Hollywood has a representation problem. People of colour, especially women, have been underrepresented for decades. On TV and the big screen, women of colour have played the best friend, the nerdy overachiever, the angry finger-snapping black woman, the sexpot, the pregnant teen, the hooker. Their characters have been used as set dressing, as comic relief, and to further the narratives of the main characters who are often, lamentably, white.
In recent years, it seems the industry has been responding to the calls for more diversity and greater representation of women of colour. It’s been refreshing to see realistic, fully fleshed out WOC characters on TV in Jessica Huang, Mindy Lahiri, and Annalise Keating whose experiences mirror ours. Here are 14+ strong and complex characters women of colour that we can relate and look up to.
Women of Colour #1: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), Scandal
After helping Fitz Grant win his presidential campaign, Olivia Pope became the go-to person for handling political crises and messes that her prominent clients get involved in. She sips red wine while dressed in couture and has a really flexible moral compass that serves her needs well. She doesn’t refer to her team of lawyers as her employees. Nope, that’s way too dull. They’re “gladiators dressed in suits”.
Women of Colour #2: Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Game of Thrones
The praise Game of Thrones gets for its depiction of complex, multi-dimensional women mostly revolves around Cersei, Daenerys, Arya, and Sansa, but Missandei deserves a spot in the limelight too. Though she started out as a slave, Missandei becomes more than just her mistress’s confidante and interpreter. She’s a calm strategist, wise diplomat, and she can speak 19 languages. We also love the way her relationship with Grey Worm evolved.
Women of Colour #3: Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil), The Magicians
Where do we start with Margo? At the start of season 1, the senior student magician was known for her dramatic personality and party animal reputation but as the story unfolded, her layers were peeled back to reveal a deeply insecure, brutally honest, and pragmatic woman. From negotiating with the Fairy Queen to masterminding a magical heist, Margo is the ultimate queen. And she often has the sassiest lines.
Women of Colour #4: Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), Jane the Virgin
Through Jane, young moms see their experiences play out on TV. Juggling a career, dates, and school pickups, co-parenting with your ex, having a fear of missing out while other 20-somethings are at the YOLO point in their lives. Though a huge part of the show revolves around sex (hence the title), the titular character isn’t defined by her sexuality. Jane embraces her desires while remaining grounded in her wish to have sex after marriage.
Women of Colour #5: Daisy Johnson/Quake (Chloe Bennet), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
There’s just so much to love about Daisy Johnson. She started out as an orphaned anti-establishment hacktivist who got recruited into S.H.I.E.LD. Over the seasons, she literally became a force to be reckoned with but the Asian American superhero’s powers aren’t the only things that make her powerful. She reclaimed the name Nazis stole from her at birth and embraced her past, trauma, darkness, and all. She’s compassionate, empathetic, and a competent fighter and investigator in her own right.
Women of Colour #6: Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), How To Get Away With Murder
Annalise Keating is the only bisexual middle-aged black female lead on American network television. On the surface, she has a successful career as a high-powered lawyer and law professor and a loving husband. In reality, she’s an alcoholic and she’s constantly struggling with the trauma of being sexually abused as a child. She’d also do terrible things to help her students get away with murder. Case in point: She had the bright idea of making her rival’s death look like an accident.
Women of Colour #7: Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), The Mindy Project
Raise your hands if you can relate to celeb-obsessed, boy-crazy, and ambitious OB-GYN Mindy Lahiri! When she’s not delivering babies and being a total boss, she’s watching rom-coms in bed and eating comfort food. She’s unafraid of taking control of her finances and sex life. And she stands up for her rights.
Women of Colour #8: Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), Fresh Off the Boat
Let’s face it, the world would collapse if Jessica Huang wasn’t around. She handles the Huang boys and her crotchety mother-in-law just as well as she sells houses. Who was here for that time she and her husband, Louis double-teamed to get the greatest deal on a car ever? Or that time she did taxes on a holiday? Or that time she brainwashed Eddie into respecting girls by jamming her stuffed animal into his face?
Women of Colour #9: Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), Westworld
Lots of TV reviewers derided HBO sci-fi western Westworld for its gratuitous violence against women and people of colour. But it made us cheer harder when these characters turned the tables on the humans. Salon madam, robot Maeve’s story was especially heartbreaking but she got her revenge by manipulating the techies and breaking out of the human-controlled loop.
Women of Colour #10: Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), Quantico
We’ve had women lead thriller series on American TV before (Buffy, Alias), but Priyanka Chopra is the first Indian woman to lead one. And her performance as an FBI trainee who gets framed for a terrorist attack is powerfully charismatic. Alex Parrish is not only smart and tough, she also owns her decisions.
Women of Colour #11: Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s women are all brilliant and complex, but it’s detective Rosa Diaz who has our attention. When fellow detective Charles Boyle pursues her, she makes it known that she’s completely uninterested in a romantic relationship with him. And the moment she acknowledged her bisexuality was monumental for the LGBT community.
Women of Colour #12: Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), The Good Place
Frequently overlooked by TV critics, Tahani Al-Jamil is actually one of the most hilarious and relatable characters of colour. Sent to The Good Place in her afterlife, she was a Pakistani English socialite known for her good deeds. Though she raised billions for charity, her philanthropy actually stemmed from a deep-seated rivalry with her overachieving younger sister, Kamilah. It’s also hard not to feel for her as the vain and self-absorbed socialite details her inability to connect with her soulmate, Jianyu.
Women of Colour #13: Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), Riverdale
In the comics, Veronica’s a spoiled white brat who throws her family’s money around and fights her frenemy Betty Cooper for Archie’s affections. In the CW adaptation, she’s still a spoiled rich girl but one fallen from grace. And she’s Latina here. Also… how refreshing is it that she values her friendship with Betty over her relationship with Archie? Girlfriends come first!
Women of Colour #14: All the women of colour in Orange Is The New Black
OITNB is making serious strides in its depiction of women of colour. From Taystee Jefferson to Poussey Washington (RIP) to Brook Soso to Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, none of the WOC here come across as caricatures or stereotypes. They’re individualistic, passionate, messy, vulgar, sweet, kind, and they stand up for each other.
By Zoe Liew.
See also: 8 Questions with Feisty “Wanita” Zamaera