March is Women’s History Month, and these days in America it seems “March” is less a month and more of an order; women have been flooding the streets in impressive numbers to bring awareness to a plethora of women’s rights issues. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: TV can indeed influence society and cultural norms as much as it reflects them, and we have seen that with women and their roles in modern society. Now, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and the return of Jessica Jones, let’s take a look back at some of the most important women in television history. It’s important we reflect on how each of these women were able to see modern social issues in a unique light and help change public attitudes for the better in the best way they knew how.
Today there are more strong female characters on television than ever before. We have our first ever black female lead in a Star Trek entity in Sonequa Martin-Green. Jodie Whittaker is set to become the first female Doctor Who. Krysten Ritter is the first standalone female superhero in Marvel’s MCU with her series Jessica Jones. Women are continuously kicking ass (metaphorically and literally) in hit shows Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and GLOW and primetime is full of huge successes with female leads like Scandal’s Kerry Washington, How To Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis, and Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra (all women of color, I might add). Samantha Bee, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon and more have taken the comedy world by storm. And shows like Jane the Virgin, Orange Is the New Black, Big Little Lies, and The Handmaid’s Tale put women’s issues front and center, and do so in compelling and provocative ways that have never been seen before on television.
There were plenty of women who preceded this huge cultural upswell, and there are a few on currently airing shows that we have yet to see how their potential influence plays out. But I’m willing to bet every woman on this list below has or will leave an impact on women’s presence in television forever, and our world will be a little better of a place because of it. In no particular order:
The fact that I Love Lucy reruns are still so popular today is a testament to how talented and successful Lucille Ball really was. What you might not know is that I Love Lucy raised some women’s issues at the time, namely the taboo of women working outside the home (who can forget when she and Ethel got gigs at the chocolate factory?). On top of this, Ball was one of the first woman to appear pregnant on television (though she couldn’t even say the word ‘pregnant’ on the show), and later became the very first woman to own and operate her own film studio.
Bergen took on the role of the investigative journalist Murphy Brown from 1988 to 1998, and is set to appear in the 2018 revival. Besides nailing the role of a tough, funny, sometimes abrasive female lead (and winning five consecutive Emmy’s for it), one of the biggest impacts Bergen’s character Murphy left on television was becoming one of the first single mothers on primetime television to actually make the life choice to raise a child on her own outside a marriage. This became a subject of political controversy when then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the popularity of such a character, accusing the show of mocking traditional family values. But the “damage” was already done and the rest is history.
Mary Tyler Moore
Any successful television actress today will rightfully profess the impact Mary Tyler Moore had on their careers. Mary first gained notoriety playing Dick Van Dyke’s wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which she portrayed stay-at-home mom Laura Petrie but became a household name when she became a monumental icon of feminism when she starred as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore show. She was one of the first positively portrayed female protagonists on TV that held a successful career on her own without relying on a husband or boyfriend to help her climb the ranks. The show even touched on feminist issues such as equal pay for women, divorce, and prostitution, which had previously been largely unseen on television. In fact there are droves or articles to read about how Mary Tyler Moore didn’t just influence television, but feminism itself in the 1970’s. Her contribution to that movement is universally accepted as invaluable.
With the premiere of 1968’s Julia, Diahann Caroll became the first female African-American lead that shattered racial stereotypes of the time. She was an educated black female with a degree, working as a nurse and living in a nice suburban home with her son. Though the show at the time avoided touching on the civil rights movement and activism outright, it was a great stepping stone for the portrayal of African Americans on television.
In 1997, having already had a successful sitcom for three years, Ellen made the decision for her character on her show to come out as gay at the same time she would in real life, only the real-life Ellen came out on the cover of Time magazine and Oprah. The religious right protested, sponsors pulled their support from the show, but here we are in 2018 and Ellen has her own uber-successful daytime show, has hosted the Oscars and the Emmys, and is even a spokesperson for several huge brands. There is no doubt that she has had a huge impact on this country’s attitude towards gay rights.
Has there been anyone on television playing the same character as long as Susan Lucci played Erica Kane on All My Children? Her name became synonymous with daytime soaps, and although many dismiss these shows as campy and repetitive, we forget that there have been moments that are as impactful as anything in primetime. Lucci’s character Erica became the first TV character to have a legal abortion after the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which was huge for the pro-choice movement.
Need I really say anything here? She is undeniably one of the, if not THE, most influential black female entertainment icon of all time. She is a mogul, she leads an empire, she can make people millionaires with a single endorsement, and many are even hoping for a 2020 presidential run–you won’t find anyone else on this list who you could say that about. Enough said.
In 2006, Ferrera won over television audiences with the hit show Ugly Betty. Not only did that show bring to light the issues of negative body imaging with women, but Ferrera was hailed for defying stereotypes with her Mexican American character from Queens named Betty. She became the first Latina to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress. In 2007 she was listed on Time’s 100 Most Influential People and to this day speaks up and calls for Hollywood to have more and better representations of Latinas on television. She also went on to portray Honduran-American Amy Dubanowski on Superstore, of which she is also a co-producer. Her success and influence have undoubtedly paved the way not just for more Hispanic stars, but also stories and cultural representation on primetime such as the critically acclaimed Jane the Virgin.
The number of transgender actresses in leading or recurring roles on television today could probably be counted on one hand. Laverne Cox is potentially an instigator of change in this respect. Mostly known for her role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Laverne became the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award and be on the cover of Time magazine. She has been honored by the LGBT community for raising awareness about trans people and gender equality.
There are so many incredibly smart and talented women who have contributed to Saturday Night Live over the years. Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig to name a few. But one of the most impressive things about Leslie Jones is she is not only topping the short list of women of color to be given the spotlight they deserve on the show, but she is the oldest person to have ever joined the cast. She was 47 when she made her debut on the show, topping the previous record-holder Michael McKean who was 46. Leslie even did a segment on Weekend Update encouraging others to follow their dreams later in life. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.
Stars of Sex and the City
There is no cast of all women that has had as much of an impact on the television landscape than Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, and Cynthia Nixon. They ushered in a whole era of female sex positivity not just on our television screens but in our culture as well, and gave a sort of shorthand for describing personalities and female friendships (c’mon, you’ve surely heard someone describe themselves as the “Miranda” or the “Carrie” of their group). Though points may be deducted now for a lack of diversity, there is no denying what Sex and the City did for female stories on television.
Asian Indians, and Asians in general, are still vastly underrepresented in television, and when they are seen they are still put in very stereotypical roles. But even if the list of positively portrayed Indian women on television was longer, odds are Mindy Kaling would still stand out. A talented actress, writer, director, and comedian, Mindy made her first big splash at the New York International Fringe Festival with her play Matt & Ben in 2002. Not long after that, she landed a job writing for the huge hit The Office (where she was the only female on a staff of eight) and even jumped in front of the camera to portray Kelly Kapoor. Soon she’d go on to create and run her own series The Mindy Project, also a success. In 2013 she was recognized by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. THE WORLD. That’s a great role model for young women to look up to and aspire to.
Today’s prime example of a sitcom centering on an East Asian family is the hit Fresh Off the Boat, which debuted in 2015. It was the first show to do so in over twenty years, the original being 1994’s short-lived All-American Girl, created by and starring comedian Margaret Cho, based off of her own stand-up act. Cho has since spoken out about the trials she endured with the network executives criticizing her for her face being “too round” or because they did not feel she was “Asian enough.” So while her show was not long-lasting itself, it did leave a long-lasting impression on the TV landscape. Cho should rightfully be acknowledged as a trailblazer in fighting stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans on television in a time that was extremely resistant to that.
What the series Roseanne did for television was something we may take for granted today. It showed an ordinary, working-class family who looked like regular people getting by day-by-day, struggling with what many Americans were really struggling with, such as just trying to make ends meet. Roseanne was not a sex symbol by any means and was the butt of many a joke for being a plus-sized woman at the time. But despite this, she led her series to become one of the most iconic sitcoms of the 90’s (and the revival is on the way).
Funny tidbit: Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes was not even in the pilot episode of Seinfeld. It was only after that episode was locked that NBC demanded Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld create a female character to hang with Jerry, George, and Kramer, feeling the show was too male-centric. And with that one of the greatest female characters in television history was born. Julia proved that females could be just as funny, if not funnier, than men, and could really keep up with the boys in a male-dominated comedy world. Oh, and then she went on to have two other gigantic successes in The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep. No list of impactful females in TV could be complete without Julia.
I could not mention Sonequa Martin-Green in our introduction without mentioning the woman who originally blazed that path for her. Nichelle Nichols broke ground as one of the first African-American females on television to not be portrayed as a servant when she was cast as Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series. When she considered leaving the show to pursue a Broadway career, none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself convinced her to stay, telling her she was a crucial role model for young black children, especially girls, across the country.
Before Gal Gadot there was Lynda Carter. In 1975, Lynda Carter was cast as DC’s Wonder Woman, putting the fearless female superhero committed to the truth and helping others in front of many little girls who would aspire to be as strong as her one day. It is not outrageous to say that Lynda’s portrayal of Wonder Woman helped shape a generation of women, and certainly paved the way for TV female superheroes today like Supergirl and Jessica Jones.
Paul Gulyas | Contributor