Women’s History Month: Top 10 Female Science Fiction Characters

Posted Thursday, March 8th, 2012 06:00 pm GMT -4 by

There are many great female science fiction characters, and I am sure some favorites are not on this list. I focused on leaders, on characters who demonstrated strength and authority, and on those who left a lasting impression on me. If you think I have left a character off this list, please let me know who and why a certain character should be on this list.

Note: Female characters from fantasy and comic books are on different lists.

10. Samus Aran

Samus Aran is the hero and star of the ‘Metroid’ video game. I remember playing this game for the first time; I didn’t get to play it until a couple of years after its release, but I didn’t know anyone else who played video games, so I was surprised by the ending. In the game, a bounty hunter, Samus Aran, fights Space Pirates, defeats Mother Brain, and manages to escape before the base self-destructs. Samus wears a powered armor suit that covers the entire body. After the game is over, the suit is removed, revealing a woman. The strong bounty hunter skilled with weapons was a woman. I still remember joyously screaming, “I played as a girl!” for a good ten minutes while jumping around the living room after the revelation.

Samus Aran

9. Zoe Washburne

Zoe served as second-in-command aboard the Serenity, but there were times when her cool, calm, and rational attitude got Captain Malcolm Reynolds out of trouble. This tough and skilled fighter not only helped run the ship, she was happily married to Hoban “Wash” Washburne, the pilot of Serenity. I have often wondered what Gina Torres could have done with the character if ‘Firefly’ went longer than 14 episodes. We got of glimpse of that potential in the film, ‘Serenity,’ but with no more films or a new TV show on the horizon, we can only speculate.

Zoe Washburne

8. Aeryn Sun

Portrayed by Claudia Black on ‘Farscape,’ Aeryn Sun was born on a Peacekeeper Command Carrier. Raised to know only of duty and fighting, Aeryn believed she was like her fellow Peacekeepers—bred for war. She learned later that she was a child of love. Perhaps this is why she was able to break free of the brainwashing and discover other aspects of her personality. Her time on the Leviathan ship Moya with Crichton, D’Argo, and the rest of the crew allowed her the opportunity to be more than her training. Even when she realized she was falling in love with Crichton, she kept her sense of honor and kept her skills as a warrior honed.

Aeryn Sun

7. Commander Shepard

You can play ‘Mass Effect’ as either a male or female Shepard, but many of us know that the female Shepard is livelier and funnier than the male Shepard. Is it because of Jennifer Hale’s vocal performance? Or could it be because the team responsible for ‘Mass Effect’ realized that a strong, intelligent, and capable female character can carry an epic sci-fi action shooter? The ‘Mass Effect’ team could have gone in a different direction with the female Shepard by giving her a flighty personality and armor with a boob window, but they didn’t. Shepard has a realistic body in realistic armor, and she is the only one who has what it takes to bring together different species and fight the Reapers. (Pictured is my Shepard.)

Commander Shepard

6. Dr. Dana Scully

Chris Carter, the creator of ‘The X-Files,’ made the right decision when he made the believer the male character and the rational, logical one a woman. Dr. Dana Scully kept Fox Mulder from completely going off the rails, applying scientific reasoning to many of his more “out there” theories. Gillian Anderson made sure Scully wasn’t a woman trying to be a man; she made Scully a scientist who was an F.B.I. agent and a woman. Without Scully, ‘The X-Files’ is incomplete, and other good characters, like Olivia Dunham (‘Fringe’), wouldn’t be possible.

Dr. Dana Scully

5. Princess Leia Organa

After being exposed to Disney princesses, I never wanted to be a princess until I saw Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in ‘Star Wars.’ She stood up to Darth Vadar, lied to Grand Moff Tarkin, took control after Han and Luke failed to come up with a better rescue plan, and led the rebel forces on Yavin and Hoth. Her diminished role in ‘Return of the Jedi’ is why she isn’t higher on this list, but the early films did give many young girls a fierce leader who was able to focus on defeating the Empire even after watching her home being destroyed.

Princess Leia Organa

4.  Dr. Helen Magnus

‘Sanctuary’ may not be considered one of the best sci-fi shows ever, but it has given us one of the most fascinating characters ever, Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping). Born in 1850, Magnus has been able to live a long time because she injected herself with a serum derived from pure Vampire blood, which also increased her intelligence. She did not accept society’s limitations on women, and, with her father’s help, she became the only female student at Oxford. She trained her body as well; she is an excellent fighter who can take a punch. Bold, brave, and straightforward, Magnus runs the Sanctuary according to her rules; the needs of the Abnormals come first, even if that means she has to keep secrets from her team. Although she has experience enough tragedy to fill three lifetimes, Magnus still has a zeal for life that many people never have.

Dr. Helen Magnus

3. Uhura

Uhura was the communications officer on the USS Enterprise. I know that Uhura never led any of the away missions. The reason she is so high on this list is because she was on the bridge. She wasn’t an officer’s wife or girlfriend. She wasn’t a servant. She wasn’t a flighty or neurotic best friend to some other character. She wasn’t the wacky neighbor. She wasn’t a caricature. Uhura, played by the luminous Nichelle Nichols, was treated with respect. The original ‘Star Trek’ aired from 1966-1969, and Uhura worked as an equal with the rest of the crew. She went on missions; Captain Kirk listened to her and never dismissed anything she said because she was a woman. Uhura was was judged by the job she did. For the first time, I saw a woman on television who was smart, capable, confident, and a valuable member of a crew. The success of Uhura paved the way for more female characters in science fiction, and this is a fact we should never forget.


2. Captain Kathryn Janeway

Captain Janeway is not the first female captain seen on ‘Star Trek.’ Rachel Garrett was captain of the Enterprise-C in the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and other female captains have been seen or mentioned briefly in other shows and films. However, Janeway is the first female Starfleet captain to be the lead in a series. I remember some had doubts if ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ would work with a female captain, but fate would have the role go to Kate Mulgrew, who imbued Janeway with a steely grace that got the USS Voyager through many dark days during the journey home. The best example of Janeway as a great captain is “The Void.” Janeway’s resolve to hold fast to Starfleet principles when trapped in an anomaly that seems inescapable is what saves her crew. Everyone around her is tempted to become like the others trapped in the void, but Janeway’s confidence and her ability to remain rational in the midst of chaos convinces others to form an alliance. By working together, Voyager and a few other ships escape. Captain Janeway’s actions prove that she is as good as Picard and Kirk.

Captain Kathryn Janeway

1. Ellen Ripley

I’ve written about Ripley before, and she still deserves to be written about again. The list of her attributes is long: survivor, warrior, mother, leader, strategist, strong, able to remain calm under extreme pressure, resilient, and more. Sigourney Weaver elevated Ripley into legendary status; Ripley is an icon and is considered by many to be one of the greatest characters, male or female, of any genre. Ellen Ripley is an amazing character who will endure for many decades to come.

Ellen Ripley

  • Glad you put Magnus on this list, always liked Sanctuary. Aliens set the bar for many, many movies to come, so kudos for Ripley as well. Laura Croft would have been a nice addition. 

    • Croft’s a great character, but I see her as an Indiana Jones type. When Magnus told Caleb, “My house. My rules,” she really showed how strong and how far she was willing to go to save her mission.  

      •  Laura Croft with a whip…      ….. and a fedora, right, ahem. Magnus really puts herself out there and is a true female lead on Sanctuary. In most episodes not only is it Magnus’ idea for the solution to the crisis of the day, but she is also the last “man” out, so to speak.

  • Observettemarch

    Where’s Olivia Dunham?

    • She was on the long list, but the way season 4 is going it bumped her out of the top 10.

  • Meh…

    How can you not have Starbuck – Kara Thrace from BSG!?

    • She was on the list of 15, but if it wasn’t for some of these other characters, then we wouldn’t have Starbuck. 

  • Most people’s eyes glaze over when I bring up Farscape so thank you for Aeryn. Did you consider Susan Ivanova from B5?

    • Yes. My first list was around 30 characters; got that down to 20, then 15, then this one. This one was tough.

  • John Wao

    Totally agree 100% with #1. Ellen Ripley is an awesome character.

    And let me add that Sigourney Weaver was robbed of an Academy award for her wonderful performance in Aliens. I’ll keep saying that till the day I die.

  • Lisa

     Good list, but I’m saddened by the absence of Samantha Carter from SG-1. She wasn’t the leader, but she had a brilliant mind as well as being a skilled warrior and she was willing to do anything necessary for the safety and success of her mission and her team. If there was a scientific solution to the problem, Sam would find it.

    • I had a long list, which is great because when I was brainstorming, I was really pleased about how many awesome female characters there are in sci-fi. To get the list to 10 was difficult for me. 

  • Lisaw918

    Liking Janeway at #2, although since I’ve never seen any of the Alien or Predator movies, I would have put her at #1.
    Either her or Laura Roslin from BSG.  Was she on your shortlist?  I think she’s possibly the most amazing and layered female character I’ve ever seen, in sci-fi or elsewhere.

    • President Roslin was on the short list; she is amazing.

  • JasonMBowles

    Good list, Michelle.  Very thorough and diverse!  I MIGHT have swapped one out for Trinity from The Matrix and I DEFINITELY would for Sarah Conner.  But everyone’s choices are going to be different. 

    • Trinity and Sarah were on the list, but I eliminated them because they are supporting characters who wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for others on this list like Aeryn Sun. 

  • Browncoat

    Love Zoe, don’t get me wrong, but River Tam stole the film Serenity. Agree with the above Kara Thrace and Sarah Connors comments too.  Would say that Janeway was always trying to prove she was as good as Picard and Kirk. I thought 7 of 9 was in a class by herself, never trying too hard to outshine her precdecessors Data and Spock, she was just apart.  Disagree with the Olivia Dunham comment though (what?). Liked the list very much, thanks.  

  • Graham

    I’m glad you put Ripley at number 1.

  • Linda Adams

    When Star Trek fandom started snowballing, everyone talked about Spock being their favorite character.  I felt like a lone voice, because Uhura was mine.  In 1976 — women had only recently gotten into West Point — there wasn’t much of anything available to girls unless they wanted romance and marriage.  I remember reading action novels for boys, and if there was a girl character in the story, she was there to get into trouble so the boys could rescue her.  Even Nancy Drew was intelligent enough to get into trouble, but not intelligent enough to get out of trouble and had to be rescued by Ned.  And then there was Uhura.  Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that the bridge was the most important position on the ship.  Uhura didn’t get much into the action, but at that time, she had a much bigger role than any other woman I’d seen.  We had scenes of her giving important information she’d discovered to the leadership; we had scenes of her fixing communications equipment; and we had scenes of her taking over the helm in a crisis.  It was a wonderful thing for a girl growing up to see.

    • Thank you for sharing this. Many who remember any part of the 70s know just how important Uhura is. 

  • Garfeimao TheOneRing

    I was missing Samantha Carter of SG1 myself, glad to see I wasn’t the only one missing a woman who was stunningly gorgeous, dangerously physical and brilliant. Susan Ivanova of B5 would have also made my list any day of the week as well. And finally, I have to give props to Sarah Connor as well, even though she started out wimpy as all heck, she went to the other extreme to prepare her son for what lay ahead of him. And yes, I’m glad that there really are a lot of strong females in the genre to point to when it comes to role models. 

  • Divepadi

    This list is bogus… Samantha Carter, Lara Croft, Six, Barbarella … who was polled? And comon, Leia led the over throw of the Empire thats the number one spot.

  • Ray

    Great job including Samus. Fun fact: She’s based on Ripley!

  • DeAnn

    I wonder why you have video game CGI women on this list when you had to remove real human women off the list for space considerations. The thing about CGI cartoon/gaming characters is that they’re not being portrayed by real people, so they don’t have the limitations of human beings and it is easy for them to be extremely heroic. Real courage is women like Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in the 60s being a strong woman on the bridge of the Enterprise when women in real life, especially African-American women, were struggling to get non-demeaning work that paid decently. I certainly laud all the real women you do have on the list, especially Kate Mulgrew, my fellow Iowan, as Captain Janeway. Kate had to deal with a lot of sexist hate mail and ridiculous costume requirements in that role, as well as keep the cast working together as a team to produce a quality show.Then there were the fan who complained that she should have had a sexual relationship with her first officer, just because she was a woman, which used to boggle my mind (no one ever got hacked off that Kirk and Spock didn’t make out, or that Picard and Riker weren’t lovers).
    The only additions I would have made to your list would have been Olivia Dunham, Jewel Staites ships engineer from Firefly (though I agree that Summer Glau was AWESOME in the Serenity movie), Lara Croft, Trinity from the Matrix and Sarah Connor from Terminator.

    • Raycer074

      Well, it IS her article…

    • I went with interesting and strong characters, and ones that made an impression.

      Fact: Lara Croft is a video game character. The movies are based on a game.

      Olivia Dunham isn’t in the forefront as before, which is why she was left off. As for the other Firefly ladies, they are great characters, and they were on my list, but Zoe is much more of a leader, and she handled those responsibilities while also being married. Trinity and Sarah Connor are more supporting roles; good characters, but I thought Aeryn had more of a character arc. 

  • Chipmunkjt

    Hey – where’s Samantha Carter – SG1, Susan Ivanova – Babylon 5, Sarah Carter – Terminator?  Does Buffy count as a sci-fi character?  (& this article doesn’t even attempt to address any of the female anime characters)  Padme Amidala was a very strong female character until the crappy ending of the last Star Wars movie.  HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN with Elizabeth Grayson’s as Amanda, and Claudia Christian (from B-5) as Katharine?  Sarah Pezzini – Witchblade?  Vicki Nelson – Blood Ties?  (although the book character wads stronger)  And I think it’s great that there’s a lot more than 10 to choose from.

  • Petrohead

    Two words: River Tam.

  • Brainstewdgeek

    Alyx Vance

  • Nelsonloria28

    sarah conner in T2 for sure. how could you leave her off?

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  • Frank Tar

    To this list, I’d like to add, Liddy Schmidt from; The Adventures of Crazy Liddy. I’ve never read a of stronger or more compelling female protagonist.