liberated, she's free to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but it.

See also Elaine Benes from 'Seinfeld', Ling Woo from 'Ally McBeal', Saga Noren from 'The Bridge'

The Gay Divorcee

Karen Walker from 'Will & Grace'

Karen Walker is the squeaky voiced millionairess who taught me that money can't buy class. Especially if you've already spent all your money on cocktails. If characters such as Karen are supposed to be read as warnings against growing old disgracefully, it didn't work on me. I saw their antics as a promise of life beyond the usual marriage/babies/full stop in female narratives. Ah, to be a 59-year-old three-time divorcee!

See also Patsy Stone from 'Absolutely Fabulous', Maryann Thorpe from 'Cybill', Blanche Devereaux from 'The Golden Girls'

The Rude Girl

Nan from 'The Catherine Tate Show'

The "Cool Girl", as defined in Gillian Flynn's hit novel Gone Girl, is a traitor to her gender, because she adapts her natural self to fit male fantasy and to cause the world the least possible offence. Taken to its logical conclusion, that makes Nan, a foul-mouthed, gleefully offensive cockney pensioner, the ultimate feminist hero. Being outrageously rude to all and sundry won't get you far in real life, but on television it's exhilarating.

See also Daria Morgendorffer from 'Daria', Carla Tortelli from 'Cheers', Darlene Conner from 'Roseanne'