Rita, "Educating Rita"WHY SHE RULES: I'm delving deep into obscurity with this pick but for the book nerd in me, Rita's always been a fictional hero. Based on a play by Willy Russell, "Educating Rita" earned an Oscar nomination for its star Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley to the Harry Potter fans) who portrayed a young hairdresser weighed down by her job, her home life and a husband who either wants her to have a baby or pack her bags and leave. Rita's goal, though, is to get an education. She goes to night classes taught by an embittered drunken literature professor, and over the course of the film, not only saves him but learns to find her own voice. Rita's not a flashy character -- she doesn't shoot any guns or fly any space ships -- but her struggle to achieve individuality is intensely moving. She sacrifices everything -- her husband, her family, her friends and for a while, her identity -- just to learn. She fights for a chance to understand literature and in turn, understand herself. For women who are too often told that being pretty is more important than being smart, a character like Rita is all too rare.
Sarah Connor, "The Terminator" seriesWHY SHE RULES: No list of no-nonsense women would be complete without Sarah Connor who not only ruled the roost in an entire feature film series but also has new life now on the FOX's show, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." I remember seeing "Terminator 2" when I was a kid and thinking, "Holy shit, I'm glad she's not my mom. She'd gun me down for Oreo crumbs on the comforter." Sarah Connor is pretty much the epitome of gun-totin', ass-kickin' chickness. She defeated Arnold Schwarzenegger, fought a liquid metal Robert Patrick and overcame the most horrifying enemy of all: 80s hair. Oh, and she saved the future of humanity. But mostly, she defeated the hair, the kind of feathery mess that would've made a lesser women cry and drown herself in gel. Sarah's no quitter though, not even when the naked Schwarzennegger robots come knocking. Yikes.
Starbuck, "Battlestar Galactica"WHY SHE RULES: Okay, putting two BSG characters in the same list might seem like cheating, but it's not my fault this show does hard-nosed ladies so well. Starbuck is an awesome character because she never gives in on anything. Ever. As scary Admiral Cain once asked her, "Do you always get what you want?" The response? Pretty much, yeah. If not, she'll shout and scream and point a gun at Adama's special lady friend. In the end, though, she gets people to listen to her and respect her despite her flaws. And wow, does she have flaws - the drinking, the insubordination, the carrying on with the married gentlemen who aren't her husband - but she's a passionate character who almost always puts the well-being of others before herself and ends up saving everyone's ass at least once or twice in the course of a day. In short, this female Starbuck wins out over the sad, sad male version in the original series, hands-down. Sorry, Dirk Benedict, but it's true: Starbuck version 2.0 makes your original flyboy look as butch as a Malibu Barbie...riding a unicorn...covered in sparkles.
Ellen Ripley, "Alien" series
WHY SHE RULES: Well, one, because she told Bill Paxton to shut up in "Aliens." Two, because she told Paul Reiser to shut up and three, because she puts on giant robot suits and blasts acid-dripping, people-eating monster alien mothers into space. You have to admit, it'd almost be worth an alien invasion just to try that once. Ripley is pretty much the perfect female sci-fi character: she's tough, she's smart, she's reluctant, she's been resurrected once or twice, she's misanthropic and yet, she's still got her feminine/maternal side: remember when she saved that whiny child in "Aliens?" Plus, she loved her cat. As far as I can tell, Ripley has only one flaw: a penchant for removing her clothes at the drop of a hat for absolutely no reason what so ever. Which is fine, except I'd think it would be a real time-sucker when it comes to planning a day of going to the salon and shooting aliens and whatnot. Beyond that though, from the moment Ellen Ripley made her debut in 1979, she's been a sci-fi legend, breaking and setting the mold for many, many more competent, tough and entertainingly trigger-happy women to come. Plus, seriously, she told Bill Paxton to shut up.
Honorable mentions: Any girl in a Miyazaki film, Lucy from "Peanuts," Buffy from "BTVS," and Zoe and River from "Firefly." Who would you add?