The XX Factor

In Praise of the Sane TV Heroine

Jennifer Morrison plays level-headed Emma Swann in ABC’s Once Upon A Time

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

According to Alyssa Rosenberg in Slate and Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine, a battle for viewer affection is unfolding on television between the anti-heroes (e.g. Don Draper, Walter White, and Dr. Gregory House) and the faux-crazy ladies (e.g. Carrie Mathison, Leslie Knopes, and Hannah Horvath, who recently revealed her OCD on Girls). Both articles argue that these women aren’t actually “crazy”—just smart and a little eccentric.

But if Carrie, Leslie, and Hannah are entertaining because of their narcissism and kooky rebelliousness, there also exists a group of female characters who don’t fit the emotionally unstable mold. In fact, many of these women play the straight man to a crazy male co-star. Herewith, a sampling of and ode to television’s sanest, most grounded heroines:

Emma Swann (Jennifer Morrison) in Once Upon a Time:

Emma isn’t your run-of-the-mill single mother. When she’s not working as a private investigator or acting as sheriff of Storybrooke, she’s busy working on her relationship with her parents and son. Under any circumstances these situations would be taxing, but throw into Emma’s life the fact that her parents are none other than Snow White and Prince Charming, and you’ve got a recipe for a freak out. Which is exactly what Emma doesn’t do, in episode after episode. Instead, she calmly absorbs that most denizens of Storybrooke have fairytale alter egos, and sets about outsmarting such baddies as Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin. A truth teller and voice of reason, she’s also very good at seeing through other characters’ lies.   

Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) in Shameless:

Oldest sister Fiona serves as caregiver to her five younger siblings. They live in poverty in Chicago’s south side while struggling to keep the family’s alcoholic father away from the booze and out of the household finances. In the most recent episodes, Fiona gains guardianship over her five siblings, loses (and later regains) the family’s home, and deals with punishing younger brother Carl for attempting to kill their cousin with rat poison. Jimmy, Fiona’s dutiful boyfriend, has become increasingly needy throughout the season after quitting his job as a high-end car thief and realizing that his father is gay, but for all his drama, Fiona never puts anything before the needs of her siblings.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) in House of Cards:

Though ice queen Claire Underwood shares her husband’s political ambitions, she is the opposite of emotional. Rather, she is all business and conniving calculation. In one episode, she subverts her husband’s wishes in order to get support for a clean water initiative (and accumulate power and influence). Even her personal relationships take a backseat to her hunger for political clout. And while much has been said about Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes and Constance Zimmer as Janine Skorsky, both of whom use their sexuality to bolster their reporting bylines, little has been written about Christina Gallagher, Congressman Russo’s headstrong staffer and girlfriend. Initially submissive, Christina evolves throughout season one to prove herself far from irrational or dependent. She’s strong for Peter when he falls off the wagon and cares for his children while he’s on a bender. She’s smart enough to walk out when necessary, despite her feelings, and later returns to serve as a rock by his side.

Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) in Girls:

Shoshanna entered this season freshly de-virginized but was neither clingy or blasé about the experience. Throughout the season, she’s been the girl with the most guts and the most wit: It’s not easy to live with an over-30 and under-employed boyfriend while also putting up a friend in need, going to classes, and figuring out those funky hairstyles. But her character is equal parts compassionate and assertive, and that’s not crazy at all.

Who’d I forget? Let me know in the comments.