Independent and influential female characters were not necessarily new to primetime television before the '90s, but they definitely were not as prevalent. While the girl power gains were gradual and are constantly being improved upon to this day, there's no doubt that the 1990s sparked a generation of intelligent, assertive, and powerful women who finally had a plethora of strong female TV characters to look up to. These role models all sported different personalities, careers, families, and aspirations. Most spanning across diverse cultures and backgrounds. Many young girls growing up could identify with at least one or more or these female characters, and quickly learned to appreciate the hard-won feminist movements and rights before them. They learned they could become martial arts experts, battle literal demons while juggling their own personal ones, and make changes in a world that could be shared by everyone.
These '90s characters taught girls they never had to compromise who they were; tomboy, pageant queen, computer wiz, or mother, in order to achieve their goals in life. The following is a list of some of the most influential and empowering TV heroines of the '90s who each gave little girls and boys the courage to be whoever and whatever they wanted.
15 Vivian Banks From The 'Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air'
There is an ongoing debate between many Fresh Prince fans—even 21 years later—of which Aunt Viv was the best Aunt Viv. Truth be told, it doesn't really matter. While Vivian Banks (Will Smith's feisty and strong-willed maternal aunt) was portrayed by Janet Hubert-Whitten in the first three seasons, and later by Daphne Maxwell Reid in seasons four through six. Her character overall was poised and personable without ever losing her sassy side.
The former Aunt Viv is best knows for being the OG matriarch in the series, and upheld the vision of an outspoken, independent mother in what can be called one of the most iconic black sitcoms of that decade. Although her husband, Uncle Phil, was portrayed as rough around the edges, when it came to their relationship, it was clear who wore the pants. Not only that, but part of Aunt Viv's lasting influence was the fact that she never compromised who she was. And for that fact alone, gained her family's utmost respect. No matter which Aunt Viv you side with, one thing is for certain: this was one lady you didn't want to cross, but sure as heck wanted to be.
14 Sabrina Spellman From 'Sabrina The Teenage Witch'
When it all comes down to it, Sabrina Spellman was just a regular sophomore teenager living in Westbridge, Massachusetts with her aunts while her warlock father and mortal mother attended to their vastly different careers. Of course, we all know the show (which aired from 1996 to 2003) would never have been what it was if Sabrina were just a "regular teen." When she discovers her witch powers on her 16th birthday, her life changes forever, and the show follows her adventures and mishaps along the way. Despite this, she is simply a genuinely kind and outgoing woman who is always quick to stand up against bullies and look after her friends and family. Sometimes overly nosey, she is also incredibly savvy and innovative - all while remaining down-to-earth and amicable with everyone. For girls growing up, Sabrina was the picture of small-town cheer without the popularity complex. This allowed many to embrace the quirky sides of them that they couldn't change, and instead took advantage of their quirky side.
13 C.J. Parker From 'Baywatch'
This may be a controversial TV heroine to mention, but we would be doing '90s TV a disservice without acknowledging the profound effect Pamela Anderson's blonde and buxom character C.J., had in her role on the original Baywatch (1989-1999). While some may write her off as another attractive bimbo who upheld impossible body image standards to young women across the world, we agree that her character broke the stereotype that you can't be pretty and powerful at the same time. She was hardworking and extremely dedicated to her job as a lifeguard. She was always quick to step up against adversity. Strong-willed and reliable, C.J. was also one of the first TV heroines to be not only vegetarian and very ethically-conscious, but also be able to enjoy athletic pursuits while also embracing her spiritual, nurturing side. If anything, the physical feats she was required to showcase throughout the series were extraordinary. Not only did C.J. know how to expertly operate water vehicles and other machinery, but she was an avid swimmer, rock climber, kayaker, and even played the saxophone. Some may say her well-roundedness paired with her stunning looks was too far-fetched to be realistic, but we beg to disagree.
12 Lois Lane From 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman'
Although Lois & Clark only ran for a short four seasons from 1993 to 1997, Teri Hatcher's portrayal of comic book female Lois Lane was one for the record books. Back when hard news and ground-breaking journalism was glamorized on television, Lois proved that being a woman would not set her back in her pursuit of become an award-winning reporter for her newspaper, The Daily Planet. Though looking back now, we realized much of the TV show was littered with inappropriate euphemisms and puns (that thankfully went over our heads at the time). We can still appreciate the idea that it didn't matter that she was a woman; Lois could still get the love of her life while balancing an incredibly fulfilling and impressive career as a reporter. For many young girls, Lois' success as an intelligent employee in a sea of men was life-changing and allowed them to appreciate that hard work and resilience would take them far in life.
11 Ashley Spinelli From 'Recess'
Ashley Spinelli was the quintessential tough girl on the playground during Recess, the animated Disney TV show that ran from 1997 to 2001. Voiced by actress Pamela Segall Adlon, Spinelli is known for her tough girl exterior, love of wrestling, and stubborn nature. Taking on her last name in order to differentiate herself from the notoriously awful "Ashleys," Spinelli is distinguishable by her classic orange hat, combat boots, and jacket. But it's not purely the fact that her character was powerful and to be feared by the rest of the kids at school; Spinelli also had a sensitive side that she often explored while seeking advice from other strong female characters in the series. She was also a talented artist, a loyal friend, and brave beyond belief. If she comes across as antagonistic and cynical, we can still appreciate that one of her most endearing qualities is that she treats everyone--her friends and enemies alike—on equal ground.
10 Alex Mack From 'The Secret World Of Alex Mack'
The Secret World of Alex Mack is an oft-forgotten kids classic that had a profound effect on its young viewers. The show ran from 1994 to 1998, and starred Larisa Oleynik as Alex Mack, a regular teenager living in Paradise Valley who one day develops strange powers after a near hit with a truck carrying GC-161. After she is covered in the chemical, she later notices the ability to liquefy into a metallic-like substance, in addition to developing telekinesis and shooting sparks from her fingertips. When you think about it, the events that occur after her transformation are a little grim, because this young girl has to avoid being caught by the CEO of the power plant that produced this clearly toxic chemical GC-161. However, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Alex Mack's secret world and ensuing adventures were outside-of-the-box and very appealing to young girls who may have found similarities with her tomboyish character. Again, it's interesting to see how so many TV concepts in the '90s involved young women dealing with everyday life while also harboring deep and dangerous secrets.
9 Phoebe Buffay From 'Friends'
Perhaps one of the most well-known and loved female TV characters to date is Friends' Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow. Friends was an iconic sitcom that initially borrowed from the concept of Seinfeld and made it relatable to Generation X during the '90s. However, for young girls growing up, she also provided a quirky and hilarious role model who was fierce in her loyalty despite all her flaws. And indeed, Phoebe was an incredibly flawed character (they all were, to be honest), and that's what made her so relatable. Though she came from a traumatic upbringing and childhood spent fighting on the street, as an adult she proves that your past is not what defines you, but instead helps build who you will become. Independent and ultra-confident, even though she is ditzy much of the time, Phoebe is not someone to be messed with. In fact, her charisma and hippie values—though very different from her friends'—are what make her unique, and ultimately are what make her so lovable.
8 Moesha Mitchell From 'Moesha'
Airing in 1996 to 2001, Moesha was a sitcom starring '90s R&B singer Brandy Norwood, and took place in Los Angeles. The series followed Moesha Mitchell, who was just a regular teenager navigating life's ups and downs in a middle-class African-American family. The show dealt with a number of typically after-school-special issues, yet Moesha was an upstanding character who always exhibited kindness even throughout the madness of life. Like many of the other females mentioned, Moesha may be stubborn, but she is quick to stand up for her friends and family. She was never afraid to speak her mind in defense of her beliefs. Paired with sass and style, Moesha was an iconic '90s heroine for many young women who struggled with similar pressures.
7 Rei Hino From 'Sailor Moon'
We're all more than familiar with Usagi Tsukino (or Sailor Moon) from the original manga series Sailor Moon that was made into an anime TV show and later translated for the Western audience in 1995. Rei Hino, better known as Sailor Mars, was introduced to us in the seventh (Western release) episode. She is initially portrayed as a mysterious and suspicious shrine miko with psychic abilities, and soon after is shown to be the third Sailor Scout of the series.
Unlike the often whiney airhead Sailor Moon, Rei was calculated (sometimes mistaken for cold), fiercely competitive, and honest to a fault. She is also one of the only Sailor Scouts ever in the anime series to have powers outside of her transformation. Despite her hot-headed arguments with other Scouts and unavoidable immaturity, Rei is a devout Shinto practitioner and follows her faith seriously. Because she is untrusting towards men, she sometimes overcompensates with her boldness, but overall is one boss girl not to be messed with.
6 Olivia Benson From 'Law And Order: SVU'
Olivia Benson is probably one of the most flawed—but endearing—TV characters in television history. Played by the exceptionally talented Mariska Hargitay, it's no wonder this series from 1999 has continued on to the present day. For 18-years (hard to believe), Olivia Benson has been an advocate and fighter for victims of sexual assault, and made it through the ranks as officer, detective, sergeant, and lieutenant. Known for becoming personally involved with victims (and colleagues), and sometimes for becoming a victim herself, Olivia is a fearless leader who follows her heart and her gut (sometimes to the point of no return). Over the years, women have grown with her character and can fully appreciate the impact she has had not only as a fictitious crime-fighter, but as a realistically complex woman who has her faults as well as her strong points.
5 Ellen Morgan From 'Ellen'
Ellen Morgan (played by the comedienne and current talk show goddess Ellen DeGeneres—who was in the sitcom of the same name), became a ground-breaking character for not only women, but for the LGBTQ+ community. Shortly after publicly coming out as gay in real life, the Ellen on TV made the leap on prime time television in 1997 - much to the shock and delight of the audience. This single event sparked so much controversy that the show's network, ABC, had to place a parental advisory warning before every episode. Despite this and the subsequent backlash and eventual cancellation of the program, Ellen and her character remain to this day one of the most influential historical TV heroines of all time. Both Ellens will go down in history for their strength and pride to be unapologetically themselves.
4 Trini Kwan From 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers'
Similarly to Sailor Mars, the Yellow Power Ranger often takes a back seat to the more popular Pink Ranger Kimberly Hart. However, for thousands of women from an Asian background, Trini Kwan (played by Thuy Trang in the first and second seasons of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in 1993-1995) was one of the only live-action Asian female heroines depicted on TV. Not only was she a trained martial artist and able to battle evil with the rest of them, but she was a sincerely kind teenager with a penchant for fashion— despite embracing a more tomboy-vibe.
Her character's main cause was advocating to clean the environment. Although sometimes overlooked for her green ambitions, she was well-known for cleaning up parks, planting seeds, fundraising, and planning events. Additionally, she participated in the Big Sister Program and loved helping children. Bearing a strange personality resemblance to C. J. Parker from Baywatch, Trini was seamlessly able to merge her passions for spirituality, the environment, and her many athletic pursuits while retaining her uplifting and empowering integrity.
3 Samantha Jones From 'Sex And The City'
Certainly not shy, covert or easily forgotten, Samantha Jones (played by Kim Cattrall) was a confident and self-sufficient woman with extraordinary swagger. One of the four main characters in Sex in the City (1998 to 2004 plus later motion pictures), Samantha is known by her open and unabashed sex appeal and feminist equality views. In fact, there probably has never been a TV heroine more blatantly explicit, vulgar, and fantastic than Samantha Jones. Not only does she run her own PR company in New York City, but she takes charge in every situation and always, always has her friends' best interests at heart. An inspiration for so many young women, Samantha Jones may be reckless and alarming, but she is inherently straightforward, protective, and absolutely honest at all times. Able to overcome Breast Cancer while still supporting her friends and their drama, Sam proves that women are a force to be reckoned with in all aspects of life.
2 Xena Of Amphipolis From 'Xena: Warrior Princess'
Her battle cry will go down as perhaps the most iconic sound in '90s TV history. Yes, she is none other than Xena, Warrior Princess. Lucy Lawless starred as the cult princess war heroine from 1995 to 1999, and to this day remains a symbol of absolute power and prowess. Though she has quite a dark past (and if you followed the series, you know how complicated it is), she tries to redeem herself by fighting warlords and gods in their mythical universe. Another television show that sparked criticism and a dedicated following, Xena's relationship with her sidekick Gabrielle was known for its subtext and unconventional relationship. Overall, while Xena was definitely not a perfect character, she was incredibly intriguing, and showcased the power and bravery that every little girl aspired to growing up in the '90s.
1 Buffy Summers From 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'
Finally, possibly the most groundbreaking, inspirational and life-changing heroine in not only the 1990s, but the entire history of television, was the character of Buffy Summers from the iconic and revered Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Created by Joss Whedon in 1997 as a reboot of his earlier feature film of the same name, the show was almost scrapped twice, but managed—with its large following of fans—to redefine primetime TV as we now know it.
All genius aspects of the show aside, Buffy herself, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, was a character that young women and grown adults grew to adore (and still appreciate to this day). Marred with teenage angst, bad relationship issues, and a pretty unshakeable superiority complex, Buffy was by no means perfect. But was still the prime example of a self-motivated and empowering female through it all. Though she fought demons and vampires almost full-time, early on in the season she also had to survive high school and all its atrocities. Buffy's sassy comebacks, quirky nature and bumbling awkwardness made her identifiable to all teenage girls, while her unshaken strength and loyalty still make her a role model for women everywhere.