2021 was an amazing year for television and an even better year for female characters. While adjusting to living in a pandemic, these characters made me laugh, cry, and taught me some important life lessons. I’m highlighting international dramas, well-known superheroes, new variants, and a few new friend groups I’ve met along the way. All of these characters deserved more hype this year, and I hope you decide to meet a few yourself.
From drama leads, to sarcastic queens, here’s a list of some of my favorite female characters from new shows in 2021.
My Favorite Drama Leads
Leya from Netflix’s Snabba Cash
Netflix’s Snabba Cash is a web of hustle. This Swedish reboot is set in Stockholm, ten years after a film trilogy by the same name. (I had no idea there was a film trilogy and didn’t feel like I was missing something while watching this action-packed drama.) This show moves fast. It compares the entrepreneurial world we know to be white collared and wealthy, with the chaotic criminal underground that moves in silence. Snabba Cash makes you wonder if these two worlds are really that different.
Our leading lady for this list is Leya—a single mom who hustles her way to get her app idea funded by an angel investor. Struggling to make it in the startup world, Leya is in the all-too familiar life transition position. The one where you’re working around the clock, with multiple jobs, trying to fund your dream and put food on the table. Leya’s entrepreneurial dream is so close to actualizing, it gets harder and harder to keep it alive. Having to play a little dirty in order to keep up with the top one percent, her ambitious determination lands her in some intense situations. Her character arc is a constant push and pull between how far she’s willing to diminish her boundaries to get what she wants, and how what she wants can change at the expense of a life. (Literally.)
Cora from Amazon’s The Underground Railroad
I read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead for a book club this year and decided to watch this adaptation as a companion to the novel. The show turned out to be one of my favorites from 2021. This Pulitzer Prize winning book was adapted by one of my favorite directors, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight 2016), who did more than justice to this tragic, beautiful story. Jenkins really brought the book to life in a way I could not see in my own reading experience. In his novel, Whitehead plays with the idea of: what if The Underground Railroad, was in fact, an actual railroad? Following the life of a young slave girl named Cora across the antebellum South, this adaptation was art in its purest form.
After an attempt to escape a plantation in Georgia, Cora boards The Underground Railroad searching for freedom. With each stop, we learn that states have a very different view on how the lives of former slaves should be handled. In a deeply sad and traumatic tale, Cora chases a freedom that’s outside of her grasp. The trauma this character carries with her throughout her journey is so heartbreaking. It’s one of the first times I’ve fully realized I’m seeing a character carry generational trauma with her as she lives through her very own. Without time to process, you witness the subtle moments that give birth to her triggers. Thuso Mbedu’s performance as Cora has put her on my list of actresses to watch.
Willie Jack from FX’s Reservation Dogs
FX’s Reservation Dogs follows four indigenous teens in rural Oklahoma, living on the res. Res life is boring as hell, especially after their fifth member Daniel died five years ago. The four friends steal and rob money as they save up to leave for California. Blaming their soul-crushing small town for Daniel’s death, they’re ready to get out. Each member of the Reservation Dogs is unique and adds a great balance to this ride-or-die friend group, but Willie Jack was my favorite.
Willie Jack is the glue. She’s the glue as her parents grieve. As each of her friends grieves the death of her brother, some taking it harder than others, she stays strong in the most chill way, even as she’s handling her own feelings. California offers a chance for her to finally think about what she could do with her life outside the res, but struggles with the idea of leaving her parents behind. While her character might grieve in silence, her acceptance and need to help everyone else process their own grief is what makes Willie Jack one of the best teen characters on TV. Her personality is slightly sarcastic as well, just like some of my favorite sarcastic queens below.
My Favorite Sarcastic Queens
Sylvie from Marvel Studios’ Loki
I like to coordinate my Halloween costume every year to one of my favorite characters on TV. Sylvie from Marvel Studios’ Loki fit the bill in 2021. I thought, what a great time to be a variant! Am I right? (Yes, that’s a COVID joke. Sometimes we gotta laugh through the pandemic.) Marvel Studios’ Loki features Tom Hiddleston as the God of Mischief following the events after Avengers: Endgame. It’s going to be the show Marvel fans reference for explaining the new timelines in the expanding Marvelverse. Directed by Kate Herron (Sex Education), this show is fantastic and is a timeline braingasm.
Sylvie is a stubborn, sarcastic queen. Her character is such a refreshing Loki. I loved her independence and directness. While these characters continue to seek their own best interests, something about meeting a mirror image (or in this case, a variant) seems to bring some self-awareness into the mix. Some might call this just another Marvel show, but I like to see it as a self-love story, battling two different versions of yourself, both with a common interest—you.
Mabel from Hulu’s Only Murders In The Building
Are you into true crime podcasts? Hulu’s Only Murders In The Building was made for you. I love a good mystery show and it’s been such a long time since I found something that was fun, smart, and completely original. This comedic murder-mystery series takes place in New York, where three strangers obsessed with the same true-crime podcast, decide to make their own. The three of them play detective, trying to solve a murder in their building.
I grew up watching Steve Martin and Martin Short films so this was nostalgic for me. Seeing these two back together was great, but what made them even better was Selena Gomez. Gomez has been a sarcastic queen since she played Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place and she continues to own that quick-wit sarcasm. Her character Mabel is tangled in the murder case. She hides her past well and naturally, keeps to herself. Her sarcasm and brutal honesty offer you pockets of laughter. Her mysteriousness is what makes you want to pinpoint her as a suspect, but she only ends up leading you to more clues.
I also loved how Gomez was able to play a Latina character that didn’t center around her identity. There are scenes where her Latina identity is confirmed, but it doesn’t make it about her being Latina. It gives us a chance to see her as more than that, which is a huge step forward for us.
Constance Contraire from Disney’s The Mysterious Benedict Society
I told myself I wasn’t going to rate these characters, but Constance Contraire from Disney’s The Mysterious Benedict Society might be my number one. This sarcastic queen wins the gold medal. I would anticipate every line delivery from Marta Kessler, who plays Constance Contraire, knowing it would bring me the most sarcastic-loving joy. Based on a middle-grade book series, Disney’s The Mysterious Benedict Society follows four gifted orphans who are recruited through a fake scholarship for a top-secret, dangerous mission to save the world from a global crisis.
Constance’s sarcasm is so borderline honest at times, you cannot tell when she’s actually being honest. Nine times out of ten, I’d say she’s being honest—a true sarcastic queen. Always finding the best solution to the team’s problems (with the least amount of effort) Constance is a true genius and makes me laugh everytime she speaks. If sarcasm is something you admire, get to know my favorite sarcastic queen from 2021 on Disney+.
My Favorite New Friend Groups
Camille, Tyr, Quinn & Angie from Amazon’s Harlem
One of my favorite new shows this year was Amazon’s Harlem. Created by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip), this new comedy follows a group of friends in Harlem NYC. Angie is a singer that owns the room, Camille is a professor at Columbia trying to balance her career with her love life, Tyr is the queer CEO of a dating app company, and Quinn is a fashion designer who is trying to win her mom’s approval. These four women support each other as they each transition into the next phases of their own lives and careers.
I couldn’t pick just one because this friend group comes as a package deal. I loved how they each live their own successful lives. There’s an even balance between the different friend dynamics, where each scene is fast-paced, yet heartfelt and hilarious. There are a lot of moving parts here but I grew to love each of the character’s story lines and loved how the four of them balance each other out. It made me yearn for a supportive friend-family group just like theirs.
Coral, Gina & Wendy from Netflix’s Sky Rojo
Netflix’s Sky Rojo is a Spanish show filled with adrenaline and near-death action sequences. Coral, Wendy and Gina are a surviving friend-group on the run from a sex traffic club. These tías are running for their lives but make the worst decisions. Their mistakes lead to unnecessary casualties, their bond growing stronger by each dodge of death. Coral is an addict who has a mysterious past and is being tracked by their pimp, which doesn’t make escaping very easy. Wendy is a character who experiences so much trauma but still has room for mercy. Gina is a hopeless romantic who reminds these women they’re still human.
While their friendship starts with survival, they grow to protect each other despite the odds. Revealing secrets and messy relationship ties along the way, you root for this trio to survive. Your heart will stop every time one of them nearly bleeds out or when the three of them get buried alive. If you’re looking for your next binge, find out why I think it should be ‘Sky Rojo.’
Natalia, Maria & Monika from Netflix’s Sexify
Netflix’s Sexify is a Polish, sex-positive show based in a university in Warsaw. It navigates a patriarchal taboo topic—improving the female orgasm. The three women at the show’s center define what pleasure means for them, in order to share their results to help millions of women around the world with a ground-breaking app. Natalia is an awkward genius with a brilliant sex app idea who has never had an orgasm. Paulina does everything right in her long-term relationship, yet isn’t quite satisfied. Monika is trying to live without rules until her feelings for her ex start to affect her own pleasure.
While Natalia continues her research to improve the female orgasm for her app, she recruits her best friend Paulina and her roommate Monika to navigate this new adventure. An unlikely friend group becomes a team, battling the patriarchy along the way. I loved how different each one of these characters viewed and experienced their own sexual journeys, free of judgment from one another. They navigate a new friendship (based on a pleasurable common interest) with a mission to help women everywhere. Check out my list of shows that navigate female friendship.
My Favorite Messy Lessons
Monica Lewinsky & Linda Tripp in FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story
Impeachment: American Crime Story marks the third season of FX’s award-winning limited series American Crime Story. Following the events leading up to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, we get a look at Monica Lewinsky’s side. It’s a pretty messy lesson, one that we all go through in life—be careful who you trust and how much you tell someone. Not everyone is seeking your time and attention for the right reasons. There are people out there that want information for their own benefit and may use it against you.
Not all friendships are good and this one was straight-up toxic. I can’t remember the last time a character made me cringe so badly. Linda Tripp was a negative whirlpool who fed off validation from her own conspiracies. Played by the amazing Sarah Paulson, I can’t imagine how hard it was to play this character. She’s only a favorite because I can’t stop thinking about her and the insane things she did to get information for a bizarre reason. Ruining someone’s life for a possible tell-all novel is disgusting. Despite the disgust, it was so refreshing to see Bernie Feldstein play Monica Lewinsky in a serious role like this. My eyes were glued to the screen. This is a show that will have you googling things as you watch. Wait…did that really happen? (I’m a 90s baby, okay.)
Belinda from HBO Max’s The White Lotus
One of the shows I can’t stop thinking about is HBO Max’s The White Lotus. As a limited series, this show unpacks some white privilege. You either see it and want to write a dissertation about it, or you completely miss it and just think it’s a funny show. Following different guests and employees over the course of one week’s stay, this hotel drama will have you shaking your head in a disappointed-parent-kind-of-way. As the week progresses, truths unravel and things get ugly. It’s supposed to be social satire but this show can strike two very different chords. It made me curious to see how someone other than a person of color would react to it.
The hardest lesson some of us will ever learn is the unfulfilled promise of white guilt. Belinda is the resort spa manager at The White Lotus. She caters to one of the guests by offering more than what’s on the spa menu. Overserving, she gets invited to dinner. That’s when Tanya offers Belinda a chance to fund a dream of owning her own spa. Belinda caters to Tanya throughout her entire stay, serving more as a concierge than a spa manager. She even puts together a business proposal and buys into Tanya’s promise of a new life. Until…Tanya decides it’s not going to work. Her words were just a front. Belinda’s dreams are crushed.
Wanda Maximoff from Disney’s WandaVision
I love how Disney used their streaming platform to give our Avengers an opportunity to process the insane amount of trauma they carry after Thanos snapped his fingers. The concept of WandaVision was one of the riskiest things Marvel could have done and yet, it was one of the best shows of the year. Using classic television shows to process her grief, Wanda Maximoff and Vision are two superheroes living in the suburbs through different decades, until Wanda realizes something is a bit off.
I mean, how messy do you need to get when avoiding processing your grief? Ask Wanda. It ain’t pretty. Seeing how Wanda’s character processes grief in her mind (the same place where her own powers live) gives us an opportunity to understand the root of our own traumas. Moving through each decade, it was fun to see how far Wanda allows herself to let go. Did Vision’s line on love and grief completely melt me? Absolutely. It might’ve been the best line on TV in 2021!
You can also see the progress of mental health for women in this show, pretending everything was fine and dandy in the 50s to having a depressive episode in the early 2000s—aka finally showing society’s perceptions of mental health for women over time. In the end, WandaVision reminds us that prioritizing your mental health, whether you’re a supermom or not, can help you heal in ways you didn’t think were possible.