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!”
In the episode “Persistent Romeo,” a sexual harassment epidemic causes a stir at her son’s school, and Jessica Huang and the other parents are asked to educate their children about the birds and the bees. Her husband takes first crack and smugly returns after giving their son a meandering version of the talk focused on pleasure. But Jessica cuts his self-congratulation short with a single sentence, “Did you tell him not to date rape?” His face drops and the scene cuts to her shoving a large stuffed bunny in her son’s face while shouting “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.
7Veep, “If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
In this Season 3 episode of Veep, “The Choice,” the Vice President’s team is attempting to solve the national abortion debate in a private meeting when a frustrated Selina Meyer unloads this truth bomb. A recent viral tweet showing the signing of paperwork reinstating the Global Gag Rule illustrates just how dangerously easy it is for men to legislate a woman’s reproductive activity.
The topic has gotten less taboo on the small screen since 1972, when Maude Findlay (the middle-aged protagonist of Maude played by Bea Arthur) became the first woman to have an abortion on TV, a year before America legalized it in the landmark court case Roe v. Wade. But progress on that front has been incremental.
Women in the real world are still fighting against anti-choice lawmakers for full reproductive health care rights. In many parts of the U.S., women still encounter the lingering stigma surrounding abortion and must deal with the reality of diminished access to abortion providers.
8Broad City, “You should smile.”
During the episode “St. Mark’s,” Abbi and Ilana are dressed up for a night out to celebrate Ilana’s birthday when they pass a stranger on the street who informs them that they should smile. Without missing a beat, the two friends swing around and pull their faces into smiles using their upturned middle fingers. The scene came at a time when street harassment had become a vital part of the national conversation.
While countless articles mistakenly identified it as a new phenomenon, street harassment has always been a part of the female experience. At its mildest, it’s a daily inconvenience for women, and at its deadliest, it has cost women their lives. It’s also the subject of a stunning public art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, which explores the danger of assuming women exist to please the male gaze.
9The Simpsons, “If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you. And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there. From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.”
In “Moaning Lisa,” Marge sees Lisa suffering from depression, a common mental health issue for many young adults. The World Health Organization noted that because of the role gender plays in determining social status and social treatment, women are more susceptible to mental health problems like depression than men. This vulnerability is compounded by gendered stereotypes about the over-emotional woman, which has actually resulted in a quantifiable health treatment gap between men and women.
Marge’s initial prescription for her daughter is to slap on a smile and practice the “fake it until you make it” strategy her own mother taught her. But when she sees it isn’t working, Marge changes her parenting tactic. She pulls Lisa into a hug to deliver this speech full of empathy and unquestioning support for her recent mental health struggle, giving Lisa permission to feel whatever it is she needs to feel. Marge’s words promise that she’ll be there to carry her daughter when she needs carrying.
10Roseanne, “A lot of people are fat, you know. In fact, I think more American women look like me than you, you know.”
Roseanne Conner was a ’90s working class hero who was never afraid to speak her mind. In “Morning Becomes Obnoxious,” Cindy Kenner, a talk show host, asks Roseanne if beef is back, and instead of answering, Roseanne launches into an off-the-cuff speech about sizeism in media. It was the ’90s and the waif look known as “heroin chic” dominated women’s magazines and pop culture — despite the average American woman reportedly being closer to a size 14 (though this was proven false, it’s closer to size 16).
As for Roseanne, she brings up the unhealthy ways women attempt to attain the “hair and bones” look, including resorting to disordered eating habits to regulate their size. The real-life Roseanne was equally unapologetic. “Women should try to increase their size rather than decrease it,” she said, “because I believe the bigger we are, the more space we’ll take up, and the more we’ll have to be reckoned with.”
11Penny Dreadful, “We are not women who crawl. We are not women who kneel. And for this we will be branded radicals. Revolutionists. Women who are strong, and refuse to be degraded, and choose to protect themselves, are called monsters. That is the world’s crime. Not ours.”
In “No Beast So Fierce,” Billie Piper’s character Lily, a re-invention of Dr. Frankenstein, advises a group of women on how to deal with a world that isn’t ready for their strength. While the context of the speech — it’s made during a lesson on how to become an assassin —is hard to support, the message is beautiful.
Women who are in command of themselves are feared. Reductive labels are meant to delegitimize female power as illustrated by the mixed narrative surrounding the recent firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Yates’ refusal to yield to an unlawful immigrant ban was labeled as betrayal by the White House and patriotism by most others. Lily’s words are a reminder that women must remain resolute in the face of attempts to defame and diminish them.
12BoJack Horseman, “When we know what we know about a monster like that and we still put him on TV every week, we’re teaching a generation of young boys and girls that a man’s reputation is more important than the lives of the women he’s ruined.”
In “Hank After Dark,” author Diane Nguyen is on a book tour for her autobiography of the ill-mannered actor BoJack, who is taking some heat for his past misconduct from fans. Suddenly, she goes off on a tangent and lists other male celebrities with notoriously bad behavior, like Hank Hippopopalous (a beloved ’90s TV icon against whom several female assistants have lobbied sexual harassment complaints).
Diane’s outspokenness turns her into a hated figure because Hank won’t admit to wrongdoing and his fans don’t want to believe the allegations. Amanda Hannity, editor-in-chief of national magazine Manatee Fair, initially takes Diane’s side and explains the consequences of not speaking out. That is until Hank’s team convinces her to kill the story.
As the real-life public trials of disgraced celebrities like Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby brought to light, media silence only allows people to perpetrate their crimes with impunity. Diane’s experience in the episode outlines two things: The importance of holding public figures accountable for their actions, and the importance of believing women.
13Parks and Recreation, “Are you trying to have it all?”
In “Pie-Mary,” Leslie Knope, now director of the midwest branch of the National Park Service, goes off-script during a press conference for her husband Ben’s congressional bid. Her impromptu speech is prompted by the presence of a boycott by men’s rights activists and women who were angered by a recent pie bake-off where Ben bucked tradition by baking a pie in Leslie’s place.
At the podium, Leslie preemptively dismisses all the inane questions she and other women in power are besieged with from the seemingly benign “Why did you change your hairstyle?” to the loaded “Do you miss your kids while you’re at work?” at which point Ben chimes, “No one ever asks me that question.” The snowballing controversy and subsequent exchange highlight the double standard for women in politics, who are liable to catch as much flack for the things they do as the things they don’t.
14The Rugrats, “If Angelica’s ever going to make it in a male-dominated power structure she’s got to eat, breathe, drink, and sweat self-esteem.”
Charlotte Pickles, while a caricature of the workaholic woman, was surprisingly feminist. She’s the CEO of a large company and despite being depicted as distractedly glued to her phone, she is always doling out sage life lessons like this one from “Princess Angelica” about the importance of instilling girls with self-confidence.
Her advice is especially prudent considering women are particularly prone to impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where people — especially high achievers — feel like intellectual frauds at work. It’s hard to imagine, given Charlotte’s insistence, that Angelica grew into anything other than a strong and confident boss herself.
15Portlandia, “What About Men?”
This season preview stylized as a satirical music video skewers men’s rights activists, a group who by their own admission on the popular MRA blog A Voice for Men, “are largely white and male,” and who the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group in 2012. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (dressed in male drag) ask themselves silly questions like, “Why isn’t there a Joe of Arc or a male Statue of Liberty?”
It captures the essence of real-life MRAs who have voiced opposition against everything from the diversity of the Hamilton cast, to the existence of feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. This video is a strong statement against the type of men who take offense to cis and transgender women, and people of color having the audacity to take up space in the world.
16Sex and the City, “Hi. It’s Carrie Bradshaw. I wanted to let you know that I’m getting married. To myself.”
Feminism is about protecting a woman’s right to make decisions for herself even if they aren’t the decisions you yourself would make. In “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie teaches her friend, Kyra, this the hard way when the shoes she’s asked to remove at Kyra’s baby shower are stolen. Feeling guilty, Kyra offers to pay for the shoes until she realizes that Carrie’s prized Manolo’s cost $485. At this point, she takes the offer back and begins to shame Carrie for her extravagant financial decisions. Kyra suggests that she’s a busy mother whose money needs to be spent on important things, unlike Carrie’s shoes.
Carrie, who has happily shelled out gifts for Kyra’s engagement, wedding, and children, is unhappy with the implication that a childless lifestyle is a frivolous one. She comes up with a way to right the situation by leaving Kyra a voicemail announcement of her marriage — to herself. The registry? Manolo Blahnik.
17A Different World, “We have to embrace our history. How else can we deal with it?”
In “Mammy Dearest,” Whitley Gilbert, a light-skinned black woman, organizes an art exhibit for a dorm dedication ceremony at Hillman College, which celebrates powerful black women like Maya Angelou and Angela Davis. But her friend Kim, a dark-skinned black woman, takes offense to her inclusion of a “mammy” figure, a racist stereotype that Whitley is hoping to reclaim and/or neutralize.
Kim recounts a traumatic childhood incident where she dressed up as a Nubian queen for a Halloween costume contest but was mistaken for the mammy-adjacent Aunt Jemima. The story demonstrated just how much that dehumanizing image shaped Kim’s identity and justified why Kim felt it was more immediate to her than Whitley, whose light skin sheltered her from the comparisons Kim grew up with.
The two eventually reconcile and Kim proudly participates in the dedication ceremony where she recites the words to Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Ego Tripping,” about the historical journey and bounty of black women. The episode remains a standout from the beloved series for boldly creating a dialogue about identity politics and colorism within the black community.
18Saved by the Bell, “Accidents happen a lot with oil companies, then they just slip out of being responsible for them.”
In “Pipe Dreams,” oil is found under the Bayside High school football field near a pond from which the students’ science class took some animals to learn from. At first, the kids of Bayside are split. Zach and the guys believe they’re going to get rich, so they’re pro-oil, but Jessie and Kelly start a protest to stop the drilling because they’re worried about the effects oil drilling will have on the ecosystem.
Soon after drilling commences, there’s an oil spill. When Zach finds his duck Becky covered in oil, the science teacher pronounces her and the rest of the twenty animals they borrowed from the pond dead. It takes a fatal accident for the group to stand together against Big Oil, but they eventually do.
The episode is a great showcase for Jessie, who rightly approaches environmental justice as a feminist issue. In real life, oil pipelines are typically commissioned near communities with high numbers of low-income residents or people of color, so in the event of an accident, these communities are disproportionately affected with problems ranging from limited access to clean water to toxic air pollution. While the episode didn’t broach the topic of environmental racism, it did demonstrate the ways environmental issues intersect with human ones.
19Friday Night Lights,
Eric Taylor: “You know who I miss? The coach’s wife.”
Tami Taylor: “You know who I can’t wait to meet? The principal’s husband.”
In “How The Other Half Lives,” Texas’ golden couple encountered a major hurdle in their marriage when Tami realized Eric didn’t value her professional life as much as she valued his. When she lands a new job as a high school principal after years as a full-time mom, it takes time away from her role as a cheerleader for her husband (who gets upset and brings it up in a conversation).
This brief exchange spoke volumes about their relationship. Tami realized Eric was unwilling to be her number two, a role she took on for over a decade — during which she was known by the epithet “the coach’s wife” — so that he could pursue his football coaching dreams. The conversation was a wake up call for Coach T, reminding him that marriage is a 50/50 partnership.
Ultimately, these are just a few of the small screen moments giving us hope that someday soon it will be commonplace for all the intersecting aspects of women’s lives to be portrayed fully and honestly. But TV is more than just entertainment. The media we consume has the power to shape our understanding and impact our behavior. Hopefully, seeing feminism at work on-screen will encourage more people to engage with and eventually identify with the movement in real life.