My Top 10 Television Characters: Kayla, Who Has Mommy Issues

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’s Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya shares hers.


I always like to start these lists with a disclaimer that basically on any given day it could look a little different. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, THAT IS ESPECIALLY TRUE FOR THIS LIST. I’m a person, and characters are “people,” and the annoying thing about people is that they contain contradictions, layers, etc. I get different things from different characters at different points of my life. Some of the characters who have been nearest and dearest to my heart for the longest didn’t even make this list! Because to force myself to stick to just 10, I really had to pick some sort of thematic throughline. I could have gone with the characters who I most identify with, in which case there would be a lot of horny weirdos like Elena Alvarez from One Day At A Time or Maya Ishii-Peters from Pen15 or Paris Geller from Gilmore Girls on this list. Instead, I went with a different theme which is, roughly, Mean Moms/Women Who Could Beat Me Up. So with that in mind, let’s delve into the inner workings of my mommy issues-riddled psyche!


10. Cordelia Chase, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel

Like Natalie, I appreciate a complex and satisfying character arc, and Cordelia Chase has one of my favorites, especially by the time Angel comes around. We see Cordelia go from the popular mean girl (hot!) on Buffy to a big-hearted hero on Angel. And when you look at the full breadth of her arc, all the pieces click into place perfectly. Cordelia doesn’t change overnight; rather, she evolves. And that evolution is extremely compelling. Also, she could absolutely shoot me with a crossbow.


9. Betty Draper, Mad Men

Okay, I could pick pretty much any of the women on Mad Men for this list, and a few of my colleagues already picked Peggy Olson who is indeed a brilliant character. But like I said, this list is an homage to mean moms and women who can kick my ass and Betty is pretty much the platonic ideal of the former. Although to merely call her a mean mom strips the character of her inherent complexity and subversiveness. She’s the prototypical 1960s white housewife, and she’s also a Fuck You to it. She doesn’t really like her kids. She is frustratingly aroused by her husband and also resentful of him. Her wants are paradoxical. And that is RELATABLE. As an aside: Have you read this essay? You should read this essay.


8. Bette Porter, The L Word

I co-sign everything Drew wrote about Bette and The L Word in her Top 10 character list. I’ve included a lot of endlessly frustrating characters on this list. Many who make the same mistakes over and over and over. Many who are seen as villains by some. Many who have spurts of self-betterment but also spurts of regression. All of whom have made me feel such a wide range of emotions that it would be impossible to shove them into any one box. Bette Porter angers and delights me in equal measure. I will say that I’m not totally on board with the way she’s characterized in Generation Q, but in the new series, some of her old habits resurface in a way I find believable.


7. Philippa Georgiou, Star Trek: Discovery

I love doppelganger/evil twin/etc. characters from television, and it took me a while to decide which flavor of twinned identities I’d choose for this slot. I could have gone with one of the Orphan Black clones (Alison is my favorite, for the record, although you probably could have guessed that from the title of this list) or with Katherine Petrova from The Vampire Diaries. (Yes, I keep cheating by giving shoutouts to other characters on this list!) But ultimately, I’ve decided to go with Philippa Georgiou, who in the prime universe of Star Trek: Discovery is a great leader and mentor figure to protagonist Michael Burnham and who in the mirror universe is a despotic, violent emperor and adoptive mother to the mirror universe version of Burnham. Let’s just say this one ticks a few boxes for me: doppelganger drama, mommy issues, and Michelle Yeoh throwing punches.


6. Skyler White, Breaking Bad

Only locals are still doing the “show villain vs. actual villain” meme on Twitter anymore, but anyone who calls Skyler White a villain of any kind is a COP in my book. The specific dudebro brand of Breaking Bad fans who hated Skyler White actually reiterate part of why I like this character: She represents something men fear. Walt strips her of her autonomy and makes decisions that put her directly in harm’s way, and she dares to push back, to reclaim her agency in a way that makes Walt feel controlled and belittled. Skyler is no doubt another one of those frustrating characters on this list. Her behaviors are often hypocritical. She’s selfish. She’s judgemental. But those are the kinds of flaws I’m drawn to in storytelling. There are indeed cogent critiques of the character that exist outside the scope of fans’ misogyny, but conversations about a character’s likability usually bore me frankly. I’m drawn to characters who I’m not even rooting for all the time.


5. Patty Hewes, Damages

Okay, okay, we are indeed getting into villain territory now. Yes, I resist labels like that, but there’s no denying the overwhelming ugliness of this ruthless manipulator. In addition to doppelgangers, another very specific TV dynamic I love dearly is a fucked-up relationship between a mentor and mentee (the mommy issues CANNOT BE CONTAINED). Think: Rachel and Quinn on Unreal and Octavia and Indra on The 100. And Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons on Damages are the extreme version of this particular dynamic. It’s never fully clear if they want to destroy or fuck or become one another. They are perfect adversaries and conspirators, bringing out the utmost worst in one another but also shaping each other. They transcend relationship categories.


4. Victoria Grayson, Revenge

If I’m being honest, Victoria is the least dimensional character on this list, but I love a good soapy character. She manipulates, she murders, she mothers without a hint of warmth. And Victoria is far from flat. Her backstory and complicated relationships with various people in her life all contribute to her intimacy issues and ruthlessness. She’s another ideal “villain”—one who’s smart and diabolical but still human.


3. Luisa Alver, Jane The Virgin

Honestly, half a dozen characters from Jane The Virgin are some of my favorite TV characters of all time which is why, again, I really had to limit myself to at least a nebulous theme without risking a complete meltdown. My top three of this list are all queer as fuck, and that feels right. I watched Jane The Virgin zealously until its end, and Luisa immediately stood out to me as an example of a messy queer character (see also: Leila on The Bisexual) who invokes a whole mess of feelings in me. The show doesn’t always handle Luisa’s relationships and mental health well, but the telenovela conceit of her ongoing toxic relationship with Rose and also some of the more grounded parts of her arc like her struggle with sobriety were captivating parts of this very sprawling series for me. Luisa doesn’t technically fall under the Mean Moms/Women Who Could Beat Me Up umbrella (although I do think she could hire Rose to kill me), but I really do love a character who can harness both drama and comedy at the same time, and my top three here perfectly fit that billing, too.


2. Santana Lopez, Glee

Santana Lopez meant so much to me before I even had the words to articulate how much she meant to me. “Coming out” storylines are far from one-size-fits-all, and they only skim the surface of queer lived experience, but Santana’s was one that shot me through me like lightning. Sorry for this sentence I’m about to write: I identified as a Gleek way before I identified as a lesbian. And my understanding of myself is intricately tied up in this show and many of the others I watched before my twenties when I first started putting together some of the pieces of the puzzle that is my Self. While Santana Lopez isn’t necessarily the starting point of that, my memories of watching her navigate sexuality, desire, and creative expression on that show are absolutely formative for me.


1. Kalinda Sharma, The Good Wife

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma on the CBS drama THE GOOD WIFE on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Justin Stephens/CBS �¨�© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc, All Rights Reserved.

I have been writing about Kalinda Sharma for over six years, and I doubt I’ll ever stop. She was the first queer South Asian character on television who I was ever exposed to, and she holds a very special place in my heart to say the least. It’s not even that I necessarily identify with the character: She’s way more confident and aggressive than I’ve ever been. But there are limits to framing representation within the context of relatability. Not all people of the same identities are truly the same—to state the obvious. The differences between myself and Kalinda draw me to her. There’s a wish fulfillment/fantasy element to my obsession with her. I like to imagine myself that bold, that in-control. Actually now that I think about it, all the women on this list have something that I want.

Honorable mommis mentions: Eve Polastri (Killing Eve), Cheryl Blossom (Riverdale), Theo Crain (The Haunting Of Hill House), Dana Scully (The X-Files), Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder), Mellie Grant (Scandal), Celia Hodes (Weeds), Gabrielle Solis (Desperate Housewives), Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica), Petra Solano (Jane The Virgin), Adora Crellin (Sharp Objects), Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy), Piper Halliwell (Charmed), Sydney Bristow (Alias)


Where to stream gay TV:

89 Queer TV Shows to Stream on Netflix

32 Lesbian, Queer & Bisexual (LGBTQ+) TV Shows Streaming Free on Amazon Prime
62 TV Shows On Hulu with LGBTQ+ Characters


Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 237 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Love this. I always loved Cordelia and her arc. I wanted to be her.

    I started following you on Twitter when you were fully into The Good Wife and Kalinda Sharma. Kayla you will always be one of the best accounts that I followed. I hope you are doing well. Take care.

  2. Hey, This is only vaugely related to this article via tv, but I just finished teenage bounty hunters on Netflix and its quite sweet and a fair bit queer? Also, Kalinda Sharma made me realize I was gay (shoutout to youtube compilations)

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