In My Top 10 Television Characters, various members of Autostraddle’s TV Team will be telling you about the TV characters nearest and dearest to our hearts, EVEN the ones that aren’t lesbian / bisexual / or queer. Today, TV Team Editor Heather Hogan shares her feelings about women with a tough exterior and a gooey marshmallow center.
10. Peggy Olson, Mad Men
People are always surprised when I say that Mad Men is one of my favorite TV shows, but it’s because there’s a part of me that wishes every single TV series was this really slow character study with occasional bonkers plot twists, like the time Peggy stabbed her fiancé Abe with a makeshift spear. Peggy, actually, is the thing that makes Mad Men one of my favorites. Her growth over the course of seven seasons is astronomical, more than we get to see from most TV characters ever, and especially from women TV characters. I especially love that Peggy isn’t really a good guy. Sometimes she’s even kind of a jackass. But also she’s driven and brilliant and unapologetic and absolutely ridiculous. She produces some of the funniest and most iconic moments on the show — the octopus porn, sunglasses inside, and swagger in the photo above, just for one example — and in the end, she really does have it all.
9. Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls
In so many ways, The Golden Girls raised me and my sister, which is wild because when I rewatch it now — which I do every time I’m scrolling through channels and it’s on — I can’t believe my grandparents and parents didn’t intervene and turn it off! My sister has the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve ever met, and I think she learned it from Dorothy, who, to this day, has some of the best one-liners ever committed to film. In the ’80s in rural Georgia where I was learning that women should be meek and subservient, Dorthy Zbornak was independent and acerbic and not sorry for being the smartest person in the room. She was also the first TV character I ever saw with a lesbian friend, and she accepted and loved her, even though she didn’t reciprocate her feelings.
8. Nadiya Hussain, Great British Bake-Off
Okay, I know Nadiya Hussain isn’t exactly a TV character, but her arc on series six of Great British Bake Off could not have been plotted better if it was a film about a hero pastry chef. And anyway, I feel pretty confident Kayla’s going to put a Bravo reality star on her list and I won’t be alone. Nadiya came into the GBBO tent with big dreams, warm banter, serious skills, and a smile as bright as the sun. She slowly built her confidence after a slow start on technical challenges, kept impressing the pants off the judges and making Mel and Sue burst into fits of giggles, and was in some kind of baking zone in the finale. She cried when she won and said she’d never doubt herself again, and Mary Berry cried too.
That her season of triumph happened against the backdrop of the racist, xenophobic Brexit campaign in the UK and Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic presidential campaign in the US made it even sweeter and more poignant. Since winning GBBO, Nadiya has taken the culinary world by storm and become a fierce advocate for mental health in the process. She’s changed my life as much as my favorite fictional TV characters.
7. Tippi the Bird, Pretty Little Liars
I have such a complicated relationship with Pretty Little Liars. I’ve easily written more about this show than everything else in my career combined, which is probably why I also feel more let down by it than most teevee I’ve covered. Pretty Little Liars dropped the ball hard, and with its eyes wide open in the end, but for the first several seasons it was an unhinged, hilarious, brilliant, community-building, patriarchy-busting, heckin’ fascinating ride that I never wanted to end. Tippi the Bird was the best of the series. Named after classic Hitchcock, a truly BANANAPANTS plot point/twist, and when the writers realized how much fans — especially our gay #BooRadleyVanCullen crew — loved this damn parrot, they kept bringing back the jokes and dialogue about it. Tippi whistles a phone number as a clue. She keeps saying, “Hey, board shorts!” in her dead owner’s voice. To this day, I drop “Well, it ain’t Tippi the Bird” into conversation. It’s one of my fondest memories of a series that brought some of my best friends who became my chosen family into my life.
6. Garnet, Steven Universe
Garnet was one of my favorite TV characters before Steven Universe revealed that she’s a lesbian gem fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, but that sealed the deal and cemented her place atop my list forever. Garnet is fierce and quick-witted (are you sensing a pattern) and no-nonsense and also completely tender and literally made of love. Garnet actually describes herself best on her wedding day, fighting her arch-nemesis: “I am the will of two gems to care for each other, to protect each other from any threat, no matter how vast or how cruel.” No matter how overwhelmed I get, Garnet has the ability to infuse me with hope and strength. Just another thing me and Steven have in common.
5. Lois Lane, Lois & Clark
Lois Lane made me gay. Okay that’s not exactly true. I was very gay the day I was born onto the earth. But Lois Lane appeared on my TV — and then later in ABC’s promo materials, wrapped up like this in Superman’s cape — when I was a young teenager with hormones that were going berserk with lesbianism in a way I didn’t understand. When I played pretend growing up, which was all the time, I was either a superhero, a professional athlete from a movie, or Marty McFly.
Part of it was that there weren’t women on TV doing what I loved to do, which was fight imaginary bad guys and save the day, win imaginary World Series, and time travel. The other part of it was when I imagined myself as any of those guys, my built-in imaginary companion was a woman. I actually related a lot to Lois and Clark’s Clark Kent (not Dean Cain). I was a well-meaning, hard-working goof with a good heart and a secret identity. I was also in love with Lois Lane. But! This Lois Lane made me face down the greatest gay conundrum for the first time: I also wanted to be her. She was just so much. Aggressive, determined, resourceful, successful, unafraid, and perpetually not sorry no matter how much trouble her mouth or her curiosity got her into. I’d never seen that on TV before.
Also, this photo is still the sexiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
4. Elena Alvarez, One Day at a Time
When our TV Team talks about One Day at a Time, which we do a lot, one thing we consistently marvel at is how safe and relaxed we feel when we watch the show. None of us are ever afraid of it punching down on us, a rare feeling for any series and especially a comedy with a leading lesbian character. But! Elena is both in on and the subject of so many of the shows best jokes. The way the other characters clown on her, though, is full of so much genuine love and affection that it feels like being goofed at by your best friends.
I love how proud she is to be gay, and Latinx, and an activist, and a nerd. I love that she stands up for what she thinks is right always and that her idealism hasn’t yet been bruised. I love how outraged she gets. I love how silly she is, especially with her sydnificant other. I love that she represents the generation that will survive this presidential administration and bring their brilliance and tenacity and anger to bear on the future they’ll build into a shape we’ve never even seen before. There’s a part of me that wishes Elena had been around when I was a teenager, but a bigger part of me that knows she’s meant for this moment, right now.
3. Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack
For most of my life I was scared of the word I think best describes me — dyke. I love it now. I love the way it sounds when I say it out loud and the way most people shrink back from it. I love that the people who don’t shrink back from it, who proclaim it the way I do, are my dearest companions. Gentleman Jack‘s Anne Lister is a dyke. It’s the way she dresses and walks and wields that walking stick, the way she makes other women feel, at dinner and in the drawing room and in bed. It’s her antagonism toward all men. It’s her posture. It’s her gait. It’s the way she gesticulates. Anne Lister was a complicated woman. A revolutionary in so many ways, but backwards-thinking in many others, especially in terms of class and capitalism. I’m so relieved Gentleman Jack didn’t brush over that and make her some kind of one-note hero. I’m also relieved I can stop projecting myself onto Fitzwilliam Darcy, or at least that I can split my time projecting onto him and Anne.
2. Santana Lopez, Glee
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it as long as I live: No TV character besides Ellen DeGeneres had as big an impact on our culture and our politics as Santana Lopez. She arrived on-screen at a time when the gay rights movement needed one huge push to gain marriage equality and reverse Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and to achieve those goals we needed a majority of Americans to support gay people. Santana, on primetime on Fox, was an enormous part of manifesting that reality.
But it’s essential to understand that Santana also changed things on a micro level. When Naya Rivera passed away, the outpouring of love and grief for her from the LGBTQ+ community contained a zillion similar messages: “I once was this sad, scared, lonely, confused person. And then Santana Lopez happened. And now I am this proud, resilient, open, authentic, brave person you see today.” She changed our literal lives. That would be enough. That would be more than enough. But she also endlessly entertained us. She made us laugh and dance and cry and swoon and sing and sing some more. I don’t know who I would be without her. I really don’t.
1. Annalise Keating, How to Get Away With Murder
As always, when I talk about Annalise Keating, I want to tell you first and foremost to read Natalie.
And then secondly I want to tell you that I still cannot believe Viola Davis — Viola Davis! — played a bisexual character on primetime network TV. It feels like a fever dream, even after the show has ended. There’s never been a moment when Viola Davis has been on-screen that I’ve been able to look away (except for when it was pre-planned, like when she’s in a movie like Widows where she’s squashing heads). She delights me, she devastates me, she enchants me.
I don’t think I have ever longed for a character’s freedom and happiness the way I did for Annalise Keating’s, and not just because it warms my actual bones when Viola Davis smiles. A Black queer woman from the Bible belt who had to hold the entire world together, and could and did, despite her own trauma and the incompetence and selfishness of people around her, and who empowered and protected those she loved the most, and hurt them too, and was forgiven and who learned to forgive herself. A woman who didn’t believe she deserved happiness or contentment or love, but who found it anyway. (Because she did deserve those things.) A woman who feared her gayness, despite her general lack of fear about anything, and learned to embrace it.
There has truly never, ever been a character like Annalise Keating on TV, and we’ve scarcely seen an actor of Viola Davis’ caliber playing someone queer. I know how lucky I am to have witnessed it and I will treasure it forever.
Honorable mentions: Scorpia, Catra, and Adora (She-Ra), Janet (The Good Place), M-Chuck (Survivor’s Remorse), The Dog Who Ate Dan’s Heart (One Tree Hill), Shaw (Person of Interest), Helen Stewart (Bad Girls), Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Alex Danvers (Supergirl).
Where to stream gay TV:
89 Queer TV Shows to Stream on Netflix