Here’s a timeline of TV’s fightin’ femmes:
Gail Davis, “Annie Oakley,” 1954-’56: Anything you or I could do, she could do better. During the glut of Western shows, Davis elbowed her way into the men’s corral with her own real talent of riding and trick shots. Gene Autry showcased Davis in his movies and TV show before he launched her in her own spinoff. At 5-foot-2 and under 100 pounds, the pigtailed gunwoman made her way into TV’s Wild West.
Diana Rigg (Mrs. Peel), “The Avengers,” 1966-’68: The British actress epitomized postmodern timeliness as Mrs. Emma Peel in “The Avengers.” Her Shakespearean training glossed her cool elegance with an intellectual allure. Her feminine catsuits emphasized her sinewy, sensuous grace. And her lethal force and role as a liberated dilettante combined fearlessness and sheer indifference. Fans constantly rumbled about sexual undercurrents between Mrs. Peel and agent John Steed, but it was their companionable interdependence that sizzled with chemistry. Television and film have yet to fill the void that her departure from the show after two seasons and an Emmy nomination left behind.
Angie Dickinson (Sgt. Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson), “Police Woman,” 1974-’78: She was the first woman to star in a drama as an undercover divorcee whose primary mode of crime-solving was seduction. Despite her need to be saved more often than not, Dickinson still toted a gun and inspired women to enter the police force.
Pamela Sue Martin, “The Nancy Drew Mysteries,” 1977-’78: Her girl detective wasn’t as successful as Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy’s “Hardy Boys,” but for a brief time she insisted on integrity. The two shows merged, but Martin left because she refused to be the girl who waited in the car or went to call the police as the boys looked around.
Velma and Daphne, “Scooby-Doo,” 1969-present: Velma, when she didn’t lose her coke-bottle glasses, effortlessly churned her brain power and emerged with the most unlikely of talents (like the ability to read a Chinese note in the moon monster mystery). Orange knee-socks aside, she wasn’t afraid to wear miniskirts as short as “danger-prone” Daphne. The redhead, meanwhile, was the yin to Scooby and Shaggy’s yang, the feminine counterpart in slipping through revolving bookcases that hid trapdoors. Sadly, the Hanna-Barbera powers punted both Velma and Fred in the waning last years and replaced them with the grating Scrappy-Doo.
Lynda Carter, “Wonder Woman,” 1976-’79: Statuesque and, well, Amazonian, she had that honorable stiffness and those blue eyes paired with black hair. Love made her leave the island (but not without her belt and bracelets made of “Feminum”) and take on a job as a secretary. She fought Nazis on ABC, then went for modern-day terrorists when the series moved to CBS. Carter played it as a nice, sincere woman who did circus tricks. At least she always maintained good posture as she’d lift a car over her head and toss it.
Lindsay Wagner (Jaime Sommers), “The Bionic Woman,” 1976-’78: In a way, Wagner had the same look as Peggy Lipton in “The Mod Squad,” a slender attractive blonde without the glamour, pretensions or buxom excess of the traditional TV action women. A skydiving accident left the tennis pro with bionic implants, memory loss and a struggle for her identity. She couldn’t even remember her engagement to the Six Million Dollar Man (Steve Austin was eventually replaced by her faithful bionic dog, Max). Wagner brought a refreshing reality to her role, even as she went undercover as a roller derby queen and began meeting space aliens.
Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, “Charlie’s Angels,” 1976-’81: Jiggle action, feminist betrayal, the general moral decay of a generation: The Angels triple-handedly were supposed to signal the downfall of popular-culture ethics. What did emerge besides the predicted ogling was heroine worship, which spoke more to the lack of any female role models. Jill Munroe, Kelly Garrett and Sabrina Duncan respectively divided the fun-loving athletics, the refined allure and the intellectual practicality of one whole person into three. Still, they got their hands dirty, brandished and actually shot their guns and did a few judo throws, at least in the introductions. They showed the possibility that beauty and talent could co-exist.
Tyne Daly, Meg Foster/Sharon Gless, “Cagney & Lacey,” 1982-’88: The jittery network had almost wiped the show out of existence, but a grass-roots campaign and an Emmy award convinced CBS to let the show live, though not without some tinkering. It was as real and gritty as TV women get, with two undercover cops occupied as much with the criminal element as with the chauvinistic defiance of their brothers in blue. The show bogged down in soap operatics near the end, but the partners always distinguished themselves with hard-working passion. Female cops still work prime time, but nowadays looks are a criteria.
Lucy Lawless, “Xena, Warrior Princess,” 1995-2001: A former gold miner in the Australian Outback, the strapping Lawless far outstrapped her Amazonian television foremother. The syndicated warrior’s primal yip is enough to curdle the blood of mortals and immortals alike. Xena had to overcome an ignoble past to fight against tyranny. She has also had to undergo soap-operatic tragedies of mythological proportions, not the least of which was having her child die. How she learned Eastern martial arts in ancient Greece remains to be seen, but her acrobatic prowess was borrowed move for move from Hong Kong choreography.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” 1997-present: Poor Kristy Swanson. She created the film progenitor but left the bloodsuckers behind. Meanwhile, Gellar took the shallow blonde Buffy and imbued her with Goth irony. She wields a vicious stake against a graveyard of demons, without sacrificing self-deprecating wit. Buffy exuded sensuality even before the legal age of consent, and her passions take on a forbidden, film-noir sensibility.
Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup, “The Powerpuff Girls,” 1995-present: Made of sugar, spice, everything nice and Chemical X, the tiny, fingerless trio saves the world before bedtime. The wide-eyed creations of Professor Utonium can fly, crawl out from under collapsed buildings, cry when they want to, survive near-nuclear explosions and land the most vicious, star-inducing left hooks in recent cartoon history. Their squeaky do-good innocence actually intensifies the effectiveness of their death glare, and makes them the proudest additions to the Cartoon Network.
Jessica Alba (Max), “Dark Angel”: 2000: The ungrateful daughter that the Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man never had. Rather than doing errands for the father government figure, this genetically enhanced runaway searches instead for her natural family in a post-apocalyptic age. In a setting of lawlessness and rebirth, the self-employed motorcycle-riding bike messenger creates her own moral code in the best traditions of noir and the Wild West frontier. Neither blonde nor Anglo-Saxon in features, she is a new countercultural breed who can rappel down skyscrapers and do hand-to-hand combat a la teenage mutant Ninja girl.
Vera H-C Chan
Times staff writer