Women on TV have come a long way since the 1960s when Doris Packer caused a stir after becoming the first person to curse on a prime time U.S. sitcom (she ad-libbed the word “damn” in an episode of My Favorite Martian). In fact, the small screen medium itself has generally reflected America’s changing cultural mores — even occasionally tackling civil rights issues ahead of the country that views what it has to offer.
To emphasize that this platform has been used to address serious issues on the contemporary feminist agenda — including marriage equality, sexism, mental health, and racial and reproductive justice — we’ve compiled a list of standout moments that made their mark on the timeline of TV history. As Senator Kamala Harris and other speakers at the January 21st Women’s March intoned, all of these issues are women’s issues.
1The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Let me get this straight? The only reason he was paid more than I am is because he was a man?”
This ’70s sitcom broke new ground for how women acted, spoke, and even dressed — Mary was once censured for daring to wear pants on TV — and inspired other female-driven shows about working women from Murphy Brown to 30 Rock.
In “The Good-Time News” episode, Mary (an associate producer at a TV station), is looking over the newsroom’s financial records in preparation for a meeting when she finds paperwork showing she’s getting lowballed in her salary, receiving $50/week less than her male predecessor — even though her colleagues agree she’s doing a much better job than he ever did. When her boss matter-of-factly explains it’s because she’s a woman, it prompts a standoff that eventually results in a raise.
Today, pay inequality across gender and race persists in nearly every career field. According to a study by Pew Research, white women make 82 cents on the white male dollar; for Asian women, it’s 87 cents; for black women, it’s 65 cents; and for Latinas, 58 cents. In recent years, tech companies like Salesforce have made efforts to close the gender wage gap at their companies and big name female celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Taraji P. Henson, and Natalie Portman have spoken out against pay inequality in Hollywood.
2Recess, “Take these history books with a grain of salt as they focus primarily on white western males.”
Miss Grotke was all about providing counter narratives. While there has been renewed interest in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in recent years, back in the late ’90s and ’00s, Ms. Grotke was already re-centering her history lessons from the perspective of minorities and vulnerable populations, as evidenced by this line from the Season 3 episode “Buried Treasure.”
In other words, she held European colonizers accountable for their violent behavior toward Native Americans, and recast Beowulf as a metaphor for mankind’s role in the plight of endangered species. Her philosophy of education focused on truth — especially hard truths like the overwhelming reach of the patriarchy — and helped a generation of kids understand the importance of media literacy.
3The Golden Girls, “Everyone wants someone to grow old with and shouldn’t everyone get that chance?”
For an ’80s sitcom about four female octogenarians, The Golden Girls had a surprising amount of edge. In the Season 6 episode, “Sister of the Bride,” Blanche’s gay brother Clayton comes into town to announce that he’s decided to marry his partner Doug. Surprisingly, this makes Blanche, the most sexually liberated of the foursome, uncomfortable. That is, until Sophia, the eldest and most religious of the bunch, explains why marriage equality is so important.
In a moving speech, Sophia talks Blanche through her concerns and makes her understand that gay people want to exchange rings for the same reasons straight people do, as a show of love and commitment. The episode aired years before Ellen DeGeneres’ famous on-air coming out and over two decades before the U.S. would knock down the Defense of Marriage Act and officially legalize same-sex marriage.
4Orange Is The New Black, “Get to know your own cha-chas!”
In “A Whole Other Hole,” Laverne Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, Litchfield’s only transgender inmate, teaches the rest of the women about female anatomy. The scene demonstrated just how little conversation we have about the female body, as many inmates were clueless about how many holes they had and what their functions were.
Now, despite the relaxation of certain outdated laws — the National Association of Broadcasters didn’t lift its ban on the marketing of menstrual products on TV until 1972 — there are still limits placed on the portrayal of the female body on-screen. For instance, masturbation remains more of a taboo for women than men. So, for a TV show to unapologetically display and discuss a diagram of the vagina was groundbreaking.
5The Powerpuff Girls, “Narrator: And so once again the day is saved — thanks to the Powerpuff Girls! Hey, did you ever notice there are no chick narrators? [Something is thrown, hitting him.] Ow! Hey, who threw that?”
Nearly every episode of The Powerpuff Girls offered a lesson in girl power. The show introduced Femme Fatale, a superhero who teaches the girls about the inequality of gender representation on U.S. currency. And a fight with their archenemies, the Rowdyruff Boys, reveals just how fragile of a construct masculinity is. But it’s this joke from the Narrator as he signs off of the episode “Equal Fights” that really packs a punch. It’s supposed to be a throwaway line about the lack of female narrators in the industry, but it touches on a broader issue: The idea that the default or “neutral” voice is always male.
This is also the subject of actress Lake Bell’s directorial debut, In A World… (2013), in which she plays the daughter of a successful male voiceover artist who tells her the world isn’t ready for her “female sound.” Over at NY Mag, writer Jordan Kisner wrote a vivid account of how rampant policing of the female voice appeared as early as ancient Roman times and as recently as the 2016 presidential race. The Powerpuff Girls were truly ahead of their time.
6Fresh Off The Boat, “No means no! Respect girls!”
Though the show’s genre as a comedy dictated the scene’s tone, this moment still provided a take on a very serious issue, the importance of consent. The scene demonstrates the importance of educating men, especially young men, about rape culture and makes a strong case for including sexual harassment in children’s sex education.