The lack of strong female characters on TV and film has long been a sticking point for actors in Hollywood and beyond. But the emergence of hit series such as Homeland, Dexter and The Wire has brought with it a host of kick-ass leading ladies. What's more, the concept of what makes a great TV heroine has evolved over the years; female characters now come much more complicated, with a plethora of personal quirks - from drug habits to mental health issues and offbeat mannerisms - to complement their tough personas. From vampires to terrorists and serial killers, these women have tackled it all; and juggle their chequered personal lives with even more difficult day jobs. Read on to find out our selection of (intellectually and physically) kick-ass TV heroines...
What do you think of our choices - have we left anyone out? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments section, below.
Picture credit: Rex Features
Homeland: Carrie Mathison
Played by: Claire Danes
Carrie Mathison literally kills it on the first series of Homeland: she's tough, brave and bolshy - but what really stands her out from the rest is her perceived flaws. From a reliance on anti-psychotic drugs to a penchant for ill-advised affairs, Carrie comes complicated and it's these personal problems that eventually threaten to overwhelm her red hot instincts, making for possibly the most compelling TV viewing of 2012.
Dexter: Lt. Debra Morgan
Played by: Jennifer Carpenter
Foul-mouthed Debs is one of Miami Metro's finest; and though her brother's dark passenger has so far evaded her, she can sniff out pretty much any other of the many murderous psychos that haunt this series from a mile off. Put it this way; whether killer or cop, NO-ONE messes with Lt. Morgan.
The Wire: Detective Kima Greggs
Played by Sonja Sohn
On the tough streets of Baltimore, anyone is fair game - including Detective Shakima Greggs. At once strong and kind, she is an invaluable member of the squad in both the narcotics division and homicide. Grilling suspects, recovering bodies, getting shot: it's all in a day's work for Kima and she deals with it all like the true pro she is.
Game of Thrones: Daenerys Targaryen
Played by: Emilia Clarke
In the first episodes of the mighty Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen seems like a passive character who is led by her domineering brother Viserys, but after her marriage to Khal Drogo she grows in confidence until she becomes a true warrior queen, gamely eating raw horse hearts and riding by the side of her warrior husband as she seeks to reclaim the throne that is her birthright..
The West Wing: C.J. Cregg
Played by Allison Janney
If all press secretaries were as sharp and informed as C.J. Cregg, the world would be a better place. The White House's fictional mouthpiece is engaging, brilliant and reassuringly ditzy on a personal scale (remember her falling into the pool in episode one?). She's always on top of her game, ready to kill a harmful story or leap on top of a good one. No wonder President Bartlet adores her...
Mad Men: Peggy Olson
Played by: Elisabeth Moss
What makes Peggy Olson so cool is her unassuming quality; when she first joins Sterling Cooper as a secretary it seems like she’s way out of her depth. And then before you know it, she’s telling the guys how to do it and generally running the show with her kick-ass ideas.
But Peggy’s progression amid the male-dominated environment of 1950s Manhattan is far from easy and you find yourself simultaneously screaming at the TV with frustration and applauding as she goes about the painful process of breaking down barriers and asserting herself in the most lonely of settings.
Borgen: Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg Christensen
Played by: Sidse Babett Knudsen
Birgitte Nyborg Christensen is pretty much the most down-to-earth Prime Minister you are ever likely to meet (on TV, at least). Her intellect in this Danish drama series is second-to-none and she can power her way coolly through the many back-stabbings and grisly showdowns that go hand-in-hand with political life. At the same time, she's human and one of the most touching scenes is when she curls up on her son's bed among toy dinosaurs at the end of yet another exhausting day.
24: Chloe O'Brian
Played by: Mary Lynn Rajskub
No computer problem is too huge for Chloe O'Brian, 24's supercool IT nerd. Even with Jack yelling down the phone, demanding some sort of impossible task in minus two seconds ("I need that grid now, Chloe!" ) and bombs going off/terrorists looming at every corner, Chloe still manages to be her own unique, snarky and super-talented self, effortlessly jumping from one crisis to the next.
Alias: Sydney Bristow
Played by: Jennifer Garner
When it comes to super-brilliant spies, CIA agent Sydney Bristow is your full package. A pro at both languages and Krav Maga, she can kick butt intellectually and on a physical level. In a world full of double agents and terrorists, Sydney shines through; at once sexy, likeable and incredibly strong.
The Killing: Sarah Lund
Played by: Sofie Gråbøl
Don't mess with Sarah Lund - or her dizzying array of dubious sweaters that star in this Danish thriller hit. The crimes Sarah has to face are far from pretty; but her dogged, unflappable approach means she's more than up for the challenge. What with her dodgy wardrobe and her somewhat dry and dour outlook, Sarah challenges conventional concepts of the female heroine and is all the more brilliant for it.
Law And Order Special Victims Unit: Detective Olivia Benson
Played by: Mariska Hargitay
Detective Olivia Benson has faced her fair share of horrors working in the Special Victims Unit, not forgetting her troubled personal life and the fact she has to stand out among a team of competitive male colleagues. But if any woman can hold her own, it's this one. From beating up suspects to reaching out to victims, Olivia presents an intriguing mix of feistiness and empathy.
Battlestar Galactica: Captain Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace
Played by: Katee Sackhoff
Starbuck is the best pilot in the galaxy by far and a little bit arrogant with it – which is why we love her. A complex, hot-headed character, she has a tough exterior but is dealing with her own issues in the best way she can, namely: sex, gambling, drinking and smoking cigars. The role of Starbuck was played by Dirk Benedict in the 1978 Battlestar Galactica, but critics have lauded Katee Sackhoff’s take on the character for giving her a depth and grittiness that was missing from the original.
Terminator The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Sarah Connor
Played by: Lena Headey
Lena Headey took on the role made famous by Linda Hamilton in the Terminator films and made it her own in the spin-off TV series. In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we find Lena's character Sarah struggling to protect her son, John Connor, from sophisticated cyborgs who have been sent back from the future to kill him. She is a fighting machine, trained in armed combat and always alert to danger. Watching her effortlessly doing pull-ups on a bar is a reminder that we should probably go back to the gym some time.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Cameron
Played by: Summer Glau
Sarah Connor is ably assisted in her mission to protect John from the machines by one of them - Cameron, who like Arnie in the Terminator films is a cyborg that has been reprogrammed to protect humans. Cameron might look like an average teenage girl, but she is a killing machine who will happily destroy anything that threatens to harm John Connor.
NCIS: Abby Sciuto
Played by: Pauley Perrette
With her goth wardrobe and her impressive collection of tattoos, lab tech Abby Sciuto is anything but your average TV lead. But amid her caffeine addiction and high-energy personality, Abby is totally sorted - the (mainly) unsung hero of NCIS's Major Case Response Team.
"All the script said about her was: black hair, caffeinated and smart… She's completely unaware that anybody thinks she looks weird. She thinks she looks pretty and never calls herself anything other than happy. And I fight for that,” Pauley Perrette explained.
The Good Wife: Alicia Florrick
Played by: Julianna Margulies
At first The Good Wife appears to be the tale of a betrayed woman who stands by her politician man after a notorious affair. But lawyer Alicia Florrick is so much more than that; she tries to be good, but with the world she lives in turned upside down everything occupies a moral shade of grey. From snogging a colleague to cheating her way to a promotion, Alicia is a TV heroine we are naturally drawn to - whether we approve or not.
Played by: Eliza Dushku
Unlike the other 'dolls' in Dollhouse, Eliza Dushku's character Echo remembers all the personalities that have been downloaded into her mind, meaning that she's assassin, seductress and physician all rolled into one.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Played by: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Got a vampire, demon or some other dark force? Then Buffy is your girl. The cool kid of 90s TV epitomises what it is to be a heroine; ever-ready to tackle the latest threat with her superhuman powers. The metaphors for teen issues played out in the programme just made it that extra bit more genius.
Without A Trace: Agent Vivian Johnson
Played by: Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Agent Samantha Spade usually gets more screen time, but it's Vivian Johnson who really keeps it all together on Without A Trace. Balancing authority with empathy, she hunts down missing people left, right and centre - all while keeping her cool. Plus, she manages a most unusual of feats: playing a sympathic FBI officer.
Wonder Woman/ Diana Prince
Played by: Lynda Carter
There is no better person to epitomise the D.C. Comics heroine than Lynda Carter. She stormed onto our screens in the 1970s and secured a place in our hearts ever since. Superpowers aside, what's not to love about this cracking gold-embossed costume?
Criminal Minds: Penelope Garcia
Played by: Kirsten Vangsness
Unashamedly emotional and flamboyant, tech analyst Penelope Garcia breaks the mould of your typical kick-ass heroine. Head-hunted from one of the FBI's hacker lists, she has a chequered past - but is a welcome touch of comic relief for her colleagues at the Behavioral Analysis Unit. "Fount of all knowledge, check my flow!" is just one of her many inspired telephone catchphrases.
Played by: Edie Falco
Fiesty, pill-popping Jackie subverts our traditional notion of nurses as straight-forward, responsible characters. Though she is brilliant at her job in a New York City ER, Jackie has "an occasional weakness for Vicodin, Adderall, Percocet and Oxycontin" - a vice that sees her trade sex for prescription drugs in the first episode. Nevertheless, she is smart and devoted; a complicated combination that has seen her heralded as a "truly breakthrough female character."
Played by: Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith
They were the original and ultimate kick-ass heroines; Charlie's three super-sultry female spies went undercover as cocktail waitresses, models and even strippers - and all in pursuit of first class baddies. Though their moves were inspired, it is perhaps their legendary 70s hairstyles that will go down in TV history...
The X Files: Dana Scully
Played by: Gillian Anderson
Special agent/doctor Dana Scully was the tough-woman pin-up of 90s sci-fi TV. The sceptical counterpart to her partner, agent Fox Mulder, (a true believer in the paranormal) she confronts all manner of strange phenomena, from secret alien invasions and kidnappings to graphic experiments, and was hailed by The Huffington Post as "one of the most iconic characters in the science-fiction genre."
True Blood: Sookie Stackhouse
Played by: Anna Paquin
Telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackhouse has a big heart and a seemingly limitless ability to read the minds of those around her; fighting off rogue vampires who leave a stream of blood and bodies in their wake, she definitely has what it takes in the kick-ass stakes.
Played by: Kristen Bell
Fringe: Olivia Dunham
Played by: Anna Torv
Prime Suspect: DCI Jane Tennison
Played by: Helen Mirren
Xena: Warrior Princess
Played by: Lucy Lawless
Damages: Patty Hewes
Played by: Glenn Close